Screaming In Space: The Sound of ALIEN, ALIENS, and ALIEN 3

A historical walkthrough of iconic sound design choices in the first three films of the legendary Alien saga

This piece quickly exploded into an opinionated tome, drawing on experience as a sound designer and Alien obsessive. I have focused on the first three films in the franchise purely because I haven’t yet had time to research the back half of the canon. Expect a second chapter on April 26, 2018.

Prologue: What is Sound Design?

For every sound in a film, someone found a way to record or create it and edit it into the mix. It may have been picked up by a microphone on set. It may have been reproduced in the studio using foley techniques. It may have been synthesized using any number of tools including hardware and software synthesizers and samplers, effects processors, or even tape manipulation (Hitchcock’s The Birds is an essential example of the latter).

For the purposes of this essay, I focus on sounds that, to my ear, represent a creative deviation from literal sound. Let me give you a famous example. In Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, the gorgeous slow-motion fight sequences include all of the face-pounding brutality you would expect, accompanied by low howls of pain and fury. However, sound designer Frank Warner and editor Thelma Schoonmaker also chose to illustrate Jake Lamotta’s (Robert De Niro) summoning of anger and energy with recordings of elephants bellowing, horses shuddering, and more animals re-pitched to hypnotic effect:

This is a radical challenge to what we expect of a sporting sequence, bluntly throwing us into pure metaphor. Music already serves this purpose, and we are perfectly accustomed to it; sound design choices rarely challenge us so frankly, but they can dramatically alter our perception of and response to a scene.

History and Context

Ridley Scott’s Alien was produced and released in 1979. To modern audiences at the time, computers were still great big mainframes in television shows and films, with reels buzzing and computer scientists in white coats retrieving magnificent amounts of data. Computers themselves were fairly alien to the general population, even as ever smaller personal computers were coming together in California garages and models like the Apple II and the Commodore PET 2001 were finding their ways into wealthier homes.

Computers were of course not yet dominant production tools in Hollywood, beyond some limited usage in motion control and generation of elementary dramatic graphics. The Avid and Digidesign editing systems were years away, and sound effects – and audiences’ expectations of them – were analog. When we say “analog,” we are explicitly distinguishing from “digital,” an ultimately arbitrary separation but that nonetheless carries a lot of baggage for audio producers. Analog sound, produced with electronics not yet dealing with 1s and 0s, is by definition imprecise. Pitches and timbres are difficult to manage with a pre-digital synthesizer. Foley is captured on tape and manipulated with practical means such as actual changes in recording environments (from a small room to a large room), re-pitching, and application of disorderly effects processors. Noisy radio and re-recording effects had become mainstream thanks to the heroic innovation of Walter Murch (Lucas’s THX-1138 and Coppola’s The Conversation) and Ben Burtt (Star Wars, of course).

James Cameron’s Aliens, released in 1986, landed during the tail-end of the first home computing boom. Video game consoles had begun to train our ears to associate clean, precise, staccato sound with digital technology. Automation had begun to overtake manufacturing and the height of physical technology was sonically represented by noisy hydraulics.

David Fincher’s Alien³, that unloved orphan that young fans are finally welcoming into the canon of misunderstood near-greats, enjoyed the first wave of digital sound editing with the broad proliferation of Digidesign’s Sound Designer and Pro Tools systems, significantly widening sonic possibilities and resulting in an almost infinitely more precise sound stage. Every single element on screen could now be precisely mirrored in sonic space; for any character’s voice, you hear every inch to the left, to the back, now behind a wall, etc. Producers were understandably enthused by the sudden availability of unprecedented realism and, as in Alien³, exaggerated the effect.

All this is to say: Any narrative or metaphorical interpretation of sound in these films must consider historical context. Were Alien produced today, perhaps its sound palette would be much more orderly, would feel far less organic than it does. Were Aliens produced today, perhaps hydraulics and screeching tires would instead be compressed air and buzzing drone propellors. When I enthuse about the techniques and metaphoric power of them, I do so with the understanding that these choices were frequently made in deference to the available technology and inevitable assumptions about its place in our future. And, of course, sound design is influenced by trends just like anything else. There are certain sounds that are popularized and every designer wants to produce their own take on them. Hipsters come in all shapes, across all eras.

Technology is Biology

Alien is about the search for biologic precision, a quest to overcome the boundaries of conventional technology by introducing a perfect organism into our industry and even bloodline. The film’s visual and audio design achieve a rare unity in support of this objective; in my opinion a far more advanced design achievement than the subsequent films.

