The Sound of Science Fiction: Lalo Schifrin, Walter Murch & George Lucas

favicon-lwlFirst published in Little White Lies.

In the late 1960s, the easy riders of New Hollywood brought about two revolutions to the movie business. The first involved new modes of marketing, production and aesthetics. The second occurred in sound. Pioneering figures such as Walter Murch, Ben Burtt, and Randy Thom changed the way we hear film forever, and it all began with a single science fiction movie.

THX 1138, released in 1971, was the first film to emerge from American Zoetrope, a studio established in San Francisco by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola in a fractious deal with Warners. The movie, based upon a Lucas short shot four years earlier while he was a student at the University of Southern California, marked the feature debut of Lucas. Perhaps ironically considering his future output, he later stated that it had been his intention to react against the fantastical elements of science fiction with what he referred to as “science fact.” His film drew its influence from European films such as Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey rather than the comic book heroism which continued to dominate the genre.

Included the opening sequence of the original theatrical release featured a clip from Things to Come, replaced later with a scene from a Buck Rogers serial. These adventures are literally shoved aside two minutes in by a more believable account of the escape of a worker from a totalitarian dystopia. The narrative, governed by surveillance and pacifying drugs amounted to a galaxy far, far away from the subsequent space opera of Star Wars. It wasn’t just genre conventions that the director hoped to topple. A 25-year old wunderkind when the film entered production, Lucas had first met Coppola on the set of The Rain People after winning an internship at Warner’s following his graduation. The formation by the pair of American Zoetrope shortly afterwards was intended as anathema to the stuffy systems of Hollywood, with THX 1138 their first shot across the bows of the old guard.

Science fiction films of this period were beginning to reflect a social and political anxiety. This paranoia was fed by the escalation of the cold war into the napalm heat of US operations in Vietnam. All over television at the time was coverage of a space race whose glamour had quickly faded once Kennedy’s pledge to reach the moon had been accomplished and, as early as 1970, questions were being raised as to huge cost of NASA’s grand project, and its benefits. THX 1138 reflected all of these feelings and, in addition to its rejection of the films that had preceded it, Lucas also played against many of the accepted traditions of film making, perhaps most notably through his inversion of the relationship between sound and visuals.

Working closely with co-writer and sound editor Walter Murch, Lucas’ plan for the film was that sound would not be secondary to the image, but equal to it. In describing the brief for THX 1138, Murch stated that he and Lucas had, ”wanted a film from the future, rather than a film about the future.” Their intention was to find this future through the design of a soundtrack which featured complex montages of recordings built from over 20 layers of sound, which took Murch a year to complete. These blended dialogue, effects and music to create a cacophony of noise that rarely let up across the film, each scene constructed entirely differently from the one that preceded it, and that which followed.

The accompanying publicity for the film made a point of these new approaches. While the studios would traditionally rely on a pre-recorded sound library, Murch had created every single sound in the film from scratch. He played with the speed of his tape recorder and used a variety of microphone techniques, in addition to experimenting with what he would later describe as worldizing; the rerecording of sound played through loudspeakers in real spaces. On one occasion Murch noted, Lucas would transmit dialogue over a ham radio, with Murch rerecording the broadcast from the ether. These techniques allowed Murch to create effects that evoked the filmic space with which they were associated or, more often, were deliberately manipulated in order to disorientate the audience. These effects moved away from traditional attempts to mimic reality in sound, in much the same way that Brecht broke the fourth wall of theatre, and served to challenge notions of realism in film.“I love escaping into new worlds,” admits Ben Burtt, the sound designer who worked with Lucas on all six of the Star Wars films, was thrust into the spotlight for his work on WALL-E last year and contributed to the sound design of JJ Abram’s reimagining of Star Trek. “It is especially exciting when you do science fiction as that kind of film requires sound for things no one has ever heard before; vehicles, places or mechanics and robots. It’s quite challenging, but a wonderfully creative opportunity where you are free to be inventive and not held to any particular ground rules.”

Perhaps ironically, the sound of science fiction is often surprisingly low tech. Consider the creaking of the ship in Alien, the clanking of the Death Star in Star Wars, or the servo whine of the titular Terminator. Technology, in spite of miniaturisation, must remain both audible and visible, the sound designer reinforcing the sense of the real in an audience no matter how fantastical the narrative. “People think we do everything in the computer”, explains Burtt, “and though we process the sounds there, almost all of the sounds we use are those that we have gone out and collected from somewhere. WALL-E’s environment for example is dominated by wind noise, made from the sound of dragging a canvas bag across a carpet – an old idea that has been used for a few hundred years to create the sound of wind in opera – coupled with the sound of Niagara Falls run through an echo chamber. Often you go out to record something specific and end up recording something else. I live near a police officer and asked him to come around, as I wanted to record the buzz and snap of his Taser. Unfortunately the sound wasn’t very interesting, just a pop and a click, and I ended up recording the opening and closing of his handcuffs, using them for the body movements of a cockroach. I’m always grabbing little pieces from my life and weaving them into a new fabric.

