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Piercing Sounds
Arrows Fly for Academy’s ‘Robin Hood’ Evening

By Michael Kunkes


Leith Adams, left, Ben Burtt, Craig Barron and Dale Smith.
Photo: Todd Wawrychuk ©AMPAS

As they began their epic swordfight at the climax of The Adventures of Robin Hood, Sir Guy of Gisborne (Basil Rathbone) sneers at Errol Flynn, “You’ve come to Nottingham once too often!” To which Flynn retorts, “ When this is over, there’ll be no need for me to come again.” Well, not quite. On June 1, one more reason to re-visit visit Nottingham Castle was provided by Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Science and Technology Council as arrows literally flew through the air at Hollywood’s Linwood Dunn Theatre––all part of a lovefest to the 1938 Technicolor classic directed by William Keighley and Michael Curtiz.

The evening was presented by four time Oscar-winning sound effects and picture editor Ben Burtt, along with Oscar-nominated Craig Barron, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) veteran and owner of Bay Area visual effects firm Matte World Digital. Joining them on stage were archery expert Dale Smith and Warner Bros. studio archivist Leith Adams, as they introduced a digital restoration of the film that is arguably the apex of early three-strip Technicolor photography. The presentation also featured a lobby exhibition titled “Playing God—The Art and Artists of Matte Painting,” celebrating more than six decades of Hollywood’s masters of this underappreciated cinema art.


Leith Adams, left, Craig Barron, Ben Burtt and Dale Smith.
Photo: Todd Wawrychuk ©AMPAS

All four had a connection to Robin of Locksley—Barron created matte work for Kevin Costner’s 1991 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Smith’s passion for archery was sparked by watching The Adventures of Robin Hood as a child and being inspired by the work of Howard Hill, Hollywood’s legendary archery expert who did Flynn’s actual shooting in the movie. Adams provided some amazing detective work that produced some of the original matte paintings from the film, which were created under the supervision of Warner Bros. Matte Department supervisor Paul Detlefsen.

But it was Burtt (currently character voice designer at Pixar Animation Studios) and his special affection for the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest, who was the star of the evening. As a kid, it was the sound made by Robin Hood’s arrows that first made him aware of the possibilities of sound effects creation, to the point where the young Burtt thought the star’s name was “Arrow” Flynn. “I started going outside with my own bow and arrow to duplicate the sound, but soon realized that because a real arrow is silent and frictionless, there must have been some kind of manipulation or amplification used to create that distinctive sound. Later, when I became a sound editor, I kept on trying to make that zinging sound.”


Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
Courtesy of Warner Bros./Photofest ©Warner Bros.

The evening began on a silly note, as the presenters donned feathered bonnets for a slide and video presentation of matte paintings used in both the 1922 Douglas Fairbanks version of Robin Hood, as well as the 1938 classic. The stage was then given over to Burtt and Smith. Burtt––who over the past 20 years has tried everything from placing whistles and wires and even violin strings on arrows––located the original Robin Hood mag sound rolls in the Warner Bros. library. For the first time, he actually heard the sounds of the bowstrings being pulled back and released by Hill, and realized that the arrows themselves produced the sounds. This led him to Smith, a Bay Area neighbor, and the pair collaborated to build special arrows, using longer and coarser turkey feathers cut into different shapes than ordinary target arrows. On stage, in an immensely entertaining practical demo, Smith fired his specially constructed arrows at a target of Basil Rathbone, as Burtt recorded, then played back perfect reconstructions of Robin Hood’s arrows (which by the way, were heard in every Warner swashbuckler and Western for decades after).

The digital print that was screened was not new; it was actually the second restoration project undertaken by Warner Bros. after the studio opened its digital intermediate facility, MPI (Motion Picture Imaging) five years ago, and was restored for the HD DVD release. According to DI colorist (and USC Film School classmate of Burtt’s) Jan Yarbrough, the DI process was still new enough to provoke amazement at what the 2K scans of the original three-strip negative separations revealed. “Technicolor prints of Robin Hood still in existence were dye-transfer prints that were either faded, bad dupes and/or rejections,” Yarbrough said. Suddenly, we were seeing more detail than anyone had ever seen––with vibrant color, sharpness and resolution, and amazing high- and low-light detail.”

One problem exposed in the DI was registration errors created by the imperfect alignment of the three separate strips of film running though the Technicolor camera simultaneously. According to Yarbrough, “Although the company always sent out a technician with each camera rental to make sure that all was aligned and in working order, they were never perfectly aligned. During the old dye-transfer printing process, color bleeding along the image edges always hid some of the registration problems, so it wasn’t that big of an issue then. After we scanned the film, the DI process allowed us to use in-house software to do a perfect digital re-registration of the separations. What everyone used to think were ‘coke-bottle’ lenses because of the lack of sharpness in the print now were revealed to be extremely sharp pieces of glass! It’s common practice now, but no one else was doing it at the time.”

After watching Smith dispatch Sir Guy, Burtt offered a simple explanation for why he has spent decades trying to replicate a single sound. “Long before I thought about being a sound designer, the sound of those arrows always got me,” he revealed. “And as with so many sounds, they are never as loud as you hear them in the movies. An Indiana Jones pistol shot is more like a howitzer than a handgun. But that’s why people like myself exist—to make these sounds bigger than life.”

Michael Kunkes is a freelance editor and writer specializing in animation, production and post-production. He can be reached at writermk@sbcglobal.net.

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