The techniques used to create your favourite movie sound effects - Features - Mixmag

Movie magic: Weird and wonderful techniques used to create your favourite sound effects

So THAT's how they do it!

  • Aneesa Ahmed
  • 25 March 2022

To create the noises you know and love from your favourite movies, sound engineers and foley artists have to get creative. To create sound effects you need a knack for the obscure and and the ability to think outside the box to emulate complex noises. Objects have to be used, abused and contorted in specific ways - though of course many of these movie noises don’t exist in the real world — so how do they do it?

“Anything you can think of that maybe didn’t get recorded when they shot the original scene, we have to recreate”, say sound artists Chris Moriana and Alyson Moore, who have worked on The Hunger Games and Frozen, in an interview with Variety. “Sounds of eating or walking - we physically make those sounds because it is our job to. We don’t use any library sounds or rerecorded noise, this is all authentic and we create it”.

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Swishing garments, broken glass, footfall, and creaking doors are all examples of noises that have to be created within a studio environment. Footsteps are generated by the artist wearing a certain shoe and walking on a specific surface (e.g., wood floors, asphalt, grass etc). Foley and sound artists also re-record low-quality sounds from the first set recording, which becomes the majority of the noises heard in a movie.

We’ve compiled a list of some of the most interesting techniques used on movie sets to create the sounds of things that are often not real, or are too delicate to rely on simply a microphone picking up the actual sound. So much of this work goes unnoticed, but when you listen closely, without these sounds the movies just wouldn’t be the same.

Dune (2021) - Sandworm

As explained in an exclusive interview with Wired, the sound of the iconic sandworms from Dune were created by a sound artist swallowing a microphone. Wired interviewed Mark Mangini and Theo Green, sound engineers on the project who revealed that one of the most interesting techniques described by creative cast members was Mark Mangini putting a microphone in his mouth and sucked in a lot of air to recreate a swallowing sound.

This was the sound that is made when a sandworm, a massive creature that lives on the fictional planet Arrakis where the movie is set, swallows a whole spice harvester. The result of this technique was a sparse sounding sound, one that was unlike the banging, harsher sounds used in other Hollywood movies through more conventional sound design techniques.

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Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back - Lightsaber

This is an iconic noise, you know it, "vrrrrum". For this lightsaber sound, the sound engineers used a well-known technique to create a Doppler effect, where there is a change in frequency depending on one’s relation to an object or sound, by swinging a microphone back and forth from the source of the sound. This was used in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back to generate the original lightsaber sound. As described by sound designer Ben Burtt: “Once we had established this tone of the lightsaber, of course, you had to get the sense of the lightsaber moving because characters would carry it around, they would whip it through the air, they would thrust and slash at each other in fights.

“And what happens when you do that by recording with a moving microphone is you get a Doppler’s shift, you get a pitch shift in the sound and therefore you can produce a very authentic facsimile of a moving sound. And therefore give the lightsaber a sense of movement.”

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Jurassic Park (1993) - Velociraptor egg hatching

Jurassic Park must have been an absolute treat for foley artists, so many unique noises are needed to construct a world full of prehistoric creatures. This YouTube video features a foley artist from the original set of Jurassic Park explaining that to get the egg cracking sound of a velociraptor hatching, artists have had to be creative. For the egg cracking crackle, they used ice cream cones crumbling apart and held it close to the microphone so each intricate creak could be heard.

As there is no way for us to know what a real velociraptor egg cracking noise sounds like, these artists have had to be imaginative and have based some of it on real-life animals that we already know about. The skin of the baby dinosaur being rubbed is created by the rubbing of a pineapple, which was used due to its tough texture.

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ET (1982) - ET moving

A childhood favourite for many, this classic blockbuster will go down in history as a pioneering film that transcends generations. As stated in Empire, Steven Spielberg stipulated that the physical sound of his extraterrestrial be "liquidy and friendly”. Sound artist Joan Rowe explained that she “walked through some stores and listened to the movement of the packaged liver in a flat container” - which had a cheery sound. She then returned to the store every few days and became known at the store for being the “lady who listens to the liver”, and always experimented with the way the liver sounded with something else - and eventually realised that liver being smushed with jelly and popcorn was the best sound, and it ended up becoming the sound used every time ET moved.

