If you try to imagine the typical big dramatic reveal from a Hollywood film, you’re likely to think of screams and roars and swelling orchestras. We see the dinosaurs, or the monster, or the Balrog for the first time, and if we’re sitting in the front row the brass will blow our hair back.
For Close Encounters of the Third Kind, however, Steven Spielberg decided to do something different. Like Alfred Hitchcock filming a terrifying attack scene in the middle of the day, Spielberg wanted to film his big reveal in an eerie silence. For the video below, critic and Slate contributor Tom Shone spoke to Spielberg about the sound design of that scene, when Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) first encounters a UFO. (He made the video for his students at NYU, but posted it on his blog over the weekend.) Spielberg tells Shone how he and sound editor Frank Warner scored the scene with almost complete silence—you literally hear crickets—to enhance the suspense and bring out all the “particulars” of the scene. Since they didn’t mix in booming timpani or a roaring engine, they could focus the audience on details: the clanking of nearby mailboxes, the hiss of the car engine overheating, a dog barking somewhere in the distance.
Spielberg says he was inspired by actual accounts of UFO sightings, which described ships flying overhead in total silence. And with a classic scene like this, some of the sounds come from the theater: Spielberg identifies the exact moment when the real soundtrack will be provided by the audience’s reaction.