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The Bizarre Ways Movie Sound Effects Are Really Made

Even among hardcore film fans, the importance of sound effects is regularly overlooked. With spoken parts and background sounds often recorded during filming, those responsible for creating the rest of a movie's sonic landscape need to get experimental and ultra creative to please the director's ears. Be it the roar of a fictional creature or someone's bones breaking in an action scene, sound designers — or Foley artists — must find a way to match each scene with the right audio. Their methods are sophisticated and their resourcefulness admirable, hunting in strange, comical, and unpredictable places to find just the right sound. From groaning tortoises in the throes of passion to filling dead chickens with walnuts, it's all in here. So start banging your coconut shells together as we gallop through the secrets behind some of the most bizarre sound effects in recent movie history.

Luck be a lightsaber

Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt is viewed as a legend in movie production circles for his sound effect creation methods — and with four Oscars to his name on beloved productions such as E.T. and the Indiana Jones series, it's no surprise. The next time you or one of your friends swings an invisible lightsaber in an imaginary battle, just remember who came up with that unique swoosh noise layered over an electric hum. Working on the 1977 space fantasy classic, Burtt found an old film projector and blended its sound with an old TV to create the distinctive lightsaber noise. However, even a maestro like Burtt needed a touch of luck, and the whirring element of the lightsaber's sound was discovered completely by accident. He managed to capture the iconic sound by thrusting a shotgun microphone back and forth in front of a speaker, which then emitted the combined noise of the TV and projector motors.

"The motors made a musical 'hum,'" Burtt explained in an interview with Filmsound. "I recorded that motor, and a few days later I had a broken microphone cable that caused my recorder to accidentally pick up the buzz from the back of my TV picture tube. I recorded that buzz, and mixed it with the hum of the projector motor. Together these sounds became the basis for all the lightsabers." May the Force be with you, Ben — you created one of the greatest sound effects in movie history.

Dog food on Judgment Day

The inventive sound designer for James Cameron's $102 million masterpiece came up with some frugal and unusual methods to enable the film to sound as good as it looked. The special effects for Terminator 2: Judgment Day were spectacularly groundbreaking and ate up a large portion of the then-record budget. This makes Gary Rydstrom's achievements with the sound effects budget all the more impressive. Amazingly, a pile of humble dog food cans played a key role in completing one of the film's coolest scenes. Robert Patrick's T-1000 is chasing John and Sarah Connor — under the protection of Arnold Schwarzenegger's T-800 — through a mental asylum, but a row of jail bars appear to block him. The more advanced T-1000, being made from liquid metal, easily passes through the bars accompanied by a subtle sound with some delicious back suction. Rydstrom revealed that he came up with a very cost-effective way to create the sound: he turned a dog food can upside down and slowly eased the congealed food out.

The quality of Rydstrom's methods was matched only by his creativity, which yielded another unexpected and comical money-saver for Terminator 2. By submerging a microphone wrapped in a condom, of all things, into a thick flour-water mix, he was able to create the perfect sound for the T-1000's shape-shifting abilities. Rydstrom also discovered that breaking a pistachio nut with a metal plate works beautifully to replicate the crushing of a human skull — and that hitting yogurt with an upside-down drinking glass worked well for when the liquid-metal T-1000 absorbed a bullet.

Prime example of how to use fireworks

According to action blockbuster director Michael Bay, "sound is 50 percent of the moviegoing experience" — at least, that's what Transformers sound designer Erik Aadahl says he was told. So when Optimus Prime received the power of flight thanks to the sacrifice of aging bot Jetfire in Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen, Aadahl wanted to make the sound as real as possible, and the end result was achieved at very little expense. The solution: a heap of fireworks. "His (Optimus Prime) rocket jetpack sounds were made from a fireworks fountain recorded in my driveway," Aadahl told Designing Sound. "With eye and fire protection I could record the fireworks up close for a nice, rich, up-front sound. Some cracklers gave an edgy element that I dopplered to make some vicious flybys out of."

Aside from this low-cost invention Aadahl, also did the painstaking work involved in finding the right rhythms and sound combination to give each robot their own personality. "The biggest part of the job was to create unique sounds for each of the robot characters," he added. "Our sounds needed to convey each robot's 'soul,' a sonic reflection of its spirit."

Fight Club's fowl play

Their brief, explosive battle is over, and Ed Norton's Fight Club narrator has won. Silence descends, and the onlooking, once-cheering crowd of semi-naked men now circles around with concern as Norton continues to pummel the face of Jared Leto's character until his teeth dance across the cold basement floor. The sound of these punches stick with you, each one a crunching wallop. "It's very masculine," was how Fight Club sound designer Ren Klyce described his work on the 1999 cult classic. Director David Fincher had a very high expectation of how the punching should sound, and rejected Klyce's first suggestion — to use traditional punching samples pulled from a much-used sound effects library.

The basement of George Lucas' sound facility in California became the venue of the solution. An echoey space with a concrete floor, it replicated the acoustics of the dingy basement under the bar where a lot of the fighting takes place in the movie. "Let's bring big pieces of meat down here (the basement) and just start smacking them with baseball bats and our fists," Klyce recalled in Fight Club: The Beauty of Sound and Design. And so they did — Klyce and his team experimented with hitting chicken carcasses before adding extra bone crunch by filling birds with walnuts. He and his team also used the sound of themselves punching each other's chests. Now that's commitment.

