Indiana Jones and the Porcelain Throne?

For decades, filmgoers everywhere have been delighted by Indiana Jones, the professor of archeology who, somehow, also becomes a globetrotting adventurer who might as well also be a superhero. Jones, played by Harrison Ford, made his on-screen debut in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. If you’re not familiar with the film, the plot is straightforward albeit fanciful: it’s 1936, and American military intelligence has reason to believe that Nazi Germany is looking for the Ark of the Covenant, the biblical relic that holds the two original tables of the Ten Commandments. Adolf Hitler believes that Ark contains some sort of mythical power that will make him and his armies invincible. Not wanting to risk Hitler being right, the Americans ask Jones to find and take possession of the Ark before the Nazis can.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, well, you should fix that — it’s a great movie and you’ve had 40 or so years to watch it (unless you’re not quite that old yet, in which case, you’ve had your whole life to watch it). As to not spoil things, here’s what you need to know for our purposes today: someone succeeds in finding the Ark and at some point, someone opens it.

And that’s where everything went down the toilet. Well, kind of.

To backtrack a bit: Raiders of the Lost Ark won four of five Academy Awards, depending on how you count them. It took home the statuette for Best Sound, Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, and Best Visual Effects — as a cartoon-y action/adventure film, all of the post-production work really made the story come together. That’s four, if you’re counting, but there’s another accolade on the film’s list of Academy honors: sound designer Ben Burtt and sound effects editor Richard L  Anderson were given a “Special Achievement Academy Award” for Sound Effects Editing. Basically, the sound effects they created for the movie were so exceptional, the Academy felt obligated to give them an honor despite the fact that at the time, there wasn’t a standard category for sound effects editing.

And if you’ve seen the movie, you can hear why Burtt and Anderson deserved this honor. Almost all of the action is punctuated by crisp audio moments. There are gunshots that pop but still linger, whipcracks galore, snakes that slither and hiss, a boulder that rumbles as it chases after Indy, and more. The noises you hear that correlate with those events, objects, or animals aren’t the sounds that naturally occurred on set, though; Burtt and Anderson developed them through all sorts of trial and experimentation. And while they were able to obtain some of the sounds via straightforward means — fire enough guns in enough environments, and you’ll get the sound you’re after eventually — not all of the sounds are so readily available. For example, part of the boulder sound is from an old station wagon rolling down a gravel road; the slithering of the snakes is Burtt running his fingers through a casserole of macaroni and cheese, and the punches are enhanced by someone whacking a baseball glove with a baseball bat. In all of these cases, though, Burtt and Anderson pretty much knew what sound they were after — everyone knows what guns, slithering snakes, and punches sound like. Not to downplay their feat, but all Burtt and Anderson had to do was find something that sounded right.

But the Ark of the Covenant was a unique problem. To date, no one has actually located the Ark of the Covenant, and certainly, no one is stupid enough to open it if they do find it. How do you create a realistic sound for something that isn’t realistic?

In 2021, the movie studio released a special 40th-anniversary edition of Raiders of the Lost Ark on Blu-ray, and that version contains an 8-minute featurette where Burtt explains the sound choices for the movie. And in it, he articulates how he created the Ark opening sound — and there’s really nothing holy about it. He points out that “it’s obviously the kind of sequence where there’s nothing to record on the set at all; it’s all going to be manufactured later.” The sequence, he notes, starts with the lid being slid off the Ark, and that lid is no special lid. Biblically, it’s often called the “Mercy Seat” — it’s a solid gold lid that is designed so that the almighty himself can sit upon it as a throne if he so desires. It’s going to be big and it’s going to be heavy. Burtt explains that he “experimented with a few different things” but nothing quite sounded right — at least, not until he looked at his own bathroom. As he explains, “I found that sliding the toilet tank cover in my home toilet was perfectly sufficient. and if I recorded that in an echo-y bathroom it seemed to fit (although in a rather undignified way) the character of the Ark itself.” 

So, in a sense, the people opening this holy artifact are really just fixing a toilet.

(If you want to watch/hear the Ark being opened, click here — but if you haven’t seen the movie, don’t, because watching that scene it will spoil a lot. And besides, the sound is very subtle.)

Bonus fact: Bullwhips make a distinct cracking sound even when they don’t hit anything. So what are you hearing? It turns out that the crack of a whip is actually a small sonic boom. The end of the whip, called the “cracker,” moves faster than the speed of sound (about 786 miles per hour). The Wikipedia entry for sonic booms explains the phenomenon thusly: “a bullwhip tapers down from the handle section to the cracker. The cracker has much less mass than the handle section. When the whip is sharply swung, the momentum is transferred down the length of the tapering whip, the declining mass being made up for with increasing speed.”

From the Archives: Raiders of the Lost Journal: When the fake Indiana Jones got some very real, and very interesting, mail.