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Film Sound

In: Film and Music

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Semester Term Paper: Film Sound

Katayoun Nawabi

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

On my honor, I have neither given nor received aid in completing this assignment.


Katayoun Nawabi

In analyzing film, critics constantly gloss over the importance of the use of sound. Those critics that do touch on the function of sound often underestimate its role in the overall impact of the film as a whole. There are those that are of the opinion that there has been little, if any, real contributions made by sound in film. Should sound have been added to film at all? A look back at the history of film, from silent movies to “talkies” to major motion pictures of the 1990s, will help establish the fact that film has not only benefited from the addition of sound, but has only gotten more sophisticated with time. “Reevaluating the role of sound in film history and according it its true importance is not purely a critical or historical enterprise. The future of cinema is at stake. It can be better and livelier if it can learn something valuable from its own past” (Chion, 1994, p. 142). There is no argument that, in cinema, it is the image that will continue to radiate power and spectacle. However, the technological and conceptual advances that have been made over the decades reinforce the fact that it is the role of sound to decorate the image and “show” us what it wants us to see on screen.

In everyday life, we learn to hear through the experience of hearing, and in doing so we form a specific philosophy about how sound should sound. This philosophy carries over into how we understand film sound. “Though it is typically studied as an independent phenomenon, the history of film sound cannot be properly understood unless it is correlated with the major sound practices of each era” (Altman, 1995, p.68). Each generation understands what should be thought of as “acceptable” sound based on what technologies are available at that time. Starting in the early 1900s, the film industry was growing at such a rapid pace, that the studios could not keep up with the demand. Theater owners knew that they had to create an edge in order to keep up with the competition. It was at this time that it became evident that the only way to set themselves apart from other theaters was in the display of sound practices.

Theaters sought to raise the tone of their establishments through sound. However, being that film itself was a new phenomenon, there was no common standard for how to present aural accompaniment. Several theatres featured an accompaniment by musicians on piano. Other theaters employed narrators and skillful actors to speak the lines in synch with the film. Whatever the accompaniment, there was a definite trend among the theater owners of the early 1900s to try to make the films sound like live theater. Other theaters, however, chose to seek further advancements. By 1913, several theaters experimented with a new sound-on-disc system called Cameraphone. Every company came out with their own imitation of Cameraphone, all of which allowed for the reproduction of the human voice to be played along with the image on screen.

Along with the debate about what accompaniment would be best to join the image on screen, came the issue of where the sound source should be placed in the theater. In earlier theater settings, the sound source was placed either right next to the projector or right next to the screen, keeping it still very separate from the action in the film. With the innovation of the sound-on-disc systems, theaters set the standard for speaker placement behind the screen. This placement of the sound source gave the viewer a sense of connection between the resultant sounds and the characters on screen. After all, was this not the intended purpose of sound all along?

For several years, imitation after imitation of the sound-on-disc systems emerged. However, in 1926, the Vitaphone system was heavily exploited to appeal to a wide commercial market. The Vitaphone system operated on a bit more of complex speaker configuration than that of the earlier theater systems. The system operated on a two-speaker system, each with separate roles. This system maintained the one speaker behind the screen, but only to reproduce characters' speeches. The second speaker was located in the orchestra pit and tilted upwards to create the effect of an orchestra. The Vitaphone system, although established in most theaters, was not used extensively. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the system was only used for music (Altman). Normal dialogue was presented on intertitles. However, since this system featured better amplification than the earlier systems, theaters that carried Vitaphone experimented with the concept of "megaphone speech," meaning that when a character would call out or shout the their speech would be amplified.

