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Why Is There Sound in Outer Space?

The sound designer for the new ‘Star Trek’ explains why movie soundtracks aren’t bound by the laws of physics

Science fiction has produced some of the most iconic, boundary-pushing sound effects in film and television history, from War of the Worldslegendary foley artistry to the extraterrestrial voices of the Star Wars and Alien franchises. But one question has continued to drive sci-fi nerds more and more berserk as sound technology has advanced: If space is a vacuum — in which sound technically cannot be transmitted — why do so many films and TV series about interstellar travel continue to flout the laws of physics by inserting sound effects into space scenes?

MEL decided to demand answers from Peter Brown, sound designer and editor for the new Star Trek Beyond (out in theaters today). Turns out, the rationale is way more logical than you might think.

So… whyyyy?
It’s the demand of the genre, really.

How do you mean?
Well, it would be extremely boring [without sound]. I bet you can imagine your favorite moments in any film, something that you just thought was a really great moment. Chances are, there’s music playing behind that.

Outside of having your car radio on, or maybe your iPhone headphones on, we really don’t walk around and interact with each other with sweeping orchestral strings behind us. We don’t have fights with our spouses and loved ones with Taiko drums slamming around — and yet that’s what happens in films all the time. I think the same is true with sound in space.

Can you elaborate?
[Without it], you’re not getting as much information, not as much storytelling, and it is just not as exciting without music and without sound effects. There are other similar examples like that. If you see someone on a distant hill shooting a gun, sound travels so much slower than light, so there [should be] this big delay. Every time [sound designers] try to do that in a film, everybody complains.

It’s always a no. It very often comes up, but it always gets shot down, because it looks like a mistake. It looks like an out-of-sync sound job when you actually play perspective realistically. I have never had a situation where it really worked.

Does that kind of tension — between what looks or sounds right on screen and what actually would happen according to the laws of physics — come up a lot when you’re working on science fiction projects?
Yeah, you always discuss those things and try them out. Like, “Hey, there are no explosions in space, let’s try it here,” and you play it through silently, and it’s like, “Nah. Boring.”

Now that I think of it, there are a few moments in the 2009 Star Trek where the silence of space is used, like when Kirk and Sulu are rocketing down to the surface of Vulcan.
Well, when you talk about a moment of silence, versus a whole scene, that’s pretty much our most powerful tool in the sound designer’s toolbox. If you want to have an explosion sound big, you need to not only make it loud, but you also have to carve away all the sound that precedes it.

If you keep on throwing the biggest explosions on top of the biggest explosions, there’s no longer any contrast. And with all these action films, there’s something going on every single second: Somebody is screaming orders to somebody else, some piece of plot is coming through dialogue, the music is wailing away, the sound effects are exploding, things are crashing into one another. The use of silence is extremely deliberate.

They need you to make it sound believable.
Yeah, believable or [at least] believable for the demands of the genre. Because if you look at big action films there is nothing really scientifically believable about any of them. So if you just presented normal sound — if you had two big bald guys who get into a fight and they are punching each other and they put in the real sounds of punches…?

Not so cool.
It would mess up the reality of the world in that film. So, you might start with real punches but you would layer on a heavier object.

Like a sandbag slap.
Yeah, anything up to almost an explosion. And it’s okay in that world, because it makes it seem hyper-real, like these guys could really run through a wall, or this spaceship really could crash into an alien planet and the people on board could somehow live.

So what you’re saying is, if you were playing by all the rules, half the plot would not be there.
Yeah, there are certain things that the audience just wants to happen even if they do not make sense whatsoever. We are a service industry, kind of. [If] our hero, every time he gets thrown against a wall, sustained a spinal injury, he’d be laid up in a hospital for the rest of the film. We need him to get up and go have another fight.

That’s an interesting parallel I’d never considered — not many sci-fi fans are complaining about the physiological impossibilities of action scenes. The sound-in-space thing is basically the same scenario.
But then there are other instances, like in the Paranormal Activity films. We tried to simulate reality, and what we found is, whenever we tried to Hollywood it up, whenever we would put in sounds to augment things — just making things sound the way we do in our action film — it ruined the conceit of the film. [Ed. Note: Paranormal Activity and its sequels are filmed to appear like Blair Witch Project–style documentaries.] We had to take it out, because it sounded too artificial, too manipulative, too manipulated.

Also, we have a 50-year legacy of sound that has come before us, so there’s expectations. If Star Trek had started out as a franchise where all the space-battle scenes were done silently… then it would have been perfectly appropriate to continue it.

That’s a great segue into another question I had: How many of the old 1960s Star Trek sounds did you have to work with? Did you have to recreate any?
That was the funnest stuff: mixing and matching legacy sounds with a new spin on them. You’ve got, for example, in this film there, like in most Star Trek films, a wide variety of transporter sounds. People transport from here to there, and that sound was established 50 years ago. Each one of the Star Trek films modified [that] a little bit, but anyone who is a Trekkie (and probably a lot of people who are not), no matter which iteration they hear of that transporter sound, they know it, because this kernel, this DNA of the original sound, is in each version.

What’s different about working on a Trek project versus other projects? Are there unique constraints for you, beyond the legacy sounds you mentioned?
All these doors are opened up when you work on a Star Trek movie. There’s just a huge world of sound suddenly available to you, sounds that in normal, terrestrial-based film, even in an action film, a director would throw out and say that sounds “too sci-fi” or “too synthetic.” All the sounds that come out of synthesizers that sound like they came from a 1960s sci-fi show — using those in any film would be corny, but in Star Trek? It might just be the most appropriate sound.

It sounds awesome, and you’re not even “getting away with it” — it’s a deliberate nod to, not only trade-wise, to the sound designers who came before us, but also to the fans. You’re giving them a little taste of home, a little familiarity that doesn’t overshadow what’s going on in the sound design of the Enterprise, but is still a nod back to a previous time and a tradition that people really appreciate.