In the 1956 sci-fi movie “Forbidden Planet,” there was a trash device—toss in whatever and it would be instantly vaporized. Being at the age where cleaning house and doing dishes were two of my more dreaded household chores, I was pretty enamored with how I could use such an appliance. Of course, that approach to efficiency wouldn’t work today. Environmentalists would be up in arms: “What the hell’s wrong with recycling! We need to preserve our resources!”
But think about it—how Hollywood might have handled the concepts of recycling and the preservation of resources then might have produced some forward-thinking products of today. The hottest one on the market might be the ZapIt cleaning machine. After all, lasers have been zapping everything from trash to cancerous tumors in our modern world. The focus has not been on lasers as household cleaning utensils but as weapons of war and medical treatment. And why zap dust when there are enemies out there that need zapping? I have no way of knowing how advanced laser-based weapon systems have really become—my security clearance does not extend much beyond the level of newspaper headlines—but likely we’ve exceeded the science fiction of Hollywood.
Were my childhood friend and neighbor Tom Risa still around, I think he would join me in voting “Forbidden Planet” as one of the best sci-fi flicks of all time because of the quality of its special effects, especially those in the labor-saving, household utilities category. The plot has pretty much become a faded memory, but it had superb special effects that remain impressive today. One of these was the first robot movie star, which later continued to star in a TV series as Robbie the Robot.
Besides suggesting the need to develop humanized androids, the “Forbidden Planet” trash laser was the ultimate in cool. As I recall, it was a sort of column into which you could toss virtually anything after lunch and ZAPP! It’s instantly vaporized. No dishes to wash, no trash to take out—very appealing to a 10-year-old in those days before mechanical dishwashers.
In later movies this early sci-fi household convenience became weaponized into “ray guns” and “blasters.” Wow! To think I was at the dawn of sci-fi noise making sound effects necessary to give these devices resonance respectability. I mean, if you had a space-age ray gun, i.e., laser, it needed to sound space age. That wasn’t an easy transition from the “pow” of a cowboy’s revolver to the gggggrrrrrzzzzzaaaaaapppp of Captain Midnight’s ray gun. It was easy to get tongue-tied trying to maintain and get to roll off the tip of your tongue the appropriate introductory “gggrrrrrrr . . .” of whatever advanced weaponry with which you were armed.
The good Captain was also the perfect canned hero, as one description makes clear:
Captain Midnight was a daring, jut-jawed war hero who led a mysterious government group known as the Secret Squadron. Midnight, his comic sidekick Icky, and the rest of the Squadron traveled around the globe stomping out evil.
They probably should have said, “zapping out evil.”
The nice thing about playing in a futuristic world back then was that anything could become a prop and we all were experts in sound effects. If you were a cowboy in need of a six-shooter sound, you could mimicked the sound of a six-shooter, hardly a challenging task. We had such cowboy models as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy giving us lessons at the Saturday matinees. They taught us about guns and how to handle them, and, more importantly, what they sounded like were you to achieve as adequate level of authenticity. And you couldn’t be a cowboy unless you could spin your weapon on your trigger finger . . . without getting a blister. These were the early years, the time before the time when good guys wore white hats and the bad guys black ones. Hoppy’s hat was black.
It was era of radio. Sound was king. The sound effects brought scenes alive in our imaginations. I remember sitting on the couch in semi-darkness as the Lone Ranger, emanating from the radio, steadied his horse Silver with a soothing, “Steady, Big Fella,” as the stead’s hoofs clattered against the hard-surfaced ground. Silver would dutifully whinny and settle down. I don’t recall Scout ever giving his master, Tonto, much of an attitude. There I sat in rapt attention caressing my own six-shooter, and whinnying like Silver, ever ready in case some outlaw were to burst through the front door. Usually it was just Dad getting home from work, but I “plugged” him anyway.
I mean to tell ya. I was there at the beginning, as we transitioned from the sound effects of a spinning cylinder of a forty-five to capturing the sounds of a space-aged conflict with Martians. We didn’t have any good models for the latter, but then no one could prove we didn’t sound accurate.
In part because there had not yet been any actual space travel, it was left to my generation to invent the sounds of intergalactic travel and conflict. These new sounds were considerably more complex than the simple “pow-pow-pow” of a Colt 45. As I think back, “pow” might have been the sound made when you socked a bad guy in the jaw and “kapow” or “capow” was the sound of your trusty 45. Maybe some future Ph.D. candidate in linguistics will study the evolution of the syllabic characteristics as cowboys transitioned into space explorers and give my generation credit for how space travel came to sound as it does today.
Tom and I got pretty good as sound effects men. We’d sit at the picnic table on the rear patio of my house and practice them. Frequently that involved mimicking the sounds we had just heard in the sci-fi movie we had just seen. Tom went on into space exploration, working on the early Voyager projects, but he was never asked to develop the sounds of intergalactic travel.
Had they asked, he and I would have gladly recorded a track for the golden LP that was sent off into space glued to the side of the first Voyager. I can just see it being intercepted by some intergalactic explorers from out beyond Pluto somewhere, and who decided to forgo an attack on the third planet from our sun for fear of encountering such ferocious weaponry as heard on the “golden disk.” Think of it—the sound effects that saved our world!
It’s not that sound is no longer important these days. It’s been somewhat modified and supplanted by visual effects and tones considerably more eerie and broader in range of sound and modulation. Pull the trigger on a ray gun today and you’ll hear some pretty awesome stuff.
This might sound like a “When I was boy” kind of story, but when I was a boy you had to use your imagination to fill the gaps between what you heard on the radio or saw in a movie and what you came up with to serve as your reality against the Venusians marauders climbing over the backyard fence. Turn a kid lose in his father’s workshop and thirty minutes later he’d emerged equipped with some awesomely destructive something or other made real by some gutturally-produced sound effects. Today, to find such sounds you have to turn a kid loose in a toy store where they probably story old imaginations high up and at the rear of a back shelf.
That was close! Best keep a weary eye out for those creatures. They like to hide in your imagination. When you bring them out to play, they’ll likely turn on you. Just like that!
By the way, that’s Martian for “Want to play a game?”