Scary Noises and Otherworldly Tones: Horror, Sci-Fi, and The Audio That Changed The Industry

When Getty Images added sound to the 1922 film Nosferatu, they were continuing a grand tradition of spooky innovation

Imagine Jaws without John Williams’ menacing two-note score or Dracula’s “children of the night” without their howls. Imagine Darth Vader if he had silent breathing apparatus, or Close Encounters of the Third Kind without that signature five-note earworm.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind - First conversation with the ETs

Sound adds plausibility to the non-existent—interstellar spaceships, sentient robots, supernatural entities—and, as the old saying goes, necessity is often the mother of invention. In order to make the unreal sound real, sound designers were sometimes forced to get creative with mixing incongruent sounds or, in some cases, even inventing new musical instruments—like The Apprehension Engine, and the time-honored Theremin, which found its way from a Russian research project to Hollywood sci-fi flicks of the `50s, like The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Horror Musical Instrument - The Apprehension Engine

In celebration of the innovative spirit of horror and science fiction films, and as a way to highlight its extensive audio stock library, Getty Images—via BBDO Brazil— recently reimagined the 1922 silent vampire thriller Nosferatu as a sound film. On NonSilentFilm.com, you can see how ambient sound, music, and even snippets of dialogue alter the entire feel of the horror movie landmark.

“We created a series of what we call creepy effects, which helped give an air of suspense or horror,” says Cristiano Pinheiro, Sound Designer at BBDO.  For example, the team created an audio identity for the book featured in the film. Whenever (the characters) Ellen and Hutter open the book, it’s like they are cursed,” adds Pinheiro.

In support of the Not Silent Film campaign, we talked to a number of film sound designers and composers to get their thoughts on some of their favorite, and some of the most groundbreaking, uses of sound and music in genre films.

Creepy Ambience

Oscar-nominated sound editor Scott Hecker, currently working on Warner Bros.’s Justice League superhero team up, relishes off-beat sounds for building suspense in films such as The Exorcist, The Shining, Seven, Pans Labyrinth, and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 thriller The Birds, which used natural bird sounds enhanced with synthetic noises and other elements:

Crows Attack the Students - The Birds (6/11) Movie CLIP (1963) HD

Hecker loves the ambient sounds that infuse creepy ghost movies like The Others, The Orphanage, and, especially 1963's The Haunting, with Julie Harris. “It’s a black and white film about ghosts with all sound-related tension, creepiness and scares...freaked me out as a youngster!” he says. “I also worked on 2008's The Strangers, a scary film filled with off stage sound based tension, fear and scares....creepy!”

Creepy scene from "The Haunting"(the original 1963 one)

But Hecker’s go-to film for such flourishes? “I immediately think about David Lynch’s [1977 film] Eraserhead, and sound designer Alan Splet's ground-breaking sound design with unusual ambiances, atmospheres, and drones accentuating the mysterious tension and anticipation the characters are experiencing....one of a kind.”

Eraserhead (1976) - Unutulmaz Sahneler

The Sound of Silence

Paul Sandweiss, a multi-Emmy Award winning sound designer and mixer with Sound Design Corp., worked on such films as The Last Waltz and The Jazz Singer, but now specializes in live events, such as the Superbowl Halftime Show and Academy Awards.

“Silence—or minimal use of sound or notes—can also be one of the most effective tools in a sound designer or composer’s palette, but it’s way underused,” he says. “Lowering the ambient sound and letting the visuals drive the scene, can often punctuate comedic delivery, let great dialogue shine, build suspense, or drive emotional impact.”

Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic 2001: A Space Odyssey uses silence and minimal sound to portray the crushing isolation and vacuum of space, as in this scene in which astronauts plot against the spaceship’s computer, HAL:

2001: A Space Odyssey #5 Movie CLIP - Hal Reads Lips (1968) HD

Analog Rocks!

With all the computer audio programs available today, sound designers often throw props to the masters of yore for devising clever analog methods of achieving iconic audio signatures.

Ira Cord Rubnitz is a composer, sound designer, and recording engineer who has worked with Sony and Electronic Arts videogames, musicians Smokey Robinson and Chick Corea, and music libraries Megatrax and A List Music. He cites such novel approaches as the manipulated lion’s roar for King Kong and Star Wars lightsaber sound, a combination of idling projector hum and TV picture tube buzz.

Ben Burtt on Lightsaber Sound Design

But his favorite cinematic sound effect is the roar from the 1954 Godzilla. “They detuned the strings of an acoustic contrabass, aggressively rubbed them with resined leather gloves, and recorded that on tape, which they then rocked back and forth along the tape heads in edit mode for the main sound. Then they added elements of low piano and glass breaking. Akira Ifukube, the composer, came up with that. It was so brilliant—who thinks of that?”

Godzilla 1955 Roars

Immersive Sound

Oscar-nominated sound designer Erik Aadahl is sworn to secrecy on the ingredients of the 2014 Godzilla roar, which took some four to five months of experimenting. (Learn more at The Sound of Godzilla documentary.) His other films include a wide array of genres—from Argo, Tree of Life, Kung Fu Panda, and the Transformers franchise.

Godzilla 2014 - Airport Roar

“Sound is interpreted through the more primitive part of the brain than sight,” says Aadahl, adding that veteran sound designer Walter Murch—who worked on Apocalypse Now and the Star Wars franchise—“described sound as entering through the `back door’ of the brain, the medulla, with images entering through the `front door,’ the cortex. Because of this, sound allows for more disguised experiential manipulation. There is vast leeway in sound's believability. It can connect to completely disparate images.”

“Sound's effect can be elusive, not as obvious but just as powerful, as what our eyes see,” says Aadahl. “The sound designer's job in cinema is to utilize sound as half the sensory experience.”

Found Sounds

Kathie Talbot, was a former advertising composer for BMW, Budweiser, and Verizon campaigns, before specializing in sound design for film trailers, such as Get Out and Money Monster. She was part of a Golden Trailer Award-winning campaign for the foreign thriller Evolution.

Get Out Official Trailer 1 (2017) - Daniel Kaluuya Movie

“The films that impact me as a sound designer are ones that aren’t so much musically as environmentally scored,” says Talbot. “Eraserhead, There Will Be Blood, and Black Swan, which had an eerie understated sound design. Dunkirk sounded like [composer] Hans Zimmer and the sound design team melded their worlds into a single key. No Country for Old Men turned organized elements of wind and air into an unusual sounding drone.

“That’s part of my specialty—I use my voice, breath, and hums and turn them into dissonant tones, she says. “For me, sound design is like organized, abstract chaos where I can turn anything into an interesting element. There’s a bathroom on the Warner Bros. lot that has an odd generator-type noise. I recorded it with my iPhone, put it though some reverb, and used it in an upcoming Chinese movie called Buyer Beware. It gave one scene a really weird pulse.”