“Films are fiftypercent visual and fifty percent sound, sometimes sound overplays the visuals” (Lynch, 2002). Over the past century,the role of sound in films has evolved and changed significantly, originating fromthe first ‘talkie’ film- a film with a distinct soundtrack- ‘The Jazz Singer’ (Crosland, 1927).Perhaps one of the most revolutionary approaches to sound came from the StarWars franchise, when ‘A New Hope'(George Lucas, 1977) was released, and has since gone on to release anothereight films. In this essay, I am going to explain why I believe sound to besignificant in films- specifically looking at ‘A New Hope’ and ‘Attack of the Clones’ (Lucas, 2002).
Looking at how music, sound effects, and different types of sound design can beused in different ways to enhance and change films. ‘Star Wars: A New Hope'(Lucas, 1977) was a revolutionary film at the time of its release, and is stillregarded nowadays as a classic film- and the birthplace of one of the mostbeloved franchises on the planet. Star Wars was written and directed by GeorgeLucas, and despite receiving harsh backlash during production for it being sodifferent and unique, the film was released on the 27th December1977. The film was a roaring success, and (for a period of time) was thehighest grossing movie to ever be made but not only that, ‘A New Hope’ (Lucas, 1977) set the precedent for all sci-fi films tocome; one of the key factors to the movie’s success is down to the sound. One of the truly stand out features of ‘A New Hope’ is thescoring. The entire movie is filled with original compositions for a SymphonyOrchestration created and conducted by John Williams. His “climb to the top of his profession began in the 1970’s with his scoresfor the Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno”, (Scheurer, 1997) whichboth were nominated for Academy awards and won Oscars for the theme tunes intheir respective years.
After composing the score for ‘Jaws’ (Spielberg, 1975), he then went on to compose for A New Hope-as Spielberg and Lucas were close friends. Utilising the entire Symphonic Orchestra and the individualinstrumental techniques, Williams was able to create a score that emphasisedand amplified the emotions portrayed through the film via the visuals. However,the most noticeable feature of the music is the constant use and rendition ofmotifs- a strength that Williams began to experiment with in the Jaws score. Inmusic, a motif is a small section of music/sequence of notes that is tied toeither a place, a person, or an idea in the narrative- and can come back atnumerous times within a film, often at different tempos and orchestrations.This originated from the use of the ‘leitmotif’ from mid-19thcentury German compositions, the first recorded use was by Richard Wagner inhis Operatic works (1853-1869).
One of the main motifs heard throughout the whole film isthe theme titled “A New Hope”. We first hear this as a very stripped-downrendition at 0:4:43 when Leia places the plans into R2D2, then we hear thetheme with full orchestration at 0:24:30 as Luke stares out towards the famous’binary sunset’. It is heard in numerous other places in the film (such as theDeath star trench run at 1:50:56), and each time this motif is representing theidea of Hope: hope for safety, hope for a different destiny, hope for therebellion. I believe John Williams intended for the audience to associate thismotif with Hope, and this is an idea that he carried through into thecompositions for the other films in the trilogy as well- for example it is usedwhen Luke reaches out to Leia in Bespin towards the end of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (Lucas, 1980). I would also argue that the musical score is significant tothe film, because it helps to emphasise the emotions being portrayed throughthe visuals. For example, when Darth Vader strikes Obi Wan down (1:28:43), theNew Hope theme begins to play, however is interrupted when Luke screams, andthe music begins to escalate to reflect the climactic desperation displayed byLuke as he begins firing his blaster in vain. The music adds to the emotionsportrayed by the characters- and without it, the impacts of the scene would nottranslate across to audience nearly as well.
It is essentially informing theaudience that something major has occurred. Another example is the ending sceneof the film (1:53:43 onwards), where Luke, Han, and Chewbacca are presented withmedals- the music indicates to the audience that this is a momentous occasion.After analysing the full orchestral score (composed by Williams, 1980) I foundthe new hope theme, as well as Leia’s theme, the millennium falcon theme, andthe title theme. The purpose of this is to be the grand finale of the film, andmoves the audience as they are reminded of the epic journey they have justwitnessed, and they feel emotionally attached to the characters.
