HAL's voice sounds unsettling because it's Canadian
May 14, 2018 9:44 PM   Subscribe

HAL 9000, the seemingly omniscient computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, was the film’s most expressive and emotional figure, and made a lasting impression on our collective imagination. This is the story of the creation of HAL’s performance — the result of a last-minute collaboration between the idiosyncratic director Stanley Kubrick and the veteran Canadian actor Douglas Rain. (NYT)
posted by misterbee (28 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
Douglas Rain is ninety these days but is still with us. I wonder if in the era of Siri, Alexa, and the like if he has ever been approached to lend his voice to a virtual assistant.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:14 PM on May 14 [13 favorites]


I wonder if in the era of Siri, Alexa, and the like if he has ever been approached to lend his voice to a virtual assistant.

I'm sorry, but I don't think that you need another pair of sunglasses, Dave.
posted by Splunge at 12:47 AM on May 15 [20 favorites]


What better way to embody the spirit of the holiday season than with your very own HAL 9000 Christmas Tree Ornament.
posted by fairmettle at 2:57 AM on May 15 [4 favorites]


Or, you know, the spirit of the times and expectations of the people dictate that these AIs all speak in a certain way - just like certain kinds of ads or movie trailers are always voiced in a certain way. That said, I think the HAL voice was absolutely perfect for its purpose, I can still feel the detachment with which he manipulated the lives of its human colleagues.
posted by Laotic at 3:27 AM on May 15


I think I have mentioned it here before, but I once had the great fortune to see Douglas Trumbull speaking about his work on the special effects in '2001: A Space Odyssey' and later works. If you ever get a chance, by all means, go hear him speak. One thing that he said that impressed me is that Douglas Rain completely distanced himself from the film after they finished production. When they tried to get him to participate in a "making-of" documentary, Rain completely refused, and would not say why.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 4:15 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


Imagine how bad it would have been if Kubrick had gone with a cliched "computer voice" like The Forbin Project did?
posted by octothorpe at 4:45 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


Just ask Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home — the cadence, the friendly formality, the pleasant intelligence and sense of calm control in their voices evoke Mr. Rain’s unforgettable performance.
Well, I don't think people would enjoy an Orac-style assistant.

(Related: If HAL was Alexa)
posted by farlukar at 4:54 AM on May 15 [5 favorites]


I think we should mandate AI assistant / caller bot voices to be some form of mixture between the voices of Ian McDiarmid and James Earl Jones, in their respective Star Wars characters.
posted by runcifex at 5:59 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


What better way to embody the spirit of the holiday season than with your very own HAL 9000 Christmas Tree Ornament.

I will not hesitate. It will go nicely with the Xenomorph and the Lemarchand's Box ornaments.
posted by lagomorphius at 6:51 AM on May 15 [4 favorites]


I don't think people would enjoy an Orac-style assistant.

I'd kind of like one. A snotty and unhelpful computer assistant would entertain me constantly and being disinterested in me, even if it is feigned, while it monitors and collects my data would lull me into a sense of safety. The "pleasing" voices of the current crop of electronic "assistants" make me deeply suspicious and frankly creep me out.

I'm not sure if Douglas Rain does any stage acting anymore but I saw him in some of his performances in Stratford in the mid to late 90's. His Shylock was a highlight and his performance as St. Thomas More in Man for All Seasons was incredible. He had a great stage presence. I don't think they are married anymore but he was married to another great Stratford stalwart, Martha Henry, who is always great in every production I've seen her in. I'm glad the NYT article correctly identifies the accent - Standard Canadian English rather than Midatlantic. Another person with a similar accent of the same vintage that Americans might be familiar with is that of Paul Soles (also a local Stratfordite I believe), most famous as the voice of the 60's animated Spider-Man.
posted by Ashwagandha at 7:01 AM on May 15 [5 favorites]


I would love to hear a cut of the film with the original HAL voice, Martin Balsam.
It would be a very different film.
posted by cuscutis at 7:05 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


Here's a great image of Douglas Rain with his former CBC Radio cohorts and fellow sci-fi luminaries Barry Morse (best know for his role in Space 1999) and John Colicos (famous for his well-remembered roles in the original Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek & DS9).
posted by Ashwagandha at 7:35 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


Douglas Rain himself has never seen “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

How the hell has he not seen it? After all this time how does he have no curiosity about how his voice fits in the whole piece? I mean, I understand some actors don't like to watch themselves on film, but... wow. This totally surprises me.
posted by dnash at 8:15 AM on May 15 [3 favorites]


My understanding is that Rain and Keir Dullea have still never met, despite sharing a majority of their scenes in two movies.

