Stitching Sound - How to Create Your Own Monster Soundtrack
For the most part the evening air, schools and events will be peppered with the sounds of those going about their Halloween business. You might engage with one of the many cinematic offerings, or a spooky audio drama where the images evoke terror but more importantly the sound of classic horror. In the year where we celebrate 200 years of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), written when she was 19 years old, you may even revisit or be introduced to classic horror via the sounds of the monster’s re-animation. The classics we refer to are usually remembered as a visual feast evoking terror but the sound of the film adaptations of Frankenstein also deserve their place in the homage to horror classics. To understand the origins of these sounds, we need to look at the classic British horror adaptation of Frankenstein released in 1931 and directed by James Whale. This is now considered an iconic and influential version of the story, and praised for the cinematography and production value it felt right to also consider equally the value this has in sound design. Particularly interesting is the re-animation scene where in building the dramatic tension, Dr Frankenstein (Colin Clive) introduces a sequence in his monologue that is comprised of just sound for with the words;
“Quite a good scene, isn't it? One man crazy - three very sane spectators.”
What follows is a sequence of sound that have been sequentially placed in order to match the visual scene, increasing the impact of the horror that is to follow. Analysis of the sound sequence embedded in the production of Frankenstein show that there are repeated sounds that have become iconic in the depiction of the re-animation scene in following adaptations. In 1931, these sounds were produced non-diegetically; added to the soundtrack as sound effects bought in from other sources, or alternatively played out live. The exception to this is speech where pre-recorded voices are mapped to character before completion of the entire sonic mix; sound designers for any medium will tend to think of sound in layers or tracks.
This brings us to Tim Burton’s adaptive work for Frankenweenie (2012) (Fig. 1). In the more familiar digital and fully 3D stop-motion animation Frankenweenie, the sound has many layers complemented by the signature soundtrack of Danny Elfman, synonymous with Burton’s films as an illustrating layer to the film. A sonic polymath, Elfman also voiced and sung the monstrous Oogie Boogie from animated fantasy The Nightmare Before Christmas (Henry Selick, 1993)– a character stitched together from a hessian sack and reanimated as the bad guy. Reanimation of the monster in the original Frankenstein is dialogue heavy, sonorous and frankly, shouty. Dr Frankenstein jumps to the front of the audio mix after the sound effects sequence of reanimation scene with the now eternal classic, ‘It’s Alive!’
The function of this type of sound design as evidenced in early classical horror cinema is replicated within the numerous animated montages produced in Tim Burton’s work. Burton’s Frankenweenie had its first Disneyfication when distributed as a short film via Buena Vista in 1984. That is, it is Burton’s personalised adaptation of the original 1931 film, incorporating aspects of his own childhood. In Frankenweenie, Victor is a young boy who loses his best friend, his dog Sparky to an accident and inspired by an electricity lecture decides to reanimate him. Drawing from the classic Frankenstein movie (which plays a cameo role in the short) and paying homage to the original film’s scenes and sets and, it also stayed true in most respects to the original minimalist and analogue sound structure of the original. Two years previously as an animator for Disney, Burton had produced the animated short Vincent (1982) presenting the first textures and form of the characters seen in the Frankenweenie animated feature film. Burton left Disney in the same year as the short film was produced, as reported, and Frankenweenie the feature was 25 years in the making. Burton chose to reflect his love of the Frankenstein heritage by producing a Gothic animation of the story ‘instead filtered through (and distanced by) a series of cinematic and literary references that position the film’ (Diestro-Dópido 2012). This deference is also paid to the sound design.
