Thursday, 26 March 2009

The Wilhelm Scream

The wilhelm scream is that of Hollywood legend. Originally a sound effect recorded for the film 'Distant Drums', it has gained noteriety since being discovered deep in the archives at Warner Bros. by sound designer Ben Burrt while looking for FX for his work on Star Wars. Burrt was already aware of the scream, having noted it appearing in a variety of productions, and already having 'borrowed' it from a films soundtrack to include in his own work.

Though labelled as 'Man being eaten by Alligator' on the reel recorded for 'Distant Drums', Burrt named the scream 'Wilhelm' after its emittion from the character 'Private Wilhelm' in the film 'The Charge at Feather River'. Though no-one knows quite who performed the scream, Burrt uncovered documentation at Warner that gave him an indication that the scream was most likely performed by musician and actor Sheb Wooley.

Over the years the scream has appeared as a signature in a mass of Burrts work; and has amassed a cv that any actor in the world would give their right arm for. The original scream is actually one of six recordings; the most popular and recognisable being screams four to six. Although the master recordings only exist in a couple of sound archives worldwide (Skywalker and Weddington being part of this elite group), it has found its way through sampling into libraries across the room, due to a love of the screams history within the sound editing community. It has appeared in films across the spectrum; from Star Wars to Juno and its popularity shows no signs of abating. Having learnt the significance of the effect, king film geek Quentin Tarantino has used the effect in 'Reservoir Dogs' and more recently 'Kill Bill', while Peter Jackson has also insisted in having the effect turned up in 'Lord of The Rings' after hearing of the screams history. The scream has also not been contained solely to the silver screen; it has been used on commercials, video games and even theme park rides.

So what started as a in joke has amassed a cult following amongst sound editors and film fans the world over. Though Ben Burtt himself has stopped using the effect, the scream will continue to live on in cinema for many years to come. I for one am always looking for that 'wilhelm moment' in my own work, and the satisfaction felt when knitting it seamlessly into the action and the enjoyment you get from discovering it being used in other films.

So if like me you want to carry on this cult, then you can hunt out the scream from a film where its clean in the mix (A Star is Born, wink wink!), or head along to here where you can download it for free, but at a lesser quality.

I will also leave you with some compilations of Wilhelms for your enjoyment. Happy spotting!

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