By 1927, important changes had come, not only in technology, but in the audience’s expectations and desires as well. The Jazz Singer is credited as being the first talking picture and was a huge success. Why did audiences accept this film over previous films that had had musical accompaniment and occasional dialogue? There are several possible answers to this question. First, with the release of The Jazz Singer, audiences were exposed to a more intimate type of sound. Small audiences no longer fell victim to the use of the occasional and inconsistent amplification of "megaphone speech" meant to be projected to a larger public. "When Jolson sings to a crowd in Coffee Dan's, like generations of vaudeville and theatrical performers before him he is purposely projecting his voice to a large audience; but when he sings and talks privately to his mother, an entirely new kind of relationship is established between the performer and the amplification system" (Altman). For the first time, audiences were able to experience different levels of amplification that were analogous to the action on screen. This marked a new role for the audience, that of "auditory voyeurs intent on hearing sounds that were not meant for them" (Altman).

Yet another theory about the success of The Jazz Singer is that it was the "natural" sounds that captured the attention of the audience. One viewer recalls, “I was sitting there watching the film and they were in a café and suddenly you can hear all the sounds of the glasses and cups and all that” (Allen). Many talking pictures came after The Jazz Singer that gained a similar response. For example, when In Old Arizona was released, it was the first film to be shot outdoors and received rave reviews for the naturalness of the sound. Members of the audience and critics alike said that, “they expected to hear the people speak but it was the other sounds that surprised them – a train whistle, the bark of a dog, the hoof beats” (Allen). It was this enthusiasm from the audience that gave film a new purpose. It was important for the audience to identify with the characters on screen. Now that film sound was so natural, it was as if the audience was in the same world with the characters they were watching on screen. A new speaker configuration helped establish this heightened identification as well. Whether music or dialogue, all sounds were now placed behind the screen.

For the most part, the industry was content with the “behind-the-screen” sound set-up, however sound technicians of the time were not. Searching for a better spatial correspondence between the film sound and image, technicians felt that it was time to catch up with the high-fidelity movement. In 1940, Western Electric released a four-track stereo system that was aimed at the recording industry (Altman). It was the film industry, however, that first accepted the stereo system to enhance both fidelity and spectacle in the theaters. Still, this advancement presented a problem. Audiences that were conditioned to hearing a single sound source from behind the screen were reluctant to accept the new left-right-center configuration. It would take a great spectacle to force audiences to abandon the former speaker set-up.

In 1940, Walt Disney released Fantasia, a film that choreographs animation to music. Conductor Leopold Stokowski collaborated with Disney on the production of this film. Stokowski had worked in the advancement of multichannel sound for decades by this time and had big plans for Fantasia. Recording for the film took forty-two days and consumed a half million feet of sound film (Chumney, Ghent, Kay & Lutkins). Once recording and mixing was complete, the animators were set to begin.

With the release of Fantasia, came the release of Fantasound. The Fantasound system was Stokowski’s creation, devised specifically for the playback of the movie. The system consisted of two projectors. The first projected the picture and a mono optical mix of the entire track. This mono mix was used only as a back up. The second projector used four mono optical sound tracks – the control track, screen left, screen right, and screen center. The Fantasound system also employed house left, right, and center channels. For the first time, the audience would be completely enveloped in sound. This configuration was similar to that of Western Electric’s, however Stokowski’s control track system made all the difference. This control track system was known as the tone-operated gain-adjusting device. This system controlled the levels of each of the main soundtracks through the voltage gain amplifiers. Fantasound also occupied all areas of stereo space. The PanPot was yet another of Fantasound’s unique features. The PanPot allowed for the sound to seem as if it were moving back and forth across the screen, by permitting fading between two speakers (Chumney et al).

The Fantasound system debuted at a later date than that of the film itself, and even then it was only sold to two major theaters. The New York’s Broadway Theater and the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles were the only two theaters that bought the $85,000.00 system that included a fifty-four-speaker installation. Disney also produced a short-lived Fantasia Road Show, which was a scaled-down version of the real thing (costing up to $45,000.00 for each show). This road show only made it to fourteen theaters before the costs became too high to continue production (Chumney et al).