So, the question is – can we extract this range of sounds from the existing archive of BBC audio sfx that have extensively been used for the audio horror genre, and this should also prove the imitation of the original sound as produced for Burton’s short film and Frankenweenie. More importantly, played as an isolated sound montage, would they still impart the sequence of the story? The archive in question here is the BBC Genome Project Acropolis server. A beta website connected to a server full of the delights of the BBC sound effects library was released in April 2018. You’ve probably heard some of these effects used in dramas produced at the BBC, from classic farm yard animals to the Radiophonic workshop produced sci-fi effects. They were commercialised firstly on vinyl, and then on CD as a library collection, and are now available to download under the ReMarc licence, which restricts commercial use but allows use for educational purposes. By taking the Frankenweenie scene where heroically Victor animates his dog after sewing him back together lovingly after exhuming his body parts, we are presented with a range of sounds lifted by the score (Fig. 2). If we devolve these from the scene, they are non-diegetic and onamatopeic; the bubbling of the lab, the zap of electricity, the chains and ratchet of the plinth the dead Sparky lies on. All influenced by the original 1931 classic; a non-diegetic approach to sound design being directly applied to the animated version. Playing these visual scenes simultaneously it is easy to see the similarity in scene sounds, their function and the role they serve.
The audio we hear indexically is drawn both from the archive and created. Tacked together on ¼”tape, itself an analogy of the monster and for the Vincent film is minimal, using the original 1931 version of the film to depict the actions. In the 1984 Frankenweenie, the same deference is paid to minimal and classic sound. To summarise the sound by event, as transcribed from the Frankenweenie scene;
Sound Function Indicator
Thunderclaps, lightning Scene set Weather
Manicial laughter (male) Victor – character Emotion
Ratchet and chains hoist Action Plot delivery
Electricity Buzzing Scene set Emotion/Plot delivery
Dog wagging tail Character Plot exposition
Dog Barking Character Plot
Keyword Search Actual BBC FX Used
Thunder Frankenstein's Castle-style thunder, etc.
Male Laughter Maniacal laughter (male and female, reprocessed) -1969(169C,reprocessed)
Chains Interior, chain hoists bringing bags of grain up to top floor.
Electricity - Welding Arc welding, sheet metal engineering 1969.
Dog wagging tail - Brush No dog tail wagging – used: Painting, brush.
Dog Barking Doberman, exterior, barking then joined by border collies.
Most of the sfx were easy to find – apart from the dog tail wagging, integral to the plot denoting Sparky’s resurrection in the film, where we zoom in to see his recently attached tail wag in affirmation of his reanimation. I considered the sound and thought that a paintbrush on a surface could work. Sequencing and editing these in order meant some basic clipping for time but no additional effects were added or processed. The sonic indicators of change and transition are clear – this layer of sound tells the story arc from our historical familiarity with the text but also by mapping the sounds in order to tell an all be it short story. As editors and engineers of audio we first cut and taped together ¼” tape on table revox, making edits and programmes from layers of sound. Digital editing allows us to layer this to perfection, add sfx and sync easily, creating hyper-real worlds of audio that we immerse ourselves in. Our monstrous soundscapes are now woven at home with the accompanying sound of laptop tapping.
The BBC SFX Acropolis website is now available to all to download for education and larks, along with the fact that a public service broadcaster can share the spoils of the sfx discs worn thin by radio drama we can also re-use, re-invent and re-animate our favourite scenes. This is not a kit of sound that will make productions instant horror, but it is fun to play with the analogue audio that made our parents and grandparents cower. I suggest you do the same this All Hallow’s or Samhain. 7 BBC sound effects were used to reimagine Sparky’s reanimation in Frankenweenie. You can try this at home, while we here at Bournemouth University celebrate 200 years of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in and around the spaces she and her family are interred.
Examples of BBC Acropolis SFX Archive
Diestro-Dópido, Mar. “Film of the Week: Frankenweenie,” Sight and Sound (November 2012), available at: https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/reviews-recommendations/film-week-frankenweenie. Accessed 30th October 2018.
Jo Tyler is a Lecturer in Radio and Audio Production at Bournemouth University and a PhD research student looking at audio drama adaptation for radio. In her production life she worked for the BBC in BBC Local Radio, BBC Radio 1 and 2, working on music features and programmes and specialist music presentations. Jo was one of the founders of BBC 6 Music following research and collation of the BBC Music Sessions archive. Jo also works on live events, podcast production and consultation under her SoNiche production company.