The scenewould still have meaning without the music; however, it heightens andemphasises the feeling of pride and accomplishment within the audience byrevisiting the thematic material and motifs established throughout the film. ‘A New Hope’ (Lucas, 1977) was not the first science fiction film,this was ‘Le Voyage dans le lune’ (GeorgeMéliès, 1902) and there were numerous entries to the genre in the 1960’s suchas ‘Planet of the Apes’ (FranklinSchaffner, 1968). However, it was the first film to utilise dialogue and theuse of sound effects as it does. The sound effects in the film were all created by head sounddesigner/assistant editor Ben Burtt and his team of foley artists, who weretasked to create sound effects for this strange new fictional universe. Theyhad to create new sound effects never before heard for essentially everythingin the film- some of which were the sounds used for: the tie fighters, theX-wings, lightsabres, blasters, light speed, and ships taking off. These (nowwell-known sound effects) were created from scratch through numerous differentmeans, for example; to create the sound of Darth Vader breathing, Burtt “placed a microphone inside a regulator on ascuba breathing apparatus, then breathed into it in different ways” (Ratcliffe,2016). Then for the sound of the lightsabres- the first sound he designed- herecorded the sound of “an old motor on aprojector in the USC Cinema department” (Ratcliffe, 2016) which created thebasis for the constant humming sound.
They took sounds from the real world, andexperimented with them to create sounds that help the Star Wars universe tofeel real and alive. Certain sounds used throughout the film have become so famous/wellknown, that they have essentially entered pop culture history. Such as Darth Vader’s breathing sound (heardfirst at 0:4:29) which is heard every time we see him in the trilogy, and hasbecome synonymous to his character- similar to a motif, however as a soundeffect. The same applies to R2D2’s ‘beeping’ form of communication (heard firstat 0:02:42), again tied to his character in all six films of the saga. Becauseof ‘A New Hope’s’ fame (Lucas, 1977),sounds such as these and many more have become instantly recognisable to thefranchise, but also to the genre of science fiction films. As previously mentioned, I believe the story in the film istold through a combination of the use of music/sound, and also through the useof dialogue.
The dialogue is classed as ‘diegetic sound’, meaning sound that is”presented as originated from sourcewithin the film’s world” (Bordwell-Thompsson, 1979)- meaning any sound thatis from the scene and that is a part of the narrative. ‘Non-diegetic sound’ isthe opposite, and is where it “comes froma source outside the story space” (Bordwell-Thompsson, 1979)- whichencompasses sound elements such as music/scoring, narrator’s commentary, orsound effects added for dramatic effect. Another reason that makes this film uniqueand significant is how they start to blur the lines between diegetic andnon-diegetic sound throughout. The sound effects and score have both beencreated in a way that feels natural to the audience, as it disguises the factthat this is all from a fictional universe. This is one of the main reasons whyI believe sound to be significant in this film, but also in all films- becauseit creates the perception of realism better than anything else, allowing theaudience to become fully indulged in the film.
Sixteen years after ‘Returnof the Jedi’ (Lucas, 1983) as the end of the original trilogy, George Lucasreleased the first of three new films, that would eventually form the “PrequelTrilogy”. These films explore the entire backstory in the Star Wars universe,and leads all the way up to the events of the Original Trilogy. The second filmto be released was titled ‘Attack of theClones’ (2002), was produced by Rick McCallum, and had original composedmusic by John Williams. As stated by Ben Burtt when working on this film, “the sounds and music in Star Wars are reallywhat gives the fantastic visuals credibility” (2002)- so I am going to lookat this film, and the significant role that sound plays. Echoing what I mentioned about the ‘A New Hope’ and the use of motifs throughout the film, ‘Attack of the Clones’ (Lucas, 2002) alsoutilises motifs and uses small sections of music as storytelling devices.