Throughout the fifties and sixties, with each film sound innovation, the audience was exposed to a new method of integrating sound and image on screen. Of the directors of this time period, Alfred Hitchcock was the known for playing a large role in the designing of sound for his films. Hitchcock was extremely particular about the dramatic functions that sound and music played in his films. In fact, he often interwove suggestions for sound effects and the placement of music into the screenplay (Rebello). In these notes, it is evident that Hitchcock understood the value that sound added to his images. For example, in his notes about the scene that concludes Marion’s drive to the Bates Motel, Hitchcock writes,” make sure that the passing car noises are fairly loud, so that we get the contrast of silence when she is found by the roadside in the morning… Naturally, windshield wipers should be heard all through the moments she turns them on” (Rebello). Hitchcock was a pioneer in his use of silence to emphasis drama in his films, as he was in using natural effects as well.

Although Hitchcock had been content with his advancements in sound design, he had been unhappy with the scores used in his films in the forties and fifties. By the sixties, when preparing for the production of Psycho, Hitchcock was considering minimizing music to avoid another disappointment. Bernhard Hermann, the composer employed for Psycho, had worked on several of Hitchcock’s films before. The two men worked well together and Hermann knew not to argue with Hitchcock about his vision. In the case of Psycho, however, Hermann felt that minimizing the music for the film would be a mistake. In viewing the rough cut of the film, Hitchcock was extremely disappointed and did not know what it needed. It was Hermann who thought of having a score completely of strings – no drums, no rhythm section, just violin and cello. Hitchcock was skeptical. In fact, he had dictated in the screenplay that he wanted “no music at all through the motel sequence with Marion and Norman” (Rebello). Hermann talked him out of this mistake, yielding a classic score that would go down in the history books as a milestone in film sound. Of the hundreds of thousands that have seen the ever-famous “shower scene,” not a one of them could imagine it without the shrieking soundtrack that “throbbed sonorously as often as it gnawed at the nerve endings” (Rebello).

Although filmmakers’ uses of sound and music became more sophisticated in concept, technological advances for audio came to a temporary halt in the sixties. Technical difficulties and the reluctance of audiences to accept stereo and surround sound experiments, led to the abandonment of stereo as a narrative tool in cinema. Only the occasional musical score would receive any stereo attention, and would yield more static than clarity. By the seventies, however, sound technicians were experimenting with Dolby optical stereo and were re-conditioning audiences to accept the surround channel as film’s essential narrative fiber.

In 1976, A Star Is Born became the first Dolby Stereo film release. Dolby Stereo was a 4-channel format that was phase matrixed into a two-channel format, in order to allow the four channels to be encoded into any stereo format including FM radio, record, tape, CD, etc. This format also cut down on added noise problems experienced with other systems (Chumney et al). This release, however, paled in comparison to the release of Star Wars. Star Wars used a similar Dolby system with slight modifications. There were three speakers behind the screen (left, center, and right channels) and one surround channel. “Corresponding with Hollywood’s renewed attempt to attract the youth market through concentration on sci-fi, adventure, horror, and musical superproductions, the creation of two ‘baby-boom’ channels realigned cinema sound with a new and unexpected model” (Altman). These two channels were designated for low frequencies (below 200 Hz) that would create “earth-shattering” bass effects that audiences would actually feel. This system fostered in a new goal for cinema sound – to flaunt the sound source. “It is thus no longer the eyes, the ears, and the brain that alone initiate identification and maintain contact with the sonic source; instead it is the whole body” (Altman).

