5 Ridiculous Origins of Movie Sound Effects

#2. The Doctor Who TARDIS Noise Is Keys Scraping on Piano Wire

The Effect:

Doctor Who, the proud flagship of the BBC sci-fi department, is either a boring cheesefest or a grippingly engaging, witty drama, depending on how old you are when you watch it. Arguably the most recognizable element of the show to both fans and nonfans is the TARDIS, a blue police box that flies through space and time because in Britain that's called "imagination."


Eh, still better than crappy CGI.

Anyway, as you may have guessed by now, the TARDIS makes a unique and instantly recognizable sound that has solidified itself in the minds of nerds across the globe over the past half century. Take a listen here:

Again, it seems like far-out electronic space noises, something that could only be produced by computers or keyboards or some kind of tone-deaf robot.

The Reality:

That timestream-slipping sound is just house keys scraping along piano wire. Layer in some static for the buzzing, add some reverb and boom, it's TARDIS time.


Why don't we keep our police in boxes?

The effect was created by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which in the 1960s was the foremost sound department in the world, pioneering new sci-fi sound effects that mixed organic and synthetic sources into a strangely awesome cacophonic blend.

The most awesome part of the TARDIS noise? They're still using variations of the original effect that the Radiophonic Workshop made 50 years ago.

#1. The Voices of LotR's Balrog and Ringwraiths Are a Concrete Block and Plastic Cups, Respectively

The Balrog Effect:

Even if you aren't a fan of The Lord of the Rings or only saw the first film, chances are you'll probably recognize the Balrog scene, if for no other reason than the now-famous phrase "You shall not pass!" inhabits the Internet in about a billion different memes that we assure you are only getting more hilarious:

The Balrog is pretty goddamned fearsome, in particular its hellacious bellowing roars. How did the sound of the Balrog take shape? By now you're probably thinking it was the same as with the Jurassic Park dinosaurs -- a bunch of dangerous animals and a microphone.


Or putting a microphone near Viggo Mortensen when he was being manly.

Nope.

The Balrog Reality:

When David Farmer (sound designer on the LotR project) came up with the original template for the Balrog, he wanted it to sound like it was something that would live in the very bowels of the world, sort of like a big flaming turd with a sword and a whip. Or a giant horned tapeworm, if you will.

To that end, the Balrog's voice, and some of its movement, wound up being something ingenious in its simplicity: a cinder block scraping along a wooden floor at different speeds. That delightfully cracky, grinding sound that accompanies the demon is made of a mixture of rocks grinding together and the cinder block tearing over someone's parquet. Go and listen to it again and see if you can hear it.


Also listen out for "What the fuck are you doing to my floor?!" at 0:55.

The Ringwraith Effect:

And then you have the Nazgul, aka the Ringwraiths, aka the nine black-clad bad guys on horses who chase Frodo and company in pursuit of the ring. Part of the dread they inspire is their horrible eldritch screaming, like nails on a blackboard or fingertips on a balloon. Something about it sets your teeth on edge and sends even the mightiest pair of gonads retreating back into their body:

Surely there can be no other source for this sound than the hollow, demented screams of actual undead spirits.

The Ringwraith Reality:

As it turns out, the noise of fear itself is just a couple of plastic cups scraping together. No animals, no lunatic sound design interns screeching into a microphone -- just the cups, the kind you play beer pong with. To be fair, the sounds have been sweetened in the studio with some layering effects, but at their base it's just a guy with a microphone playing around with disposable party cups.


"Who's ready to PAR-TAY ... hey, where's everyone gone? Hello? I'm so lonely."

It's cool to know that in an industry dominated by CGI supercomputers and nine-figure budgets, there's still room for a creative guy and some shit he found in his kitchen cabinet.

For more help in making your crappy indie film, check out 8 Movie Special Effects You Won't Believe Aren't CGI and 5 Ways Hollywood Tricks You Into Seeing Bad Movies.

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