Let’s face it, some things just sound cooler in your imagination than they do in real life. Like your own voice, for example. You hear yourself on tape and think ‘Do I really sound that much like a monkey? Why did no one ever tell me? I will never eat a banana in public again.’ Movies can present a similar situation: some things just sound way, way cooler if they’re enhanced or just plain made up. Here are a few:
The time has come. You’ve seen it done so many times in movies, and now you’re finally ready to punch someone in the face. You draw back your arm and go for it, preparing yourself for that loud, satisfying ‘Thwack!’ sound. But instead, there’s the faint thud of your fist impacting his skin, and… nothing. You stand in confused horror, letting down your guard enough for the other guy to punch you back several times.
Because punches in movies aren’t like in real life. A real-life punch sounds more like this:
…i.e., not much at all. And consider the fact that that particular punch was performed by Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon. If Buzz Aldrin himself can’t make a movie-like noise while righteously punching a whining man-boy, nobody can.
Face punching in movies and TV shows is often the climax of a scene, and it needs to live up to it. So real, anticlimactic human-on-human punching sounds just won’t do (there’s also the fact that making sound effects guys punch each other in postproduction probably goes against some union rule or another). Instead, movie punch sounds are usually created by punching a large slab of meat, rib cuts being the most popular. To enhance the sound, foley artists often wear leather gloves. So when the hero of the movie punches out the bad guy at the end of a scene, what you’re really hearing is the sound of the timeless battle of cow vs. pig.
2. Bald Eagles
When most Americans think of eagles, they think of bald eagles. This can be seen clearly in the recent Clash of the Titans remake, in which a Greek god has a bald eagle pet, despite presumably living in Mount Olympus and not North America. And the sound we most associate with eagles on film is an eerie, vaguely threatening screeching sound shown here on a CB radio:
It’s a sound that says “Wow, you don’t ever want to mess with those eagles. They will take you down.” So obviously, bald eagles, the most hardcore of all the eagles, must make the awesome screaming eagle sound.
Unfortunately, in real life bald eagles sound more like castrated seagulls:
That’s right, the symbol of American strength and freedom sounds like the bird that all the other birds beat up after school. No wonder the movies don’t do it right.
In most movies all guns, whether rifles, pistols, shotguns or made-up weapons from the future, make a heavy ‘boom’ that sounds more like a car backfiring or a shotgun. When a silencer is in use, the same guns suddenly turn into lasers and make a ‘pyoo pyoo’ noise.
In real life, though, gunshots from most pistols and rifles sound more like very loud firecrackers:
Why the change? Well, it’s a fact of life that real gun sounds just don’t come out well on microphones. There is also the fact that you can’t make gunshots in movies as loud as they are in real life, or you’d have a lot of lawsuits on your hand from audiences with irreparably damaged eardrums. And sadly, once the volume factor is removed, a lot of real guns sound kind of puny. This leads to firecracker-like gun sounds being enhanced, replaced with the sound of bigger guns, or simulated altogether using things like air-filled plastic bags being popped.
It could be worse, though. Back in the days of radio serials, gunshots were usually recorded using cap guns or corks being popped from bottles. This went on until the 1950’s. Imagine listening to the climactic gun battle of your favorite Western, and then suddenly getting the strong impression that a wedding had suddenly broken out.
4. Weapon Movement
In a movie, whenever a character moves a gun or a sword, it must also make a noise so that his enemy knows that he is serious. When this weapon is a sword, it makes a metallic ringing sound, even when said sword is touching nothing more than a leather scabbard. If it’s a gun, it makes a clicking sound. A good example of this is The Matrix, which has guns that make cocking sounds whenever they’re moved, no matter what kind of gun they are or whether the person’s hand actually moves. Check out the first thirty seconds of this clip.
This effect is amplified if you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger. If you’re lucky enough to be Arnie, everything you do that is even slightly related to weaponry will come with extra special sound effects, even if you’re just pushing shells into a fabric bandolier:
Now, if you’ve ever waved a weapon around during a hostage situation, you’ll notice that unless you pull the trigger, guns tend to stay strangely silent. So why are these noises put in? Boredom? To remind the audience that the weapon there? One thing is sure: in movie and TV land, concealed weapons permits would be useless, as anyone could clearly tell who was carrying a gun by the incessant clicky noises.
Everyone knows what a rattlesnake sounds like. Go on, imagine it. That hissing sound combined with someone shaking a bunch of beans. Scary, isn’t it? The woman in this scene sure thinks so. (As an aside, check out the sound in that scene when Van Damme punches the snake. Add in a few gunshots and a bald eagle, and this scene might win an award for the most over-the-top audio effects ever.) But much like our poor mascot the bald eagle, real rattlers just aren’t hardcore enough for Hollywood.
As you can hear in the video, a real rattlesnake actually sounds more like a cross between radio static and a fly buzzing, and the sound could probably even be mistaken for a cicada if you weren’t close to it. Which is a way, is even scarier, since it means that if you hear cicadas, there could be one near you RIGHT NOW. Let’s hope Van Damme is nearby.
6. Magical Space Sound
This is the classic of unrealistic sound effects. Most people are aware that there is no sound in space, or rather, there’s too little for the human ear to detect, but movie after movie insists on adding explosions, gunshots, spaceship engines, and even seismic charges. Some rare movies like Serenity and 2001 actually get this right, while others use a variety of excuses. Like, maybe there is sound in space in the Star Wars galaxy. Or maybe the spaceships in the movie contain speakers that add sound so people inside the space ships don’t get confused and lonely in all that silence. Maybe in the future they just have really, really sensitive microphones that haven’t been invented yet. But the real reason, of course, is that explosions in space are cool, and explosions in space with sound are cooler. After all, as seen in the following video, when the sound in a film is ‘realistically’ removed it just seems like someone forgot to add in the sound effects.
So maybe we can assume that the sound in space is coming from the same place as the background music.
7. Beepy Computers
In the universe in which movies are set, every computer makes a beeping sound whenever it does anything. If you enter text, if a cursor flashes, if a window moves, there’s a beep. Can you imagine working in a cubicle in this version of reality? Your office would sound like an experimental electronica album from Germany.
Sometimes, fictional computers also beep when nothing’s happening at all. Take this CSI clip, in which the computer apparently makes a beeping sound when it senses the camera focusing on it:
in addition to all this noise, you have the cinematic assumption that no one in the audience can read text on a screen, so as well as a ‘beep’ sounding with every new email or line of chat, you have the character speaking as he types, or providing narration explaining every new thing that he’s doing.
Boy, could that lead to some embarrassing scenes. Workplaces would no longer even have to bother with web filters, since bosses could simply walk past someone’s workstation and listen to see if they are reading out lines of figures from accounting reports, or muttering the words ‘barely legal’, ‘Mafia Wars’, or ‘click now for a free demo.’