Knowing that sound had become a more integral part of the movie experience, Star Wars creator George Lucas wanted to create a better use of sound in his film. It was left to sound designer, Ben Burtt, to create the famous sound effects that revolutionized film sound. In a discussion with Lucas, he and Burtt agreed that they wanted an organic sound for the film. Since they were “designing a visual world that had rust and dents and dirt,” they wanted to use real sounds as opposed to sounds that were electronic and artificial (Carlsson). Therefore Burtt spent a year recording anything that was organic and could be manipulated to enhance Lucas’ film. Burtt recorded a mass of sounds from insects to elephants to car doors, all in an attempt to make Lucas’ creatures and robots come to life. For example, Chewbacca’s wookie sounds were pieced together uses sounds from walruses and other animals. “You have bits and fragments of animal sounds which you have collected and put into lists: here is an affectionate sound and here is an angry sound, and they are clipped together and blended” (Carlsson). The lightsaber “hum” was created by blending sounds from Burtt’s television and an old 35 mm projector. Burtt’s philosophy on sound in film is “see a sound; hear a sound.” Therefore, Burtt held the essential task of creating a sound for each action on screen. It was through the diligence of Burtt’s work and the reality of his fabricated sound effects that the narrative in Star Wars really comes alive.

Throughout the eighties, the film industry waged an overwhelming technological war. It was one release after another of competing sound systems. George Lucas, of course, produced one of the most innovative and widely accepted. In 1983, with the release of Lucas’ Return of the Jedi, came the THX theater sound reproduction system. Installing a THX system in a theater was synonymous with having the “Lucasfilm Seal of Approval.” Theaters that pursued this approval had to meet several standards. They had to be meet specifications for reverberation time versus volume, picture sharpness, noise limits, and screen properties (Chumney et al). System installation would not be permitted without such approval.

The nineties cluttered the market with even more film sound innovations than that of the eighties. In 1990, it was Kodak’s Cinema Digital Sound (CDS) that premiered with the film, Dick Tracy. The CDS system held all the features of its predecessors. It was equipped with left, center, right, left surround, right surround, and low frequency effects channels and was available in both 35mm and 70mm formats (Chumney et al). However, CDS did not come with a back-up analog system in case of failures. This drawback was what caused the eventual death of the system.

Two other major systems released in the nineties were Digital Theater Systems (DTS) and Sony Dynamic Digital Sound (SDDS). The DTS format was released with the movie Jurassic Park. DTS was set apart from other systems in that it operated using CD-ROM. A CD-ROM is synchronized with the film by using a timecode track between the picture and analog soundtrack. Like CDS, the DTS system was also available in both 35mm and 70mm, however it was equipped with an analog backup soundtrack which helped sustain its success.

The Sony Dynamic Digital Sound system was released with the film, Last Action Hero. It far surpassed the number of channels available with any other system. SDDS supported a left, mid-left, center, mid-right, right, left surround, right surround, and low frequency effects channel. Another feature that set SDDS apart from other systems was the fact that it encoded digital data on both edges of the film, and had an additional analog soundtrack. These features guaranteed that if anything were to go wrong, the show would still go on.

Creating the illusion that all sound evolves from and serves the image is a philosophy that has long since been abandoned. As independent and experimental film is becoming more and more popular, there is really no standard for how sound is used in film. In mainstream movie culture, however, the trend that was set in the late seventies and still lives on today is the bigger the spectacle the better. With each new technology, the clarity and presentation only get more spectacular. What technologies and trends lay ahead? We will have to wait and see. However, one can predict with no doubt that there will be competition between the industry giants to set a standard for all films. References

Allen, B. Why the Jazz Singer? Online. Netscape. 28 Mar. 2000.

Altman, R. The sound of sound: A brief history of the reproduction of sound in movie theaters. Geocities. Online. Netscape. 24 Mar. 2000. wysiwyg://31/

Carlsson, S. E. Sound design of Star Wars. Film Sound Today. Online. Netscape. 13 Apr. 2000.

Chion, M. (1994). Audio-vision: Sound on screen. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Chumney, B., Ghent, K., Kay, J., & Lutkins, E. Film sound history. MSTU SMPTE. Online. Netscape. 24 Mar. 2000.

Rebello, S. Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho. Film Sound Design. Online. Netscape. 4 Apr 2000.

Skywalker sound: The making of a movie soundtrack. Skywalker Sound. Online. Netscape. 4 Apr. 2000.

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