Building a narrative with fire sound effects
Humans have had a complicated relationship with fire since the dawn of civilization. We huddled around it for warmth at night and forged our weapons in the heat of those flames. That ancestral memory gives power to the ways fire shows up in movies and TV. Let’s have a look at some examples.
Cast Away – Tom Hanks makes a campfire
Fires often start small — especially when they ignite the old-fashioned way. This clip from Cast Away follows a tense scene where Chuck (Tom Hanks) struggles to light a fire in order to survive. He struggles to rub organic materials together until suddenly, we hear a satisfying whoosh sound and a small flame bursts forward in a moment of relief. He nurtures the flame and we watch it slowly growing, as additional fire crackling and popping sounds are introduced.
Capturing the sound of a small fire can be difficult. Castaway’s sound designer Randy Thom explains some of the challenges they faced in a behind-the-scenes interview below. The team had to record of a large fire blowing in the wind and sync it up with the small flame from Chuck’s kindling, in order to get the sound they needed.
Buried – Matches and Zippo lighters
The striking of a match or flick of a Zippo lighter is another common precursor to fire sounds. It’s often used as a moment of casual dramatic effect. Characters might be lighting a cigarette to look stylish, but in some cases the fire starter has a more important role.
In the film Buried, a truck driver finds himself trapped underground in a coffin, with only a cell phone and lighter for company. The movie begins in total darkness, with Ryan Reynolds’ character trying to get his Zippo working so that he can see where he is.
There are no pictures to focus on — the sound of the lighter clicking open is followed by his frantic attempts to start the flame. When it finally lights, the whoosh sound gives the audience a sense of relief. Sound effects are particularly important in dark scenes like these, when audio becomes one of the only cues to what’s happening in the plot.
Howl’s Moving Castle – The sizzling sound of a breakfast skillet
Fire is also linked to positive emotions when it’s used to make a delicious meal. Cooking scenes like this one from Howl’s Moving Castle often depict a character making food over a fire. The sizzling sounds of the food are paired with subtle ambient hum of a wood or gas stove.
Notice how the sizzle and hiss of the bacon and eggs couples with a low rumble of the heat under the pan. The movie goes further than usual by turning the cooking fire into an animated character with eyes and a mouth. As the flame character whips its tongue around, you can hear the fire sound effects roar for a moment.
This scene shows how secondary sounds like the metal knocking of the pan build ambience around the core fire and cooking sounds. It’s a reminder that even a simple, everyday task can grip an audience if the right sound fx are used.
Rambo: First Blood – The flaming torch
We already touched on the fact that fire can be associated with nourishment or danger. Flaming torches are an excellent example of this. On the one hand, they illuminate dark and eerie places to provide clarity for a character’s journey. They can be used to ward off monsters as well. However, that same torch can be used by evil-doers to set fire to a home or village.
In Rambo: First Blood, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) makes an improvised torch with strips of his clothing and some fuel that he finds. The fire lights his way forward and he follows the direction of the wind.
Listen to how sfx adds to the shadowy atmosphere with the sound of material igniting. The light crackle of the torch and the whoosh as the wind blows against the flame give it even more life.
The Mandalorian – Firing up the flamethrower
Flamethrowers are a modern and one-dimensional version on the torch. Instead of lighting the way, they project streams of fire at an enemy and are often represented by a more fluid and continuous flame sound effect.
Sci-fi and video games have become one of the most common places to see these a flamethrower in action. In The Mandalorian, a character named Din Djarin wears a suit with one of these weapons built into the glove. He uses it to burn a stormtrooper alive in the scene below:
Raiders of the Lost Ark – Fire ambience in a burning building
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones fights a team of Nazi agents while the sounds gun fire and fire burning carry on in the background. This action-packed scene becomes even more intense with the ambient fire sounds, suggesting imminent danger for everyone involved.
Notice how the sound designers used swoosh sfx when the liquor ignites on the bar. The burning artifact can be heard on the agent’s hand and the sound of the fire gradually increases as it gets bigger in size.
The Hunger Games – Dodging fireballs in a burning forest
Fireballs do exist in real life, but like flamethrowers they’re more commonly found in sci-fi and fantasy. They’re about as far from a crackling campfire as you’ll get. There’s never anything subtle about them — or the sound effects they require.
The rush of a fireball towards its target can put an audience on the edge of their seat. In this clip from Hunger Games, we see Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) dodging them as a huge forest fire rages around her. Notice how the whoosh sounds emphasize the speed of the fireballs narrowly missing her.
Deepwater Horizon – An oil rig explodes
Explosions sounds are often combined with the ambience of a big fire. In the movie Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig that blows up in the Gulf of Mexico and initial boom is quickly followed by a series of massive fireballs. An inferno roars up into the derrick of the rig, creating additional mini explosions as the oil beneath ignites.
Recording your own fire sound effects
Capturing fire sound effects yourself can be dangerous, but if you’re careful and have the right equipment you should be fine. Recording a small and well contained flame in a fireplace is a simple place to start. Just make sure the room is quiet, because small and medium sized fire sounds are subtle and difficult to capture.
You can safely create and record bigger fires outdoors in a controlled environment. Campfires and bonfires can be tricky to record well, because of ambient wind and outdoor noise. You’ll need a high quality, dynamic microphone with high SPL (sound pressure levels) to get the richest fire whoosh sounds. Just be sure you’re standing far enough away to avoid any physical danger and consider using a wind shield.
Sound designers often create fire sfx without creating a flame at all. There are some classic tricks of the trade, like scrunching up a piece of cellophane, a candy wrapper or an empty bag of potato chips, that will mimic the small crackling fire.
These days, it’s not difficult to obtain high quality sounds from royalty free libraries. If you don’t have the right gear or want to save time, we’ve provided a fire sound pack at the top of this article that you can use for free, in any project. If those fire sounds aren’t quite what you need, pick up a free copy of Audio Design Desk to access the complete sound effects library.