A Case Against the Wilhelm Scream

burttBen Burtt is a legend, a sound designing magician that has changed film making for the better. Star Wars was his calling card. It is the film that dazzled audiences across multiple generations. It’s also the film that showed the world and Hollywood that sound design is truly an art form. It’s also the film that cursed us with the Wilhelm Scream, a joke courtesy of Mr. Burtt that now has every Burtt Clone copying for every stinkin movie.

According to statistics, the Wilhelm Scream has been used in over 200 films to date. Originally a sound effect in the film Distant Drums, starring the over-appreciated Gary Cooper, Wilhelm entrenched his manic scream into the Warner Bros. Sound Library. Ben Burtt found the original reel labeled “Man being eaten by alligator,” used it and solidified its place among film legend and overuse.

Side note: It was already being used too much before Burtt got a hold of it. He just pushed it into the limelight.

Now, we hear this ridiculous scream in every movie where characters fall, get shot, burned, whatever. Sound designers crank the volume on it so viewers have no choice but to notice it. I imagine they sit in their little studios and snicker and wink at a picture of Ben Burtt hanging on their wall and say, “We did it again, Benny-boy!”

I’m not knocking Burtt for using the scream. He thought it was funny. It was his signature. However, now everyone else uses it as a homage, if you will. It’s been used so many times now that Burtt has said that he’s no longer going to use it. In other words, the joke is played. Burtt announcing that he won’t use it is a flare in the sky to all you other sound designers. He’s telling you to come up with something new. Stop being unoriginal. Get your own damn signature.

“But, we love Ben Burtt and the movies he made! We can use it if we want to; just to show that we’re part of the same club!”

Okay, well, how would you feel if in every movie an actor referred to a co-star as “Pilgrim” like John Wayne? You’d get pretty sick of it, wouldn’t you? Or, if every composer threw in a couple bars of the theme from JAWS? You would think they were hacks, wouldn’t you? What if every special effects artist added a second mouth that jetted out of another mouth like the alien in Alien? Boring! You’re doing the same thing, Sparky. You’re boring us with your lack of imagination, of which Ben Burtt had plenty of.

Last night, I was watching Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. I was immediately taken out of the story during a climatic battle scene when I heard that stupid Wilhelm Scream from an orc falling to his death. To make matters worse, the scream’s volume was jacked to eleven so you couldn’t help but notice.

To all sound designers: you’re killing us, man.

I hate that scream.

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