I don't think they are married anymore but he was married to another great Stratford stalwart, Martha Henry,

They are not. Martha Henry, incidentally, was also married at one point to Donnelly Rhodes, whom some of us know best as the irascible Doc Cottle from BSG. Two of the great voices in science fiction have said “I do” to her.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:35 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


My understanding is that Rain and Keir Dullea have still never met

Is that true? I thought Dullea had some time in Stratford in the 70's and they would have overlapped. This Star article is a bit vague but it seems to imply they know each other.
posted by Ashwagandha at 8:45 AM on May 15




I guess it is true - this NPR interview with Dullea is pretty clear.
We have never met, never spoken. Apparently, he doesn't like to talk about 2001 in interviews.
posted by Ashwagandha at 8:52 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


The whole point was that it sounded SO apologetically human. That was what created the impact.
posted by Burn_IT at 8:52 AM on May 15 [4 favorites]


I remember reading some reviewers complaining that HAL showed more emotion than the astronauts as that wasn't intentional.
posted by octothorpe at 9:19 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


The article makes many good points about the cadence, etc., of modern digital assistants, but ignores one notable point: modern assistants almost universally have female voices, at least as their default.

I largely blame the various Star Trek series for this.

(Wasn't someone working on recreating Majel Barrett Roddenberry's voice for a digital assistant at one point? Whatever happened to that?)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:22 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Right, but the emotions and motivations Hal was experiencing weren't exactly ones we'd identify with -- being driven to murder and acting psychotic (in human terms) by being ordered to lie / conceal facts, to the point that killing the crew became the rational thing to do so he wouldn't have to lie to them any more.. it makes 'rational' sense, in terms of "if a then b; solve for not-b" but it's such an inhuman perspective, and all spoken in the tone of voice of like a NASA-built butler or something
posted by ver at 9:35 AM on May 15


Apparently, [Rain] doesn't like to talk about 2001 in interviews.

The first rule of 2001 Club...
posted by fairmettle at 9:44 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


modern assistants almost universally have female voices, at least as their default.

I largely blame the various Star Trek series for this.


You may be confusing correlation with causation. Well before the era of digital assistants and even Star Trek, acoustics researchers frequently found that the pitch and timbre of female voices cuts through background noise better than voices in the typically male range. Well back in the previous century I recall hearing repeated, automated messages in public places recorded by women.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:00 AM on May 15 [3 favorites]


Okay, um....
posted by hal9k at 10:23 AM on May 15 [4 favorites]


I remember reading some reviewers complaining that HAL showed more emotion than the astronauts as that wasn't intentional.

It was intentional. I can’t find a source to cite, but I recall in one of the “making of” books that Bowman and Poole’s blandness was a deliberate choice on Kubrick and Clarke’s part. They wanted to demonstrate the evolution of humankind coming to a point where something as awe-inspiring as space travel had become routine.

Plus, there’s a connection to be made if you follow the progression of humankind’s tools. At first, humans evolve as they become masters of their tools (bones that can be used to kill for food or territory). But then in a gradual switch, humanity’s tools become the master (an orbiting nuclear weapon, dehumanizing space travel, Hal in control of the ship instead of the astronauts, etc.)

To;dr: Hal sounds more human because in all respects, he’s more human than the bland astronauts on board Discovery.
posted by zooropa at 5:08 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


It was intentional.

That's what I said.
posted by octothorpe at 5:18 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Bowman and Poole’s blandness was a deliberate choice on Kubrick and Clarke’s part.

I bet their blandness was a result of those soupy TV-dinner meals they were shown eating during the TV interview.

Note: TV dinners were all the rage in the late 50s / early 60s. They sold sets of trays so the whole family could set up meals in front of the TV set. (*That* part dates this movie!)
posted by Twang at 6:07 PM on May 15


They still sell those trays. We have a few because I've never had an apartment big enough for a kitchen table, and it's a real pain to eat something hot that may spill from a coffee table.
posted by Fish Sauce at 12:10 PM on May 16


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