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The Wilhelm scream is a stock sound effect that has been used in a number of films and TV series, beginning in 1951 with the film Distant Drums. The scream is usually used when someone is shot, falls from a great height, or is thrown from an explosion. The sound is named after Private Wilhelm, a character in The Charge at Feather River, a 1953 Western in which the character gets shot in the thigh with an arrow. This was its first use following its inclusion in the Warner Bros. stock sound library, although The Charge at Feather River is believed to have been the third film to use the effect. The scream is believed to be voiced by actor Sheb Wooley.
The Wilhelm scream originates from a series of sound effects recorded for the 1951 movie Distant Drums. In a scene from the film, soldiers are wading through a swamp in the Everglades, and one of them is bitten and dragged underwater by an alligator. The screams for that scene, and other scenes in the movie, were recorded later in a single take. The recording was entitled: "Man getting bit by an alligator, and he screamed." The fifth take of the scream was used for the soldier in the alligator scene. The fifth take, which later became known as the iconic "Wilhelm scream," was probably voiced by actor Sheb Wooley (who played the uncredited role of Pvt. Jessup in Distant Drums).
Voice of the scream
Research by Burtt suggests that Wooley, best known for his 1958 novelty song, "The Purple People Eater"; and as Indian scout Pete Nolan on the television series Rawhide, is likely to have been the voice actor who originally performed the scream. This has been supported by an interview in 2005 with Linda Dotson, Wooley's widow. Burtt discovered records at Warner Brothers from the editor of Distant Drums including a short list of names of actors scheduled to record lines of dialogue for miscellaneous roles in the movie. Wooley was one of a few actors assembled for the recording of additional, "pick-up," vocal elements for the film. Dotson confirmed Wooley's scream had been in many Westerns, adding, "He always used to joke about how he was so great about screaming and dying in films." Despite the usage of the sound, no royalties are, or have ever been, paid.
The Wilhelm scream's major breakout in popular culture came from motion picture sound designer Ben Burtt, who discovered the original recording (which he found as a studio reel labeled "Man being eaten by alligator") and incorporated it into a scene in Star Wars in which Luke Skywalker shoots a Stormtrooper off of a ledge, with the effect being used as the Stormtrooper is falling. Burtt is credited with naming the scream after Pvt. Wilhelm. Over the next decade, Burtt began incorporating the effect in other films on which he worked, including projects involving George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, notably the rest of the subsequent Star Wars films, as well as the Indiana Jones movies. The Wilhelm scream often became an in-joke after it was used in films such as the Star Wars franchise and the Indiana Jones films. In February 2018 it was announced Star Wars will no longer use the Wilhelm scream, with The Force Awakens (2015) being the last film in the series to use it.
The effect is used in the animated Disney and Pixar films such as the Toy Story and Cars series; and the movies Up, Monsters University, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Kung Fu Panda, Hercules, and Game of Thrones, to name a few. Many other blockbuster films, television programs, cartoons, and video games have made use of the scream.
Other sound designers picked up on the effect, and inclusion of the sound in films became a tradition among the community of sound designers. A scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom sees main antagonist Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) being eaten alive by crocodiles, accompanied by the scream. Sound designer Gary Rydstrom included the effect for his 2006 directorial debut in Pixar's short, Lifted. The sound was included in the movie Paul, which is an homage full of Easter egg references to many science fiction film franchises, including Star Wars, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Star Trek, Back to the Future, Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Ice Age and more.
Additionally, the sound can be heard in the video game Red Dead Redemption (2010) during gunfights. It is also featured in Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto IV (as an easter egg during the mission "Final Interview"); in Grand Theft Auto V (also as an Easter egg in the mission "Father/Son" when a character is thrown from a boat that is on the back of a speeding truck); and in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, when a random character kills himself. In Halo: Reach, the scream can be briefly heard after a trio of soldiers fail to land a jump in their Warthog during the beginning cutscene of the mission "Tip of The Spear." In Borderlands 3 it can be heard when hijacking a vehicle. Additionally, the scream can faintly be heard in a Halo 4 trailer and in one of the Monster Legends advertisments.
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- NOTE: The fourth and sixth screams recorded in the session were used earlier in the film, reportedly when several Native Americans are shot during a raid on an U.S. Army fort.
- "Does That Scream Sound Familiar?". ABC News. October 14, 2007. Retrieved December 26, 2017.
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- Kurp, Josh (21 February 2018). "A 'Star Wars' Tradition Dating Back To The Original Movie Has Been Retired". Uproxx. Retrieved 24 August 2018.
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- Guinness World Records Gamer's Edition 2015. Guinness World Records. 6 November 2014. p. 45. ISBN 9781908843715.
- Wilhelm Scream Sample (1951) from The Community Audio collection at the Internet Archive
- Times article in which Sheb Wooley's widow states her belief that her husband was the man behind the scream
- IMDB page: Most Popular "Wilhelm Scream" Titles"
- Wilhelm Scream remastered files (free to use)
- Wilhelm Scream Compilation on YouTube.com; 14:06