This case study will explore the trailer of the 2016 science fiction movie Arrival, derived from a short story by Ted Chiang called “Story of Your Life” which won a Nebula and Theodore Sturgeon award. Eric Heisserer was the screen written who adopted and made significant changes to the script and this contributed to the amazing sounds used in the film.

The opening scene has a mother and daughter laughing and playing outside and a piano is heard playing on the background. These are subtle notes heard at 0.00-0.09 accompanied by a narrative which were used to set the mood. It was a perfect serene atmos only to be interrupted by the sounds of a fire bell also similar to the school bell ringing simultaneously with a siren at 0.06-0.08 with frequency probably about 520Hz and fast jets following with around 3-6kHz at 0.09-0.11. These events blended in so well with the narrative which had a great build up in a matter of seconds, we went from calmness to expectation. “There are days that define your story beyond your life. Like the day they arrived.” The words ‘arrived’ are accompanied by jets flying overhead and the main character looks up as they fly past. As for the use of the siren and bell, there’s no doubt in our minds that the viewers will anticipate an emergency. ” If a siren and a bell are for alerts, where is the danger? Is there a war about to take place? Who or what are the humans fighting?”

During the World War II, sirens were designed to warn city dwellers of air raids and later used to warn of nuclear attack and natural destructive weather conditions such as tornados. The other scene that works well with this anxiety build up is the use of sounds from a helicopter and audible internal communications via headsets at 0.22-0.30. We assimilate these sounds to the army who use both the helicopters and communication sets.

Another scene that has a simultaneous use of sounds is at 0.11-0.15 where there is a prolonged ‘dong’ sound made by a prolonged low piano key/ note and the introduction of a the news on the radio. These worked well because the piano did not distort the radio content which was loud and clear. That low key note and a radio playing in the background create suspense as they introduce a scene of a woman, one second resting in bed and the next second she is at the door being asked by an intelligence officer to pack her bags to go on a mission. They follow through by adding radio communication, we hear the helicopter and actors in it. The directors reduce the helicopter noise to allow the audience to hear the radio communication where the Intelligence officer acknowledges Dr Banks as the countries finest communication expert as he brings her to speed. I must say the sounds used are very real sounding and it made me feel that I was present in that scene.

Between the 0.30-0.42 is a high pitched violin embedded sombre music created with bag pipes. Bag pipes as seen in most war movies, were used either to lead people to war, or at funerals and they carry a strong sense of pride, bravery and honour. The message paints a clear picture to the audience, ‘prepare for war or battle, we are fighting for something’. The mood created is evident when someone is whisked away in a medevac, either dead or injured that raised concern and Dr Banks wanted to know who it was. When she poses the question, it only reinforces the fact that it is indeed a was and people can be injured or lives lost which happens commonly in war zones. This only heightens the anticipation of what is the war about, will it be a blood bath, what will the opposition look like, who will win this war and so on.

We are stuck with the company of the bagpipes interchanging with an automated warped playing a lower octave which is sustained. We see the oval or dome shaped object and to increase and capture the audience attention, the bagpipes grow louder and the introduction of an Australian Digederoo which creates the lower tone was created in the background. In the movie, you can hear some very real sounds in this scene of wind, earthquakes and even ice cubes coming out of the refrigerator. The scene is shot from a sky point or cloud level and it gets the audience involved and feel as though they are at the very place at that very moment. This creates a certain fear or sense of doom associated with to e.g cold or ghastly winds and earthquakes. The ice cube effect just adds to the cold atmosphere. The intelligence offer is heard once again via radio communication this time inside the face masks giving instruction on how this mysterious dome shaped object works. You can hear breath sounds and its just so real that with a great surround system we can feel the actors anxiety and almost imagine what they are thinking. This goes on until 1.00 when the dome shaped objects door opens and Dr Banks and her team ascend into the long dark path with a bright light at the end.

A chirping bird is noted at 1.06 and I wondered what the relevance was. This was an old safety measure used in the mining industry where caged canaries were carried into the mines know as ‘canary in the coal mine,’ and was to determine whether there were any potent gases. If the bird was still chirping that meant they were safe. The canary was more sensitive to poison and would die before enough gas would build up to kill a human. Now this was important because later on in the movie, when Dr. Banks was having a nightmare, the bird is reintroduced. Why? Because the audience have been preconditioned that this bird determines what is safe, or sign of life, we get to meet the Hectapod in her dream. This helps the audience begin to interpret the scene that the bird means the Hectapod is safe.

