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Sound Effects in Science Fiction and Horror Films

by Fiona Kelleghan

Talk held at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts 21 March 1996 

Composer David Raksin says that Alfred Hitchcock wanted no music for the 1944 film Lifeboat, because the characters are ''out on the open ocean. Where would the music come from?'' Raksin replied, ''Go back and ask him where the camera comes from and I'll tell him where the music comes from!'' (Kalinak xiii).  

Director John Carpenter, who creates and performs the music for almost all of his own films, agrees that the soundtrack should be implicit. ''[Y]ou shouldn't be aware of what I'm doing. Yeah, when it's scary or action-filled, you'll hear it, and it's fine. But you shouldn't be sitting there listening to music, or aware of it. It should be working on you. ... I don't want you to be aware of the technique. I just want you to feel it'' (Droney 118).   

Sometimes the composer does want you to be aware of his technique. The most obvious soundtrack technique, known as ''mickeymousing,'' is just barely considered respectable by respectable film composers. Mickeymousing is when the music blatantly matches the action. When King Kong climbs the Empire State building, the music likewise rises and falls with each of his movements. In what has become a cliché, mickeymousing even has the music giving away the action about to happen (Bazelon 24). A heavy brass chord announces danger; a low, sustained tone creates mystery; sliding intervals of gliding strings  imply seductiveness. This musical signal, that prepares the audience for the dramatic events to follow, is known as the stinger.  

The modern audience has become sophisticated enough to be conscious of these musical cues. The recognition value of really 
successful music like the Jaws and Psycho themes allows them to be parodied. James Homer's soundtrack for Aliens makes musical allusions to Capricorn One and Star Wars (Karlin 151), and it is parodied, in its turn, by Evil Dead III: Army of Darkness. In comedy films, composers can also use contrapuntal music that plays directly against the textual theme. When Stanley Kubrick introduces the song ''Try a Little Tenderness'' to accompany two planes refueling in midair at the beginning of Dr. Strangelove, he makes a joke that contrasts with the dark and deadly implications of the rest of the film (Bazelon 112) 

Where do composers get their ideas from? Different musical instruments and noises create different emotional impacts, so a lot of their work is already done for them. Music has power to affect the visual field and the imagination.  

Synthesizers are almost always used in SF and horror films because they can produce otherworldly sounds. But for straightforward emotion, horns are used too. These are associated with pageantry, the military, and the hunt, so they are used to suggest heroism. Movies featuring death-defying heroes such as Star Wars and RoboCop use a lot of horns (Kalinak 13). Such triumphant music implies certain guarantees, however. Carpenter says that for his version of The Thing, he insisted on  grim music: ''If we had made the audience feel that we were in a heroic situation, that movie would be a cheat. ... When they hear that heroic sound they go, Oh, okay, everything's going to be all right. But it's not going to be all right ...!'' (Droney 118).  

The length of a sound from its beginning to its peak is called attack, which may be fast (like a door slamming) or slow (like a dog growling). Fast attack sounds loud. Loud sounds are more frightening than soft sounds, and sudden loud sounds are the most frightening of all. If you are shooting a scene about a woman alone in a house on a stormy night and you want to show how terrified she is of the situation, one way is to use loud claps of thunder. When old radio mystery shows wanted to suggest 
someone alone in a dark house with a killer on the loose, what did they use? Sounds with eerie attack. The ticking clock, the thunder and rain beating against the window, the howling wind, the shutters banging against the side of the house, and -- creepiest of all -- the sound of steps coming slowly up the creaking stairs. These are still very popular in films today, not because we need the audio clues, but because they are such familiar shorthand for this clichéed but still exciting situation (Mott  

Bemard Herrmann's theme for the Psycho shower scene uses high-pitched string instrument notes with very fast attack. Strangely enough, the theme nearly didn't get written, as this was another scene for which Hitchcock didn't want any music. But Herrmann wrote it anyway, and Hitchcock agreed that it was too good to throw away (Karlin 15). Herrmann also uses mostly strings and percussion to build suspense in the movie Fahrenheit 451 (Darby and Du Bois 363). Lots of movies use 
high-pitched music to build fear.

