Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Argument Against the Wilhelm Scream

LONGTIME MOVIEGOERS WITH WELL-TUNED ears know of the "Wilhelm scream," a throwaway sound effect that has become an not-so-inside joke among sound designers and film geeks alike. The death-by-alligator howl of an extra in 1951 (and its 1953 use as the reaction to an arrow in the leg of a character named Wilhelm) echoes through a panoply of films now, from the Star Wars saga and The Green Berets through more recent, ironic use in Team America: World Police and The Venture Bros. As mentioned in a 2005 On the Media segment, sound editors continue to be fascinated by the scream, and still try to drop it into the mix of feature films, cartoons, and even commercials.

Hearing it makes me wince.

I have an ear for film and TV audio tracks — not soundtracks, mind you, but the ambient sound that makes up the atmosphere of a movie. I like listening to a film and figuring which sounds were woven in by a skilled sound designer, and which were the craft of Foley artists. Learning just what performers broke, twisted, punched, or threw across the room to generate a sound intrigues me. I devour the extras on a DVD that address the sound environment of a film. It does not rob a visual effect of its magic if I learn the mundane details of its onscreen sound signature. Inventive new sound effects are always a treat; one of the reasons I rented Attack of the Clones was so I could hear that wild noise used for the concussion mines Jango Fett dropped to deter Obi-Wan's pursuit. (Its acting was better than Hayden Christiansen's.)

Likewise, as a child I quickly noticed that standard sound effects were used across movies and TV shows, and I came to hate them. There is one sound of a car screeching to a halt that was used so often in cartoons that, when I heard it in 1987's The Untouchables, I frowned at the sound designer's laziness. Early on, I learned to dislike M*A*S*H because of one particularly irritating laugh cluster in a section of the canned laughter . . . which I also heard in most of the DePatie-Freleng cartoons.

The Wilhelm scream has become a distracting audio smirk. If you consider a film's job to immerse the viewer into its world, so as to believe in its logic and its influence on the characters, the Wilhelm is like swapping a lush CGI landscape for a BSOD. It boots me right out of the fantasy. If you look at the list of media employing the Wilhelm, the curve of incidents rises sharply into the present day. This is no longer merely sound designers nudging one another from the sunless depths of their studios. With DVD Easter Eggs made as easily available on the Internet as video game cheat codes were 10 years ago, there are no more secret-handshake moments in any medium. Short of angry production artists secreting porn, Tyler Durden–like, between scenes or in packaging design, these "surprises" are now touted as features.

If we acknowledge there are no more surprises, why continue to let an obtrusive, overworked clip wreck suspension of disbelief? The Wilhelm scream is the Arial of sound effects. Time to retire that soundfile to the great vault in the sky. If it wants to emit its eponymous cry on the way out, let it be its last.

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