“My criteria for good sound is in opposition to what people might think, in that it’s not the quantity of sound,” adds Burtt. “It is pretty easy nowadays to take a sound effects library and really pile things on – it’s like word processing, you just cut and paste and make a really busy, noisy soundtrack. Instead, I look for films which create a world that the audience really believes, has depth and the right character to it. It is hard to make something really articulate and specific where if you took away the sound the story would not be the same. I owe a debt of thanks to the freedom of the Star Wars films, where I created light sabers, the breathing of Darth Vader and the scream of the tie fighter – all things that have since entered cinema folklore.”Murch reiterates this notion, “to record a telephone ring I think of recording the space between myself and the telephone. What I’m really recording is a relationship between the telephone and the space around it. Sound without air has no smell.”

These revolutions in sound were reinforced in the music to THX 1138. Lalo Schifrin was brought onto the production in the summer of 1970, taken on, he explains, as he was not, “a typical Hollywood composer.” Schifrin was still best known for his scores for Bullitt and Mission Impossible, but had turned his hand to increasingly avante garde projects by the late 1960s. As he explains, “I first met George Lucas on the Warner Brothers lot in Los Angeles in the spring. I didn’t have any screenplay or anything to read at that time, and it wasn’t until I was hired to write the score that I went up to Marin County and saw the movie. I liked it very much and he talked through the concept with me; a future police state which existed in a subterranean world created following an exchange of nuclear weapons in a war between the super powers.”“He gave me some direction but otherwise I had complete freedom, which I liked. My concept came from the subterranean setting, and was of a hermetic environment where the textures in the score were asphyxiating, with no space between the individual sounds.” Though Schifrin had used a 50-piece orchestra, the score had an electronic quality. “That density was created by the tonal and sound clusters I used,” he explains. “In addition, all of the individual string notes were sustained near the bridge of the string and, as such, had no vibrato. That makes a very cold sound which, in conjunction with the notes that were written next to it, further served to dehumanise the score. I wanted to reflect that these characters were living in an impossible position, and hoped that this would create an atmosphere of a totalitarian and tyrannical state.”

“There are many depressing musical moments in THX 1138,” admits Schifrin. “I was not depressed, but I had to contribute that kind of depression to the movie.” These components of the score are countered with source music, chirpy jingles of bossa nova which play intermittently in the film’s public spaces. ”The background music was purposefully mediocre and stupid, and represented another way in which the state was tranquilising the population.” Not included in the film, but on a recent rerelease of the original soundtrack, is the psychotic chirpiness of a piece of music entitled Be Happy Again. “George Lucas liked that very much,” Schifrin explains, laughing, “After the scoring session everyone was singing that song.”

“What distinguishes the film for me was that while there where many science fiction films led by action, this was an entirely different kind of story, more Orwellian. There are no battles happening in space, there is no tolerance of transgression and the population are afraid to talk and are told what to do – in that sense this was a different kind of science fiction completely. There are chases, but even these happen in the subterranean world that Lucas had conceived and the music I wrote for these was very different from a chase I would score in other circumstances. I have approached every film that I have worked on differently, as they each involved a different concept and a different idea, but this was such a special movie that I haven’t written music like that before or since. Every film is like a thumb print, and the good thing about this discipline is that there are no laws – everything is allowed.

THX 1138 is available on DVD now through Warner Home Video. Lalo Schifrin’s original soundtrack is available through www.filmscoremonthly.com. Other Schifrin scores are available through www.laloschifrin.com

First appeared in Little White Lies #23

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About Kingsley Marshall

Kingsley Marshall is Head of Film at the CILECT accredited School of Film & Television based within Falmouth University in the UK. The subject area consists of 28 staff working with 300 undergraduates studying the Skillset accredited BA (Hons) Film degree, supplemented by a postgraduate community studying from MA level through to PhD. Kingsley’s research and practice primarily orientates around the use of sound (including music and effects) in cinema and television, and the production of short and micro-budget feature films, executive producing Wilderness (Doherty, 2017) which won 11 awards at 16 international film festivals since making its premiere at Cinequest in 2017, and producing Project 18 (Mackfall, 2018), currently in post-production. For over twenty years he has worked as a journalist, interviewing filmmakers, musicians, and designers for over 30 publications and broadcasters worldwide, written album sleeve notes and biographies for over 100 artists, and contributed to anthologies on hip hop and soul. He can be found on Twitter as @kingsleydc