Sometimes my younger daughter scares me.
Many of you likely to be reading me are fellow movie geeks and several of you are likely audio geeks, and even if you don’t fall into one of those two categories, there’s still a decent chance you’ve heard of the Wilhelm Scream. But for those of you haven’t: the Wilhelm Scream is a stock sound effect of, well, a man screaming, originally taken from the 1951 Western Distant Drums. It’s a fairly distinctive sound clip, and it’s been used in numerous movies, TV shows and cartoons — including pretty much everything George Lucas has directed or produced.[^1] Once you know what it sounds like, it’s easy to identify; there’s even a number of helpful videos on YouTube to help you place it.
Laurel, however, is six-and-a-half. She has no idea how movies are made, has no idea of how audio is produced, has no idea that there even is such a thing as a stock sound effect. Clearly, the entire concept of the Wilhelm Scream is far, far outside of her six-and-a-half years of experience.
Yet last Friday night, while we were watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade 1, the scene in that movie which is wilhelmscreamified came up. (For those of you playing along at home, it’s early in the great tank chase sequence about two-thirds of the way into the movie.)
And the scream happens, and Laurel says “Hey, that was the same sound as when [some reference to Star Wars, a series which has a fair amount of wilhelmscreamification in it]!” And I knew immediately what she was talking about, though I was flabbergasted to realize that she did. How the hell was this six-year-old paying enough attention, noticing detail enough, that she can recognize a sound effect used across different movies? It’s not like it gets used that frequently — once a movie, maybe. And it’s not like anyone has ever explained the function of an audio department or the sound effects editor in film production — hell, if anyone was going to explain that to her, it would’ve been me, and I know I haven’t done it.[^3]
I mean, yes, I know that she now understands that movies are things that get made by people, and the same people might be involved in making many movies: when she realized that (to her thinking) Han Solo was playing Indiana Jones, that was a pretty big moment of illumination for her. That’s obvious, though — not noticing that would have been a bigger surprise than noticing it. But this? This was surprising. I almost let out a little Wilhelm Scream of my own.
It’s times like that one when I’m afraid my jokes about her taking over the world when she grows up might not actually be jokes.
Or at the very least, I suppose, maybe it means she’ll grow up to be an audio engineer.
[^1]: Credit for reviving the clip and popularizing its use goes to sound designer extraordinaire and Oscar-winner Ben Burtt, who has assembled the sounds for most of those Lucas movies, a great many Steven Spielberg movies, and worked for the geniuses at Pixar. In fact, not only did he receive yet another Oscar nomination for WALL-E, but provided the voice for the title character.
[^3]: Supposedly, “gifted” children — and there’s no doubt that’s a group of which she’s a member — are particularly attuned to sound. It’s one reason why so many of us…er, them…seem so flinchy at loud noises.
I’d forgotten just how much I loved that movie. And, oh yes, Ben Burtt won an Oscar for sound effects editing for this movie, too. ↩