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  • Sound Partner
  • Benjamin Wright
William Whittington. Sound Design & Science Fiction. University of Texas Press, 2007. 280 pages; $22.95 paper.

“Sound is half the picture.” It may be a cliché, but it reminds us that cinema studies are incomplete without attention to the sensuously immersive and sometimes noisy partner to the image. With this in mind, Sound Design & Science Fiction is among a small group of recent books that seek to establish a vocabulary and framework for future studies.

The book’s central argument addresses the changing dynamics of film technology and practice since the collapse of the old studio system in the 1960s. William Whittington traces the emergence and transformation of sonic design in Hollywood science-fiction cinema by investigating the interrelated technological, historical, aesthetic, and generic factors that have reshaped the sound track and its relationship to movie production and exhibition. The multi-discursive approach to film technology and aesthetics is driven by close interpretive readings of seven science-fiction pictures, with the aim of setting in relief the complexity, ubiquity, and value of sound in contemporary cinema.

“Sound design” is a term that underscores the creative duties of its editors. Defined several different ways by the author, it not only relates to the creation of specific effects but also to the general design of the sound track at the levels of production and exhibition. Whittington uses this complex understanding of the term to investigate ideology, production practices, and technology in films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), THX 1138 (1971), Star Wars (1977), Blade Runner (1982), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and The Matrix (1999). In a loosely chronological survey of these photodramas, each chapter investigates one aspect of the sound track—voice, music, ambiences, Foley, the mix process, and exhibition in the theater and home—and supports each feature with a close reading of one title.

Concentrating on just science-fiction films affords a more flexible analysis, primarily because science fiction foregrounds technological innovation in both the subject matter and the audiovisual apparatus. For instance, while 2001: A Space Odyssey challenged image-sound relations with its unconventional use of classical music to complement futuristic images, Star Wars pioneered the use of Dolby Stereo in film to broaden dynamic range and sharpen aural detail. According to Whittington, with Star Wars, an entire sonic environment was created to, ironically, ground the narrative in a believable, “realistic” manner. Alternatively, THX 1138 purposely avoids sonic realism by exaggerating its soundscape to reflect the states of mind of the imprisoned characters.

In a fascinating account of the process of “sound montage” in THX 1138— a term coined by editor Walter Murch—Whittington offers a novel account of how complex mixing strategies initially began with the break up of the old studio system and subsequent dismantlement of sound libraries and mixing facilities. Challenging union authority and classical Hollywood editing hierarchies, director George Lucas and producer Francis Ford Coppola moved their production facilities to San Francisco to complete production of THX. In doing so, the film set a new standard for the use of effects and music in cinema by treating ambiences and Foley effects as integral and substantive aspects of the audiovisual experience. By extension, the analysis of Blade Runner—the original theatrical version and the 1992 Director’s Cut—deftly explores the ideological differences between the use of voice-over in the former and the complete removal of it in the latter.

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One of the book’s strongest assets is its fresh exploration of film theory in relation to sonic design in contemporary cinema. A key distinction is made between the sound track as a “captured” event and a “construction.” Indeed, sound effects in the sciencefiction genre must be evaluated “not simply in terms of capture achieved through the recording process but as constructions, which are in fact mediated by recording [End Page 96] technology and aesthetic choices” (95). Several studies of the classical Hollywood sound track have already suggested that sound is, more or less, a representation of reality, not an original event. Production considerations including the rise of multitrack recording and re-recording involving volume adjustment and filtering have led to...


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pp. 96-97
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