How has technology altered the cinematic experience of sound since silent film?



Digital technology is one of the main components in delivering the immersive experience currently enjoyed by moviegoers around the world. It enables audiences to be drawn into more and more vivid renderings with each passing few years, sometimes changing the style in which movies are created and enjoyed. However, some of the technologies commonly thought of as recent creations, date much further back than one would expect. This paper sets out to explain how digital technology has altered the cinematic experience of sound. Three historically distinct periods of technological significance in sound reproduction are useful in understanding the background of this subject.   The period when no synchronized dialogue was heard from the actors on screen was followed by a second period marked by the successful application of synchronised sound and a third representing the introduction  of a number of new technologies in recording and reproduction of audio and film. Digital technology has clearly had an impact on the vividness with which cinema is experienced. Its development may indicate that the biggest changes are yet to come.

For Verscheure (1995) the birth of cinematography marks the beginning of the first period. From 1895 to 1927 cinema was mute, in that no synchronized dialogue was heard from the actors on screen. Instead, music was played live alongside the images on screen: dialogue cards were shown beside corresponding scenes with plot points written on them to guide the viewer. Prior to 1908, the cinema experience was a boisterous one in which cinema goers would make as much noise as the raucous piano—which would be playing music generally unrelated to the images on the screen. It was only after around 1913 that music began to be written specifically for the films and audiences began to learn to listen in silence. It was at this point that the cinema experience became more of a solitary one.

Generally music was improvised on piano from a set of rough notes and sometimes some sound effects were played live along to the films depending on the theatre. Later vinyl records were played along to the images, but without synchronized sound, these could accomplish little more than their human counterparts. For Altman (1990:4) the privileging of vision over all other senses stemmed from the Renaissance viewpoint of the western world, the cinemagoer is immersed in a world based more strongly on visual cues than auditory ones. During this period in French cinema, some critics of film d’art, a highbrow cinematography movement of the time, claimed silence to be an artistic choice rather than a technological restraint. Instead, powerful music scores were thought to be more expressive than the human voice. Before 1906, cinema technology was more of an amusement rather than a story telling device. The current narrative driven cinema that we enjoy today is more a product of historical shaping than an inherent quality of the medium itself. The idea of cinema as a story telling device gained popularity at the same time as theatre effects machines became more common as a work around for the problems with synchronization. The machine would be operated live along with the images in the theatre. Out of this increased popularity in effects machines, came increased complaints: operators not correctly timing sound events with the images or using distasteful sounds for cheap laughs. Another big problem was mixing the effects so that their volumes would match up with the action on screen. It was detrimental to the experience to have background sounds higher in volume from the foreground action. Some suggested that the sound effects were best left up to the piano player. It was at this point that music began to be used as sound effects in cinema. The term “mickey mousing” would later be used to describe this, on account of being heavily featured in Walt Disney’s cartoons. Prior to 1900 cinema technology was being developed in colour, widescreen and with unsynchronized sound, but lack of economic incentive failed to push the technology. Even though Thomas Edison had intended the reproduction of sound and image as a synchronized pair, it was not implemented until decades later.  Edison and Charles Pathe’s technological advancements in phonograph, telephone and film were met with paranoia from some. Mats Bjorkin argued that these technologies might create paranoia in that people would be overheard, recorded and reproduced without consent, through electronic means: an “electro-hysteria” (Abel & Altman, 2001: 33).

The second period of 1927 to 1952 is decisively marked by the successful application of synchronized sound, optical sound printed along side the film. For the first time this allowed actors on screen to be recorded during filming and the audio to be reproduced ‘in-sync’ with the images on screen. This fundamentally changed the cinematic experience, allowing audiences to hear lines spoken by the actors on screen. As a result, technological advancements in cinema at the time were aimed squarely at producing a more realistic style of cinema. Sound in cinema was also improved as a side effect of developments in adjacent fields, such as the quality of the film used and even the lights used on set. But sound technology during the explosion of the ‘talkies’ caused new technical complications during filming and altered the visual experience to a degree as a result. A perfect example of this is depicted in the movie Singing in the Rain where we can see the problems presented by the move to ‘talkies’. From unwieldy microphone technology influencing shot choice, to having the audience hear their favourite actors voices for the first time—sometimes to the detriment of their career.  It was during the 1930’s that many of the rules of modern cinema editing were developed. Microphone technology was improving and the industry was learning how to better utilize the new technology. At its advent, many judged synchronized sound to be a tacky gimmick, at odds with the idea of the art in cinema. One outspoken proponent of this was Charlie Chaplin, who once stated that ‘talkies’ were “ruining the great beauty of silence” (King, 2011: 3). He felt that sound was a hindrance rather than a help to his performance, and avoided dialogue until The Great Dictator in 1940. Tom Gunning argues that along with the advancements of the excitement of the senses during the cinema experience, there is a growing divide between the senses. Michel Chion would however argue that there is no such thing as a soundtrack, and that the image cannot be separated in any meaningful way from the soundtrack (Abel & Altman, 2001).

During the start of the second period the previously standard screen ratio of 4:3 was being replaced with different wide screen film recording and reproduction technologies. However, the slow uptake of standardization slowed the advancement to the point that widescreen was not widespread until the 1950’s. The first project of standardization of reproduction was undertaken by SMPTE in 1938 due to the wide variation of systems or recording and playback at the time. As a consequence of World War 2, audio technology progressed rapidly with the use of the magnetic tape machine. Unfortunately cinema was slow on the uptake and even though tape technology was cheaper, lighter and produced better quality sound, cinemas were not equipped for magnetic tape reproduction and so the added cost made it prohibitive to established theatres. Instead, the technology was first utilized by film makers recording their own material on magnetic tape, before going on to optical print for distribution. The introduction of magnetic tape to film making immediately brought multitrack technology and further divorced the sound from the image, allowing much more complicated mixes and sound effects to be rendered and a more solid audio-visual contract to be achieved (Belton, 2002; Verscheure, et al., 1995).

