From the subtle to the bombastic and the all out weird, sound design approaches to robots have taken many forms over the years. With this month’s release of Ex Machina (which has some pretty amazing android sound design) here are my ten favorite takes on robot sounds.
10. The Daleks (Dr. Who - 1963)
These robots are the perfect intersection of economy and creativity. Over the years, the Daleks have become a phenomenon. For me, it's all about the voice processing. I've worked on many series where the direction for vocals has been 'make it sound weird and low-budget like the Daleks from Dr. Who' and for good reason. With their warbly grainy voices, these little robots pack a lot of personality.
9. Box (Logan's Run - 1976)
What a weird robot! This guy fits in perfectly with the surreal atmosphere of this film. There are these odd clicks and pops amongst his servo sounds and the motor for his movements seems to be simply sped up and slowed down on a mag reel. Very analog and a pretty cool approach. This was the year before Star Wars would enter the game and it feels very much like the final cap to a specific era of robot sound design.
8. The Sentinels (The Matrix - 1999)
This is futuristic sound design at its best. The Matrix sound team used what seems to be rope zuzz sounds along with some really great metal ratcheting to really sell the snake like movements of these hunt and kill machines. They also have a sort of hissing vocal effect, making them seem sentient and more dangerous. This is a great example of how a very different visual design can invoke a very different approach to sound.
7. Johnny 5 (Short Circuit - 1986)
This is classic robot sound at its best. Pins, pistons, big treads, and my personal favorite, Johnny’s little ‘eyebrow’ servos. In the sequel, Jonny 5 gears up to save the day in a montage set to Bonnie Tyler's 'I Need a Hero.' This isn’t really sound design related, but it’s awesome.
6. The Iron Giant (The Iron Giant -1999)
For the largest robot on this list, the Iron Giant’s sound is perfectly understated. In a few choice scenes, we get an understanding of his size from his giant footsteps and booming voice, but for the most part the designers played things very simplistically. This choice is pitch perfect considering how hard the film works hard to evoke the simpler times of the 1950’s. It also makes his big sci-fi moments in the climax that much more effective.
5. Jinx (SpaceCamp - 1986)
“Max and Jinx, friends forever.” My heart melts just thinking about this adorable globe-shaped robot and his awesome vocal performance. As the impetus for the entire Space Camp plot line, this robot received some real sound design love. Sprinkled amongst his utilitarian ratcheting and servo movements are some random beeps and blips that really sell it for me. It’s hard to believe but back in the 1980’s this robot seemed super futuristic!
4. T-800 (The Terminator - 1984)
One of the first R-rated action films I saw in theaters was Terminator 2: Judgement Day. So yes, I have a special affinity for Arnold and his performance as the killing machine turned protector in the Terminator series. These servos sound tough and strong. They also happen to be reused in a TON of films. If you have a typical sound you think a servo makes in your head, odds are it's from the T-800. My favorite build in the films however are the point of view scenes we get from inside the terminator's head. The scrolling and scanning that is constantly happening inside the robot's computer brain is perfectly sweetened with great sound design.
3. HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey - 1968)
Technically artificial intelligence rather than a robot, I had to include HAL on this list. The fascinating thing about the sound design of HAL isn’t the sound he makes, but rather the sound he doesn’t make. HAL speaks in a normal (although extremely creepy) human voice. Outside of that he doesn’t make any sounds. It would be easy to assume there would be computer telemetry or tech sounds from HAL’s point of view, however we only hear a steady airy drone. This absence of sound is extremely eerie, especially in the scene when he can’t hear the other characters speaking because they have muted his microphone to the room. We are 100% in HAL’s artificial brain, trying to read their lips right along side him without any distractions. Brilliant sound design.
2. Baymax (Big Hero Six - 2014)
This creation of a blow up robot is one of a kind. The sound designers clearly had a ton of fun playing up all the squeaky stretchy rubber sounds, mining all the humor that comes from them. So much personality comes out of the sound for this, the most adorable and lovable robot on my list.
1. R2-D2 (Star Wars - 1977)
Of course there are so many great robots in the Star Wars series. Sound from these films undeniably influence any subsequent film. However, R2D2 is special. His servos and treads get the job done, but it's the way an entire character performance is created simply from different beeps and telemetry that is truly impressive. As an audience, we have no trouble understanding R2's emotions or motivations. Portraying this entirely with sound design is no small feat.
Do you have a favorite robot sound that I missed? What have I left off this list?