From right to left : John, Myself, Production Manager Robert Brown, Associate Producer Larry Franco. The Juneau Ice Field. Location Scout April, 1981

Sunday, April 29, 2012


                    Thirty years ago this week THE THING began it's final sound mix at what was then the best facility in Hollywood, Samuel Goldwyn Studio's Stage A. Having won the most recent Academy Award for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK the room was constantly in demand, the chief reason being the talent being brought to the table by the late Bill Varney  and his capable associates Steve Maslow and Gregg Landaker.

L to R: Bill Varney, Steve Maslow, and Gregg Landaker with their  Academy Awards for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

                     John had previously mixed ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK with the men and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. We were scheduled for a full six weeks ( time was needed to make six track stereo masters for the 70mm prints, two track Dolby stereo masters for regular release as well as separate monaural masters for theatres not equipped for stereo, as was the custom then ) after the crew completed work on POLTERGEIST ( which, as it happened, was of interest to us - we held hopes that the audience that went to see POLTERGEIST might come to see THE THING a month later )...

                  Initially Universal made a concerted pitch to have us stay at the studio ( having recently upgraded their facilities and built the brand new Alfred Hitchcock Theatre), and have the film mixed in something called "Ultra-Stereo" as they planned to do with one of their other signature summer attractions, THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS. It certainly would have been easier to stay on the lot with all that was going on ( Rob's effects work was still in full swing, his operation a few minutes away ), but we made the case that it wasn't the equipment that made the difference, it was the skill and the instinct of the men who were utilizing it...

                   Our approach to monster sound - making was essentially the same as the method pioneered by the legendary sound engineer Murray Spivak on KING KONG - combining organic (animal) sounds, changing pitch, slowing them down, speeding them up, thinning, sharpening, running them backwards and anything else we could think of until we ended up with something we liked and seemed to fit - really, a process of sound shaping, of trial and error...

                     Work on this aspect began just after principal photography commenced, shepherded by David Lewis Yewdall and Colin Mouat. Originally the search was on for a signature sound for the monster, one you would have heard initially on the audiotape recording Copper finds at the Norwegian Camp, and again later. This concept was abandoned as we moved from the notion of the creature as one final form entity to the deconstructionist idea it could be anything, which certainly opened up avenues for audio experimentation. As John began editing the film these experiments were salted in to see if we were headed in the right direction, and were fully fleshed out on the mixing stage, with it's array of sophisticated processing equipment ( all analog ), some eight months later...

                          I wish I could recount with specificity exactly what went into, and in what proportion, the making of each individual sequence, but the fact is memory fails me. I do know that were looking for a sort of high pitched, painful, shrill sound for the introduction of the dog - thing which called for the extensive use of bird calls and and a pig squeal, all heavily processed. In the Blair Monster we were looking for a large, definitive, square sound and you certainly hear a great deal of lion ( and for those of you who find some similarity with KING KONG's final roar, you are correct - it was our tip of the hat)...

                     Benning's roar was created by custom recording human screams  and then have them individually synthesized by a gentleman named Craig Harris. These were later combined on the mixing stage with other, non human sounds and additionally processed to give you that haunting, forever lost in hell effect. You also hear the result of this particular processing in the off-stage, human sounding screams at the beginning of the kennel sequence, as well as during the Norris transformation...

                    Wherever possible, a special effort was made to custom record background tracks on location during breaks in filming. Many of the wind tracks heard ( including the steady state wind always present at the Norwegian camp ) were made this way. Also specific sounds indigenous to the location - helicopter start-ups, tractor engines idling, flamethrower whooshes etc. Despite the rigors of location filming there was very little dialogue replacement  done - less a dozen lines in all, a tribute to our production sound mixer, Thomas Causey... 

                      When we played back the completed kennel sequence for the first time we looked at each other and shrugged. There was something missing - despite all the meticulous work the scene fell flat. Our salvation lay in a track our music editor, Clif Kholweck, found at the last minute. The low drone sound that begins as MacCready and Co. slowly approach is a sound effect, actually background air conditioner hum sharpened, shaped, and eventually pushed to absurd levels ( the reveal of the dog - thing ) before being taken out on the first shotgun blast. But what the hell, it worked, and the scene came alive... 

                     This sound proved to be so effective we went back and added it to Clark's initial approach and confrontation to the kennel...

                       ... as well as MacCready's final confrontation with the Blair monster ( the sound begins as Mac drops the dynamite and is woven in and out until the first explosion ). Astute listeners will also hear part of Morricone's plucked-string cue "Contamination" thrown in for good measure...

                     My favorite sound effects story from THE THING is as follows... I asked one of the sound editors, Colin Mouat, how they came up with the ultra - realistic background sounds of the dogs howling in the kennel. He replied that he had his children gather together the neighborhood dogs on a Saturday morning, put them inside his house, turned on the recorder, left, and donned a hat and full trench coat. Pulling up the collar to hide his face, he then proceeded to furtively move around the house, tapping on windows and rattling doorknobs. The resultant hysteria is what you now hear ( I was assured the dogs were amply rewarded with waiting treats )...

