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How David Lynch collaborator and creative technician Alan Splet turned the sound effect into an art form

Alan Splet helped create what we now call 'sound design' in film

Modern film soundtracks comprise multiple layers of sound that help create atmosphere, a sense of place and even drive the narrative. There was creativity in audio during the earlier days of cinema but for many films the sound effect was merely a practical device. Alan Splet was among the creative technicians who changed that and helped create what is now known as sound design.

His name is less familiar than those of his contemporaries – and in some respects, rivals – Walter Murch and Ben Burtt. Most of his filmography is less mainstream and being a long-time collaborator of David Lynch, whose peculiar vision he helped realise in sound, added to people’s perception of him and his work as eccentric.

Born in 1939, Splet took engineering in college but was also a fan of classical music and a cello player. His entry into professional sound came when Bob Collum, a friend who ran the audio department at a Philadelphia film laboratory called Calvin de Frene, offered him an assistant’s job.

David Lynch had worked with Collum on some of his student project but when it came to his short film The Grandmother (1970), he was told he would have to work with Splet. “There’s this guy, about six foot two, as thin as a string, with this haircut that’s… just goofball!”, the director recalled in the book Lynch on Lynch. “David was horrified by the sight of Alan,” confirms Ann Kroeber, Splet’s widow and partner in the effects library Sound Mountain. “But they had an incredible collaboration.”

The two men shared a strong interest in sound, particularly winds and industrial rumbles, clicks, hums and hisses. All these feature in Lynch’s debut feature, Eraserhead (1976), and help create the sense of an unreal reality. Ann Kroeber, an innovative sound recordist in her own right, observes that part of Splet’s genius was bringing about a change in the way people experienced movies through audio. “Sound effects used to be used to fill,” she says. “There would be birdy tweets, footsteps and doors closing. Nothing really dramatic. Alan discovered that sound effects could have an incredibly emotional impact on us. It’s a different experience from music, which takes you out of the film. Effects bring you into the film and make you more involved.”

Part of Splet’s genius was bringing about a change in the way people experienced movies through audio

Winds held an overriding fascination for Splet, who recorded extensively at Findhorn in Scotland, capturing what Lynch has described as “beautiful, lyrical winds”. He also devised new ways of recording wind, as Kroeber witnessed. “He would put the mics where you wouldn’t expect so you could hear the winds in a certain way. He thought it was important to capture the wind hitting an object or crossing a door or windows or through trees.” Practicalities like properly protecting and baffling the mic were not forgotten, although, as well as using Schoeps mics, he sometimes broke with convention and used small lavaliers. Kroeber says of his attitude to life in general, “He fought conventionality always.”

New techniques were also developed for recording animals. On The Black Stallion (1979), Splet designed a harness that fitted over the horse’s head, as well as placing a mic on its belly and close miking the hooves. “Those sounds, the intensity of the hoof beats, added to the drama of the race,” explains Kroeber, who worked on the film with Splet. “You’re more involved with the horses than if they had just been recorded as they went past.”

This work won Splet an Honorary Academy Award for the sound effects. He and Kroeber learned of this while they were in England shooting The Elephant Man (1980) with Lynch. Kroeber says he was delighted but stunned and decided not to attend because he thought it would detract from his current project.

On Awards Night the host of the show, Johnny Carson, started a running gag about Splet being on his way. When it was clear he wasn’t going to appear, Carson famously said: “First George C Scott doesn’t show, then Marlon Brando and now Alan Splet.” Kroeber notes that if Splet had just turned up to receive his Award nobody would have really noticed him.

Sadly, like many innovators, Alan Splet’s importance has been somewhat overshadowed since his death (in 1994). Both Kroeber and Lynch continue to protect his legacy, while the strangeness and invention of his work can be heard in films as diverse as The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), Blue Velvet (1986) and The Mosquito Coast (1986).

The masterclass, however, remains Eraserhead. Doing away with standard sound effects library and making an original set over 63 days has more than a touch of genius – and madness – about it.