All of my labmates are currently at SeaBASS having an awesome time, while I am in Corvallis beginning the analysis of my data. It’s required a lot of thinking outside the box. So rather than talk about research or even strict bioacoustics, I thought I’d talk about something I find really interesting: sound design in the movies, and the way animal calls can be turned into something completely otherworldly.

I touched on this idea a couple of weeks ago with my fun link of the week to the sound design for the newest Godzilla, but Hollywood is littered with monsters galore with interesting roars. One of the most near and dear uses of animal sound in movies is the prevalence of choruses of my own study subject, the Pacific chorus frog.

When they’re trying to create a sort of nature setting in movies, sound designers often use clips of the Pacific chorus frog. It has that characteristic “ribbit” you want from a stereotypical frog, and you can hear the sound clip of it in places where the species definitely doesn’t live (I think I picked it up once in a movie that was set in Thailand. Yeah, no Pacific chorus frogs there.).

But why this particular frog? I mean, I personally love the way it sounds, but did sound designers pick it because of that? Turns out that’s not the case. Pacific chorus frog choruses are regularly featured in movies because early sound designers could go out to the ponds in California, even in the Hollywood area, and easily record the sound of the chorus. It was more a factor of convenience than desire.

There are some other stereotypical animal sounds that are often heard in movies. Every owl that you see (unless it’s a nature documentary) is probably going to have the call of the great horned owl, even if it’s not in fact a great horned owl. Now think about that sound that you hear whenever a bald eagle is shown onscreen, that piercing call—that’s actually a red-tailed hawk. Bald eagles sound more like this (follow the link).

What I find more fun is trying to pick out what vocalizations go into monsters. I’m kind of a big Lord of the Rings nerd, so naturally first we have to talk about Peter Jackson’s interpretations of the monsters there.

20130218015123!Orc_moriaThe Moria orcs (scrabbly little guys) have a really distinct high-pitched noise they make. Part of this sound is made up of the calls of some very vocal baby elephant seals, which sound designer David Farmer thought would be perfect after hearing them at the Marine Mammal Center in the Marin headlands. Do these guys sound like orcs to you?

The cave troll, too, had some animal vocalizations included, notably walrus and tiger. That sad moan when it dies comes from the walrus. Poor cave troll. I always felt bad for him.Cave_troll

To my everlasting dismay, we don’t know what dinosaurs sounded like: that kind of vibratory tissue just doesn’t fossilize well (with one notable exception: the duckbill dinosaur‘s oddly shaped crest may have been used to make sound). That doesn’t stop Hollywood from trying to recreate the calls of dinosaurs, however. Jurassic Park sound designer Gary Rydstrom used sounds from whales, lions, alligators, tigers, elephants, and even a koala to create the soundscape of the ill-fated imaginary park (this video of an elephant will convince you).

There are so many more monsters in Hollywood with their own signature noises. However, for the most part sound designers are pretty close-lipped about how they create their characters. And that’s really understandable. After all, if they didn’t keep some secrets, how could the new Godzilla sound so much more dramatic and scary than everyone else?

This post was brought to you with very little science and a lot of Googling. Some helpful sources are included below. Sound design isn’t a peer-reviewed field, remember. 

Main/Stock Sound Effects

Soundscape Explorations blog

Fellowship of the Ring Extended Edition

Movie sound effect origins

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