Sound effects in film form a big part of any feature and are a crucial component in creating the impact they need. They may often be overlooked by the casual viewer, but if done correctly sound effects can change the experience a film provides from the average to the sublime.
The importance of good sound effect design is not just limited to blockbuster action flicks either, and even a humble feature can be transformed by skilful audio execution.
So without further ado here are the top 10 sound effects in cinema, carefully chosen to show the contribution they make to some of the most unforgettable on-screen experiences ever created.
1. Jurassic Park (1993) – T-Rex Roar
The big daddy of timeless cinema sound effects, the legendary first T-Rex scene was revolutionary upon its release and turned Jurassic Park into a part of the cultural landscape.
Beginning with rain and silence, the ominous presence of the T-Rex is felt before it is seen as a cup of water rhythmically vibrates to the deep and distant bass of the monster’s footsteps. A meaty splat accompanies a severed goat’s limb that lands on the car window and we hear a low rumble of heavy breath as the T-Rex appears.
These visual and aural cues all lead up to the first climax of the scene – the moment when the T-Rex first unleashes its mighty roar. This terror-inducing sound became a staple of the film series and was inextricably linked to any appearance from the creature. The sound effect itself, however, was created from a less than vicious source, being the result of recording a baby elephant trumpeting and then slowing it down.
The T-Rex isn’t the only star of the show, however, and we could have easily included Jurassic Park’s infamous raptors in this same list.
2. Star Wars (1977) – Lightsabers
Of all the immediately recognisable sounds the Star Wars universe has given us, it is perhaps the legendary lightsabers that have captured our imaginations and ears the most. A vital part of the series and lore, it is only fitting that lightsabers were given the kind of sound that is as much a part of their identity as their appearance.
There are in fact numerous sounds associated with lightsabers. The first and most obvious is the ‘vwing-vwing’ of them moving and slashing. This was actually captured from the noise created by an old TV and moving a microphone closer and further away from it. The stationary hum that lightsabers emit was mostly obtained from an idle projector, while the lightning-like crackle of the weapons striking in battle were actually the sound of a vacuum cleaner combined with a stick in dry ice.
Critically, however, it is not just one of these sounds we immediately associate with the fictitious weapon but all of them. It is this combination of factors that puts the lightsaber firmly in the list of the top 10 sound effects in cinema history.
3. Predator (1987) – Predator Crackling
In this classic Arnie flick we are introduced to one of the most iconic and dangerous forms of alien life ever seen on screen. The Predator is a broadly hominid-looking yet bizarre extra-terrestrial with a keen intelligence and a preoccupation with hunting for sport. This and other additions to the creature’s canon reveal the species to have their own culture, values, code of honour and aesthetic sensibilities.
Despite this it has a serious case of bloodlust and seems to view Arnie and his squad of elite paramilitary men as good quarry. Through the film’s 107 minutes we slowly become more familiar with the enigmatic alien through a series of violent encounters, in which we see and hear the exotic technology the Predator uses for its sport.
The most striking sound to emit from this creature, however, comes simply when it breathes. In a final scene the Predator removes its sleek metal mask with a satisfying gaseous hiss to show its insect-reptilian visage. Within that horrible image the creature’s mouth immediately draws our attention, opening in four mandible-laden corners to show the vile orifice that has been emitting this unforgettably creepy clicking noise.
4. Psycho (1960) – Shower Scene String Stabs
Not a sound effect in the traditional sense, the string stabs of that infamous shower scene sit somewhere between music and atmospheric amplification. Some give praise to the fleshy painful sounds of the stabbing itself, yet it is the semi-musical staccato strikes that truly turn the stomach and raise the horror.
We witness no penetration of the knife entering the body, see no stab wounds or lacerations, yet the physicality of the scene is undeniable despite the lack of explicit footage. The accompanying string stabs both mask this omission and amplify the panic of the scene. It is almost like they are an aural representation of the victim’s mental state as the event unfolds, and it is for this reason that they are included here as one of the top 10 sound effects in cinema.
Hitchcock was a master of his craft and would have been fully aware of the impact this scene would have. The inclusion of the string stabs here simply prove it.
5. Aliens (1986) – Tracker Bleeps
While the power of sound effects such as Jurassic Park’s T-Rex roars is self-explanatory, there is a certain strength that comes from those understated details that have an outsized effect. One such example making its way onto our top 10 sound effects in cinema list is the bleep of the tracker in James Cameron’s Aliens.
The tracker is a hand-held device that detects motion in a series of small on-screen dots and a digital ‘bleep’ accompanying located movements. In Aliens this simple object takes on a crucial role in creating suspense as the protagonist and the Colonial Marines confront a stealthy and silent enemy that has the dexterity to climb walls and possesses an unnerving agility.
