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Action Movies Love That Typing Sound, But Where Does It Come From?


If this next interview were an action movie, we'd probably start with some ominous music...


CORNISH: ...Then an establishing shot - we're in D.C. so maybe the Capitol Building or the Lincoln Memorial. And then there would probably be some text - Washington, 0800 hours.


CORNISH: Did you hear that? You might not have even noticed it because it's so common. Text makes a sound when it appears on screen. You can hear it here, in "The Bourne Ultimatum."


CORNISH: Or here, in "Pacific Rim."


CORNISH: Or here, in the movie "Enemy Of The State."


CORNISH: All right, all right - you get the idea. It's everywhere. And Forrest Wickman, who writes for Slate's culture blog, Brow Beat, wanted to know why. He joins us now to talk more about it.

Welcome to the program Forrest.

FORREST WICKMAN: Hello. Thank you.

CORNISH: So we mentioned a couple films there, going back. When did you first notice the sound, and why did you feel compelled to follow it to the source?

WICKMAN: Yeah, I first noticed it while watching "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" last year, and the reason it really jumped out at me is it was one of those shots where it just wasn't necessary. You know, they showed a shot of London, and you could see Big Ben right there and Westminster. And then they kind of slowly zoomed in on a British flag, and right then it came up, you know, saying, London, comma, England. And it just really made me think about it. And I'd been hearing it all my life, but for the first time, I just thought, you know, what is that noise?

CORNISH: So where did your investigation lead you?

WICKMAN: Yeah, I went back to some of the movies that you played in the intro here and was trying to figure out where the earliest example of it was. And eventually, I just ended up calling up a bunch of the, you know, sound designers for these movies, and they all pointed me back towards "The Hunt For Red October."

CORNISH: "The Hunt For Red October," a classic, but also involves submarines, right (laughter)...


CORNISH: ...Where these sounds might make sense?

WICKMAN: Right. So it turned out that the U.S. Navy actually took them into submarines for that movie, and they heard a bunch of noises inside of the submarine.


CORNISH: So what is that sound?

WICKMAN: So the sound you just played is a radio teletype noise, which has been used for all sorts of things. It's - as the name implies - just a way to send information across large distances, and I believe that that is one of the inspirations for this noise...


WICKMAN: ...Though, as it's used today, it doesn't really refer directly to anything in real life.

CORNISH: You spoke about these sound designers. And did they talk about other effects in movies, essentially, objects that make far different sounds than they would in real life?

WICKMAN: Yeah. While reporting this, I was introduced to this term reification - when a sound is given to something that really doesn't have a sound in real life. So in "Star Wars," you hear a TIE fighter screaming by, and it makes this kind of whooshing, roaring noise.


WICKMAN: Whereas in real life, sound doesn't travel through space. But I think we can't laugh at it too much because we do see examples of reification that we interact with every day. So for example, if you take out your iPhone and you have the sound on then every time you type, you're going to hear clicking noises even though, of course, there's no actual natural sound there. It's just added to kind of emphasize the action that you're doing.

CORNISH: I forget what that's called visually. Oh - skeuomorphism, the idea of, like, having a folder, right, to put your documents in - all that language on computers even though you're not touching folders or paper.

WICKMAN: Yeah, I think the kind of classic example is how we often still see a floppy disk as an icon for saving something, and so sometimes this is called an audio skeuomorph. Another example is how electric cars now, the makers of the cars are designing artificial engine noises to key pedestrians to the fact that a car is passing by.

CORNISH: After doing a piece like this (laughter), do you like the sound, actually? Have you come to enjoy it, or does it drive you crazy?

WICKMAN: I think it's just a little bit cliched at this point. I don't resent sound designers for using it, but I wish they would mix it up a little bit more after it's been used for about 25 years now.

CORNISH: That's Forrest Wickman. He writes and edits for Slate's culture blog, Brow Beat.

Forrest thanks so much.

WICKMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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