Dr Banks knows the birds representation at this scene therefore when she sees it chirping away, she knows there is no sign or sense of danger. As Dr Banks and her team are facing a white sterile environment, Dr banks runs out of patience and decides to remove her safety gear. Her colleagues are worried and are heard trying to caution her via radio comm in their masks. This conflict of interest only hypes the audience because it feels like a war between light and darkness or good and evil. It begs the question is there danger lurking or simple what is going to happen. In this uncertain moment, Dr Banks raises her hand towards the glass where the creature is expected to be and at 1.18 a sudden drum kick with a low frequency of about 80Hz layered with another slam. This grabs the audience attention and while still in that moment we hear a whale like sound at 1.19 followed immediately by a door slamming sound at 1.20 when the Alien decides to respond to Dr Banks greeting. In these three seconds the sound effects used sequentially have definitely makes an impact to the audience because these are heart stopping moments due to the surprise elements of uncertainty. This was intense as we didn’t know whether the alien would respond to Dr Banks hand gesture, would it be in a calm or wild manner, what did this creature look like?

The intensity peaks halfway through the trailer when at 1.23 a mixture of sounds come together intermittently to create an adrenaline rush as they all try to get your attention. The picture and sound are impeccable as they bring us to the movies reality. The use of TV news reporting in the background, incorporated with a loud drum kick followed by music created from violins, and what sounds like an elephant trumpeting at six seconds intervals (1.24, 1.30, 1.36) and then at 1.52, 1.57, 2.03, 2.05, 2.08 well arranged. The music intensity is maintained between 1.27-2.12 and this keeps us the engaged and entertained at the same time.

Dr Banks decides she has to go back in the dome and at 2.11 is a drum kick as the dome door shuts, abrupt music cuts off and then a prolonged horn or digiderood low key sound. This definitely kicks in the anxiety because so much just happened in 5 seconds leaving us anticipating what comes next. Then at 2.16 is another drum kick and a high pitched piano during an explosion. The high pitched key is heard again at 2.18, 2.19 and 2.20 which in turn create a clock ticking feeling and we can’t help but feel that time is of essence.

These definitely trigger impulse responses in the movie leaving us wanting more. It ends on a high by having the jets sound, maintaining the prolonged low key note and the elephant trumpeting/ or trumpet noise at the very end. The sound choices used are raw and real and the the intensity and pressure buildup definitely increase here and the suspense has made us movie ready.

The movie is undoubtedly about communication both verbal and nonverbal. We have the humans who have a common language but still do not understand each other resulting in a conflict of interest and ideas. On the other hand we have the Aliens vs humans trying to undertand each other. Choice of alien inspiration was good as they used the tentacles inspired but the Octopus- tentacles. The Octopus as we know is a very intelligent and graceful animal and we have seen it release itself from a locked jar and it moves swiftly. It has a strong presence and only attacks when attacked. This helped the movie to influence the viewer to believe the Alien is not here to harm but is a friendly and non intimidating. The sound used for the Aliens was to express how massive it was.

The octopus also used blasts of ink that looked like abstract, inky stains that looked like coffee stains on paper, to form a language that Dr Banks had to decipher and develop a response back to complete the two way communication. We couldn’t help but help the actress in our minds to workout what each syllable meant.

Arrival has a lot of striking elements of sound design used to just keep audience emotions connected and engaged until the end. They are organic, and natural that kept us intrigued and a lot of suspense especially when the music was getting louder.. I did expert more action coming from it but as of today I really have learnt and appreciated how sound design played a major role in the film.


Essays, UK. (November 2018). Effects of Trailers in Film Campaigns. Retrieved from

A sound effect. (November 2016) Creating The Poetic Sci-Fi Sound Of ‘Arrival. Retrieved from

Gibbs, T. (2007). The fundamentals of sonic art & sound design (Ava academia). Lausanne: AVA Academia.

Whittington, W. (2007). Sound design & science fiction (1st ed.) [1st ed.]. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. (2007). Retrieved February 26, 2020, from INSERT-MISSING-DATABASE-NAME.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *