- October 26th, 2012
- Write comment
Close Encounters of the Third Kind was scored by John Williams, a regular Spielberg collaborator – but as much as I do enjoy a John Williams score every now and again, I’m not really going to talk about that in so much detail. What I always notice when watching the film, is how busy it sounds – there’s always some kind of action going on with the sound (scientists going about their jobs) and people talking over the top of other people. Perhaps it doesn’t feel as natural or as grating as something like California Split (Robert Altman; 1974), but I think it has echoes of that.
There is one scene that I absolutely love for the sense of urgency and tension that is created, but without the use of music at all – it’s quite early on the film, and it’s the air traffic control scene. It begins with a layered mix of various pilots calling in, routine calls, nothing really distinguishable. Then the film focuses on one controller, as a pilot radios in to ask about any traffic in areas 31. The rest of the control room becomes a hum in the background as the controller and the pilot try to work out what exactly it is that is flying in such close proximity to areas 31. As they give vague descriptions of the aircraft, several other controllers in the centre gather to watch the spectacle that is about to unfold. They start discussing amongst themselves what it could be (”I’ve never seen anything like that..”) while the controller in contact with the pilot relays directions on the UFOs position and trajectory. This is when they first start talking over each other – when I’m watching this, my instinct is to try and listen to the first controller, but I can choose to filter him out and listen to the others if I want. Things are getting more urgent.
All of a sudden, the pilot says ‘Wait a second’, and there is greater urgency in his tone – the UFO now appears to be on a collision course, and an alarm (an electronic beeping) begins to sound. Everyone begins speaking a lot faster, and as the controller relays instructions (speaking quickly, but firm) everyone around also begins to speak – a supervisor orders another controller to call the army and ask if they’re testing anything. Nothing is overdramatised with music, but everything is tense and the scene gripping.
Soon, the tension lets up as we here the pilot say “It’s coming right by us, right now” and a distorted ‘whoosh’ sound comes through the radio, as the UFO sweeps past. They are asked whether they want to report a UFO officially, and the silence coming from the line is in stark contrast to what we previously heard. It’s almost like coming down from an adrenaline rush. The background noise of all the radios is still there, but it feels no where near as noticeable after the great flurry of activity that we just heard.
To end this post, I’ll refer to a piece of trivia I read on the IMDb page:
The John Williams score was created before the film was edited. Steven Spielberg edited the film to match the music, a reverse of what is usually done in film scoring. Both Williams and Spielberg felt that it ultimately gave the film a lyrical feel.
Although I personally dread the thought of editing a film to music, I can see why it was done, and it certainly didn’t have an adverse effect on the film itself (Close Encounters is one of my favourites). I guess the film does have a kind of lyrical quality to it, especially in scenes involving the five note tone that is used to contact and communicate with the aliens. This tone is repeated throughout the film on various instruments – a child’s xylophone; a theremin; human voices; a synthesiser; and finally that glorious finale in which the alien ship becomes almost an entire orchestra. That five tone motif ties the film together.