The Surprising Historical Quest Behind the Sound of Lincoln

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 21 2012 1:46 PM

How Lincoln Recorded the Sounds of History

Daniel Day-Lewis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Lincoln.
Lincoln recorded real sounds from the White House to add to its sense of historical authenticity.

© DreamWorks 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Right from an early scene in which Abraham Lincoln envelops his sleeping son in a peaceful embrace on the floor of the White House, Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln imbues viewers with a sense of receiving intimate knowledge about our sixteenth president. As Dana Stevens wrote for Slate, “This isn’t a Hollywood-style historical epic, like War Horse or Amistad—it’s history on an intimate domestic scale, Lincoln wandering the halls of the White House wrapped in an old wool blanket.” Much of this effect has been attributed to Daniel Day-Lewis’ extraordinary depiction of Lincoln: Every element of Day-Lewis’ performance, down to his reedy, sometimes meek voice, reveals an obsession with portraying the legendary figure accurately.

But there’s another, more invisible way in which Lincoln suffuses its dimly lit Victorian sets with the flavor of historical authenticity. In a new video from the folks over at SoundWorks Collection, who were previously responsible for illuminating that the sounds of the aliens in Prometheus were squawked by a parrot, Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt reveals how he was able to craft the sound of Lincoln. Whereas the team behind Prometheus created sounds for spaceships and imaginary creatures out of soda and pop rocks, Burtt and his crew chased down real historical noises to provide an accurate soundtrack of everyday life in 1865. “I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to put into the film many actual sounds that Lincoln may have heard during his lifetime? Do those sounds still exist? And where can I find them?” Burtt explains.

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Since sound recording was not widely available until Edison’s phonograph was invented in the 1870s, Lincoln’s sound team got creative. After a long period of negotiations, they were able to venture into the White House with handheld recorders to capture the noise of the opening and closing of period doors and the ticking of the clock that had been in Lincoln’s office during the Civil War. Indeed, the sounds of the various clocks around the White House feature prominently in the film, perhaps to emphasize that Lincoln’s effort to pass the 13th Amendment is, in its own way, a race against the clock.

Accordingly, the video’s most remarkable detail is that Burtt convinced the Kentucky Historical Society to wind up Lincoln’s personal pocket watch—the one he supposedly wore on that fateful night in Ford’s Theatre—to record its ticking for perhaps for the first time in a century. To his delight, it still functioned: “The pocket watch is something intimate to the character. It sits in a pocket near your heart,” he says. So pay close attention to that ticking sound that might faintly register while you watch the film—Lincoln heard it too.