What are some of the most iconic sounds in cinema history? Sure two lightsabers clashing or even the suspenseful score of Jaws make that list. However, one sound effect has been used throughout movies of all genres for over fifty years. It is none other than the iconic Wilhelm Scream. You may have heard it and asked yourself “What is that same scream in all movies?” What is the Wilhelm Scream and where did the original Wilhelm Scream come from? In this article, we’ll be taking a look at one of the most iconic sounds in film and how filmmakers continue to use it to this day.
What is the Wilhelm Scream?
First, let’s define the Wilhelm Scream
The Wilhelm Scream sound effect has been used by some of the most iconic filmmakers such as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Quentin Tarantino. The same scream in all these movies came from the same place. What is the Wilhelm Scream that can be found in cinema’s most classic films?
WILHELM SCREAM DEFINITION
What is the Wilhelm Scream?
The Wilhelm Scream is a stock sound effect that has been used in over 400 films and television shows (and counting). It originated in 1951 in the film Distant Drums. The Wilhelm Scream sound effect is most commonly used when someone is falling from a great height, shot, or thrown from an explosion. It's inclusion in so many movies has become something of an inside joke for filmmakers and the audience who understand the reference.
Wilhelm Scream movies and iconic examples
- Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope
- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
- Toy Story
- Reservoir Dogs
Original Wilhelm Scream
The Wilhelm Scream origin
Where did the original Wilhelm Scream come from? The recording of the original scream dates back to the 1951 film Distant Drums. Producers of the film had cast members record a variety of screams for an alligator attack scene.
One scream in particular stood out and was used in the final cut of the film. Take a listen.
However, the original Wilhelm Scream in Distant Drums was not its defining moment. That would come two years later in the 1953 film The Charge at Feather River.
The sound effect was used for a character named Private Wilhelm who was shot in the leg with an arrow and let out the distinctive scream. Which, if it isn't obvious, is where this famous movie death scream gets its name. More on that in a minute.
With the origins of the sound effect dating as far back as the 1950s, how did it become so widely used in modern cinema? The answer can be found in a little film franchise that you might have heard of called Star Wars.
Wilhelm Scream Star Wars
Star Wars and the Wilhelm Scream
Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt made the scream famous by using it in the original 1977 Star Wars film. Burtt is even credited with coining the term “Wilhelm Scream” named after the character of Private Wilhelm from The Charge at Feather River.
The effect was later used in every single movie in the original Star Wars series. The first use being a stormtrooper as he falls to his death. Here is a Wilhelm Scream compilation from Star Wars.
Beyond Star Wars, the Scream has been used in films from Toy Story to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers to Reservoir Dogs. Now that we’ve answered the question of “What is the Wilhelm Scream?” you may be wondering, “Why have filmmakers chosen to use this sound effect for over sixty years?” What started as a convenience has turned into quite the inside joke for filmmakers and film buffs.
What is the Wilhelm Scream reused for?
Why is the Wilhelm Scream reused?
There is no doubt that the scream has become distinctive and recognizable in cinema. So why do filmmakers continue to use it? Firstly, reusing stock sound effects saves both money and time. It is an easy go to and has become the famous movie death scream in cinema.
However, as more prominent filmmakers made use of it, the sound effect became an inside joke among sound designers. Some say it's used as a tip of the hat to classic films in cinema. Hearing the effect also became somewhat of an Easter Egg for film buffs. This video by Insider analyzes the history of the Scream and how it became an iconic sound in cinema.
What is the Wilhelm’s Scream’s utility in storytelling? Although it remains an iconic sound in cinema history, some have criticized it to be distracting and disengaging for an audience. Some say it has become more popular and more redundant with its viral use in memes on the internet.
In fact, producers of the recent Star Wars films have decided to retire the sound effect from the franchise. Sound designers of the new Disney branded Star Wars films have begun recording new sound effects in an attempt to make their own unique calling cards.
Still, the iconic sound can be found in more recent films such as Venom. And there is no doubt that the scream can be found in some of the most classic films in cinema history.
Here’s WatchMojo’s list of the top 10 best usages of the effect in film.
What is the Wilhelm Scream’s future? Although some film franchises have decided to retire it, there is no doubt that it will be used in films still to come. Be on the lookout for the sound effect and you’ll find yourself getting in on one of Hollywood’s longest-lasting inside jokes.
How Foley Artists bring movies to life
The Wilhelm Scream is one of the most iconic sounds in cinema. However, not all sound effects are recorded from an actor. Discover how Foley Artists create the sound effects of movement, props, and footsteps and bring a film to life in our next article.