Sound design is one of those things that makes a huge difference in a film production, but that you never really think about. We're not talking about music here -- everyone knows the themes to Jaws, Indiana Jones, Star Wars and The Godfather (three of those made by the same guy, incidentally). We mean the robot beeps, heavy footsteps, massive explosions, monster roars, sword clangs and laser blasts that help bring a fantasy universe to life.
All of that stuff has to be created from scratch, usually by just one or two people. And usually, the high-tech sounds are created by whatever random shit they have nearby. For example ...
#5. The Star Wars Blaster Sound Is a Guy Smacking a Cable with a Hammer
This one is instantly recognizable. The wonderfully distinctive "pew-pew" of blaster fire in the Star Wars films sings through the action, whether Greedo is shooting first or the Stormtroopers are missing everything in sight.
Laser blasts kind of sound like bullshit in either case.
One would assume that the sound effect for a deadly piece of future technology would be made with ... well, technology. A computer mixing board or a synthesizer or some other engine of bleep-bloop witchcraft has to be responsible for creating those wicked laser sounds, right?
Legendary sound designer Ben Burtt (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T., Willow ... basically, this guy made the soundtrack to your childhood) decided to eschew the old sci-fi cliches of synthetic beeps and buzzes when he worked on Star Wars. Sure, he could've just used a synthesized oscillator to make the laser sounds, but he went above and beyond the call of duty. Way above, as it happens.
Star Wars Wiki
He also made the whummmm whum whum tssssssh whum. Bless you, sir.
Burtt, armed with a tape recorder and a microphone, climbed a nearby radio tower (this was before 9/11, when people could do things like that for no reason). Then, presumably while trying his very best to look like he knew exactly what he was doing, he beat the ever-loving shit out of one of the guide wires with a hammer, recording the sound of the strikes. After a little bit of cleanup in the production studio, voila! Laser sounds! Subsequent generations of nerdy children could now be kept safely indoors.
"I bet if I smashed that with a hammer it would sound like the future."
#4. The Dinosaurs in Jurassic Park Are Whales, Horses and Koala Bears
Obviously, no one knows what a dinosaur actually sounds like.
That being said, arguably most people's knowledge of dinosaurs comes courtesy of one film: Jurassic Park. That movie showed us all what dinosaurs looked like, how they moved and (most importantly for this article) what noises they made. That last part is the brainchild of one man, sound designer Gary Rydstrom.
Many scientists insisted that dinosaurs didn't really roar the way we might imagine them to, and more likely just made gurgling sounds, but Rydstrom saw how totally lame that was and decided that this time, science could go screw itself.
"Gurgles can suck it. The T. rex sounded like a freight train made of teeth."
The result was a library of dinosaur roars, screeches, grunts and snarls that has essentially become a scientific document in the popular consciousness.
Tasked with imagining the vocalizations of several distinct varieties of long-dead creatures with absolutely no frame of reference, Rydstrom started where you'd expect -- by recording some contemporary dangerous animals and tweaking the sounds. But it wasn't as simple as "record a lion and make it more dinosaury." It was much more insane. Take the most iconic dinosaur from the film, the Tyrannosaurus rex:
There are about a half a dozen animals involved in his "voice": a whale (for the breathing), lions, alligators and tigers (for the low frequencies of roaring), an elephant (his primary, gut-busting roar) and a freaking koala (for the grunting).
Seriously. Check out this video and listen to the similarities:
The part where T. rex eats the lawyer off the toilet? That visceral chomping sound is a horse eating a corncob. The raptors breathing? That's the same horse, just relaxing. And later on, when T. rex bursts into that clearing like the Kool-Aid Man and eats a gallimimus? That sound is another horse, a female in heat screaming at a nearby stallion, because it is completely reasonable to assume that giant lizard monsters made noises like that.
#3. The Opening of the Doors on the Starship Enterprise Is Paper Sliding from an Envelope
So you have your Federation-class starship, a sleek, futuristic environment that looks clean enough for neurosurgery. But what about the doors? They can't just swing open on creaky old hinges, that would be totally ridiculous.
And Star Trek is never ridiculous.
So the doors on the Enterprise slide open autonomously, making that distinct whooshing noise we've all come to recognize. Check it out here, in this Star Trek: The Next Generation clip (which not only illustrates our point, but is also a tour de force of unintentional comedy):
Picard's hilarious and vaguely sexual commands aside, what could be the source of that futuristic "fssshh" noise made by the door to his office?
Believe it or not, that sound is just a piece of paper getting pulled from an envelope and somebody's shoe squeaking across the floor. Honestly, that's all it is; listen again and it'll spring out at you clear as day. Every time Kirk or Picard goes through a door: fssshh, paper from an envelope, squeaky shoe.
Sometimes space sounds like a guy in wingtips opening his mail.
The new J.J. Abrams Star Trek film used a different inspiration for the door slide -- a vacuum flush toilet, because apparently he wanted to take the series in a different direction while still preserving its dignity.