- Sound Design and Science Fiction
Often in genre studies there is a moment when an author turns his or her attention to sound for the duration of a sentence, a page, or perhaps even as much as an entire chapter, only to conclude that "further study is needed." Indeed, the relative lack of attention to sound in film studies is a well-known phenomenon. Two important and influential studies of the genre of science fiction by Vivian Sobchack and J. P. Telotte dedicate the bulk of their attention to the visual and thematic content of the American science fiction film. Similarly, many studies of horror contain no reference to sound whatsoever, although there are essays and book sections to be found. One can point to a recent British anthology, Off the Planet: Music, Sound and Science Fiction Cinema. Even so, these offerings are as extraplanetary dust in the vastness of space in comparison to the breadth of critical writing that focuses exclusively on film narrative in terms of the visual. This is hardly surprising given the privilege accorded to the visual in Western culture and thus to the image in media studies.
The time for lament may have just passed, however. William Whittington's Sound Design and Science Fiction is an extremely useful, readable, and even necessary book. It represents something new in terms of both film genre and film sound and is a welcome addition to the subfield of science fiction criticism as well. Thoroughly grounded in histories of technology and industrial practice, it seeks to bridge the gap between theory and practice in the field of sound studies and to forge a new vocabulary around the production and reception of genre films. Indeed, the book's flaws might be said to arise from the ambitious nature of this project, which is so very necessary and yet so difficult in execution. The situation is further complicated by the "material heterogeneity" of the film sound track and the unique representational and ideological complexities of music, dialogue, Foley, and effects.
Whittington's goal is to explore a "break" in image-sound relations that, he argues, occurred in the late 1960s and 1970s. Beginning with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and continuing to develop in films like THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971), Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965), La jetée (Chris Marker, 1961), and Fahrenheit 451 (François Truffaut, 1966), this break is intimately connected both to the aesthetic experimentation of the French nouvelle vague and the arrival of the "movie brats" in Hollywood: George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and others. It is at this time that we also see the rise of the "sound designers" Walter Murch and Ben Burtt as well as the arrival of rock and roll, youth culture, and the hi-fi babies. The common denominator among all of these factors in the turbulent 1970s is, Whittington argues, science fiction film. For Whittington science fiction film represents a febrile space for innovation in terms of not only visual but also sonic spectacle and the relations of image and sound to each other. Moreover, he claims that these changes impacted the audiences of films such that they came and have come to expect a visual-aural spectacle. In a sense, science fiction film is, to Whittington, a crucible for what sound becomes after the 1970s. [End Page 63]
The initial chapters of Sound Design and Science Fiction trace the emergence of this break, relating it explicitly to the establishment of the title/concept of sound design (coined by Murch for his work on Apocalypse Now). Whittington notes that there are four potential meanings to "sound design," and he very rationally (but not rigidly) organizes the remaining chapters in such a manner as to encompass these meanings. They also reflect the various elements of the sound track: music, sound montage, sound effects, and Foley. The pattern Whittington follows is to dedicate a chapter to a theoretical-descriptive investigation of each of these sites of practice followed by a chapter that presents...