All this takes place in claustrophobic indoor environments that are dimly lit, easily concealing any awaiting threat. The result is that the humble tracker becomes both an invaluable tool and source of escalating tension as we face the impending dread with nothing to guide us but that ominous bleep…bleep…bleep…bleep…
6. Star Wars (1977) - Chewbacca
Admittedly it is poor form to include the same franchise in such a list twice, yet the Star Wars series has brought us enough legendary sound effects to fill a Top 10 on its own. We could have given this second spot to the ominous breathing of Darth Vader or the sound of TIE fighters in combat, but instead we are giving it to the strangely endearing language of the Wookiees.
The most notable Wookiee in the Star Wars franchise is Han Solo’s best buddy and Millennium Falcon co-pilot, Chewbacca. This towering, gangly furball is best known for the animal-like sounds he makes as he talks, which are somehow perfectly understood by Han.
Despite the countless bad Chewbacca impressions the world has witnessed since 1977, the sound of the Wookiee language was actually created by recording various animals. The animals in question were four bears, a lion, a seal, a walrus and a badger. After enough samples were taken the sounds were matched with whatever sentiment Chewie wished to convey and – voila – the Wookiee language was born.
7. Apocalypse Now (1979) – Helicopter Rotor Blades
This legendary Vietnam War film featured in our The Top 10 Music Moments in Cinema article and also appears here. For good reason too, as both its soundtrack and general audio design are key parts to its success. Indeed the incredible soundtrack may get the lion’s share of attention, but the carefully applied sound effects likewise deserve respect.
Of the various violent and grand noises presented to the audience, one of the most memorable is the helicopter rotor blade noise if for no other reason than it is the first thing the audience is presented with. Indeed, the film opens with black and the sound of helicopters is the first thing we hear.
Helicopters represent far more than a tool of war in Apocalypse Now. They are bringers of mass death and destruction, the heavy cavalry of the Vietnam War, and their unilateral use by the Americans over the lightly armed Vietcong is the perfect representation of these two powers in conflict. The decision to give so much attention to the sound of the helicopter blades draws attention to this, amplifying the themes of horror and destruction the film so lavishly presents.
On a technical level there was plenty of effort spent on making the rotor blades sit dominantly in the audio design, utilising techniques that were unconventional until years later to make the audience feel them as much as hear them.
8. Indiana Jones – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – Bullwhip Cracking
There are few sounds as attention grabbing and immediately recognisable as the crack of a large whip. Its sudden and brief noise comes and goes in a fraction of a second, jumping out like an exclamation mark summoned from thin air. It is an object that is thought of more commonly as a tool rather than a weapon despite its capacity to cause pain, and in the hands of Dr Jones it is highly effective in both its functions.
Whilst initially seeming like an odd tool to equip a protagonist with, Indie makes great use of the bullwhip both as a functional tool to navigate the landscape with and as a non-lethal weapon with a powerful psychological effect. Indiana Jones is no soldier, and whilst he clearly has no problem getting a little blood on his hands, any violence on his part is strictly functional.
This allows him to take advantage of the bullwhip’s frightening sound both to overcome opposition and to stay in the hearts and minds of audiences everywhere.
9. Goldfinger (1964) – The Laser
It’s one of the most famous scenes not just in the James Bond canon, but in the whole of cinematic history. In Bond’s third film adventure we see the campiness his earlier instalments were known for in full display. The titular gold-obsessed antagonist has captured 007 and in a sadistic move has decided to kill him in a peculiar fashion - by slowly lasering him in half from bottom to top.
As the spy remains bound to the table on which he lays the laser hums to life, all 60’s sci-fi design and glowing light. What makes it horrifyingly vivid, however, are the sounds that accompany it, the kind that earn it a place in the top 10 sound effects in cinema.
As it powers up the laser begins to make an oscillating sound, climaxing in a high pitched steady whine that sounds sterile, futuristic, and unflinchingly dangerous. When the beam comes into contact with the thick metal surface a soft burning crackle reaches our ears. The patient sound of the laser and understated hissing of burning metal give this torture device an air of deadly clinical power, filling the scene with a quietly intense feeling of suspense.
10. Big (1988) - Zoltar
Those of us who saw Big in childhood would remember plenty about it – the intriguing concept, the great performance by Tom Hanks, and the deeply unsettling sound of Zoltar opening his mouth to grant your wish.
As the protagonist, Josh, approaches the dormant yet sinister ‘Zoltar’ wish-granting machine and inserts his 25 cents, he realises it isn’t working and begins pounding on it. Triggered to life, Zoltar’s eyes glow red and his head rolls back as the lower jaw remains still. As he does so a monstrously hollow and mechanical breathing sound repeats, giving the impression of something between a sleeping beast and snarling demon.
The overall effect is quite subtle. The machine is visibly old and as such is expected to be clumsy on the ears, but the breath-like sound gives it a creepily organic quality. Nothing good can come from anything that makes such a sound and the audience knows it, creating a foreshadowing effect that cannot be ignored.