Those Happy Times When Heads Explode: Terrorizing audiences by sonifying the intangible psychic force within science fiction cinema

The following is the final paper and project for EDPX 5000: Sonic Science Fiction at the University of Denver in spring 2013.

“I want you to think of something specific, something that will not breach the security of your organization, and that you’ll not object to having disclosed to this group. Something personal, perhaps,” says the bald man in the suit and glasses.

“Yes, I have something,” responds the volunteer. “Do I need to close my eyes?”

“Doesn’t matter,” responds the man in the suit.

And it begins. The music builds slowly, emerging from silence. The volunteer closes his eyes and cocks his neck, looking as if he is attempting to escape a nightmare. The bald man franticly glances between the spectators in the room and the volunteer to his right. He breathes loudly, as if performing a spectacular physical feat. The spectators in the room grow concerned by the intensity exhibited by the two men. The bald man begins to shake, and his face contracts. The frequency of the tones continues to rise, screeching and screaming, until suddenly the music stops. Immediately, the bald man’s head explodes, spraying blood across the room. His face folds in upon itself and falls forward into his lap.

Scanners: Exploding head

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Robot fornication and homage to the science fiction of yesterday

Can machines develop emotions? Are they capable of love? What separates man from machine? These are all hotly contested questions of futurism and science fiction, yet to enjoy the Disney film Wall-E, you sort of have to let these questions fall to the wayside.

Wall-E is perhaps the only family post-apocalyptic film ever created, taking place at a time in which the Earth has been mangled and made toxic, no longer with any ability to sustain life. Humanity, of course, leaves on a galactic cruise, waiting in outer space for machines to clean up the mess left on the planet. As the cleanup takes longer than expected, humanity continues to tour the galaxy, with subsequent generations becoming fatter and lazier, forgetting what typical 21st-century human life is actually like.

While the film is adorable, it hits too close to home in its sad, satirical forecast. Is it just a matter of time until we become pod people, losing our bone structure and becoming so fat and weak that we are rendered unable to move ourselves? I guess this is neither here nor there for the purposes of this discussion, which will focus on the portrayal of the film’s lead characters, Wall-E and Eve. And for the purposes of this discussion, we do away with our doing-away with the aforementioned questions. This isn’t about enjoying the film; it’s about having a good, weird science fiction discussion. And believe me, it’s going to get weird and un-family friendly pretty quickly. Continue reading

The true sounds of outer space

Outer space is silent. This is something we all know and are all told from a very young age in the classroom. But what does this really mean? What is it like to be in a perfect vacuum? Very few have actually experienced complete silence, and without sticking your fingers in your ears, it’s hard to get an idea of what complete silence is like. No wind. No cars. No chirping birds. Nothing. If you close your eyes while sitting in a quiet room, you’ll notice there is much more peripheral sound than you had initially thought.

For All Mankind is fascinating in that it takes us as close to outer space as any other multimedia experience. From a sonic perspective, we hear the booming sounds of the rockets during takeoff, the crackle of the radio, and — once we arrive in outer space — we listen to the prerecorded tape cassettes the astronauts have taken onboard and the non-diegetic sounds added to supplement space. On top of all of this, the astronauts narrate the journey to the moon, providing commentary that provides additional perspective. Yes, this is still about as close to outer space as we can get from Earth. But what would For All Mankind be like if it took the next step, allowing viewers to see real life in outer space? Certainly, it wouldn’t be quite as entertaining. It would likely be difficult to sit through a feature-length film with no narration. (It would also be more difficult to understand what is happening.) Continue reading

Sonic science fiction project proposal — Those Happy Times When Heads Explode: Terrorizing audiences by sonifying the intangible force within science fiction cinema

In many science fiction films, sound is added to suggest a force unseen. In Star Wars, Darth Vader’s distant death grip using the force is accompanied by ominous, low tones. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, sequences featuring the monolith are accompanied by screaming, tense music. And of course, building feedback leads to an exploding head in Scanners. This project, Those Happy Times When Heads Explode, will explore the practice of frightening audiences by sonifying intangible inner states within science fiction cinema.

The project’s primary objective is to outline a framework and theory regarding how this sonification functions and how it can be used to maximum cinematic effect to frighten audiences. This also involves examining the boundary between diegetic and non-diegetic sound, as this sonification often affects fright and terror through its deliberate blurring of this boundary.

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In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Richard Dreyfuss handles alien encounters much better than I would

If I were parked in a truck in the middle of nowhere and all of the sudden lights from above started rattling everything, the first thing I would do is change my pants. Next, I would find some aloe for my half-sunburned face. Then just maybe I’d pull a Richard Dreyfuss and rip out all my plants and build a dirt mound in my kitchen. Just maybe.

"The contemporary art world is going to eat this up."

“The contemporary art world is going to eat this up.”

I’ve seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind numerous times, but my most recent viewing was the first time I was able to pick up on some of the more subtle details of the film. (I guess I should thank Michel Chion for cueing me into some of these in his book, Film: A Sound Art.) There is a significant amount going on internally within the film’s characters. I seemed to take this for granted in the past, apparently just thinking it was “natural” that common visions and tones would find their ways into the character’s minds. How did these images and sounds get there, and how successful is the film at portraying this mental infestation?