The alien itself and the derelict wreck it comes from are often referred to as bio-mechanical thanks to HR Giger’s iconic psychosexual nightmare designs. However, our doomed crew’s sprawling mess of a space refinery, the USCSS Nostromo, is itself portrayed as a living environment. Its sounds are imprecise, lacking in constancy and timbral discipline, and bluntly suggestive of organic processes. Human technology in this film warbles and burps like a great fat baby. It breathes. Its bones creak and gurgle steam and water. Visually, the ship’s lines are rounded. Its rooms are padded in oblongs. Its exterior is a bloaty pregnant thing. Of course it is manufactured, but it is a disorderly machine.

When the Nostromo wakes from its journey to answer a mysterious call, its systems clunk and whine, a disorganized mess of errata.

There is little precision to this.

The ship’s mainframe, if that’s the right word, interfaces with its users via a weirdly personified, steadily breathing, fleshy-colored womb quite rightly called MU/TH/UR (aka “mother,” of course).

This scene alone is far more deserving of the bio-mechanical label than many aspects of the alien or the derelict. This continues. Brett and Parker, the grumbling engineers, spend their working hours consumed in the ship’s guts, loud gassy intestinal tubes characterized by wheezing pipes.

Human-made industrial products in this film are far messier than purely organic entities: the whole point is to surpass our capacity for precision by locating and examining a creature that is, in the words of the film’s wicked corporate stooge and weird-noodle-filled robot, Ash, “a perfect organism.”

The franchise’s robots perhaps best illustrate our failures as manufacturers. When challenged by Ripley Ash glitches and attempts to smother her with a magazine (what), inspiring Parker to knock his head off in a shower of white blood (which is not symbolic in the slightest). Having severed the tip of this ejaculating thing, the survivors roll his head up and interrogate it. His vocal processing is as glitchy as his personality, an  unkempt phase shifter or flange effect, a trill typically reserved for wayward flutes:

An aside, I can’t help myself: This choice reverberates through film history. My favorite resurrection of it is in Hellraiser 2: Hellbound: Upon his christening (satanening?) as a cenobite, the Doctor, Channard, speaks and wails in a wildly flanged voice straight out of a Heart guitar solo:

Alien³ repeats the effect on Bishop’s gutted torso, as he exhales through his final words: “I’d rather be nothing.” His dying sigh is another call-back to the opaquely organic sound design attached to the first film’s technology. Consider it: This robot is programmed to terminate with an emulation of a human sound of relief. What macabre programmer would take the job of designing an android’s sample banks to such extremes? Why? Because it is critical, in this universe, that technology mirror biology. Separating them is an arbitrary, reflexive human judgment. We do the same when we talk about “natural medicine” as opposed to pharmaceutical chemistry. Why are they distinct? Why is something manufactured by humans somehow exempt from organic existence? It is a ridiculous, artificial distinction.

As for technology in Aliens, it’s far less interesting to me from a sound design perspective. Its execution is masterful, but it is primarily about the fetishistic portrayal, with the illusion of accuracy, of penile weaponry and hydraulics. We hear many hallmarks of 1980s science fiction action; wildly exaggerated machine gun fire, the satisfied hum of forklifts and outsized vehicles, screeching tires.

Screaming in Space

Let’s talk about space. Not outer space. let’s talk about how sound designers contribute to tone and emotional response with the portrayal of environments. An environment is what we see and feel, such as a meadow where we see a stream and grass, but it is also what we hear, in this example the steady rush of the stream, and maybe grasses clashing gently in a breeze. A sound designer creates aural spaces that serve multiple purposes: match what we see on screen, and diverge from literal representation to create specific emotional responses.

The Alien films alternate between tight, airless spaces, and wide open spaces. Much of Alien is drenched in reverberation and echoes. The Nostromo is what we call “wet,” consistently creating the impression of an endless catacomb of chambers and rooms where a creature can hide (the dining room is an important exception, as its tight room tone emphasizes the abrasive nightmare of the chest-burster’s introduction). Consider the sequence when Harry Dean Stanton’s Brett tries to find Jones the cat who has confused the crew’s motion trackers and is running wild in the bowels of the ship. He ventures into a dripping wet water storage chamber, and his calls – and Jones’ distant response – are like an inquisition into the mouth of hell:

The sound is exaggerated for effect, and is all the more terrifying as a result. The long tail on the sound implies an unknowable distance, a vast empty space in which anything might wait to strike. (And, in this case, does. Poor Brett.)

Aliens generally favors tight sonic spaces. It is fundamentally the filmic equivalent of (and central inspiration for) a claustrophobic corridor shooter game. Its spaces are narrow, engulfed in gunshots, thunder, and fire. It’s an action thriller, entirely about sustained violence with occasional retreats into enclosed spaces. Noise is the point.