Oneexample is in the scene where Padme talks to Anakin after his mother has justpassed away (scene starting at 1:20:19): as he talks the music takes a suddenchange when he says how he “killed them all”- as the motif for the Sith beginsto play quietly in the background. As the conversation progresses, his angerescalates and at 1:22:17 we hear the ‘Imperial March’ theme play- which issynonymous to the character of Darth Vader, whom Anakin becomes in the nextfilm. The theme starts exactly how it is heard in the Original Trilogy with thebrass section playing the main motif, then dies down until it is played by onlya Clarinet- similar to Anakin’s thematic material from when he was younger inthe previous movie. In this short twenty second section of music, it links tohis past and clearly foreshadows his darker future- in addition to this it alsolinks to the original trilogy of films. In addition to motifs, the music indeed emphasises theemotions present (just as it did in ‘ANew Hope’), however in ‘Attack of theClones’ (Lucas, 2002) the way pieces of music are utilised enables them tohelp to tell the story- in some cases that is more important than thevisuals. One example is the use ofmusical scoring between Padme and Anakin- the main theme titled ‘Across theStars’- and how it represents the evolution of their love for each other. Whenthey arrive at the lake on ‘Naboo’ we first hear their love theme (0:43:25),however it is very minimalistic and it cut short when they realise that theirlove is not allowed.
“It is well knownthat this theme bears resemblances to other themes by John Williams, such asscoring from Nixon, and Hook” (Richards, 2015), in which it too links tothe idea/theme of love. Throughout the film it is revisited with differentinstrumentation and tempos, before it is finally recapitulated in the finalscene of the film where we see them getting married in secret- the scenecomposition is titled “forbidden love”. Although there are no words spoken, themusic is fully synchronous to the scene (starting at 2:09:16); meaning that themusic compliments/matches to the visuals.
Throughout the film their love issupressed until this crucial point where it is fully shown, and it mirroredperfectly by the music: the orchestration is far larger, there is morepercussion, more dynamic swells, and it is more expressively played- representinghow their feelings and attitudes have evolved to this climax. This being thefinal scene also adds additional weight, going into the third (and final) movieof the prequel trilogy. Finally, I believe that the use of sound effects plays a keyrole in ‘Attack of the Clones’ justas it did in ‘A New Hope’ (Lucas,1977 and 2002)- in fact many of the iconic sound effects are still present. Soundssuch as light speed, blasters, and R2D2’s ‘beeping’ can still be found, as canmany others including the sound effects used for lightsabres- the entire duelbetween Anakin and Count Dooku (starting at 2:01:39) does not feature anyscoring, and is accompanied only by the sounds of their sabres. The sound madeby them is far more refined than it was 25 years previously, and the mainreason behind this is that the vast majority of the sound effects in this filmhave been generated electronically- unlike when they were previously recordedby hand. As stated by Jordan. R (2007), “…theauditory dimension is now deemed worth of exploration in its own right”,which the past few decades have shown as sound is constantly developed andelaborated upon- proven here by the approach to sound effects.
Additionally, in some instances in this film, sound is usedfor creative licence- therefore playing a key role. For example, at 1:04:30explosions occur in space and there is a delay between the visual explosion andthe sound of it- this one second delay adds scale and magnitude. This wasspecifically mentioned in the script by Lucas (IMSDb, 2002), as it helps toamplify the sense of danger, which would have been lost without sound. To conclude, I fully believe that sound is significant infilms. Having looked at examples in the films ‘A New Hope’ and ‘Attack of theClones’ (Lucas, 1977 and 2002), I have looked at how the use of music is usedto emphasise the emotions established by the visuals- additionally how motifsin the music are used as narrative tools to represent characters/places/ideas.Sound effects can also be effectively used to create the ‘perception ofrealism’ by blurring the lines between ‘diegetic’ and ‘non-diegetic’ sound-thus indulging the audience further.
As films continue to evolve and push theboundaries, it is now clear to me that sound will always remain a vitalelement.