The Art of Motion Picture Sound Design, Pt. 1

And now for something a little less “conflicted” and a little more “snob”…

With the exception of a couple of experimental shorts using a process called “Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre” presented at the 1900 Paris Exhibition and, of course, the live piano/organ accompaniment prevalent in the silent era (which doesn’t really count), cinema was purely a visual medium for the first 37 years of its existence.

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Then, in 1927, a breakthrough: the first feature-length film to feature a synchronized soundtrack, The Jazz Singer. No, not the version with Neil Diamond and his circa 1980 mound of hair impressing Lucie Arnaz by belting out “Love on the Rocks”…

…but rather the one featuring Al Jolson crooning the song “Mammy” wearing offensive yet era-acceptable blackface:

Though it wasn’t until the 1930s that movies featuring synchronized soundtracks became the rule rather than the exception (retrofitting the country’s 22,500+ theaters with sound took time and money–by 1929, only 800 had made the upgrade), filmmakers now had an expanded sandbox in which to play. Not only could their films feature pre-recorded dialogue, but also musical scores and sound effects. Suddenly the medium was as much about the ear as it was the eyes.

Two new specialties eventually emerged, one involving the best way to incorporate within the film’s narrative all the aforementioned aural possibilities, the other how best to present these sound films to an audience. Both have evolved quite a bit over the last 85 years. This post will focus on the latter, presentation.

Back when “talkies” first appeared, high-fidelity sound reproduction was only just emerging–it wasn’t until 1931 that the first three-way speaker systems (in which sound was divided into three frequencies–low, medium, high–and then sent to a woofer, a midrange driver and a tweeter, respectively) began to emerge. And it wasn’t until 1937 that the first loudspeaker system designed specifically for movie theaters (courtesy MGM), the “Shearer Horn System,” was introduced (which looks to The Conflicted Film Snob like something one might story canned vegetables and jars of pasta sauce in):

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It then fell to none other than Walt Disney to dream up the next breakthrough in movie sound, a more immersive multichannel playback system or, as we like to call it today, surround sound.

In his 2007 book Surround Sound: Up and Running, Tomlinson Holman, who, incidentally is the audio engineer responsible for developing Lucasfilm’s THX audio/visual quality control program. (Tomlinson Holman Experiment…get it? Maybe you recognize the “deep note”)…

…explains that, while chewing over the inclusion of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” into what eventually would become Fantasia (1940), Walt envisioned said bee sonically zipping to and fro throughout the theater. fantasia_fantasound_poster-rIronically, “Flight of the Bumblebee” never made it into the final cut of the movie. It did, however, push Disney’s engineering department to create Fantasound, cinema’s first stereophonic sound reproduction system that also included surround channels. Unfortunately, due to the cost of outfitting theaters with its complicated equipment, Fantasia in Fantasound was only shown in 13 theaters. Then Pearl Harbor was bombed and suddenly no one much cared about the development of multi-channel recording in film.

It wasn’t until the early 1950s that interest in multi-channel sound reemerged, concurrent with the development of special widescreen processes, both deemed necessary “gimmicks” to pull the masses away from their TVs and back into the movie theater. The famous Cinerama process was the first to tackle more immersive sound, pairing its huge widescreen picture with seven audio channels, including five speakers behind the screen and two in the back of the auditorium acting as discrete stereo surrounds. The masses were impressed. And so, a couple years later, Hollywood rolled out another multi-channel sound system, this attached to the 70mm Todd-AO widescreen process and featuring six audio channels, five behind the screen and two in the back of the auditorium acting as mono surrounds (unlike the stereo of Cinerama).

