Cinemasound

The American movie industry rediscovered the blockbuster in 1971 with the release of “Jaws.” In 1977, “Star Wars” amazed audiences with its special effects, and launched what would become a series of blockbusters based on the childhood fantasies (shared by many) of its creator, George Lucas. Steven Spielberg’s ginormous “ET” was only an early demonstration of his own prodigious talents in the production of blockbuster special effects films (begun, in fact, with “Jaws”). Hollywood was onto something. It was as if they had discovered a nerve until then unknown. Special effects continue to dominate filmmaking, and the inevitable immigration to digital filmmaking will only lead to even greater effects innovations.

Special effects work by creating a reality more convincing than the real itself. Using camera angles, lighting, and speed, they produce images that the unassisted eye would otherwise miss, in part because the effects are more spectacular than the real thing and in part because the viewer would be killed while witnessing such spectacular events from the camera’s POV. But if special effects seem to work by making everything louder, it is because, in fact, they do.

Cinema sound underwent a revolution during the 1990s with the installation of high-end audio systems required to meet the demands of sound formats developed by Dolby, Sony, and Lucas’ THX. DTS soundtracks are in fact not recorded optically on film but delivered on CD and synched up with the film during playback. The standard format for film in fact was changed at one point to allow for more room on the film itself for the soundtrack. When Apple’s Quicktime engineers were writing the codec for computer video playback and recording, they opted to drop frames rather than sound in the event of throughput limitations.

Some say that today’s cinema experience is “immersive.” That in the darkened room of a modern multiplex it is the sound that puts the viewer into the space of the film. Sound integrates. While the eye, and the act of seeing, position the viewer in an external relationship to his or her environment, the ear, and the act of hearing, position him or her in an internal relationship. The eye operates by an act of being there; the ear, being here; exteriority, interiority. Sound unfolds on the ribbon of time, integrating us into a presence and its rhythms. The cuts (and they have become so short) used by film editors would never work to tell narrative if it were not for the continuity of sound. For even when dynamic bursts liven up the action onscreen, they occur in a continuity that belongs to the very nature of sound.

It is this subtle but real experience of continuity that produces the immersive impact of film today. Sound editors and mixers have become extremely good at measuring the rhythm, pace, extension, attack, decay, and punctuation of sound added to film. They apply their techniques to the production of narrative such that story can unfold with almost imperceptible and indistinguishable shifts in mood and timing. Horror and suspense films, a genre which not coincidentally has seen a great deal more output in film than on stage, are masterpieces of sound production. Conduct this thought experiment for a moment: you are asked to stage a tale of suspense for the stage. At the climax of the play, when suspense and anticipation have built up to their greatest potential, you are allowed lighting but not sound. You can’t do suspense without sound. Because sound operates on the ribbon of time (note that most sound media are circular: wax cyclinder, phonograph, reel to reel, cassette tape, cd, dvd—a coincidence?). And as a narrative element, suspense requires time because suspense is the tension that builds in the space between anticipation and its resolution: to hold somebody in suspense is to suspend time.

Indeed, the function of suspense operates by slowing and even pausing the set of forces that the viewer knows are about to come crashing in on him or her. Hence it creates an anticipation of the future, and even in some cases articulates what is going to happen (foreshadowing), but adds time, time, time to halt the movement of inevitability. Cinemasound is especially well-suited to the delivery of the suspense function. The viewer is a captive member of the audience and thus there is little chance of interruption in the viewer’s experience. The audience itself forms a crowd in control, or under control, which in itself suspends the possibility (always there) of a rupture, violence, happening. Placed in the unique position of full attention, individuals within the crowd are forced by the cinema function itself to agree to the contract that is the basis of cinema entertainment: uninterrupted and unopposed consumption of the experience at hand. Obliged then to sit still, refrain from smoking please, and no talking (respect thy neighbor), audience members form in the aggregate a silent, self-controlled and mutually reinforcing captive audience. Consequently, and necessarily, the audience member’s time is captured by the film’s Time.

It is sound that delivers this Time. We attend the movies knowing ahead of time what type of movie to expect: gangster, sci-fi, thriller, comedy, western, action, and so on. We are familiar with the pacing common to each. Most of us have probably had the experience of suddenly feeling excited, nervous or anxious, giggly, or whatever when the lights go down and the frame of our evening is established by the opening frame of our encounter with the movie. We put ourselves in a disposition to receive, to be impressed and be impressed upon by the film. And on exiting the theater, when we step into the flourescence of the lobby, we experience that momentary confusion of Times: the closing frame of the movie closes the encounter with film Time and deposits us back in the presence of our Time. A time that is no longer shared with the audience but profoundly individual and personal. The group encounter is now over, and we turn to our friends and seek to establish a rapport that requires us not only to give up on the fantasy that film Time might continue but demands that we re-integrate in real Time (personal Time) with those around us. Thus forcing us to adopt a new position not only to Self but to our Others.