The third period of 1952 to present, was introduced by the spread of Cinerama. This was the presentation of a number of new technologies in recording and reproduction of audio and film. Cinerama featured a very large screen and high quality stereo sound, allowing directors far greater creative freedom in making movies. One year later, 20th Century Fox had spread the CinemaScope process throughout their marketing network, creating a standard of high quality in equipped theatres. Counter intuitively, it was not until 1965 when a market for colour feature films on TV developed, that most movies were made in colour. It was during this period that the Dolby system was invented. With the introduction of multitrack recording to cinema came the multiplication of ground noise from each source in a mix. Dolby was an early noise suppressor designed to combat this problem.

During the third period, three categories of presentation developed which lent themselves to certain genres which capitalized on their strengths. The first category is of systems designed exclusively for large theatres. These are rarely standardized and rapidly evolving in terms of audio and video. The second category is of systems for average theatres such as Perspecta Sound and Dolby Digital. Standardization of image formats developed in this category but sound technology still progresses. The third category is of systems usable in all theatres, but optimized for small halls. To save money, this category is greatly standardized in both audio and image formats (Berton, 1990).

Currently, digital technology is moving into CGI realms previously unimagined. Technology is currently in development which allows directors to engineer an actors performance in post production through merging multiple takes with CGI. This alludes to a point in the near future where it will be difficult to tell who is actually a good actor, much like the way autotune is used in digitally processed music. Dolby Atmos is currently the newest sound reproduction technology to be rolled out to theatres. The new system incorporates height information through the use of ceiling mounted speakers. Unfortunately, as throughout the history of cinema, economic factors greatly slow the uptake of digital technology. In 1999 the amount of theatres in the world capable of reproducing digital sound at all, was less than 50 percent. Every film print carrying digital information still carries an analogue backup in Dolby SVA. With the invention of the internet and with it, digital file sharing with faster and faster data rates all the time, most of the local cinemas have shut down or been bought over.

People are more commonly watching movies in their own home and visiting the cinema less. Cinema is currently trending back to the spectacle it was prior to 1913. Special effects and big box office hits are less about narrative and more about the curiosity that is the technology. 3D is experiencing another resurgence in popularity with recent breakthroughs in 3D recording and reproduction. As well as other familiar gimmicks from the 1950’s such as vibrating seats, and in Japan, a system that sprays aromatic aerosols at the viewer as an accompaniment to the film. The line between computer games and cinema is disappearing presently. Ever since computer games had filmed cut scenes with real actors and plot, they have involved real elements of cinema and it is not uncommon for a movie release to be backed up by the release of a computer game based on the film. Things have gone so far that now the computer game industry grosses more money than the film industry and there are movies based on computer games. Not just the theme of computer games, but specific titles such as Silent Hill and Doom. Whereas the development of cinema technology has separated the audience from one another so as to better deliver the story, online multiplayer gaming has thrived through creating a space in which people interact and in some games entirely develop their own story and even their lead character such as World of Warcraft online. In these virtual environments people develop social circles, interest groups and even additions to language.

Presently online games are still a different experience from cinema, but graphics technology is bringing these two experiences closer together, and the advantage that game culture has over cinema is an active audience rather than a passive one. An interesting trend that has sprung from this blurring of cinema and gaming, is Machinima (from the words ‘machine’ and ‘cinema’) is the use of a computer games development engine to produce entirely virtual films with characters, plot, sound and mise-en-scene. Although Machinima uses a completely different technological method from classic movie making, it’s framework is the same theory in narrative driven cinema that was developed in the second period beginning 1952. Where cinema has come up against economic road blocks in the past, sound technology in computer games has moved at a much faster rate, albeit starting much later. As soon as 5.1 surround sound was available for the home cinema market, it was quickly assimilated by computer manufacturers, and at a much lower price. Many PC’s for instance, have had 5.1 surround as standard instead of stereo speakers. Televisions on the other hand, still do not come with surround as standard and a decoder must be purchased to achieve 5.1. This, coupled with a tactical advantage over a virtual enemy explains why 3D audio in computer games is so advanced, incorporating virtual sound environments with digital telephony. ‘Team Speak’ is a gamer term used to describe the system which allows players connected via network to communicate with each other over headsets with microphones. People from around the world can communicate with each other, total strangers, while interacting in each other and the virtual world they are inhabiting. Contrast this with the beginings of cinema in which audience members were isolated from the people sitting right next to them by the different method of story telling.

The way cinema actively engaged audiences of the silent era, using imagination to add their own perspective to the story, could be viewed as experiencing a resurgence through the medium of interactive gaming. In a similar fashion, the film d’art proponents could be considered with the modern counterpart of the digital multimedia artist. Commonly these abstract audio-visual works feature abstract imagery and favour emotive music over dialogue.   As these digital multimedia experiences become more cinematic, and allow the participants to make decisions about how the story is going to unfold, the line between cinema and interactive gaming is becoming more blurred. Just like before 1913, there is scope again to incorporate a group experience back into the future of cinema. Digital technology has had an impact on the vividness with which cinema is experienced, however the biggest changes seem yet to come.




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