In Jerry Goldsmith's score for Planet of the Apes, after the three astronauts see the bizarre scarecrows up on the scaffolds, ''Goldsmith introduces high, exotic percussion sounds -- metal twangs produced by stainless-steel mixing bowls'' (Bazelon 86 -- 87). Again in that movie, when the female astronaut is discovered in a state of advanced decomposition, the strings seem to scream (Darby and Du Bois 518). The 1951 version of The Thing features brass and high strings (Darby and Du Bois 252), though horns play along with the howling winds when the alien saucer is discovered in the ice -- this version was heroic. High strings seem ideal to express stress and tautly stretched nerves (like in The Omen). Or, they can evoke weird psychic goings-on (like in Poltergeist or for the theme to The X-Files) (Daiby and Du Bois 518). 
The sound mixers for the Michael Crichton movie Congo found that even high organic noises can build suspense. In the jungle, the birds and insects create a high ambient whine that pretty quickly gets on your nerves. As one of the mixers said, ''when they want to create a real feeling of anxiety, these insects are going to be played loud'' (Kenny, ''Sound for Three'' 83 -- 84) 

The violin in Psycho is so effective because it is used as percussion (Daiby and Du Bois 363), suggesting the knifestrokes. Deep sounds also sound percussive, and in fact you can feel them literally penetrating your body if the volume is strong enough. Jaws uses a sinister but very simple double bass which begins in long, heavy notes gradually acquiring a much faster attack (Darby and Du Bois 534). Another example of low music for suspense occurs in the opening of the Malcolm McDowell vehicle Time After Time. A prostitute stumbles past a London pub. We hear garish popular Victorian music from within. Then this switches to a deep, ominous double bass as the prostitute looks up and sees ... Jack the Ripper. But she thinks she sees just a well-dressed gentleman, so the soundtrack cleverly switches back to the pub music. The music is sinister just long enough for the audience to register the threat, but it doesn't insult us by playing on and on during the murder of the prostitute (Daiby and Du Bois 318).   

In the Star Wars movies, the appearance of the villains onscreen is likewise accompanied by deep or military sounds (Darby and Du Bois 537). What most audience members don't notice is that most protagonists also have their own theme music. The main Star Wars theme, written by John Williams, plays whenever Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia face important decisions, and when Obi Wan Kenobi dies.

The same was true of the old Star Trek series, when the soundtrack used to be composed by a live orchestra watching the film footage. Bach character had his or her own individual theme music, which was always 
played whenever they were on screen (Whitfield 375). Mr. Spock's theme, for example, is played by ''an instrument that couldn't possibly be romantic, a bass guitar, down in the low register, with no resonance. It just klunks out the theme'' (Karlin 20). Star Trek Classic also played with the voices of alien characters. They would electronically raise or lower the voices of these actors to create an inhuman effect. A dangerous cat woman in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier has a voice made of real cat noises mixed with distorted James Brown screams (Spomitz 44). To make ''alien'' languages sound real, they are sometimes made from spliced-together bits of exotic Earth languages, such as Gikuyu and Nepali. This causes much hilarity when the movies play in countries where these languages are spoken (Berger 130) 

Just as live characters are accompanied by mechanical effects, sometimes machinery is given a soundtrack that contains the  sounds of living beings. ''High-tech is boring,'' says effects mixer Adam Jenkins, who worked on the movie Star Trek Generations. ''And I don't mean that high-tech sounds are a bad thing. They're just boring over time, and fatiguing on the brain. Which is why we would consistently pull back on the telemetry tracks [meaning the computer noises and high-tech-looking equipment]. Otherwise, it would begin to sound like a phone is ringing through the entire scene'' (Kenny, ''Star Trek Generations'' 78, 80) 

For this reason, the effects on Generations are surprisingly organic. Editors used natural sounds -- birdsong, human voices, wind noises -- all processed and mixed into the backgrounds, which is critical on Star Trek, since so much of the action takes place on the same ship, and if the backgrounds aren't diverse enough, it will sound too homogenous and claustrophobic. Of course, sick bay sounds different from the bridge, which sounds different from the more intimate confines of Whoopi  Goldberg's quarters or Captain Picard's stateroom (Kenny, ''Star Trek Generations'' 80) 

The definitive rumble of the starship Enterprise was invented by sound effects creator Alan Howarth, who has worked on every Star Trek film. He created the ship's sound from a white noise generator, plus an exhaust fan, plus the air conditioner at Paramount Studios. Howarth says, ''The bridge background of the 60's was electronic music with sonar beeps. And our challenge was to take these musical instruments and make sound effects -- without having them sound like a series of filters and oscillators. They wanted the tracks to be organic, to be more emotional and appealing. So, something like the ship's ... phasers,  was a difficult effect, because it has to be pleasing, which we normally associate with high end, and it has to be full-bandwidth -- it has to have that low end  to give it size. It just so happened that [for Star Trek Generations] we got two days of an electronic storm in Southern California, which is unusual in itself, and we recorded some very good lightning, which worked as phasers.''

