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Reviewed by:
  • Sound Design and Science Fiction
  • Nabeel Zuberi (bio)
William Whittington, Sound Design and Science Fiction. Austin: U of Texas P, 2007. 280pp. US$22.95.

Sf media have created a Babel of intensely affecting and strange sounds that embody beings and machines, materialise architectural textures and characterise spaces. Explorative and futurist impulses in the virtual soundscapes of radio dramas, films, television programmes and music have expanded sf 's palette of sensations and enlivened audio culture more broadly. The urge to use sounds to speculate on subjectivity and the nature of environments has co-existed with the standardisation of sonic practices within industrialised regimes of media production. This is one of the tensions running through William Whittington's examination of sound design in Hollywood sf from the late 1960s to the end of the twentieth century. Whittington defines 'sound design' as an evolving concept and broad discourse constituted in several domains: the work processes of sound production; the qualities, juxtapositions and codifications of sound effects, music, voices and other ambient sounds that make spaces on screen audible; and the spatial and experiential dimensions of sound for film viewers in exhibition sites, whether they be multiplex theatres, home-theatre systems or computers. These aspects of sound design are intertwined in chapters devoted [End Page 145] to canonical and financially successful sf films: 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick UK/US 1968), THX 1138 (Lucas US 1971), Star Wars (Lucas US 1977), Alien (UK/ US 1979), Blade Runner (Scott US/Hong Kong 1982), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron US/France 1991) and The Matrix (Wachowski brothers US/Australia 1999).

Whittington's book builds on several significant strands in film studies. First, it uses published interviews by well-known sound designers and their reflections on their profession to emphasise a history of Hollywood workers. Sound design is partly rooted in the shifting divisions of labour and contested job categories in sound production as the studio system was reorganised after World War II. Recordists, Foley artists, dialogue editors, music supervisors, composers and mixers jostled with each other over the boundaries of craft and art in sound production. The element of industrial history in the book is stronger when dealing with the formative period of the late 1960s and 1970s, but falls away a little when discussing the later films. The anecdotal accounts quoted by Whittington suggest further study of the ways in which Hollywood sound personnel have legitimised themselves and their changing work practices. Dreams of sonic authorship matched the DIY auteurist sensibilities of a generation of film directors fresh out of US film schools. Walter Murch, who worked with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, coined the term 'sound design' because it marked out a distinct practice and occupation from other sound technicians and held out the promise of more influence over key creative decisions. Ben Burtt, who produced the sonic icons ('sicons') of lightsabres, robot buddies and battleships in Star Wars also figures prominently here, as the prestige of the sound designer grows at the same time as the record producer is hailed as studio auteur. Whittington notes that an increasingly 'cinematic' rock-music culture contributed to the growing audio consciousness of filmgoers and filmmakers through its concept albums, psychedelic imaginaries and spectacles.

As well as offering a genealogy of sound design as industrial practice, Whittington contributes to the historical literature on sound technologies in Hollywood. Most of that scholarship has covered the studio system from the late 1920s to the end of the 1950s, listening to the gangster film, the women's film, the musical and film noir. In the New Hollywood, Whittington argues, the idea and development of sound design were intimately associated with the sf genre. In Europe and the US, sf was key to the emergence of a meta-cinema that reflected on film as technology, medium and cultural form. Sf generated new sonic techniques that came to exemplify New Hollywood's premium: the blockbuster or high concept film. Portable recording technologies, mixing, pitch-shifting and tape manipulations made transporters, aliens and landscapes both sonically [End Page 146] familiar and novel. Dolby and surround-sound technologies immersed theatre audiences more immediately in the fantastic worlds on screen. Whittington...


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