Brow Beat

“PRAGUE 0300 HOURS.” What’s That Typing Sound in Action Movies?

GIF by Lisa Larson-Walker for Slate

Whether you’ve thought about it or not, you’ve heard it. In action movies, sci-fi flicks, and thrillers, including, most recently, in The Martian and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, when text appears on screen, it makes noise. In fact, it almost always makes a very specific noise, a noise that most viewers won’t have heard anywhere else. In the technical terminology laid out by Michael Winslow in Spaceballs, it’s somewhere between the “bleeps,” the “sweeps,” and the “creeps.”

Here it is in 2015’s Furious Seven:

Here it is in 2013’s Pacific Rim:

This sound effect first caught my ear in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit—and once you start to notice it, you hear it everywhere. (Seriously, I’m not the only one to wonder about this!) But what is it? Where did it come from? And why do Hollywood’s sound editors love it so?

As I learned from reaching out to a number of people involved in sound design for the movies, sound designers call this type of sound effect a “telemetry” noise—and this particular subspecies of telemetry noise goes back at least as far as the work of Frank Serafine on The Hunt for Red October. Serafine made his name by helping to popularize the use of synthesized sound effects (when I spoke to him for this article he was on the road headlining his “Sound Advice” tour), which he used for movies such as Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Tron. But the modern version of this particular sound effect can be traced back to The Hunt for Red October. When I asked Serafine where the sound came from, he told me that the filmmakers were given special clearance to go inside U.S. Navy submarines, where he heard the noises that inspired him. “There were a lot of beeps in there that were sort of like that,” Serafine said, and he did his best to recreate the sound using synthesizers. The movie’s sound team then took his sound and “chopped it up into little pieces”—and the rest is movie history. (The movie went on to win the Oscar for Best Sound Editing.)

The word telemetry, outside of the world of sound design, refers to any measurement transmitted wirelessly. But telemetry sounds in the movies may have originally been meant to evoke more specific technologies. Listen, for example, to the sound of “radioteletype,” a mode of communication that has been used by the Navy and others to transmit typed messages through radio waves:

Though the telemetry sound has its origins in real life, it has long since become divorced from any sense of realism. After all, there’s nothing realistic about the blinking on-screen text itself, which is just the movie’s way of typing a message directly to the viewer. Sound designer Paul Hsu, who has worked on movies such as Life of Pi and Foxcatcher, told me that using this kind of sound effect is called “reifying”—giving sounds to things that don’t really make any sound at all. A common example of reifying is the whoosh sound effects that are often added to movies to emphasize movements.

The on-screen text that accompanies telemetry sounds doesn’t exist within the world of the movie, but—as Pete Burgis, a Foley artist who worked on Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, told me—the titles are there to convey important information to the audience, and “the sound is to help them focus their attention on that info.” (Reification is also the reason that, in the movies, computers do so much bleeping and blooping. Some old computers really did make such noises, but not nearly so often as they do in the movies.) Some examples of reification have also made it into real life. Think, for example, of the way an iPhone (if you leave the sound on) emits clicking noises while you type, or the way the makers of electric cars have started crafting artificial engine noises to alert pedestrians and other drivers to the cars.

As for the telemetry noise, there are lots of ways to make it, and you don’t need one of Serafine’s synthesizers. Foley artist Marko Costanzo, who has worked on movies such as True Grit and Salt, said, “The sound you are referring to can be made with almost any metal pieces hitting each other,” explaining that he once crafted it using “a 35 mm film splice which is still in my possession.” Csaba Wagner, sound effects editor on Pacific Rim, told me that he simply used “some random beeps and a clicky typewriter sound,” adding, “Until this moment I had no idea it sounded so similar to the one in Red October.” Hsu suggested something more nifty: If you tape a very sensitive microphone to a computer screen, he said, you could record a similar type of noise, which computers emit at a much lower volume. However, the easiest thing to do, as Serafine noted, is just to search for the sound in sound libraries. Many of Serafine’s own sounds are now online.

As for whether the telemetry noise is still useful, or at this point approaching cliché, the sound professionals were divided. Serafine said with some regret that he’s heard versions of the sound trickle all the way down to Preparation H commercials. Hsu called for restraint, saying, “When I go to the movies and I see a movie that doesn’t do it, I breathe a sigh of relief.”