The noise of the Klingon bird-of-prey spaceship contains the songs of whales, ironically enough. The mysterious Nexus energy wave which appears at the climax of Generations combined more than 30 elements, including animal cries to give it a subliminal sense of a living, deadly creature (Kenny, ''Star Trek Generations'' 78). When the Klingons destroy the Voyager probe in Star Trek V, the explosion contains the sounds of a woman's scream and the cartoon character the Tasmanian Devil (Spotnitz 44). Another unexpected organic quality can be found in The Empire Strikes Back, in which a large door was given no mechanical-sound basis but does have a lion's growl buried subliminally in it (Berger 130) 

There are plenty of other surprises to be found in the sound studio, where a sound effect is very often not what you think.  More information that Trekkers might like to know about their favorite show is that the transporter's Beaming down sound is made by piano wires strung across a literal beam (Kenny, ''Star Trek Generations'' 76). When you see the sliding doors opening and closing, what you hear is a bunch of different sounds including an air gun reversed and somebody's sneakers squeaking on the floor to give it the rubber-seal effect (Kenny, ''Star Trek Generations'' 76). The photon torpedo blasts don't sound like what they really are -- the recording of a Slinky (Spotnitz 44) 

Raiders of the Lost Ark opens with Indiana Jones fleeing a runaway boulder. That noise was actually the sound editor's Honda Civic rolling down his driveway (Spotnitz 42). The light sabers in Star Wars are the sounds of a TV picture tube and an old 35mm projector (Spotnitz 44). Luke Skywalker's land cruiser is the noise of the Los Angeles Harbor freeway traffic heard through a vacuumcleaner pipe (Spotnitz 44). Star Wars goes for gritty sounds, which is why those movies sound like our world and Star Trek sounds like a better one (Spotnitz 44).

The crew on Congo found that the gorilla's natural cries weren't scary enough -- gorillas actually make a soft, hooting noise, whereas the director wanted a booming, Jurassic Park effect. So the post-production men recorded the sound of howler monkeys, which do have a low, throaty growl (Kenny, ''Sound for Three'' 83 -- 84). Does that seem deflating? At least the sounds were made by wild animals. The sound designer for Jumanji had to come up with vocalizations for unusually intelligent and mischievous monkeys from a wild, exotic, paradimensional world. What did he use? His eight-year-old son (Kenny, ''Monkey Business'' 113) 

Though horror films can often feature supernatural creatures and events, ironically enough what they need is an uncomplicated sound that will disturb the audience viscerally rather than interest them intellectually. You might think I'm talking about sound effect libraries, of wolves growling or boots stalking down an alleyway -- and you're right, soundtracks do use these. But they also use much more mundane sounds. For instance, the sound studios of horror movies are frequently littered with fruits and  vegetables to make various body-snapping sound effects. The recent Hellraiser IV went through a lot of melons (Stokes 74) 

Another interesting monster sound was achieved in the made-for-TV movie based on Stephen King's The Langoliers. The langoliers are nearly all mouth, so they needed to have a predatory effect. But King had described the sound of their approach as being reminiscent of Rice Krispies. Although the langoliers, who literally eat the world, would realistically require combinations of grinding, screeching, scraping and the crunching of metal, pavement, and earth, the executive producer was adamant that they should not sound mechanical. Sound editor Ray Palagy says, ''We actually spent an entire day recording cereal sounds -- dry cereal, wet, mushy; in a bowl, in a tub ...'' They took all of these sounds and made processed versions of all of them. Then they added effects such as Velcro, car doors, subway screeches and lion growls to yield ''signature'' sounds that are hard to categorize as animal or machine. Because supernatural creatures such as the Langoliers are based on no equivalent in the real world, they have to sound unique (Eskow 164) 

Another example of sound design ingenuity can be found in the opening of Terminator 2. The camera pans across burned-out car bodies and a devastated playground from the year 2029 A.D. We hear a desolate wind ... and then, CRUNCH! A robotic foot crushes a human skull. The sound of the wind actually comes from the crack of an open door to the main mix room at Skywalker Sound, combined with the sound artist vocally going ''whoooooo.'' The sound of the crushed skull is actually a 
pistachio being crunched by a metal plate (Kenny, ''T2'' 60 -- 61) 

