Many of our favorite movies are filled with highly unrealistic aspects. For example, nearly every explosion or medical scene is exaggerated or flat-out impossible.
Confoundingly, one aspect of filmmaking that is inherently artificial goes a long way toward the brain’s ability to suspend disbelief. One element has kept our eyes and ears in sync and our brains unjarred for as long as sound has existed in films (and radio!): Foley. An eponym – named after early artist Jack – Foley is the reproduction of sounds that are added via sound effects in postproduction. Often, these sounds are common ones that microphones don’t pick up well, but our brains like to hear. Think footsteps or doors opening. When we hear an actor walking over rocks, our senses enjoy the harmony, even if what we hear isn’t the original sound.
But Foley isn’t only used for everyday sounds. Audio wizards have come up with some wonderful stand-ins over the past century. Some of the most iconic instances come from repurposing animal sounds. Around here, we love our critters, so let’s take a look at three iconic sounds in film history that arise from Foleys using animals!
We recently explored Yoda Cave, an Icelandic feature that looks eerily like the green Jedi from Star Wars. Another fan favorite from that series is Chewbacca, a massive Wookie. Chewie doesn’t speak English like some of the other aliens, but he certainly makes a vocal mark.
If you’ve never heard a Wookie before, take a moment to watch a few seconds of the video above.
Sound designer Ben Burtt crafted Chewbacca’s voice from a melange of animals. George Lucas suggested bears, so he started there, using the vocalizations of a black bear named Tarik. He then added walruses, lions, camels, rabbits, tigers, and badgers along the way.
If you have seen all the Star Wars films or, alternatively, you watched the entirety of the preceding footage, you know that Chewbacca does not feature a monotone voice. Burtt effectively managed to display a range of emotions in the furry character. To achieve this effect, Burtt mixed the ratios of each critter differently. I wonder which sentiment was high on the badger.
Another franchise filled with non-human creatures is Lord of the Rings. Like Star Wars, some of the non-humans speak English or Elvish or Sindarin, but a few of the monsters eschew language for a less sophisticated method of communication.
One such creature is the orc. David Farmer took one look at the cute little suckers and knew immediately he needed to utilize seals. He visited the Marine Mammal Center in California and struck gold in the form of baby elephant seals.
The Orcs of Moria suddenly had a voice.
Not all orcs are the same. The Uruk-hai are the gnarliest of them all.
For these bad beasts, Farmer dipped into sea lions, land lions, and tigers. When the Uruk-hai were injured, the sounds came from sea lions. When they were on the hunt, the big cats took over.
Perhaps the most celebrated usage of sound design to create something menacingly otherworldly came from Jurassic Park.
What did dinosaurs sound like? Many aspects of the lives and bodies of these ancient behemoths we can attempt to recreate or infer, but their vocalizations are a tough puzzle. The creators of the famous Tyrannosaurus Rex, therefore, had to rely on their creativity to craft something uniquely sinister.
Never in two lifetimes would I have guessed the animal equation used for the voice of the king of dinosaurs.
T. Rex = baby elephant + tiger + alligator + koala + whale.
The first three animals – elephant, tiger, and alligator – comprised the notorious roar. When the dinosaur grunted the surprising voice behind the sound was a koala! Those adorable critters have surprisingly low vocalizations for their size. When the Rex breathed, the voice actor was a whale blowing.
The animatronic dinosaur was enormous: over 20 feet high and weighing 17,500 pounds. Something this big needed a few other sound effects and the Foley folks came through exceptionally. When the T. Rex eats a smaller dinosaur, they used the sound of a dog attacking a rope toy. What could match the massive footsteps? The world’s largest trees, of course. Cut sequoias smashing into the ground doubled as a large dinosaur trodding (here’s hoping they didn’t cut trees just for this purpose).
Then, of course, is the matter of the famous toilet scene. The Tyrannosaur munches on a lawyer sitting on a white throne.
This appetizing sound effect came from something far less stomach-curling: a horse eating a corncob!
Foley artists are invisible wizards. The products we hear often go unnoticed, and that’s partially the point. Digging into how many of the great auditory sensations are created, these creative humans deserve far more credit.
Further Reading and Exploration
The Remarkable Way Chewbacca Got a Voice – The Atlantic
David Farmer Special: The Lord of the Rings [Exclusive Interview] – Designing Sound
The Animals Hiding in a T. Rex s Roar – Scientific American