by Gautam Pemmaraju
If you have ever been set the peculiar task of imagining and creating the sound for ‘Alien Pod Embryo Expulsion' and found yourself at a loss, not to worry, a quick web search will provide an answer. One of the suggestions on this excellent resource is to use canned dog food, or more precisely, the sound of the food coming out of the can: “The chunky stuff isn't so good, but the tightly packed all-one-mass makes gushy sucking sounds when the air on the outside of the can is sucked into the can to replace the exiting glob of dog food”. This sound, suggests the writer of this delightfully descriptive entry, can be used also for all kinds of ‘monster vocalisations'. It is fairly easy then to imagine how this gloppy mass can sound dense, hyper-salivating, evilly unctuous (or comically so), and quite suitable for the desired result. Several other helpful solutions are at hand here: ‘pitched up chickens' can substitute for bat shrieks, the spout of a 70's coffee percolator can apparently do the trick for a bullet in slow motion, rotten fruit for ‘flesh squishes', and for depth charges, i.e., anti-submarine explosive weapons, the slowed down by half sound of a toilet flushing with a plate reverb effect on it could possibly be entirely satisfactory. (Renoir's 1931 talkie Un Purge Bébé is famous for the sound of a toilet flush – a first in cinema).
The art of foley sound, of creating sound effects to accompany pictures alongside dialogue and music, is a vast creative domain, not to mention, a critical tool for the sound designer. Having met numerous Hindi film sound designers and other professionals over the last several months for a soon to be published essay, it is safe to say that the world they reside in is a unique one. The constant engagement with the sounds of cities and wilderness, days and nights, bats and beasts, trees and trains; of the sounds that can be made from objects, fabrics, fluids and other materials; and the texture, tone and timbre of sounds, is a profoundly immersive world. If there is a world of sound out there, there is indeed, yet another one mirrored within the mind's eye of the designer. A ripe peach squished down on a hard surface is as enticing to the designer as the retort of an 18th century cannon. To the designer, the ecological value of sounds is of great significance, and the sonic space on the soundtrack is his playground (and battlefield on occasion).
Pellucid sounds are obscured in ‘lo-fi' environments, R Murray Schafer, the pioneering composer, music educator and acoustic ecology advocate writes in The Music of the Environment (1973). In modern cities, with all the sounds of industry, progress, transportation, migration, there is much lost to the ear, in particular, perspective: “There is cross-talk on all the channels…and it is no longer possible to know what, if anything is to be listened to”. But in a ‘hi-fi' soundscape, Schafer argues, it is the slightest of perturbations that matter, and “the human ear is alert, like that of an animal”. He fascinatingly reproduces a sentence from F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night here:
…footfalls followed a round drive in the rear of the hotel, taking their tone in turn, from the dust road, the crushed-stone walk, the cement steps and then reversing the process in going away.
From the helicopter sounds in Apocalypse Now (1979), the constant radio station texture in American Graffiti (1973), overhead trains of the Bronx in The Godfather (1972), to the ‘digital' surveillance sounds of The Conversation (1974), Walter Murch's work as a sound designer and re-recording mixer is iconic, to say the least. Very interestingly, he discusses the sound of the desert in The English Patient (1996) here. The desert was very quiet in actuality (which was great for production sound), he says, but that would not really work for the soundtrack. They had to devise ‘a signature' for the desert, ‘an active silence' that provided a sonic bed for the various other sounds – sandstorms, planes, jeeps, machine gun fire, campfires, etc. Pat Jackson, the sound supervisor on the film, Murch reveals, collated a wide “blend of complicated sounds that included a very, very dry insect sound and the sound of grains rolling down paper”. In the opening sequence, Murch edited in a small montage of desert sounds including a percussion rattle associated with a vial of medicinal oils. This initial sonic montage served the purpose of locating in viewer in time and space of the moving image.
Murch reveals interestingly, that he was influenced by the avant-garde iconoclasm of Pierre Schaeffer's musique concrète (see my piece on music inspired by trains) and also by early Warner Brother's cartoons of the 30's and 40's – a rich source of sonic experimentation.
You'll find the most creative use of sound in films like King Kong or in Warner Brothers' cartoons of the '30s and '40s—and Disney to a certain extent. They weren't limited by reality, and so they recorded interesting, fantastic sounds and, then, arranged and combined them in interesting ways—more so than features. Features were late in developing that sensibility. I grew up on Warner Brothers' cartoons. When I was five or six, I felt that they were fantastic. They laid down a very rich bed of information that I became aware of only much later.
Ray Brunelle, drummer and sound effects man, discusses sound effects production for cartoons in great detail in this excellent article. He reveals that early on as a young boy, his curiosity was drawn to the sounds effects listings in the drum catalogs that he came upon: from sirens, bird calls, pop guns, whistles, bells, triangles etc. He writes that he soon came to realize how important sound effects were back then.
I became impressed with how effective, expressive and how much fun sound effects could be not just in music, but in everything ranging from early dramatic theatrical productions, to Burlesque and Vaudeville, Radio & TV, cartoons, film and so on. I found that the older a catalog was, the more sound effects it seemed to offer.
Indeed, there were companies that specialized in sound fx.
In the 1900s, sound effects were just as important and vital an item as any instrument. The Walberg & Auge Perfection catalog of 1915 lists about 40 different types of bird calls and whistles alone. These included song or slide whistles, ocean liner whistles, train whistles, ferry boat and fog horns, etc., not to mention various wood blocks, castanets, rattles, slap or shot pads (for making gun shot sounds), fourteen different types of bells, railroad & locomotive imitations, pop guns, dog barks and more.
