Written by Jordan Kushins
Some of the biggest moments in cinematic history hit your ears before they hit your eyes and keep reverberating long after you've left the theater: Those first spine-tingling notes from John Williams' Star Wars Main Title; Booger's no-contest belch in Revenge of the Nerds. But for a film's sound team, it's also capturing and conveying the sonic subtlety in between those memorable moments that makes a film truly memorable.
"It's long been said that you do a great job in sound when no one notices it," says Gary Rydstrom. Rydstrom is a seven-time Oscar winning Sound Designer and Re-Recording Mixer at Skywalker Sound, and has been in the business since his big break as an audio technician on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984. This somewhat elusive mark of success has gotten consistently easier to achieve over the years, thanks to the wild advances in tech that the industry has experienced since the silent films of the early 1900s.
From the beginning of cinema, tons of experimental attempts were made to more completely merge audio and visual entertainment—with nearly 40 different varieties, many one-offs, before the talkies hit the scene. Productions like Don Juan in 1926 featured a score and sound effects but no dialogue—it wasn't until The Jazz Singer spoke to audiences in 1927 that the talking picture revolution truly took hold of Hollywood (and beyond).
The movie was recorded in Vitaphone, a sound-on-disc that involved the painstaking process of recording all audio onto a single phonographic record, then syncing that up in real time with the projection (similar to the classic college dorm experiment where you play Dark Side of the Moon to start at the same time as the third MGM lion's roar at the start of The Wizard of Oz). In the format wars of the 1920s, however, the far more reliable sound-on-film method (or "optical sound") eventually won out and became the industry standard until the digital revolution.
In the interim, however, filmmakers were not only mastering this developing craft, but also pushing technological limits to serve their ever-more-ambitious visions. At the forefront of that charge in the 1970s was George Lucas, in the midst of producing a risky sci-fi space opera called Star. Mono—where sound is emitted from a single channel, or speaker, based in the front of the theater—wasn't going to do this film justice. Lucas teamed up with the sound dudes at Dolby, and together they engineered what would be the first in a line of significant collaborations: Dolby Stereo. For the first time, sound effects were emitted from four channels—and they were booming. It was a near-instantaneous revolution.
From there on out, Dolby staked its claim as the innovators in cinema sound. In 1991, Batman Returns became the first film released in Dolby Digital 5.1, featuring sound coming from left, right, and center in front, plus right and left. It was a major development for the audience, and also the creatives behind the scenes.
"Digital changed everything," says Rydstrom. "When I started we were on big fat pieces of magnetic tape and dubbers that you had to physically cut. Being able to manipulate sounds digitally was a huge learning curve, but it was so exciting that it didn't matter." Digital also revolutionized mixing consoles. "The first movie I did with James Cameron was Terminator 2 [in 1991], and we had no computerized memory. The next one I did for him was Titanic [in 1997], and the difference was profound."
When Toy Story 3 came out in 2010, the Toy Story and Toy Story 2 were scheduled for a strategically timed rerelease, complete with 3D upgrade. Pixar post-production supervisor Paul Cichocki saw the confluence as an opportunity. "So we've already 'plussed' the look on those," he remembers. "The question was: 'What can we do audibly to take it to another level?'" The goal was to make sound more directional and enveloping, and the solution was Dolby Surround 7.1, which situated speakers in the back of the theater, too.
And now, there is Dolby Atmos. With Atmos, sounds don't just stream through channels—they become "objects" that can be choreographed around a space, and placed in particular spots at specific moments to maximize, well—everything. My introduction to this next-level, multi-dimensional aural revelation was when I saw Gravity at Dolby HQ a few years back—a movie I felt in my guts and bones for at least a week afterwards.
This year, Inside Out—another Atmos creation—is nominated for Best Animated Feature Film at the Oscars. Here's an exclusive video of director Pete Docter and Producer Jonas Riviera discussing the challenges of locating the voices in your head, and articulating that to an audience.
"Traditionally Dolby has been a mastering process," says Stuart Bowling, Dolby director of content and creative relations. "With Atmos, we're going beyond just existing as a mastering tool—we've had to create a plug-in to move sound in this environment, and create a new mastering box." These precise manipulations and the growing dynamic range of what we can hear in theaters—and at home, and on the go—are significant. "These developments are always bringing the sound experience for movies closer to how we hear real life," Rydstrom says.
Recreating how we hear in real life for a film, however, is "annoyingly painstaking," Rydstrom says. In order to make it happen, these pros need the technical know-how, but also a sympathetic ear; it's not necessarily that they hear any better than us non-industry folk, it's just that they hear differently.
"I pay more attention to the sounds in my life," he says. "I think I have a hyperawareness of the emotional effect of sound. Something like the squeak of a screen door can have emotional resonance with people."
So how does that movie sound sausage get made?
"On a live action movie, the main job is to get the acting clear, and wonderful, and free of everything around it," Rydstrom says. "So, on Bridge of Spies the goal of the recording on set was to get a clean Tom Hanks—you don't want to lose any of that performance." (Rydstrom, it should be noted, is nominated for a Best Achievement in Sound Mixing Oscar for for his work on that film.) That audio on its own, however, is "almost antiseptic," intentionally devoid of as much ambient or background noise as possible.
Same goes, in many ways, for modern animation—capturing voices is key. "We're recording actors about three years from release," Cichocki says. "And all of our actors are recorded before we animate. This allows for actors to be free and unconstrained—to really perform. We'll record their performance, and that [audio and video] will then go back to the animators so they can add in those personal bits."
This is a near 180-degree flip from the early talkies, when actors were required to practice their craft in almost complete service to the recording tech's limitations and capabilities. According to Motion Picture Sound Engineering, a hardcover compilation of lectures and papers published in 1938, microphones and recording systems were "robots which pick up everything within their range and record it to the best of their ability. In any case the direction of the robot, the provision of a brain for the microphone, devolves upon the sound man."
Nuanced, it was not. This scene from Singin'in the Rain—one of the greatest movies of all time, but also a trenchant look at the logistical challenges Hollywood's transitionary period between silent films and talkies—shows how challenging it was to get a good take.
So, what's next? For every Atmos experience engineered to give you goosebumps—in theaters, at home, even on mobile devices and VR—there's an equally thrilling renaissance happening in the work of crazy ambitious projects by indie auteurs; and they're utilizing a tool you've got in your pocket right now.
Last year, director Sean Baker made headlines with his Sundance debut, Tangerine—the adventures of two transgender sex workers in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve—which was shot entirely on an iPhone 5. This year, Matthew A. Cherry—a former NFL wide-receiver-turned-filmmaker—will premiere his second feature film, 9 Rides, at SXSW; it is billed as the first to be shot entirely on iPhone 6S in 4k.
"There's such a mystique around filmmaking," Cherry says. "I used to think every movie was a multimillion-dollar affair. Traditionally, the equipment was always the hardest part to get because it was so expensive, but these days everyone owns an iPhone. There are apps that allow you to use your iPhone like a mic pack."
This democratization of technology, as well as any number of ubiquitous online platforms to share work with the world, is giving those without the backing, financial or otherwise, to see their own visions realized.
"Lots of the time you have to figure it out yourself," says Cherry. "But for every movie like a Tangerine, like our film, I think more and more people will start picking it up."
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