the day the earth stood still.jpeg
The Day the Earth Stood Still, Robert Wise, 1951. Photo: 20th Century Fox
Stories & Ideas

Wed 25 Nov 2020

Electric sound in sci-fi

Film Pop culture
Maria Lewis
Maria Lewis

Assistant Film Curator

Though sci-fi films have been around since the very beginning of cinema in the late 1890s, it wasn't until the mid-20th century they got their defining sound.

Specific types of movies have a specific sound. It’s inevitable and over time, it becomes subconscious. Since Ennio Morricone’s iconic flute drifted across the dusty plains in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), it’s inspired, and defined, the sound of westerns. Likewise, horror movie scores often replicate the audience’s tension through stabbing string instruments like the violin and cello – just think of the shower scene in Psycho (1960) by Bernard Hermann. Science fiction also has a specific audio fingerprint and it’s one that rode the wave of electric sound that swept through Hollywood in the middle of the 20th century before entering independent and low-budget productions.

One instrument key to this was the Theremin Radio-Victor. The bizarre noise it’s known for making is most commonly associated with the alien invasion in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Harold C. Schonberg once described the sound of a theremin as a “cello lost in a dense fog, crying because it does not know how to get home”. In cinema, it was first used in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) by composer Miklós Rózsa capitalising on the tool’s uneasy sound. Yet it was Robert Wise’s sci-fi classic that incidentally saw the instrument most commonly associated with films in that genre, including The Thing from Another World (1951), Mars Attacks (1996), Monster House (2006) and First Man (2018).

Invented by Léon Theremin in 1920, it’s played through the process of harnessing electricity. Composer Bernard Hermann did this for The Day the Earth Stood Still by triggering multiple vibrations on the electronic instrument and setting up several theremins to be recorded all at once. Not bad for a man who also scored Psycho nine years later (and countless other iconic films). The theremin is definitely unique, but it's curiously similar sounding to the ondes Martenot, which has been used throughout cinema history, particularly by Elmer Bernstein, who employed its eerie electro-waves in the score for Ghostbusters (1984).*

On TV, electric sound was just as popular in sci-fi, albeit through very different means. In the original Star Trek (1966–69) series, composer Alexander Courage used a combination of electric instruments to create the now-iconic theme music. He even employed soprano Loulie Jean Norman – who famously sung backing vocals on The Lion Sleeps Tonight – to mimic the sound of a theremin vocally to give it an even more eerie quality.

Australian composer Don Banks commissioned the invention of his own device to bring Doctor Who’s battles with the daleks to life in the cult British sci-fi show, which began airing in 1963 and still runs to this day. The VCS3 was a portable synthesiser created in 1969 by Tristram Cary, David Cockerell and Peter Zinovieff at London’s Electronic Music Studio. It was originally commissioned by Banks, who wanted an instrument that would let him work at home. “Thank heaven for the age of miniaturisation because this was small enough for me to take to bed with headphones and start to explore a new world of sound,” he said in a BBC3 Lecture on electric sound.

While the electric guitar was reinvigorating rock and pop music around the same time, a whole different subset of electrical instruments and electric sounds were reinvigorating sci-fi in film. Forbidden Planet (1956) – a sci-fi movie so popular it dawned a whole franchise of comic book stores named after it – saw husband and wife composer duo Bebe and Louis Barron create what is considered the first full electronic film score. It has become an integral part of the film’s legend over the years, with the Barrons making the music by hand, using magnetic tape they cut and spliced together with recordings from equipment they built themselves. Noise effects were recorded, then distorted, and played back through other devices and looped much in the same way popular music artists like Imogen Heap, Ed Sheeran and Gotye do in live performances. It created otherworldly rhythm patterns that ended up coming to life with personality and depth, like a character of its own.

The tradition of electric sound in sci-fi has waned somewhat in the recent decade as orchestral scores have dominated the genre in movies like Arrival (2016). Yet the methodology and the aesthetic has lived on in other genres, with some of the great modern scores utilising electric sound and its tools like Drive (2008), The Social Network (2011), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and Black Panther (2018).

– Maria Lewis

*A previous version of this article incorrectly said a theremin was used in Ghostbusters.

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