Neither Cinerama nor Todd-AO survived very long theatrically (cost again), but the latter’s six-track possibilities found a second life, courtesy George Lucas’ arthouse project entitled Star Wars (1977), a film in which the producers, in order to create the most sonically memorable experience, fiddled a bit with the purposing of the six tracks, assigning three channels behind the screen (left, right, center), one as a low-frequency “baby boom” (nowadays referred to as a subwoofer channel) and one as the mono surround. The success of Star Wars (and Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi epic of the same year, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) exploded the popularity and, consequently, the use of surround sound:

Star Wars Dan Perri 1977 Close-Encounters-of-the-Third-Kind-Movie-Poster-Style-B-11x17-Inch-Mini-Poster

Unfortunately, the only way to experience this completely immersive multi-channel surround mix was to attend the movie at a theater equipped to show a 70mm prints. Why? Because a regular 35mm film negative didn’t have the real estate to accommodate the more complicated magnetic soundtrack needed to go full, discrete surround sound. Only a 70mm negative had that sort of room:

70mm (lf) v 35mm (rt)

Problem was, the 70mm format (which incidentally also provided a superior image) was pretty rare by the early 70s, its cost to film/process/display too prohibitive. What could still be done, however, was to enlarge to 70mm (or “blowup” using Hollywood parlance) a movie filmed with a camera using a 35mm negative (pretty much the standard starting in the 70s), leaving ample room to add the fully discrete soundtrack. Sure, maybe the blowup image wasn’t quite as crisp as if the film had been shot natively in 70mm, but it still looked pretty damn good. And then there was the awesome sound. Of course, to make matters more complicated, since the 70mm format’s general demise (I say “general” because it wasn’t completely dead, only very, very seldomly used, and then mostly for visual effects shots), theaters equipped with projectors capable of running a large-format piece of film (and had all the necessary audio gear to playback discrete surround) were few and far between. Thus the “special event” vibe (see poster below) when one thumbed his or her nose at the thought of attending some lame “stereo” presentation of Star Wars or Alien or Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Right Stuff, instead opting to burn alarming amounts of fossil fuel piloting your parents’ 30-foot-long Buick Estate Station Wagon to that “select” theater four towns over with the artistic cajones (and deep pockets) to properly exhibit said blockbuster in all its “70mm Six-Track Dolby Stereo” glory.



Thankfully, this perceived dilemma involving only select theaters being equipped to present the full-blown A/V experience (“dilemma” to nerds like The Conflicted Film Snob; to you probably not so much) eventually ironed itself out in the early 1990s with the advent of a couple now-ubiquitous surround-sound formats, Dolby Digital (which premiered with 1992’s Batman Returns) and DTS (which first made its impact-tremor splash in 1993’s Jurassic Park):



Using new digital technologies, these two formats basically democratized fully discrete 5.1 soundtracks. Now every run-of-the-mill 35mm theatrical presentation could sound fully immersive (assuming the theater was properly equipped with the audio gear). Negative size was no longer an issue. So instead of traveling to that one theater for the best sound, pretty much every auditorium at the local cineplex would suffice. Hurray.

Movie sound continues to evolve even today, the bleeding edge represented by Dolby Atmos, a format first released in 2012 and unfortunately only available in a limited number of theaters (sound familiar?). What is it exactly? Well, as succinctly explained in an article on, Atmos improves upon previous surround formats in two major ways:

  1. By adding height information with overhead speakers, for greater auditory immersion;
  2. By enabling greater movement of a much larger number of sounds within the hemispherical space, resulting in a more 3-dimensional experience. The roar of a jet engine, for example, can now zoom up, down, or all around with far better precision and greater realism than traditional channel-based surround sound.

In a theater it looks something like this:


Atmos is the Conflicted Film Snob’s preferred audio format and he strongly recommends you seek it out:


Quick note #1: although you may think what I’ve written above is thorough, it’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of a compete history of movie sound. (Heck, I didn’t even mention conductor Leopold Stokowski’s invaluable role in early multichannel sound presentations and, later, his work with Disney on Fantasia!) I easily could dedicate another 50,000 words to fill in the blanks left by these broad strokes. Then again, if I did that, you probably end up like this:


So I won’t. Even though I’d like to. Which is why I’m The Conflicted Film Snob and you’re not.

Quick note #2: The Art of Motion Picture Sound Design, Pt. 2, this one covering a couple of the most important Sound Designers of the last 40 years and samples of their most famous work, will follow soon.

Be still your beating heart, right?

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