Bill Varney

                 THE THING never sounded better than in Stage A, and it was for that reason we chose to have the first screening of the completed film there for Universal's President Ned Tannen. A crucial event, we invited a few close friends and relatives to help fill out the space. Ned was shown to the center seat in front of the mixing console, the sonic "sweet spot". The memory I will always carry with me was Bill Varney sitting at the controls,  watching the production executive sitting directly in front of him, and constantly making minute level changes in reaction to Ned's body language throughout the movie -  in essence providing him with his own custom mix in an effort to put our absolute best foot forward, the very definition of a professional at work...


  1. Love it Stuart! Quick question: that Matte painting (the 5th picture in the article) - what scene is that for? Was that an original painting for the final confrontation? Just curious.


    1. An early Dale Kuipers rendering of the monster in "final form" position. I had this pinned up in my office and remember thinking how the *uck were we going to pull this off?... From Dale's facebook page, manned by friends - more also available at The Thing Prequel's facebook page...

  2. Hi Stuart,

    Great to get more insight into one of my favourite movies of all time. I happen to be making a 30th Anniversary retrospective on a major movie made around this time and wondered whether you remember any background info on who created the 'handmade' teaser trailer for THE THING, which must of been doing the rounds around this time in 1982 in theatres. Here is the finished trailer.



    1. I am almost sure this original teaser was made by Stephen Frankfort's company, who also came up with " Man Is The Warmest Place To Hide". This was the earliest piece of film released on THE THING, probably in Feb - March, 1982. They were not involved with the full trailer made later on... I remember John Carpenter was asked to waive his possesive credit for this, which is why it only reads THE THING...

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  4. Hi Stuart,

    I am very grateful to you because my favourite movie probably would not exist without you, and I made one hundred pages of an unofficial adaptation in comics ( some examples can be seen on Outpost31 ). I make a french blog about strange creatures, and the black and white pic of behind the scene norwegian monster seen on your post about norwegian camp was originally put by myself on internet indeed my blog, and it was after used both by Outpost31,the Thing's makeup artist James Cummins on his blog, Facebook practical effects, and now yourself, it makes me a bit proud of my find.

    I would have some questions about the monster(s) in preproduction.

    - John Carpenter said he read a rejected script including a complete description of the creature indeed ( used to protect the real Thing from press in order to keep the secret about the actual monster ). I think it was made by another scenarist before Bill Lancaster came ( because Kuipers' Thing came from the artist's imagination, no from a script ). Can you to say more about this description and what version it was?

    - About the Tobe Hopper's script, the very early one, you wrote that the monster was not a shape-shifting one, but was its shape described a bit, and how it was ( crustacean, humanoid, etc..? )

    - On the DVD, some drawings are showed ( I think one was Tom Kidd's one ), more or less based upon the novella's lines. Were they connected to a particular script or are just made by several artists contacted by the studio, and it was during the time between Tobe Hopper's departure and before John Carpenter was hired?

    - Of course, I would like to see new behind the scenes of Rob Bottin's creations, including some photographies took before the slime was put, particularly the big kennel monster, as Richard Masur says on DVD about it was already amazing and amost beautiful ( I made myself a little scale model of this monster, and I saw that the details vanished when acrylic painting was put on, it smoothed every line ); do you think we will be allowed to see this ( and both some little scale clay models made by Rob to concretize the Thing from the drawings ? )
    Ver sincerely.


    PS: Do you know that Harper Goff built a animatronic suit for the original 1951 movie, faithfully from the John Campbell's portrait? It's really frustrating, because it seems that even a single pic wasn't kept of this first movie non humanoid alien!...

    another very great fan of strange creatures and first the Thing.

    1. I remember very little about descriptions of the creature in either Tobe Hooper's or David Wiltse's scripts.. perhaps a question best asked to John Carpenter on Outpost 31? There were no drawings made of anything at all between Tobe's departure and John's arrival, things were at a low ebb...I really can't say whether more photos of Rob's work behind the scenes will show up or not...

  5. Thank Stuart for your answer.

    Do you know when were made the drawings seen on the DVD ( nine sketschs in black and white from various artists, from John Campbell's description ); are they were well made for the movie itself?

  6. FYi just so you know this movie was not mixed in dubbing room A at Goldwyn, my father's room was always dubbing room D. "A" room mixer was Bob Litt. All of my father's nominations and wins were mixed in room D. Room A wasn't even built when my Dad started mixing in room D. Trust me on this as one I am his only child and two I spent many hours on "D" during summer vacations. He was a great man and I miss him every day.

  7. Though it is eight years since you published this article, I'd like to thank you for posting and sharing this. The Thing has been my favourite film since I first saw it. Now I am doing sound design for projects of my own so accounts like this are worth more than gold to me.