Friday, December 7, 2007

Bill Whittington's Sound Design and Science Fiction

To Bill Whittington, I asked, “Sound is crucial for the credibility of visual effects. How are sounds made stylized, iconic, and distinct for each film?” At first I thought I was asking a specific question, but as I read Bill’s book, Sound Design and Science Fiction, I realized my question pertained to the art of sound design as a whole. As a Critical Studies professor in the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Bill Whittington writes unique and important work as an author of film criticism, with a strong understanding in the art and practice of sound design.
His book, Sound Design and Science Fiction, details the development of sound design from the experimental work of Walter Murch and Ben Burtt, where the concept of a sound designer was conceived, to the highly crafted and creative work of Dane Davis. He discusses how after 2001: A Space Odyssey, audiences grew increasingly conscious of a film’s sound track in terms of genre expectations and the meaning it conveys. He describes Walter Murch’s work on THX 1138 and Ben Burtt’s work for the Star Wars series. For example, the character of R2-D2 communicates completely through rhythmic electronic sounds which function as a subliminal language. This character is the comedic relief for the series and his charm is carried not by his limited movement and expressionless face, but through his articulate and expressive sound effects ‘language.’
Whittington goes on to describe sound design used for thematic effect in films such as Alien and Blade Runner, where sound informs the audience about the character and the environment. In Alien, the mechanical spaceship is infused with the biological sounds of rain, heartbeats, and breathing. The sound of the ship conveys a sense of a living mechanical entity. In Blade Runner, the removal of the voice-over in the Director’s Cut completely changed the meaning of the character of Deckard. This version was much more successful. It demonstrates the importance of thoughtful sound design for science fiction films and other genres.
As the art of sound design grew and more films required special sound textures, technology also progressed to allow multi-channel presentation, where “sound could be hung in a room like a production designer would hang textiles on a set.” This enabled the sound design to immerse the audience in the environment of the film and direct the eye to the right part of the screen. Whittington gives the example of Gary Rydstrom’s work on Terminator 2: Judgment Day, where he uses bone crunches and breaks oriented to different parts of the screen to make the violence in the film hyper-real.
Finally, Whittington concludes his research with a look into the future of DVD’s, multi-channel home theaters, and video games. In terms of sound design and science fiction, he examines Dane Davis’ work on The Matrix. By knowing the history and practices of sound designers that came before him, Davis was able to create a hyper-real environment for the Matrix that is rich in textual references, character descriptions, and meanings. Furthermore, the experience of ‘the ballet of violence’ in the film is carried to a large extent by the psychological and subjective sound design.
In my research of Bill Whittington’s work, I have learned to appreciate the changes in the science fiction genre from a B-picture status to the artistic merit it now enjoys. The book celebrates the spirit of experimentation that pushed the medium of film sound to the sophistication it has today. Sound design and visual effects are the main reasons why the cinema drastically changed after 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. As audiences became conscious of sound and had higher expectations of it, this required an artist who could specifically record, edit, and mix sounds that propel meaning into deeper realms and complete the experience of the spectacle. The sound designer brings credibility, insight, and impact to the film. For this reason, the sound designer is now an integral part of the collective art of cinema.

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