Pop sound effects in popular films
Early origins: Champagne bottles in silent films
Popping sounds have been a staple effect in sound design since the era of silent films, where they were used as part of live performances. Champagne de Rigadin (1915) famously used a pop sound effect as champagne squirted the main character in the face during a classic scene. Two years later, silent film actor Charlie Chaplin appeared in The Adventurer (1917) as an escaped convict who throws his hands in the air at the sound of an champagne bottle, mistaking it for gun fire.
Curious George (2006) and Up (2007) – Balloons that go pop!
The iconic Red Balloon (1956) was one of the first feature films to romanticize balloons and turn them into an object of love. The protagonist is a child who navigates the world alone, accompanied only by the colorful floating toy. At the end of the movie, he discovers a whole group of balloons and grabs hold of them, levitating up from the ground in a moment of magical realism and emotional elevation.
Curious George, an animated film from 2006, expands on this motif and gives it a unique twist. When the mischievous monkey grabs hold of several balloons and floats away on a whim, his caretaker Ted grabs another set of balloons and flies after him.
In the climactic scene above, George approaches a skyscraper lined with sharp pointy objects. His cluster of balloons make contact and the popping sound effects are rapid, marking a moment of extreme risk. Like the sound of rapid gunfire, the young audience recognizes that the character might die. Fortunately, Ted saves George at the last possible moment.
Pixar’s movie Up (2009) continued on the balloon cluster theme a few years later. A retired balloon salesman wants to escape the city and explore the world. He ties a massive collection of helium balloons to a small house and it lifts up into the sky to carry everyone forward on a journey.
Instead of playing on fear and attachment, the following scene from Up finds a way to transform popping balloons into a moment of comedy. A bird swoops in and swallows one of the balloons whole, causing it to burst inside its throat before being coughed back up. The scene uses the popping sound effect to startle the audience and make us laugh. With so many more balloons tied to the house, it represents a small loss with no real consequence.
Penelope, Grease – Sexy bubble gum pops
The sound and image of bubble gum popping has been used in cinema for decades as a sign of sensual power that draws attention to the character’s lips. One such example can be found in the clip from Penelope (1966).
The 1978 film Grease makes this point even less subtly, when a male character sticks his finger out and pops the chewing gum bubble of his romantic interest. The pop synchronizes with a snare drum from the background music. You can find a long list of bubble gum popping scenes here.
SpongeBob – Bubble popping sound effects
The cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants has used bubble popping sound effects in countless episodes to represent emotions ranging from joy to comical terror.
The scene above opens with SpongeBob and his friend Patrick in a dreary and colorless environment. When he pushes down on the soap dispenser, bubbly pop sound effects are coupled with a dramatic change in the color of the scene. The characters enter a state of childlike joy and ecstasy as the bubbles fill the room.
Soap bubble sounds usually have a soft and effervescent quality. Sound designers will use several different pitches for each pop to make the texture more lively and colorful.
In the second example shown below, Spongebob slides chaotically through Bubbletown. Each bubble pop is clearly defined and closer to a ballon, but with a less explosive timbre. One-off sounds like this are often used for mobile notifications and social media clips, to grab attention without being too startling.
Real Genius, F/X2 – Popcorn sound effects
Popcorn sound effects resemble the effervescence of soap bubbles, but with a different sonic texture. They have more of a snapping and crackling tone. The 1991 film F/X2, shown below, used popcorn to distract a bad guy while the main characters escape.
Popcorn sounds tend to accelerate as time passes and more kernels heat up. In the 1985 comedy Real Genius, shown below, an alien laser canon burns through a house stocked with popcorn kernels. As they cook, individual popping sounds are coupled with the an expanding bag sound. Eventually the pop sounds merge together in a unified white noise resembling an ocean wave
Creating and Recording your Pop Sound Effects
Popping sounds are characterized by their sharp, short duration and high-frequency energy. The ‘pop’ is an abrupt change in air pressure, resulting in peak frequencies between 2 to 4 kHz, although this can of course vary. The duration is usually less than 50 milliseconds, contributing to its startling effect.
Realistic popping sounds often begin as a field recording. For example, you can use a high-quality condenser microphone at the highest possible resolution and dynamic range, to capture the full spectrum. Bring the sounds into a DAW and use an EQ to emphasize their high-frequency energy, or mute them for a less dramatic effect. Compression will tighten the sound and depending on the scene, reverb can also be used to enhance the sense of space around the pop.
Due to the short duration of the popping sound, you may want to consider coupling them with secondary sounds. For example, a popping balloon or gum bubble might be preceded by the sound of stretching plastic. As mentioned earlier, popcorn cooked inside of a bag may have simultaneously with the sound of unfolding paper. There are as many sound combinations as there are scenarios where a pop occurs.
Ready to get started? Download the royalty-free samples provided in this article and pick up a copy of Audio Design Desk for free to access an even greater collection of sounds. You’ll find it’s easier to swap in different audio files when you use our award winning sound design DAW.