Like many other industries, Hollywood is something like a club. Once you become a part of it, you pick up the tricks, the nomenclature, and the different ways to get things done in the industry. For those who work in specific roles in movie creation, the same type of behavior exists as it would in other sectors. There’s competition, rivalry, and in many cases, inside jokes.
There are many seemingly innocuous images and sounds included in films that escape our notice. Many times this is done not to trick or manipulate the audience, but rather to have fun or pay homage to some person or segment of the industry. The Wilhelm Scream is a prime example of this foolery.
What is the Wilhelm Scream?
Upon reading this, there are probably some punk rock fans (especially in Massachusetts) thumping their chests, but I am not referring to the band (sorry).The Wilhelm Scream is an audio recording that was originally created in 1951 for the Warner Brothers movie “Distant Drums.” In the film, Gary Cooper leads soldiers through a swamp when suddenly one of them is attacked by an alligator.
In many films, certain sound effects are added after filming. Six audio recordings of a man screaming were made and labeled “man getting bit by alligator, and he screams.” The fifth scream was used for the soldier’s scene, but eventually all of the last three were used in various places throughout the movie.
The scream recordings were then logged into the Warner Brothers archive and used for stock audio. The next time they were used was in the 1953 film “The Charge at Feather River” where a character named Private Wilhelm is shot in the leg by an arrow.
Over the next 20 years Warner Brothers continued using the scream in various movies. One of the people who caught on to this was a promising film student named Ben Burtt. After noticing the same recorded scream kept showing up, he sampled it from one of the films and decided to use it in his own called “The Scarlet Blade” (1974).
Discovering the Sound
Three years later, Burtt was hired to do sound work on George Lucas’ masterpiece “Star Wars.” While working in this capacity, Burtt was allowed access to other studios to mine for sound effects. While searching through Warner Brothers’ inventory, he came across the original infamous scream and named it “Wilhelm“ after the character in the movie in which it was used.
In the ensuing years, Burtt continued to use the scream in many films, including every subsequent “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” movie. It became his calling card so to speak.
If you've watched the scene, you've heard the scream
Richard Anderson, a friend of Burtt’s and fellow sound editor and collaborator on “The Scarlet Blade” continued this tradition in the projects he worked on, including such hits as “Poltergeist”, “Batman Returns”, and “Madagascar.”
Burtt and Anderson continued this friendly rivalry until both eventually archived the scream in their respective companies. From there it was discovered by other savvy sound engineers and reused for many other projects in the 90s and the new millennium. Others who helped propagate the sample include Mark Mangini, David Whittaker, Steve Lee, and George Simpson.
The Wilhelm Scream soon became known in sound editing circles, and many of them appreciated the history behind it. Not long after that, directors (especially those with a hefty appreciation for classic cinema and movie history) began to seek out the scream so they could use it in their own films and thus become a part of that history. Quentin Tarantino, Peter Jackson, and Robert Rodriguez are just a few such directors who have used it in some of their biggest films including “Kill Bill”, “Sin City”, and the “Lord of the Rings Trilogy.”
So Who’s Responsible for the Original Recording?
Although no one can say with 100% certainty who originally recorded the scream, the best working theory suggests that it was the work of Sheb Wooley, an actor and musician from the 50s and 60s. If you were around during this time and that name sounds familiar, that’s probably because Wooley was responsible for the song “Purple people Eater” which topped the charts in 1958.
Wooley played bit parts in several Westerns during this time and he had an uncredited role in “Distant Drums.” Although he died in 2003 before he could confirm his role as the scream’s creator, his wife stated in an interview that Sheb was fond of saying how good he was at performing “dying vocals” for films.
To date the Wilhelm Scream has been used in over 200 movies and television shows, as well as countless other forms of media. Although the original recording is only accessible by a small community, it is easy to record directly, due to the fact that the scream is isolated on some films. (Not that anyone would ever do that.) Chances are that you’ve heard it several times already and just never put it together.
But don’t worry. That’s what I’m here for.
The legend continues...
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