Sound effects for stage and theatrical productions have been around for a while, going back in fact, to the ancient Greeks, Brunelle points out. Rumbling thunder seemed to be quite popular. Brunelle interestingly writes of the dramatist John Dennis' 1708 contraption for one of his own stage productions. Although the innovation duly provided the thunder sound, the play, it seems, did not do quite that well. In fact the thunder device was so successful that other producers borrowed the idea for their productions and the irate Dennis would accuse them of literally, ‘stealing his thunder'.
Old comedies and variety shows caught his imagination, Brunelle writes on, pointing in particular to The Three Stooges, which had “more sound effects per square inch of film than anything except for cartoons” – the ‘fourth stooge' to his mind.
Some of the techniques and methods used for the Stooges' antics were: cracking walnuts for knuckle crunches, ukulele or violin plinks for eye pokes, a muffled kettle or bass drum hit for a bump in the stomach, hitting a rolled up carpet with a fist for body blows, various ratchets or twisting stalks of celery for when ears or limbs were twisted. The glugging/drinking effect was done by pouring water out of a one gallon glass bottle into cotton batting (which would muffle the splashing).
Crediting a curious set of musicians as influences, Brunelle brings up the avant-gardist Edgar Varèse and the ‘zany', ‘King of Corn' Spike Jones (and his famous ‘latrinophone') – a toilet seat strung with catgut. The wonderful voice artist Mel Blanc also comes up here (see this Letterman appearance and this documentary), as does the brilliant cartoon based on a Dr. Seuss story, Gerald McBoing Boing (watch it here), a boy who can only speak in cartoon sounds.
Bart Hopkin's Funny Noises for the Connoisseur (co-authored with Brunelle; 2003) is a wonderful primer on creating comic sounds. He rightly points out in the short introduction that ‘funny noise making' is a ‘long and illustrious tradition' represented by skillful artists and performers. From early theatre, through vaudeville and radio, the sounds have a profound presence in American popular culture. From the widely used crash boxes of the radio era (and theatre), obscene sounds made with Gooze (a ‘wobbly, slurpy, stretchy, slimy glop'), chamois, reed, and circuit bending sounds made by ‘mis-wiring low voltage electronic sound-devices (see here and this video on a circuit bent speak & spell).
Seemingly funny sounds can be re-contextualized for more serious and dramatic effects. The design and experimentation that went into Robocop's character sounds as well his nemesis ED 309 is intriguingly discussed in this letter by designer Stephen Flick to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on being awarded a Special Achievement Oscar. From over 30 tests on movement and footsteps sounds for the cyborg, to experimentations with natural and ambient sounds, synthesized effects, and digital sound processing, Flick and his colleague John Pospisil employed a highly detailed conceptualization – from pneumatic movement sounds, metal taps on boots, to VCR transport sounds, the range of experimentation is pretty impressive.
Robo also had drones of varying pitches to reflect his “behavior mode.” These were made on a combination of modern synthesizers. His arm, neck, and head movements were emphasized with VCR loading/unloading sounds. To lock his head into position, we would double cut VCR servo sounds with VCR clicks and lockup sounds. “Chop-saki” Martial Arts genre films have whoosh effects that match action. We made tonal synth whooshes for Robo's large combat moves. Robo evolved through the film. He became more human. Our mix of all these elements changed. He became less mechanical, more fluid.
The iconic light-sabre sound from Star Wars (1977) is another wonderful example of this creative art. The designer Ben Burtt throws light on how that was created here. The Imperial Walkers sound was created from a machinist's punch press and the sounds of bicycle chains; the TIE fighter sound is a modified elephant bellow; the Ewokese language was created by a complex layering of Tibetan, Mongolian and Nepali speech – the range of experimentation for Star Wars was, if anything, groundbreaking (see here).
Some sounds become clichés. A much-discussed one is intriguingly called the Wilhelm Scream, which Ben Burtt also used in Star Wars. In fact, as Steve Lee writes here, Burtt continued to use the sound as a sort of signature; it also featured in the Indiana Jones films, More American Graffiti, Willow, and several others.
Discussing the opening scene of Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds (2009), the designer Harry Cohen mentions in this interview that aside from the ‘microscopically detailed' sounds of “the embers of the tobacco lighting, or the cap on the ink bottle, the leather creak of the Nazi uniform, the creak of the wood of the chair, the slosh of the milk in the bottle”, there was also the off-camera sounds of cows since the setting was meant to be a milk farm.
Originally, there weren't cows visually in the scene. But we put cows in the background [ed. referring to the audio], because they said it was a milk farm. Quentin liked the cows so much that he had them put visual effects cows in, after the fact. Then the very last cow that you hear as we're leaving the scene is Quentin. He was saying, “No, I want one that goes like this.” He did it, and it was, “Well, we'll just use that.”
The art of foley takes its name from Jack Foley, the sound effects pioneer who worked at Universal Studios for thirty-three years. His last job is said to be Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960). (For further reading on foley see this, this and this feature on John Roesch, an accomplished foley artist). It's quite truly an immensely creative domain, open-ended to possibilities, complexity and keen innovation. From the types of winds in New Zealand, recording car sounds in South Africa, to creating a variety of explosion sounds, the sound recording engineer and foley artist is schooled, eared, and experienced in ways quite different from all others (see foley artist Gary Hecker at work here and this clip of the foley work on Toy Story; the pioneering BBC Radiophonic Workshop has an outstanding history of sound effects production). Most foley artists will tell you how much of a fun job it is – they get paid to smash things and play in sandboxes; far from bone-breaking labour (from small bone snap, skull mash, wet gushy bone break to neck crunch, there are nearly 150 bone breaking sounds to be had from this effects library alone).
As I leave it the reader's imagination to figure out what pictures could accompany the sound of a cabbage being slapped in a basin of water, I end with this excellent short film that plays with the idea of foley in a delightful comic way.