Orc sound seal-ed and delivered

In the Chamber of Mazarbul within the mines of Moria lives the terrifying fire demon known as the Balrog. It has just risen from its slumber as a crowd of frightened orcs scatter before it stomps out to greet Frodo and the rest of the Fellowship in the first installment of Peter's Jackson's Lord of the Rings. The sound of that blood-chilling awakening was achieved by dragging a concrete block slowly across a wooden floor while horses and donkeys were layered in to create the Balrog's roar. This is the work of sound designer David Farmer, who's also responsible for turning the noise made by an ironing board opening into the sharp sound of Freddie's knife claws for the 2010 remake of Nightmare on Elm Street.

But perhaps Farmer's most famous audio creation is the sound of Moria orcs — the smallest of their kind — for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. A self-confessed audiophile, Farmer will take a sound others have used before and make it his own in his personal studio. A visit to a marine mammal center was where he discovered the perfect orc voice. "It was the time of year they had lots of baby elephant seals there," he recalled in an interview with Empire. "Peter's (Jackson) direction for them was 'sort of cockroachy.' So we recorded ourselves scrambling around wearing cleats for the movement, but the major signature sound for them was the elephant seal pups."

Tortoise love in Jurassic Park

Dinosaurs have been extinct for thousands of years, so obviously, not one human really knows what they sounded like — and although the finished product sounds fitting in Jurassic Park, it does make you wonder how wrong film makers have gotten when it comes to movies featuring prehistoric creatures. In the 1995 documentary The Making of Jurassic Park, director Steven Spielberg told sound designer Gary Rydstrom to "go make dinosaur sounds that didn't sound like Godzilla or Rodan" and to "make them sound real but also make them sound big and deep."

Rydstrom's approach was to find a creature that scientists estimate existed alongside or close to the time of dinosaurs: tortoises. The shelled creatures did provide the right sound bite, but how it came about was both strange and unforeseen: Rydstrom sat around for hours recording tortoises while they mated. An uncomfortable task for some, but Rydstrom knew what he had to do in the name of making high-quality art. As he put it, "You've got to have plenty of time to sit around and watch and record them." he said. All in a day's work, right?

A famous boulder on four wheels

Does anyone know what a giant rolling boulder sounds like as it bears down on you after a booby trap in an ancient temple has been triggered? No, but Raiders of the Lost Ark sound designer Ben Burtt managed to create a pretty convincing approximation by using an old Honda Civic. This unlikely sound effect source was put into neutral and guided down a gravel hill. The resulting sound was used to make the giant fiberglass prop boulder seem more intimidating and real as it bounded and chased after a scrambling Dr. Jones during his escape from the temple with golden idol in hand.

"We'd had several different sessions where we went out and tried to stage a boulder sound but they were unsuccessful. Then on one of the last days coming back from the location," Burtt recalled in an interview for the 2003 short The Sound of Indiana Jones, "We were on a steep hill in this station wagon, on a gravel road on a mountain. We were just coasting down this hill without the motor running and we soon realized the car sounded really interesting. So I hung out the back of the station wagon and put the microphone near the back tire and as the car accelerated, it gave the sense of something picking up speed and that became the basis for the boulder sound."

Kitty whipped Spidey's web into shape

The webs that shoot from his wrists have saved Spider-Man on many occasions, but how do you decide on a sound for such a handy and unusual tool? Spider-Man director Sam Raimi had high standards when it came to what he wanted. "I was aware of Sam needing all the sounds to be absolutely believable as 'real sounds,' so synthetic sounds were pretty much dismissed very early," sound department veteran Charles Maynes recalled in an interview with Designing Sound. Initially there were failed experiments with blow darts and chemical rockets before the crack of a bullwhip got the whole process started.

With the first layer down, the second came from a very unexpected place: the source was alive, without a home, and fortunately rescued by Maynes himself. "At my home, we had taken in a litter of kittens and their feral mama cat to save them from being destroyed by our local pound. The mother was a ferocious little beast and would attack you anytime you came into the same room as her and the kittens, so I would have to wear a leather motorcycle jacket and gauntlets to feed her," he explained. "In the course of this, I quickly noticed the utterly awesome spitting she would do, so I proceeded to record and use it as the foundation for the webshooting sound."

Rubbing veggies in District 9

Set in South Africa, District 9 tells a futuristic story that offers a thought-provoking metaphor for apartheid while taking us into a world of spaceships and aliens. The language used by the aliens — named the Poleepkwa — is full of clicks, small simple words, and mysterious background sounds. Director Neill Blomkamp's sound designer, Dave Whitehead, began the whole process by recording various insects; he then paired their chorus with the buzzing of flies to get half the sound he was looking for. It was a foundation for the finished product, but what he needed was a language. In the script, the aliens had no language, so the resourceful Whitehead set about creating one for them.

"The language has hundreds of words and the assistant who typed it up for me, he and I could speak quite a few words to each other by the end," said Whitehead when talking to Designing Sound. "I recorded my voice for each character, then replaced all of the consonants for every word with a palette I built. Then I started to replace vowels with various treated animal recordings and squeaks, creaks, breaths and groans from vegetable rubbing recordings. Vegetables can be quite expressive in the right hands." Suddenly, that abandoned celery at the back of the fridge seems a little more interesting.