The Terminator 2 sound crew got very inventive. They had to design the sound of the T-1000 Terminator moving into and out of liquid metal, the quality that makes him virtually indestructible. ''It's not really liquid ...'' sound man Gary Rydstrom says. ''It doesn't have any bubbles in it. It doesn't gurgle. It doesn't do anything visually except flow like mercury ...'' So Rydstrom gathered a number of sound elements and played them while watching the screen to see what sounded good. When the T-1000 
is just sort of flowing and transforming, that's Rydstrom plunging a microphone covered with a condom into a mixture he made of flour and water with Dust-Off sprayed into it. ''It would make these huge goopy bubbles,'' he says. ''And the moment when the bubble is forming, it has this sound that's similar to a cappucino maker ... Funny enough, it had this metallic quality to it, so I believed it for [the] transformation.''

For the sound of bullets hitting T-1000, Rydstrom slammed an inverted glass into a bucket of yogurt, getting a hard edge to accompany the goopy sound. In the psychiatric prison where Sarah Connor is held prisoner, the T-1000 flows around and through a gate of steel bars. That sound is actually dog food being slowly sucked out of a can. ''A lot of that I would play backward or do something to,'' Rydstrom says, ''but those were the basic elements. What's amazing to me is ... Industrial Light & Magic using millions of dollars of high-tech digital equipment and computers to come up with the visuals, and meanwhile I'm inverting a dog food can'' (Kenny, ''T2'' 64)

So far it sounds like fun and games, but sound mixers face a lot of difficulties beyond inventing new sounds. One problem is trying to read the film director's mind. Directors usually don't know anything about music scoring and don't know how to articulate what kind of soundtrack they want. For example, the producers of the Star Trek: Next Generation TV show wanted the Enterprise transporter to sound like its old recognizable self, but at the same time to sound more high-tech and 
intense. And Gene Roddenberry ordered them to ''add a sense of mystery.'' So the sound mixers took the basic musical chord and added a series of tri-tones, performed on the Synclavier. By the time Generations rolled around, the sound has changed quite a bit, always finding some new high-end sparkle to match the new opticals (Kenny, ''Star Trek Generations'' 76)

There is also the eternal problem of the ''sound of space,'' an important point because technically, there is no sound in space.  ''But it's a film, and you have to have something, so Howarth recorded a couple of spring reverbs for that bwwooiiiinngg, and  played it back to create a crawling effect'' (Kenny, ''Star Trek Generations'' 76). We scientifically literate movie viewers will have to put up with these things.  

The sound crew of Generations must have been amused when told that they were going to have to create the sound of the Enterprise crashing into a planet, destroying hundreds of feet of terrain, and yet not totally self-destructing in the process. What is the sound of a starship hitting a planet? The basic noise is a recording of ''dry ice on bare metal, which gives this annoying moaning, groaning, wrenching, metallic sound.'' Then they added noises like earthquake rumbles, cars skidding through gravel, tree cracks, and explosions. ''The idea is to introduce variety to sustain interest'' in the audience, who subconsciously expect a variety of sounds to match the changing picture on screen (Kenny, ''Star Trek Generations'' 78).  

The Terminator 2 sound crew faced a lot of challenges. In one scene, Arnold Schwarzenegger participates in a major shootout with the police outside the Cyberdyne building. Sound man Gary Rydstrom says, ''The difficulty was that [Arnold] is so in control of shooting this gun, that the destruction he creates has to be within  reason. It has to be such that you don't believe any cops are dying. So, we couldn't use ricochets, because standard Hollywood ricochets would imply that the bullets are flying out of control and killing somebody. And we couldn't use explosions on the 
cars, which look like they are exploding, because they weren't exploding. They were just being demolished to the point where they would collapse. It was tricky to just use hits on metal, and glass [breaking] ... and ricochets that sounded like thuds'' (Kenny, ''T2'' 64)

Another major problem is trying to get a clean recording of dialogue when your background is noisy. The production sound mixers for Congo found that ''Few shooting locations on the planet can be more challenging ... than a tropical rain forest. It's  wet, even in the dry season. It's hot. And the insects are big and loud, making it difficult to pull clean dialog tracks out of the backgrounds.'' Mixer Ron Judkins, who won an Academy Award for Jurassic Park, described it as ''the most strenuous  working situation I've ever been in.'' And one location was right on the edge of an extinct, but still hissing volcano crater (Kenny, ''Sound for Three,'' 76).  

