POSTS Production The Film Business

The Sound Design Legacy

When you ask a film enthusiast about sound design, the tendency is to recall legendary pictures with memorable sound, such as Apocalypse Now and the Star Wars series. I could not agree more. Many of us were greatly influenced by the work of Walter Murch and Ben Burtt (who worked on the above films, respectively). They not only had great product opportunities to practice their art form, but they also had producer-directors who provided the latitude and financial means to achieve exceptional accomplishments.

Photo by Brett Jordan

Without taking any praise away from Walter or Ben, let us remember that sound design did not begin in the 1970s. Did you ever study the soundtracks to George Pal’s The War of the Worlds or The Naked Jungle? Have you considered the low-budget constrictions that director Robert Wise faced while making The Day the Earth Stood Still or the challenges confronting his sound-editorial team in creating both the flying saucer and alien ray weapons? Who dreamed up using soda fizz as the base sound effect for the Maribunta, the army ants that terrorized Charlton Heston’s South American plantation in The Naked Jungle? Speaking of ants, imagine thinking up the brilliant idea of looping a squeaky pick-up truck fan belt for the shrieks of giant ants in Them. Kids in the theater wanted to hide for safety when that incredible sound came off the screen.

When these fine craftspeople labored to make such memorable sound events for your entertainment pleasure, they made them without the help of today’s high-tech digital tools—without harmonizers or vocoders, without the hundreds, if not thousands of plug-in variants to shape and sculpt the audio cues. They designed these sounds with their own imaginations of working with the tools they had at hand and being extraordinarily innovative: understanding what sounds to put together to create new sound events, how to play them backward, slow them down, cut, clip, and scrape them with a razor blade (when magnetic soundtrack became available in 1953), or paint them with blooping ink (when they still cut sound effects on optical track 35 mm film).

Excerpt from Practical Art of Motion Picture Sound, 4e by David Lewis Yewdall © 2011 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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