Alien³ is perhaps a landmark of spacial sound design, a radical exemplar of the power of still-young digital audio mixing, and a cautionary tale against hyper-designing a mix thanks to the ease of non-linear editing. The introduction of digital mixing environments suddenly made an accurate portrayal of a soundstage an attractive solution for editors, who then initially erred on the side of realism before clarity, attempting to approximate what actual human ears might experience were they placed atop the camera. On one hand this rewards careful listening and certainly reinforces the sense of great terrifying empty spaces. On the other hand, narrative shortcuts that have served film well since the inception of talkies are compromised. We expect to clearly hear a line of dialog and are frustrated when we do not. Fincher notably returned to this technique in The Game – another film that, like Alien³, is visually unafraid of artifice even while it sacrifices audio clarity to an arguable pursuit of realism. I recall objections to the mix in Alien³, to the point of questioning whether home video releases were defective. They were not.

The infamously horrific autopsy sequence, where poor Ripley must tear into her surrogate daughter’s chest cavity, wildly exaggerates room tones with voices absolutely soaked in reverbs that suggest endless gothic cathedrals, which are then punctuated awfully by the crack of Newt’s ribs. Or here, listen to Ripley explore the prison’s bowels, as every drip of water and breath and step and word bounce precisely across the audio stage:

This technique creates a sense of nearly infinite space, horizontal and vertical, where things may hide in the dark. The place itself is designed to suggest medieval dungeons married with well worn old machinery. The audio’s hardness and age and endlessness summons dread akin to Brett’s catcalling in Alien.

Define ALIEN

We all associate the aliens with hisses and elephantine screams, along with the usual goopy splats that we expect from slimy eggs and oozing guts and the like. Alien gave the chest-burster, our first xenomorph vocalization, a relatively uninteresting screech, followed by far more effective muted hisses and growls from the adult creature. It isn’t until Aliens that we hear the now iconic shrieks which, if they aren’t up-pitched elephant calls, they’re an impressive approximation. These are effective sounds, and I’m linking below to a fine assembly of examples. However, in the canon of unearthly tones, these are not particularly interesting precisely because they are not unearthly. If we can hear elephants here, we are constantly reminded of our own planet.

Music and Onomatopoesis

The scores for these films have inspired extensive study. Because I have focused on sound design, I want to comment specifically on the fascinating overlap between score and incidental sound in Alien, as well as the power of musical onomatopoesis.

Jerry Goldsmith was a genius, even when at his most casual and lazy. It’s well-documented that he first composed a relatively elaborate symphonic score for Alien, which then came up hard against Ridley Scott’s editorial wall. Scott wanted something minimalist and pointalist, suggestive of horror and vastness. Furthermore, Scott had already “temped” a segment of Goldsmith’s score for the earlier film Freud; as Kane rises from his cryo-sleep, a briefly hopefully orchestral swell rises with him. Scott kept this cue, and discarded much of Goldsmith’s lusher inventions. Goldsmith, embittered by this rejection, invested the least effort necessary to deliver on Scott’s requests – and, typically, the results are brilliant and terrifying. His avant-garde impulses were well-established; look no further than his remarkably violent and dissonant work for Planet of the Apes. He summoned much of the same energy, but withheld the brutality in favor of quiet refrains that onomatopoetically imply both suffocation and distance.

I was a literature major and still trade in old theoretical terms, so I’ll define onomatopoeia: simply put, words or sounds that sonically mimic the thing that they represent. So, the best juvenile examples: the word “fart” sounds like a wee airy blast, sharp and short. “Boob” is often cited, round as it is. So, in the following cue, Goldsmith deploys long amorphous strains that sound like stifled groans, bridged by quietly motific flutes, then closed by canonized string plucks that sound for all purposes as if they are echoing across space:

That groan reappears in another form that confuses my ears, during the initial de-boarding sequence. Kane, Dallas, and Lambert (that name, attached to the film’s most delicate character) venture into the stormy wasteland of LV-426 as Goldsmith’s strains follow them like sighs from the planet itself. For years I read that tone as an environmental sound effect, not instrumental; listen at :35 seconds into this clip.

I now strongly associate these strains with LV-426 in all of its incarnations.

Epilogue: What’s Next?

Each of the films in this bizarre multi-limbed franchise is more or less a standalone piece, with stylistic choices that carry over only the most essential elements from what’s come before. I hope for no different from Alien: Covenant. I’m eager to return to this topic for years to come.