Beyond Dolby (Stereo)
Cinema in the Digital Sound Age
Publication Year: 2011
Since digital surround sound technology first appeared in cinemas 20 years ago, it has spread from theaters to homes and from movies to television, music, and video games. Yet even as 5.1 has become the standard for audiovisual media, its impact has gone unexamined. Drawing on works from the past two decades, as well as dozens of interviews with sound designers, mixers, and editors, Mark Kerins uncovers how 5.1 surround has affected not just sound design, but cinematography and editing as well. Beyond Dolby (Stereo) includes detailed analyses of Fight Club, The Matrix, Hairspray, Disturbia, The Rock, Saving Private Ryan, and Joy Ride, among other films, to illustrate the value of a truly audiovisual approach to cinema studies.
Published by: Indiana University Press
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The title of this book can be read as either Beyond Dolby or Beyond Dolby Stereo. This first might seem misleading. The film industry has certainly not moved “beyond” Dolby; the company remains a major player in cinema sound, and today any feature film print, DVD, or highdefinition television broadcast includes a Dolby-encoded soundtrack. Indeed, Dolby’s legacy would be difficult to overstate. The company pioneered a host of noise reduction techniques adopted across all areas...
Part 1 Production and Style
1. Cinema’s Hidden Multi-channel History and the Origins of Digital Surround
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Today, digital “5.1” sound—the “5” referring to the configuration’s five full-range channels and the “.1” to its bass-frequencies-only low-frequency effects (LFE) channel—is commonplace is homes and nearly ubiquitous in theaters. But in the late 1980s, when Holman made his proposal to the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), no one was sure what form cinematic digital sound would take or how successful it would be. The movie industry, after all, had a long history of introducing new sound technologies only to quickly discard them....
2. The Sound of 5.1: Aural Aesthetics
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When 5.1-channel digital surround sound (DSS) first appeared in the early 1990s, it offered filmmakers better dynamic range, more channels, and greater flexibility for placement of sounds within the multichannel environment. Few of these capabilities, however, could be exploited to their fullest at this early stage in the digital era. Relatively few exhibitors had installed DSS systems, so filmmakers had to ensure that their soundtracks would still play back acceptably when downmixed to Dolby Stereo, which far and away dominated the theatrical sound market....
3. The Look of 5.1: Visual Aesthetics
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A film’s soundtrack does not operate in isolation, but rather as part of a larger whole; changes in film sound technology thus have an impact beyond the soundtrack. The advent of the “talkie,” for instance, led to significant shifts in the ways films were shot and edited. Silent films of the late 1920s had an average shot length of five seconds overall, with about three-fourths having an average shot length between four and seven seconds.1 With the introduction of sync sound, average shot lengths nearly doubled to around 10.8 seconds; films also showed more...
4. Decoding the Digital Surround Style
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Digital surround sound (DSS) has promoted a number of specific stylistic trends in the cinema. Some of these, such as movies’ loudest sounds becoming even louder and their silences even quieter, derive specifically from the technical differences between DSS systems and their immediate predecessor, Dolby Stereo. Others result indirectly from this technological change. For example, filmmakers have always been technically able to ignore the 180-degree rule in picture editing, but their newfound ability to do so without confusing the audience is tied to the capability of DSS soundtracks to precisely...
5. Using the Digital Surround Style
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Humphrey and King speak for the community of film sound professionals in recognizing that just because surround sound makes particular stylistic options available does not mean those options are always the right ones to use. The digital surround style of diegetic immersion is no different from any other filmmaking strategy: it is appropriate in some places but not necessarily in others....
Part 2 Analysis
6. Studying Multi-channel Soundtracks
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Formal analysis is one of the fundamental tools of cinema scholarship. Meticulous examination of a film’s images, sound, and story reveal how it functions and can even suggest more universal truths about cinema in general. The analysis process is detail oriented, requiring close attention to the intricacies of a film’s construction. Prior to the advent of home video, such in-depth study was difficult; scholars needed either to rely on memory and the rare screenings of classic films or to obtain a print of a film and study it on a flatbed. The former approach had...
7. Studying Image/Sound Interactions
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Cinema is an audio-visual medium and must be studied as such. While much film scholarship has neglected the soundtrack in favor of the image, it is equally inappropriate to do the reverse and focus exclusively on the aural component of cinema. The strategy outlined in the last chapter for analyzing multi-channel usage is thus incomplete: to be productive, any multi-channel-inclusive analytic approach cannot treat the soundtrack as if it exists in isolation but must incorporate interactions between it and the image....
Part 3 Theory
8. Body and Voice
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The relationship between body and voice is a fitting topic with which to begin exploring the ramifications of digital surround sound (DSS) for film theory and scholarship. After all, the ability to synchronize human voices with their onscreen images is perhaps the defining characteristic of sound cinema. Sound effects and music often accompanied silent films, but dialogue and voices directly associated with the onscreen characters could not. Lecturers offered verbal enhancement to some films, but it was clear in these cases that the voice heard and the bodies seen onscreen had two distinct sources. The triumph of sync...
9. Apparatus Theory
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In their introduction to the 2008 essay collection Lowering the Boom, editors Jay Beck and Tony Grajeda argue that despite assertions of cinema studies having entered a “post-theory” era, classic film theory deserves to be reexamined in light of the soundtrack it has so long ignored: The study of film sound theory, historically marginalized and thus underdeveloped in cinema studies, has only recently started to evolve, and it offers numerous possibilities for advancing, revisiting, and...
10. The Real and the Symbolic
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The introduction to the previous chapter argued for reexamining nolonger- fashionable branches of film theory in the light of digital surround sound (DSS), given that many theoretical models for cinema say little or nothing about the soundtrack, much less about multichannel. Because apparatus theory relies directly on the screen as sole locus of filmic meaning, it was a logical candidate for DSS-driven reexploration; in the last chapter, just such an analysis demonstrated that even this often-dismissed vein of film theory offers...
Conclusion: Media and Media Studiesin the Digital Surround Age
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This book began with a simple question: how has 5.1 surround sound impacted the cinema? That seemingly straightforward starting point blossomed into a wide-ranging exploration. Examination of the formal traits—aural and visual—encouraged by cinema’s adoption of digital surround sound led to recognition of a specific style centered on diegetic immersion. This, in turn, established the need to develop...
Appendix A: Timeline of Common Sound Exhibition Formats
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Appendix B: Film Sound Personnel Cited
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Page Count: 392
Illustrations: 35 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2011