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Jan Topolski – Embodiment through sound in sci-fi films 1956–1991
My thesis is about embodiment through sound in old sci-fi films. Whaaat?
Ok, it all started, I guess, in childhood, when I shared with my grandma a deep fascination
with outer space… We used to wake up in the middle of the night for the lunar eclipse, discussed
searching for extraterrestrial intelligence and watched obsessively the Star Trek series. Of course, we
laughed at all these fake latex ears and wrinkles of aliens as well as loud explosions in space vacuum,
where there should be no sound at all.
But why, actually? After years I realized that sound in film has to be artificial if it aims to
be… realistic. Composer and theoretician Michel Chion coined the term ‘rendering’ to describe
materiality of bodies transmitted by sound. I examine it through the lens of haptic and affect theories
that explain multisensory and physical experience of watching films. I chose the science fiction genre,
as it introduces obviously unseen – and unheard – worlds, events, and characters. It also shapes our
future like in computer or vehicle sound design.
Then I made an attempt to come up with some affect categories, inspired by writer Italo
Calvino’s Harvard Lectures. How do we feel the smoothness of heavy spaceships, flying cars or tele
transportation, like in Star Trek? How are we scared by the sliminess of alien creatures or paranormal
beings like in Ghostbusters? How are we disturbed by the uncanniness of Forbidden Planet or
futurist labs of Doctor Who? And eventually, how are we intimidated by the throbbing of laser
swords, photon torpedoes or other lethal weapons of Star Wars?
What I am trying to demonstrate is that, all this happens on the level of hearing – sometimes
even without seeing, like in sci-fi horrors, let’s take Alien. That’s the sense which allows for full
physical immersion in worlds represented in cinema. It is quick, it is direct, it is unconscious: all fit
very well in the ‘affect’ definition sketched by Gilles Deleuze. Thinking along these lines, Laura
Marks introduced haptic theory to describe mechanisms that enable us to physically feel textures or
smells of moving pictures.
Just as we felt them, back then, with my grandma.