Ben Burtt Explains Why He Used the Wilhelm

Pete Vilmur | May 26, 2007

The following was actually part of the Ben Burtt panel highlights blog below, but we felt the subject of the famous Wilhelm scream deserved its own separate listing.

“The ‘Wilhelm’ was a scream that was in a western called Distant Drums,” says Burtt. “When I was growing up, I loved recording movies off television – just the audio – and I would listen to films at night in bed with headphones. I became very interested with how sound contributed to the success of a movie. And I began to notice that many sounds were used over and over in some movies – the same gunshot, the same thunderclap – it was kind of a language because each studio had its own collection. I just love recognizing familiar sounds and how they were used.

“And one of them was that scream,” continues Burtt, “because it had been used in half a dozen or more films like Charge at Feather River and Them and many westerns, Helen of Troy, and so on. So when I got to USC as a film student, another student named Richard Anderson and myself got a copy of the Wilhelm off a movie print and put it in our student film for fun and as kind of an homage. Then Richard and I both became sound editors after we left school, and I put [the Wilhelm] in Star Wars to kind of show off to him. And then he put one in Poltergeist — and so I put one in Raiders — and this went back and forth for 20 years and nobody noticed. George Lucas didn’t say anything, Steven Spielberg didn’t say anything. And then the internet came around and it suddenly came out into the open — so now, I guess, it’s become folk art.”

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