On Sunday, “Iron Man 2” director Jon Favreau tweeted something that was music to the ears of sound geeks: “The Wilhelm Scream is in.”
It was one small sentence for Tweetdom, but one loud message for sound geeks.
The message means “Iron Man 2” will arrive at theaters on May 7 with one of the most storied sound effects in Hollywood — a single-second, girlish shriek from the 1950s known to sound supervisors as “The Wilhelm Scream.”
The pained wail has appeared in more than 140 movies, according to Hollywood historian and sound editor Steve Lee, who maintains a list here. Among the films: “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Batman Returns,” “Reservoir Dogs,” “Toy Story,” “Spider-Man,” “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” “Hellboy” and “Poltergeist.”
To hear the Wilhelm Scream in action, check out the You Tube montage above.
How did this quirky tradition get started? The Scream (with apologies to Edvard Munch) began as a standard effect for a 1951 movie titled “Distant Drums” starring Gary Cooper, according to Lee’s account. The film is set in Florida in 1840 and the sound was used when a soldier is bitten by an alligator while wading through the Everglades. It was recorded in six takes but it was the fifth version that eventual went on to make Hollywood sound history.
For two years, the sound clip sat in silence in the Warner Bros. archives, until it was used again in a movie called “The Charge at Feather River” (originally released in 3-D, for you film nerds out there). This is when the sound acquired its famous name — a character named Private Wilhelm lets loose with the scream when he takes an arrow in the leg.
The Wilhelm Scream really caught fire with legendary sound supervisor Ben Burtt, who created the sound effects for “Star Wars” and won Oscars for his work on “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Burtt began using the sound snippet as a kind of calling card and then other sound specialists, as an inside joke, found excuses to sneak it into their projects. Think of it as an old-school Easter egg.
Favreau, challenging his audience to a sound hunt, later tweeted, “The Wilhelm Scream was used in Iron Man 1. Anyone know where?” Feel free to leave a comment here if you know the answer.
— Alex Pham
(Follow my random thoughts on games, gear and technology on Twitter @AlexPham.)
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PHOTOS: Jon Favreau in 2008 (Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times). John Dykstra with “Star Wars” model (courtesy of John Dykstra).