The ‘Wilhelm Scream’ is an iconic Hollywood soundbyte that, thanks to its use in countless films, TV shows and video games over the years, is surely one of the most familiar yells in human history.
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Its origins are well known. It comes from a movie called Distant Drums, filmed in 1951, and like most movies from that time the actors recorded their dialogue later in a recording studio. Distant Drums features a scene where some US solders are on the run from Seminole Indians, and while trudging through a swamp one of them is “bitten and dragged underwater by an alligator”.
Actor Sheb Wooley played the part of that character, and while recording his lines for that scene let loose a series of screams. One of them, his fifth attempt, didn’t just make it into the movie, it subsequently made it into a bunch of films, including Westerns and war movies throughout the 1950s and 60s. It really took off, though, when it was used in the original Star Wars (in the scene below, where Luke blasts a Stormtrooper off a ledge), and has been used as both a tribute and a joke by directors and sound designers ever since.
You’ve no doubt heard it many times in video games as well, in everything from Red Dead Redemption to God of War to Team Fortress to Grand Theft Auto to The Witcher 3. The video below, which runs for almost 15 minutes, contains many of its more notable uses in games:
Anyway! Enough of the history lesson. We’re here because last month a series of old recordings from USC’s archives were uploaded to the internet, and among them was a nice, clean version of the entire take that the Wilhelm Scream originates from, during which you can hear Wooley’s alternate renditions of his death cry before they settle on the version we’re all familiar with today:
As Paste report, the person to thank for this is “veteran audio engineer Craig Smith, a graduate of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, who works as the Academic Sound Coordinator at the School of Film/Video at the California Institute of the Arts”. Smith has been preserving USC’s old tapes for years, and this recording in particular was previously part of “the original sound effects library of small Hollywood company Sunset Editorial”, now defunct, which had a particular focus on making and storing sound effects for TV shows.
And, it turns out, Star Wars films. And video games. And…