by Andrew Anderson
Get inspired to create outside the box with these five weird sound effects that made their way into movies.
Movies are a famously deceptive medium. The monkeys in 2001: A Space Odyssey are really men in suits. The Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings aren’t actually small, the filmmakers just used forced perspective. And the fighters in Inception don’t defy gravity – the set itself is simply spinning.
As people working in sound design, we’re more aware of this than most. Step into a foley studio, and before long you realize that the majority of sounds in movies aren’t what they claim to be, from footsteps made by brushes to phonebooks recreating punches.
But sometimes sound designers outdo themselves, coming up with some truly weird ways of getting what they want. So, for this blog, we’re breaking down our five favorite weird sound effects that made their way into movies.
Dog Food in Terminator
Terminator 2: Judgement Day features one of the greatest plot-twists of all time, when we realize that the original terminator (our old friend Arnie) is now the hero rather than the villain…and that the new villain, the T-1000, is seemingly unstoppable.
The T-1000 (played with a perfect menacing cool by Robert Patrick) inspired a bunch of great sound design. For example, the moments where he melts were created by water and flour hitting a frying pan, while you’re actually hearing a glass dropping into a pot of yogurt when he’s punched.
But obviously for this list we had to pick the weirdest – and in this case, grossest – sound design idea. And that’s the sound of the T-1000 passing through metal bars, which was created by nothing other than…dog food.
Sound designer Gary Rydstrom tried a bunch of things for this iconic scene, but in the end the inspiration came from his dog buster. When Gary would feed him, he noticed that the dog food made a distinctive slurping sound as it left the tin that was both highly visceral and slightly strange. Pitched down, and with some other processing, it was ideal for capturing the relentless power of the T-1000.
The lessons from all of this? You never know where inspiration is going to come from – so keep your ears peeled (even when you’re feeding your pets).
Chicken Punches in Fight Club
Punch sound effects are almost as old as talkies themselves. While The Jazz Singer might not have had much in the way of punch ups (at least, not that I noticed), plenty of other early Hollywood movies did (interesting side note: the term foley comes from Jack Foley, whose sound design work on 1929’s Show Boat pioneered many of the techniques we still use today).
While Jack Foley created his own sounds, for the most part movies simply brought over old sound design tricks from stage and radio theatre: gravel pits for footsteps, flapping gloves for bird wings, crunching paper bags for the crackling fires.
And this also went for the sounds used in fights, especially for punches. The classic punch sound came from hitting something like a phone book (for anyone younger than 30, a phone book is what you’d get if someone printed out the internet). It’s got a satisfying heft to it, and can also produce a variety of tones depending on the power of the punch.
But for Fight Club’s sound designer Ren Klyce, phone books just weren’t fleshy enough. And while cuts of meat have been used for a long time for punches (particularly for punches to the face), for this movie he wanted to go one step further.
“The images in the film are very gory,” explained Klyce on the Fight Club Blu-ray commentary. “At first we tried punching chickens, but they didn’t quite work. So then we put walnuts inside of the chickens and crunched that.”
Klyce now had his sound, but it was still missing something. So, the unfortunate chickens were taken to a concrete parking garage where they received extra pummeling. The result is definitely impressive…and we’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you want to take things that far yourself.
"For Fight Club’s sound designer Ren Klyce, phone books just weren’t fleshy enough. And while cuts of meat have been used for a long time for punches, for this movie he wanted to go one step further."
If you hear a weird, shimmering and discordant sound in a movie, chances are you’re hearing a waterphone. It’s spread all over Aliens and The Matrix, while The X-Files is basically one long homage to the unearthly creepiness of the instrument. And if you work as a sound designer or composer, you’ve probably worked with these sounds yourself.
So, if It’s not exactly an obscure or weird sound, what’s it doing on this list? Well, the waterphone is weird not just because of its sound – which is perfect for horror – but because of it’s backstory.
The instrument was actually invented by a visual artist named Richard Waters, back in the 1960s. For those of you that have never seen one, it’s basically a small bowl filled with water that has a series of different length stems coming out of it. Think of the trophy that the winners of the Baseball World Series receive, and you’re on the right track.
And while you might imagine that Waters created this instrument especially for sound design, he didn’t. In fact, Hollywood success was probably the last thing he was thinking about.
“If he had 18 waterphone orders, but he felt like going to the beach that day, he just went to the beach,” noted his daughter Rayme Waters in an interview with the podcast Every Little. “I think he saw the Waterphone as an artistic endeavor. He just didn't care about business.”
In fact, the reason the Waterphone became so widely known was because of percussionist Emil Richards. Richards was introduced to Waters by a mutual friend, and he fell in love with the instrument.
“When I first heard it, I thought it was pretty interesting, pretty strange,” recalled Richards. “And being the sound freak that I was, I had to have one.”
Celery in A Quiet Place
Celery – and vegetables in general – have long been used to simulate flesh and bones being damaged and broken. And while their mistreatment doesn’t quite match the punishment meted out to those poor chickens in Fight Club (see above), it’s fair to say that celery has had a hard life in Hollywood.
But what the sound designers did in A Quiet Place was take that classic celery twisting-snapping sound and find a new use for it. Actually, it might be the definitive use, because once you’ve heard the grizzly ears of the aliens in A Quiet Place, it’s almost impossible to forget.
Sound designed by Erik Aadahl, the reason that celery snaps work so well is because they’re surrounded by silence. Whereas usually celery is competing against other foley, dialogue and the sound track, here it’s used entirely on its own. And that slow-crackling-twist, which indicates the aliens are listening, turns out to be truly terrifying.
“Audiences might often think that movies that have a ton of sound wall-to-wall sound are the most complicated and difficult films to make,” said Aadahl in an interview with Tribute Movies. “But actually the opposite is true: when you're in such a quiet world where everything is stripped down, even the smallest sound becomes extremely important.”
"Sound designed by Erik Aadahl, the reason that celery snaps work so well is because they’re surrounded by silence. Whereas usually celery is competing against other foley, dialogue and the sound track, here it’s used entirely on its own."
Dolphins in Final Destination
For this blog we’ve focused on weird sounds that work: moments of sonic inspiration that create something new and interesting. But of course, sometimes weird sounds are weird because they don’t work. And one of the best known – and most maligned – examples of this comes from Final Destination.
Part of the Final Destination franchise, the series has an absolutely brilliant premise: namely, that the bad guy in the movie isn’t a person, an alien or some other supernatural force. Instead, the bad guy is fate itself. And over the course of five movies (and counting), fate kills off a variety of characters, from being thrown from a rollercoaster to getting coated in boiling-hot tar.
However, it’s a racing car crash from the fourth movie that we’re talking about today. In that scene, a car crashes and sends debris flying into the crowd, killing multiple people. Extreme, yes, but it makes sense within the franchise’s universe.
What doesn’t make sense, though, is that when the car begins to skid, you can clearly hear a dolphin’s chirrups being used to replicate sliding rubber. It’s one of those sounds that sticks out so far it feels strange, and you have to go back and replay it.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with using animal sounds to give vehicles extra energy. The truck chase scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark is full of tiger growls, while Mad Max: Fury Road is an Oscar®-winning example of the power of combining animal calls with mechanical sounds.
However, the key word is "combining." Because while the Indiana Jones roars are subtly buried, in Final Destination the dolphins are right up front. And that’s what makes that moment – which, let’s not forget, is meant to be dramatic – laughably weird.
The dolphin sound can be found at 3:35.