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Storytelling from the other side: THX 1138

It’s easy to forget just how creative George Lucas can be. Sometimes the Star Wars franchise becomes so commonplace that you forget how thought went into it, and all the amazing creations it boasted. (But it certainly doesn’t help Lucas’ case when he goes back and destroys everything he ever worked on.)


Nonetheless, Lucas’ supreme creativity renders THX 1138 an incredibly challenging film to watch. After viewing the film, I even needed to search online for a synopsis to be 100 percent sure I knew what had just happened. Much of this can be attributed to its unconventional storytelling style. What’s perhaps most inventive is the use of “android” narration. Most of the film’s key elements are presented through cheery, prerecorded voices. In many ways, this makes the android environment even more off-putting. It’s like your creepy uncle who seems way too happy about everything. If he’s that happy about everything, he’s obviously not to be trusted.


"I have cancer! Isn't that great?!"

“I have cancer! Isn’t that great?!”

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The world is going to hell fast, sources say

Franco Berardi’s After Future is both depressing and cathartic. Maybe I’m not alone in being depressed by sad and stupefying stories that dominate the news everyday. And according to Berardi, things have been going to hell for the last 36 years. That’s a bummer. I just hope he’s wrong.

Berardi lays out a slew of possibilities for the future of humanity, and he asserts that if humans don’t change their ways, life on this planet will be dark or impossible. Is there anything we can do, other than kill ourselves, to change the course of things, even in a minor way? Although Berardi says suicide is our only form of resistance, it seems difficult to agree with him. Perhaps there are other, smaller measures we can take to make a difference.

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A sonic science fiction project

As I consider the potential topics I can approach for my final project for the sonic science fiction seminar, several stand out as clear, substantial choices.

  1. The portrayal of robots in science fiction films, and the use of audio to imply agency. Different films suggest different degrees of agency, ranging from relatively dehumanized robots in films such as Silent Star to the ultra-human replicants in Blade Runner, also considering the works in between that question how much agency a viewer should grant the robots on screen, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. As a predominately written piece with video supplements, this would be an extensive analysis into what suggests agency and what detracts from a sense of agency. Alien Phenomenology would likely also be a great resource for this option.
  2. The emergence of serious science fiction horror. As considered in a previous post, it appears that Alien (1979) marks the first serious science fiction horror film, with numerous others following in the coming decade, such as Scanners, The Thing, and The Fly. What separates these films from the science fiction films that came before? How is “seriousness” and “horror” reflected sonically? Does Franco Berardi’s theory that 1977 marks the turning point of visions of the future from utopia to dystopia factor into the change in tone of these films? Do special effects play a role? This option would be equal portions written investigation and cinema mashup exploring contrasts.
  3. The differences between science fiction subgenres. How are different subgenres portrayed differently from a sonic perspective? How does hard science fiction differ from soft science fiction, and how do science fiction dramas (such as Solaris) differ from science fiction action (Terminator), science fiction horror (Alien), science fiction fantasy (Star Wars), or science fiction comedy (Mars Attacks). Like option two, this would be equal portions written investigation and cinema mashup.
  4. Follow the career of one particular actor who frequently works within the science fiction genre (such as William Shatner or Sigourney Weaver) and follow the science fiction films on his or her resume. How does the audio support his or her characters? Does the role he or she takes change during the course of his or her career, and does the audio change with him or her? Like option one, this would be a predominately written piece with video supplements.

Star Wars blurs the lines between science fiction and fantasy, adding a heavy dose of the “John Williams” genre

To realistically gauge how many times I’ve seen each of the three original Star Wars films would be an exercise in futility, and a sad one at that. For me, Star Wars fever began near the end of elementary school, at which time I began accruing toys, action figures, and trading cards, watching the films whenever I had the chance, especially on days when I would be home sick from school. It remains a staple in my life, as well as in my girlfriend’s life, as we return to watch the trilogy from beginning to end at least once a year to relive the magic. (She’s a keeper.)

As Michel Chion writes in Film, A Sound Art, everybody — including Ewan McGregor on set during production of The Phantom Menace — mimics the noise of the light saber during a mock light saber battle. It is perhaps this single detail that best makes his point about the new and different world the Star Wars films situate themselves in. As he writes, the sounds are there to get us to play along, with ships whooshing in outer space, laser blasters all adhering to a similar zapping sound, and light sabers crunching when they collide. However, I must say my favorite sound effects are the sound of the death star charging its canon, the indescribable screeching of the tie fighters as the zoom through space, and the sinister laughing of Jabba the Hutt and his belly companion, Scrum. I’ve been known to walk around our apartment mimicking each of these, including the cry of the Tuscan Raiders.

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2001: A musical mix of the sublime and the horrifying

Three years ago on Halloween, I decided that I wanted to make my house “scary” for the neighborhood kids. This, of course, was before I learned how to use arduinos, build circuits, or write code in any language other than HTML. So I decided to do the best thing I could think of at the time: put a couple big speakers in the window and blast a sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey on repeat. Specifically, it was the music behind the scene in which the monkeys discover the monolith. The music comes between 2:00 and 4:30.

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