Superpower sounds can define a comic book hero as much as any form-fitting costume. And when a character is drafted to the silver screen the sound comes with him. But how exactly does this sonic transposition happen?
A comic book artist invents a string of letters (mostly consonants) to simulate a fantastical sound. These sounds become indelibly linked to a particular character and ability—the THWIP of a slung web, the BAMF! of a teleporting blue mutant. But when the time comes for the movie adaptation, sound designers have to make these words that imitate sounds...into sounds. It's not as easy as you'd think.
Chances are you've stumbled across (or even used) one or all of them at some point in your life. BAMF, SNIKT and THWIP have all become sonic staples in pop culture, part of our modern parlance, and definitely a part of the unceasing marketing machine that drives toy, book and movie sales. Breaking down how these onomatopoeias were sonically transposed from paper to film not only gives you an appreciation for the artists working in both mediums, but speaks to way even a simple sound can weasel its way into your auditory cortex.
First, a little context in the ink and paper realm of comics. When looking at the historic origins of these three sound effects, one thing stands out immediately. Not one of them was actually present in the character's first appearance in the comic world.
Wolverine's satisfying metallic "SNIKT," Nightcrawler's teleportional "BAMF," Spiderman's "THWIP"—all either began their life as entirely different word constructions or were simply MIA, according to comic book historian Alan Kistler. In some cases, the onomatopeia didn't exist because, well, neither did the ability it was linked to. In others, it was more a matter of settling on one distinct sound—a process that sometimes took years.
"When these things were created, no one was really checking their notes," says Kistler. "[These sounds] would kind of vary over time because no one was really going, oh god, what did it say before? It just wasn't a part of the process."
Take, for instance, Wolverine's first appearance in the Incredible Hulk. Nothing. That's because, as Len Wein had imagined him, the mutton-chopped super Canadian actually wore claw gloves. Spiderman's web-slinging effect also underwent a sonic evolution. What started as a WHIZZZZZT in 1962's Amazing Fantasy #15, became a TWNNNNG! in 1963's Amazing Spider-Man #1. A year later, Steve Ditko (or possibly Stan Lee) gave Spidey's web a THWUP! sound effect which again went through several subsequent iterations—including THWAP, WHAP, WHIPP and ZAP. It wasn't until John Romita Sr. took over that the thwip we all know and love became a permanent fixture.
So how did these monosyllabic exclamations get reengineered into real life sounds—or at least real movie sounds? We spoke to Craig Berkey and Stephen Flick, the two veteran sound designers responsible for (re)imagining these iconic sounds and discovered that while all three were clearly influenced by the original word, making them "real" involved a different combination of super powers. Patience and slavish devotion to detail.
Take the X-Men films. As Berkey notes, the overarching goal in both movies was to create sounds that added both a weight and a realism to the characters and the world they inhabited. "The main part was making these sounds visceral and real—not comic book-like or magical," says Berkey. That process involved an almost preternatural attention to detail and context. Knowing, for instance, exactly how long Wolverine's CGI claws would be, the precise, measured velocity at which he pushed them out and retracted them, and the general anatomic makeup of the three adamantium-coated blades, were key considerations for creating the "SNIKT."
As both sound designers emphasize, it wasn't simply a matter of producing the perfect sound in the studio and calling it a day. In many cases, maximum fidelity to the original static onomatopoeia was abandoned. That's because making these effects work in the context of a movie was as much about the mixing process and getting them to fit with all the other sonic chaos that's happening in a given scene.
Re-watch some of these films and you'll immediately see what they mean. Each individual signature sound moment may have more bass, more midrange, more edge, and even be harsher in order to cut through the all the other sounds and music, explains Flick. Of course, those consideration aren't present in the world of comic books. But when you play them as they were presented in the movie mix, without all the other sounds, they frequently don't resemble the sounds you remember.
What follows is a brief summary of how each of these three sounds was created, along with "pure" audio examples. Berkey was able to furnish us with examples from his Pro Tools sessions broken down into the into their constituent parts and followed by the final effect.
They may not be perfect representations, but considering we can no longer hear any other sound in our heads when picturing these words, we'd say they pretty much nailed it.
For something as simple as a web shooting sound, Spider-Man's THWIP presented a huge challenge. Take a second to think about all the variables a sound designer has to contend with and you begin to see why. Not only do you have the initial emergent squirting sound, but there's the sound of the web traveling through the air, and finally connecting with something else. What does the web eventually hit? Human flesh, a lamp, a brick wall? How far does it travel? At what velocity.? All these things matter to a sound designer.
Highlights: Plucked Fishing line strung between two posts, magnetic film being cinched tighter on a spindle, compressed air, shaving cream spurts, the swish of old woven fly fishing line.
First comic book appearance: Amazing Spider-Man #31, 1965
First film appearance: Spider-Man, 2002
Number of elements: ~40, depending on context.
Stephen Flick initially prepared two demos of that first Spiderman scene, where Spidey chases a cab through the city to catch Uncle Ben's killer. "I presented it to the filmmakers and they gave me their comments, and I changed [the sounds] accordingly," he says. While there's no uniform "THWIP" in the Spider-Man films, there are, in some cases, combinations of more than 40 elements to produce one sound. Unfortunately, Sony Pictures wasn't eager to share that pure sound file with us, so you'll have to settle for the instances in the trailer.
Your ears may gravitate toward those metallic shings, but there are nuances to Wolverine's "SNIKT" that only become apparent when you really listen to the sound effect. Craig Berkey, who worked as lead sound designer on the first two X-Men films, explains:
Highlights: Ripping chicken flesh, cracking nuts, the sound of a blade being drawn from a sheath.
First comic book appearance: Giant Size X-Men #1, 1975
First movie appearance: X-Men, 2000
Number of elements: 2-3
"For the claw sound, essentially there were two main elements I was working on. One was the metallic blade sound, as it goes in or out. The other was the actual physical sound of something going through flesh and retracting." Despite its short duration, coming up with a satisfying SNIKT meant going out in the field a recording a variety other sounds to layer in. Berkey and his team tore apart chicken and turkey carcasses and also layered in the sound of cracking nuts to give a sense of metal protruding through flesh.
Wolverine SNIKT Extraction:
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Wolverine SNIKT Retraction:
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Highlights: dog food, flash bulb, high-pitched air release
First comic book appearance: Uncanny X-Men #95, 1975
First movie appearance: X2, 2003
Number of elements: 7
Berkey used the same group of elements to keep a similar signature for reentry, but reversed some of the air movements. Take a look at the awesome opening sequence of X2 and you'll appreciate just how much how this sound added to the scene. What if Nightcrawler just kept appearing here and there? Not very dramatic, right?
Nightcrawler BAMF Away:
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Nightcrawler BAMF Appear:
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All comic book images courtesy of Alan Kistler. Sound samples courtesty of Craig Berkey.
original image by contributing artist Walter C. Baumann