This is definitely not the combination people have in mind when they think of their favourite extraterrestrial from outer space, but it goes to show how being creative with seemingly maligned objects can often yield the best results.

The Exorcist (1973) - Head-turning 180-degrees

This film sends shivers down spines, and one moment that stands out in this film is the first time we see the possessed child’s head turn a full 180 degrees. This has gone on to become one of the most iconic moments in cinema history and has been made into countless memes, lyrics, and edits. This has to be made by the very specific movement of the cards in a wallet in a specific way.

According to Director William Friedkin in his autobiography, The Friedkin Connection, “At one point, [sound effects engineer Gonzalo Gavira] borrowed an old cracked leather wallet which contained some credit cards, and he held it up to the microphone and twisted it. And that sound was used in the movie to create the sound of the little girl’s head turning around.”

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Fight Club (1999) - Punch

We’re breaking the first rule of Fight Club by talking about Fight Club. While much of this film was designed using CGI, and many sounds were artificially created, the sound of the punching came from very raw and natural components, literally. When the sound artists on set started to experiment with noises, the designers used conventional procedures, which typically included crushed celery. However, to achieve the heavier and more striking noise, raw chickens were substituted for celery in the hopes of capturing the crisper cracks of flesh hitting flesh.

They then put walnuts to the chicken carcass to create grinding and rattling sounds, since that wasn't fulfilling enough. After several attempts, they eventually found a combination of noises that works for them - and Fight Club went on to become one of the most well-known movies for its immersive and impressive physical fighting scenes.

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Inside Out (2015) - Inside a child’s mind

Obviously, the mere personification of the emotions felt and the goings-on inside your head is something that is entirely made up - so the sound team had to be creative in the way they brought these mind-people and mind-happenings to life, in a way that would be friendly for children. This film will now go down in Disney history, and it's storytelling through sound is one of the reasons for it.

One reoccurring noise, which is the ambient sound of calm inside a child’s head, was actually created by carefully monitoring and recording crabs walking in the sand, and their walks. The sound reflects the calm state of mind that they are trying to capture, and it is quite an innocent sound that is deeply associated with childhood.

A Quiet Place (2018) - Monster’s ear-opening

This 2018 picture became an unexpected hit. This horror film was made with a small budget of $17 million and is built around the premise of monsters with super sensitive hearing being able to hear your every move. As hearing and the ears of the fictional monsters is crucial to the plot, the sound engineers wanted something detailed and precise enough to resemble the careful opening of the monster’s ear.

The answer was actually pretty simple, they used the delicate crunching noises of celery and lettuce to create the noise of the opening of the ear. As the movie overall has a lack of sound, due to the characters communicating in sign language and moving around using light footsteps, this delicate sound is crucial for knowing when something big is about to go down.

Bumblebee (2018) - Transformer sitting down

As much as many fans of the iconic Transformers films would like for the Autobots to be real, sadly much of this movie magic had to be made inside a small studio, including the sound of Bumblebee sitting down and moving around. While many of Bumblebee’s movements are similar to that of a human, due to the transformer’s anthropoid figure, he is also made of metal and has a taller structure, which means he will sound different.

The sound of Bumblebee sitting down was made by banging an old lawn mower against a car door. Speaking in an interview with Insider, the sound engineers explained that as the transformer is a car - it would only be logical that they used car parts, whether it be doors or hoods or whatever else they deemed to be appropriate. They understood that the character is also quite clumsy, playful, but also heavy. This was most accurately captured by the hitting of a car door with a lawnmower, as it was clunky and dissonant but carried the clumsy energy of Bumblebee’s character.

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Aneesa Ahmed is Mixmag's Digital Intern, follow her on Twitter

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