“Sound, previously a neglected aspect of film and television studies, is now enjoying a surge of academic and critical interest. In Sound Design and Science Fiction, William Whittington makes the case that science fiction cinema and the practice of sound design create a “symbiotic relationship” through their “interplay between style and content”. He argues that “the science fiction genre has historically been the site that has inspired developments in sound technology as well as innovations in sound signification (narratively, thematically, and aesthetically)”. Using formal analysis of the soundtrack (i.e. dialogue, music and sound effects) and image-sound relations of key science fiction films, he demonstrates how genre and sound work together to shape audience expectations of sci-fi. According to Whittington, seminal Hollywood blockbusters from the late 1970s onwards, such as Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), not only “drove the sound design movement” but also “recalibrated audience expectations for spectacle, in terms of not only special effects but also sound design”.
“Specific sound effects from popular science fiction films have become what K. J. Donnelly terms sound “stars”, such as the light sabre sound in Star Wars or the TARDIS sound in the long-running BBC television series Doctor Who. Drawing on these fantastical sound effects in the introduction to his book, Whittington argues that the “innovative sound effects from dinosaur roars to the clash of light sabers” make up the aesthetic experience of science fiction sound. In addition to the signature sound of particular sci-fi sound effects (their texture and quality, their fantastical strangeness), the spatial aspects of science fiction sound are also an important part of sci-fi’s aesthetic. Developments in surround sound technology have fed (and have themselves been fed by) aesthetic approaches to sound design:
In this new era of multichannel sound formats, the film soundtrack can be channeled into different speakers within the theater environment … This multidimensional aspect of sound deployment allows for the localized use of effects and music, avoids sound masking or sounds cancelling each other out, and fosters a new sense of immersion for filmgoers. Sound design within the theater venue creates a new kind of space, which fosters new kinds of sound spectacle. More than any other development, multichannel sound shifted reading protocols and altered the expectations of filmgoers for contemporary Hollywood cinema, particularly in relation to the blockbuster.
“Science fiction sound design uses the space of the cinema in a manner that creates “sound spectacle”. Surround sound has become the industry standard for Hollywood blockbusters of all genres to such an extent that “cinematic experience shifts from watching a movie to being immersed in the diegesis of one”. This spatially playful immersion, working hand-in-hand with the fantastical sounds of sci-fi, is a key attraction of science fiction. As Whittington puts it, “sound became part of the cinematic event, a selling point and a part of the spectacle, immersing filmgoers in spacecraft travelling at light speed or jolting them with the explosions as planets disintegrated”. This suggests that spatially
playful “sound spectacle” has become a convention of science fiction cinema.”
Text: Nessa Johnston, Beneath Sci-fi Sound: Primer, Science Fiction Sound Design, and American Independent Cinema, Alphaville.