It All Sounds Familiar: A Brief Look at Memorable Sound within SciFi

Take your scariest film of all time. Try watching those famous scenes that contain no dialog with the volume turned off. Not so scary after all, is it? If you had no appreciation for music and sound effects before, perhaps you now can relate to my passion – sound effects and sound design in film. I had a class once where we were given the opportunity to manipulate sounds over well-known clips. Harmony or dissonance, one slight change of a note and the mood of the scene drastically changes in front of you. One choice of a sound effect over another and you have a different view of the action.

For example, what if Darth Vadar's deep breath sound were replaced with a kitten purr? This is what made me realize why I have always loved science fiction. It places real power in the hands of off-screen talent. When it comes to SciFi, sound designers have both an exciting and tough job. Creating unique sounds for a particular brand/genre of film that make scenes unforgettable and complete the viewer experience is of utmost importance. When created effectively, if you hear a SciFi TV show or movie playing in the next room, you will probably recognize it based purely on sound. The sound effectively becomes a trademark uniquely associated with the franchise. I want to dive into and share with you a few of my SciFi favorites and a glimpse into how some of those memorable associated sounds were created.

 First up: “Star Wars.” The ever-talented Ben Burtt, through “Star Wars,” is thought to have helped pioneer sound design in regards to SciFi as we know it today. He sought to manipulate natural sounds as opposed to the heavy-handed electronic sounds used in previous films of this genre. Burtt says of sound design, “The basic thing in all films is to create something that sounds believable to everyone, because it's composed of familiar things that you can not quite recognize immediately.”  

 For example, part of R2-D2’s signature sound is a combination of water pipes, whistles, and vocalizations by Burtt. The wookie sounds were constructed from various animal and walrus sounds. He spent time paying attention to animal sound connotations, e.g. affectionate versus angry, and layered them accordingly to the appropriate scene. And the all important lightsaber’s hum, one of Burtt’s first sound creations for the film, was a blend of a television set’s buzz upon interference with a microphone and an old 35mm projector’s motor. To create the movement of the saber, he whipped a microphone in front of and across a speaker playing the combined sound creating a pitch shift and therefore mimicked movement.

It is creative genius such as this that allows for such extraordinary moments in these films. The sounds make the futuristic saber duels believable. If technology catches up with reality, Ben Burtt has given us expectations of what a light saber should sound like.

 Next up: “Star Trek.” There are so many interesting sounds within this iconic franchise that undoubtedly have shaped science fiction folklore. Douglas Grindstaff, Jack Finlay, and Joseph Sorokin created all of the background sounds and effects used throughout “Star Trek: The Original Series.” That all-familiar shimmering, ringing sound as a character is beamed down via the transporter is actually made by piano wires strung up on a beam. The phaser’s blast, inspired by the hovering sound of the Martian war machines found in the 1953 version of “War of the Worlds,” was created using tape feedback of an electric guitar and a harp. It is said that Grindstaff created the sound of the doors, enabling Kirk to access the bridge or Spock his quarters, by squeaking his tennis shoes. The repertoire of these sounds were so popular that in 1978, a vinyl LP was released purely consisting of and called Star Trek Sound Effects.

 When Frank Serafine was appointed sound designer for the 1979 movie “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” he had the ridiculously difficult task of modernizing the sounds for this franchise. According to an article written by American Cinematographer magazine in 1980, Serafine created the foundation for the acceleration of the warp sound by using a slowed-down cymbal crash.  The wormhole’s sound was created by slowing down and subsequently reversing old Paramount stock footage of a cowboy fight scene. For the most recent Star Trek franchise, J.J. Abrams called on Ben Burtt, to create a new spin on these classic sounds. Burtt created the photon torpedo sound effect using a contact microphone connected to a very long spring combined with a cannon blast, according to an interview with Editor’s Guild. With the longevity and growth in this franchise, time and space do not permit further elaboration here, but perhaps another time.

 Lastly, my personal favorite: “Doctor Who.” I dream about the sounds found in this show. From the terrifying to the magical, every sound in this series is used effectively. Gosh, do I wish that battered blue police call box would one day appear on my doorstep and scoop me away to be a companion… but I digress.

 Brian Hodgson and Dick Mills were the original sound effects recorders on this magnificent series. In 1978, their sound effects and atmospheres were released on album as a part of the BBC Sound Effects Collection. However, the sounds of the TARDIS taking off and landing were not present on this particular album, because they are considered, according to BBC, to be works of music not mere effects. When Brian Hodgson was imagining what sound the TARDIS would make when taking off and landing, he said, “Everybody knew rockets went ‘bang, whoosh’ - but what does a time machine do?” Hodgson took a handful of keys and scraped them over the strings inside an old piano. He subsequently manipulated the sounds backwards, added feedback with a great bang sound, and thus, the familiar TARDIS sound was created bringing fear to Daleks and Cybermen alike. Without the sound, it is only a flying phone booth.

 Of course, over the decades long show, the sound has slightly changed, as only TARDIS passengers could have foreseen, in the digitized world. The amazing sound effects of “Doctor Who,” such as the TARDIS, have solidified this show as a British cultural icon and resonate in the hearts of SciFi fans around the world.

Whenever I see a film, I sit through the credits. If I am watching a television show, I research the episode on IMDB. I want to know who did the music and who are the masters behind all those sound effects. If done correctly, these are part of the experience and do not necessarily draw attention to themselves. If done poorly, the movie or show often falls flat and disappoints. I get so excited thinking about and learning about sounds and how they are created. I could honestly talk about many more sounds in just these franchise examples alone. It is my hope that a few anecdotes can also bring you to a similar level of appreciation and anticipation.

 If the next time you watch your favorite SciFi TV show or movie and think about the sounds you are absorbing, I have achieved a measure of success. What is the sound contributing to the scene? Would it be the same experience if the sounds were different? Perhaps you never before truly paid attention to the subtle details of the sounds you are hearing. Try to dissect them. The creative people behind these sounds put a lot of effort into creating something worthy of what you are watching. Did they succeed? I trust you will more often than not discover that the background sounds and sound effects were critical to your enjoyment of the film.