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Narration in the Cinema of Digital Sound

From: The Velvet Light Trap
Number 58, Fall 2006
pp. 41-54 | 10.1353/vlt.2006.0030

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No one would deny that technological change can have a major impact on cinematic stortelling. Historically, the definitive example of this would be the development of synchronized sound—filmmakers who had previously been forced to rely solely on images and occasional title cards to tell their stories could now shift some of the narrative burden to voices, sound effects, and music. Yet though most film scholars will acknowledge the importance of technological change to cinema, surprisingly few have taken much notice of one particular technology: digital surround sound, or DSS. Indeed, given the widespread success of DSS technologies like Dolby Digital, dts, and SDDS in the marketplace, the lack of scholarly work on their ramifications is astounding. The logical conclusion to draw from this paucity of research would be that DSS has not had much of an effect on aesthetic or narrative practices. In fact, though, quite the opposite is true: the introduction of DSS has had profound implications on virtually all aspects of the filmmaking process. Given the range of its effects, exploring all the ramifications of DSS is an undertaking far beyond the scope of a short essay; this essay, however, will at least begin to remedy this gap in film scholarship by examining a few of the ways in which DSS technology has sparked new aesthetic trends and, in doing so, has altered the storytelling processes of the cinema.

DSS and Its Forerunners

Before getting into the specifics of how DSS affects narration, some background on the specific differences between DSS and its predecessors will be valuable, as it will provide a foundation for the arguments to follow. Multichannel sound enjoys a long and rich past: the first experiments in multichannel sound had already taken place by the invention of cinema, and multichannel film sound dates back at least to the early 1940s. This history, at least up through the 1970s, has been extensively analyzed in the first two chapters of Jay Beck's "A Quiet Revolution: Changes in American Film Sound Practices," so readers interested in how systems like Dolby Stereo grew out of disparate earlier technologies should see that work. For the present purposes, suffice it to say that while multichannel experiments have been occurring almost continually, multichannel film releases have been a much different story—from the introduction of sync sound in the 1920s to the advent of Dolby Stereo in the mid-1970s, virtually all films were released in monophonic sound. Various "stereo" formats came and went over this period, but for a mix of aesthetic, technical, and economic reasons none of them ever succeeded in supplanting mono sound as a standard; two excellent dissections of why so many multichannel sound formats have failed can be found in Beck's aforementioned "A Quiet Revolution" and John Belton's "1950's Magnetic Sound: The Frozen Revolution." Moreover, for most of film history even those films released in high-end theaters in stereo have also been widely released in mono; since most audiences would never hear these films' multichannel effects, their makers were unable to make these effects crucial to the narrative.

The adoption of Dolby Stereo as the theatrical standard in the late 1970s and early 1980s (once more, see Beck's work for details of this shift) changed these rules; for the first time, filmmakers could rely on most audiences hearing whatever "stereo" effects they used in their soundtracks. Innovative directors like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola were quick to take advantage of this new freedom and used their Dolby Stereo soundtracks to do things previously difficult or impossible in mainstream film. Gianluca Sergi has argued that this shift in filmmaking possibilities was so significant that the introduction of Dolby Stereo should be considered the beginning of a new period of Hollywood filmmaking, which he appropriately dubs "the Dolby era": "Dolby achieved nothing less than a comprehensive industry-wide transformation, from studio attitudes to sound, filtering through to filmmakers' creative use of sound and audience expectations" (11). Indeed, others have even gone a step further, insisting that Dolby Stereo affected not only audio practices but also the way films were shot. Michel Chion, to cite just one example, claims that...

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