[ETCETERA] The Wilhelm Scream

Wilhelm Scream in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977).
Wilhelm, rebooted

Most audiences are onto the fact that much of the sound they hear in movies and television isn’t made on set while the cameras are rolling.

The gunshot wasn’t actually recorded live. The song at the High School dance wasn’t coming through the on-screen speakers. Even something as straightforward as the footsteps of people walking down a hallway wasn’t likely captured at the actors’ feet.

Instead, most sounds are carefully selected from a sound effects library or recorded on a foley stage and then painstakingly placed by a SFX Editor during post production.

This is the world of make-believe, after all.

The sonic smoke and mirrors are even more prevalent in animation, where every bit of audio you hear, from dialogue to fist fights, to birds chirping in the distance is chosen and assembled on an edit system or audio software timeline.

The first Wilhelm Scream in Distant Drums (1951)
1951’s “Distant Drums.” Before Wilhelm was Wilhelm.

With that in mind, the question is: can a stock sound effect become legendary?

It can. It has.

Through the decades, a particular sound effect – a scream, to be specific – has come to find its way into an endless series of films.

This effect, known as The Wilhelm Scream, has been in even more shows and movies than Michael Caine!

Hard to believe.

According to Wikipedia, The Wilhelm Scream first appeared in the 1951 movie, Distant Drums. Oddly enough, it wasn’t screamed by the character Wilhelm until the Western, The Charge at Feather River, a couple of years later.

Life is complicated.

From there, Wilhelm’s scream has gone on to show up in over 425 more productions, from Reservoir Dogs to Toy Story to Terminator: Dark Fate.

Although a viable (though perhaps melodramatic) sound effect, its popularity is not quite by happenstance. At least, not at this point.

The first Wilhelm Scream by Wilhelm himself in The Charge at Feather River (1953).
An arrow to the thigh. A small price for fame, Wilhelm.

Iconic sound designer, Ben Burtt, first used it in the original Star Wars, and went on to popularize it throughout his career.

In short, it’s now become a bit of an “inside joke” among filmmakers. Though today, with everyone knowing the ins and outs of all things pop culture, it’s not nearly the secret it once was.

One of the things about this that fascinates me most, is that the actor behind this cinematic gem – reportedly Sheb Wooley – is still “alive” and well and performing in new movies all the time, despite being dead since 2003.

That’s no mean feat.

In short, I raise a glass to the immortal Wilhelm. Few have experienced more frequent and varied suffering on the silver screen merely for our entertainment.

If you weren’t already, be sure to keep an ear out and see if you can find it in the next movie you watch. Granted, if it’s a story about collecting butterflies, it’s probably not going to pop up. But anything a with a little action, and you’re likely to strike gold.

Enjoy!

It should really get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

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