The Surprising Historical Quest Behind the Sound of Lincoln

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

The First Case of Ebola in America Has Been Diagnosed in Dallas

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Mad About Modi


Why the controversial Indian prime minister drew 19,000 cheering fans to Madison Square Garden.


Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Don’t Panic! The U.S. Already Stops Ebola and Similar Diseases From Spreading. Here’s How.

Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD

The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 6:59 PM The Democrats’ War at Home Can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
  Life
Gaming
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 6:44 PM Ebola Was Already Here How the United States contains deadly hemorrhagic fevers.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.