The sound effects team for The X-Files needs a sense of humor too. ''The biggest difference between this show and other shows,'' says production mixer Michael Williamson, ''is that UFOs never land in the middle of the city during the daytime. They always land in the middle of mountains or out in the water, and it has to be raining, and it has to be muddy, and it has to be windy, so those are the problems we have. If we're out in the bush and they decide they want to have wind blowing through the trees, we have to try [to] isolate the dialogue to a point where you don't hear the wind machine.'' (Moshansky 93). He adds, ''Another thing is that it never fails that our lead actor [David Duchovny] gets beaten up, and ... that brings a whole host of new problems. If you're in a very wild environment and there's lightning machines going off and rain towers spreading rain all over the place and wind machines going nuts, and the only way you can really get good, solid, clean sound is by putting a wireless on a guy, and he's got to go into a fight, then all of a sudden, the wireless isn't going to be any good. Everything is a challenge'' (Moshansky 91) 

So next time when you go to the movies, give the sound effects a round of applause. Rydstrom, sound designer for Terminator 2, says, ''Your first thought when you see a lot of special effects is that sound's job is to not only do something as fantastical as the visual, but also to make it real. It's not competing with the special visual effect, because people perceive the visual and the sound differently. [Sound designer] Walter Murch had a way of putting it: The eyes are the front door, and the ears are the back door'' (Kenny, ''T2'' 61).

But one thing is certain: As visual effects for movies become more and more sophisticated, we can be sure that sound effects will need to be more and more inventive -- even if it's only to think of things to do with a condom, yogurt, or a dog food can. As Tamara Rogers, a sound expert in Hollywood, puts it, ''audio is the last frontier'' (Stokes 77). 

Works Cited
Bazelon, Irwin. Knowing the Score: Notes on Film Music. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1975.   
Berger, Ivan. ''Soundtrack of the Lost Ark'' in Audio 68.11 (Nov. 1984): 130.   

Blake, Larry. ''Sound for Film: Go Back and Listen: Classic Film Sound Tracks'' in Mix: Professional Recording * Sound  and Music Production 19.8 (August 1995): 110.   

Darby, William and Jack Du Bois. American Film Music: Major Composers. Techniques, Trends, 1915 -- 1990. Jefferson,  NC: McFarland & Co., 1990.   

Droney, Maureen. ''John Carpenter: One-Stop Movie Shop'' in Mix: Professional Recording * Sound and Music  Production 19.12 (December 1995): 109, 112 -- 118.   

Eskow, Gary. ''Animal Meets Machine: Sound for The Langoliers'' in Mix: Professional Recording * Sound and Music  Production 19.5 (May 1995): 157, 162 -- 164, 197.   

Kalinak, Kathryn. Settling the Score: Music and the Classical Hollywood Film. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1992.   

Karlin, Fred. Listening to Movies: The Film Lover's Guide to Film Music. New York: Schirmer, 1994.   

Kenny, Tom. ''Monkey Business: Vocalizations for Jumanji'' in Mix: Professional Recording * Sound and Music Production  20.3 (March 1996): 113, 118.   

Kenny, Tom. ''Sound for Three Summer Blockbusters'' in Mix: Professional Recording * Sound and Music Production  19.6 (June 1995): 76 -- 86.   

Kenny, Tom. ''Star Trek Generations'' in Mix: Professional Recording * Sound and Music Production 19.1 (January 1995):  72 -- 83.   

Kenny, Tom. ''T2: Behind the Scenes with the Terminator 2 Sound Team'' in Mix: Professional Recording * Sound and  Music Production 15.9 (September 1991): 60 -- 62, 64, 66, 116.   

Moshansky, Tim. ''The X-Files Files'' in Mix: Professional Recording * Sound and Music Production 19.6 (June 1995): 89,  91 -- 93, 216.   

Spotnitz, Frank. ''Stick it in your Ear'' in American Film 15.1 (October 1989): 40 -- 45.   

Stokes, Jim. ''Using Sound Effects: Foley'' in Post: The International Magazine for Post Production Professionals 10.10  (Oct. 16, 1995): 73 -- 84.   

Whitfield, Stephen E. and Gene Roddenberry. The Making of Star Trek. New York: Ballantine Books, 1968.   

Sound Effects in SF and Horror Films," in Kongressbok ConFuse 96, the program booklet for the SF convention held in Linköping, Sweden, June 14 -16, 1996, p. 44-50.

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