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#192. Pioneers of Sound

When we watch a film, two of our senses are stimulated: sight and hearing. While some movies might remove one of these stimulants, they do so for a short time. If the entire film has one of these elements removed entirely, it essentially ceases to be a film. Without visuals, a movie becomes a radio play. Without sound, it becomes a pantomime. And while early films didn’t have the capability to fully utilize sound, the orchestral score did wonders for setting the mood and tone without including any speech. Still, a lot can be conveyed if the full range of sound is used in a film. There are certain aspects of sound that have been around for so long, that we have essentially forgotten a time when they weren’t used. This week’s two films helped to push the limits of what sound can do to fully immerse the audience in the story provided by the visuals.

Year: 1940
Rating: G
Length: 125 minutes / 2.08 hours

What’s interesting about Fantasia is that, aside from some in-between sections of explanation, the entire movie is essentially “silent”. Almost two decades after the “talkies” stormed the film industry; this film came along and revealed how easy it is to tell a story with only music and some colorful visuals. While some might have seen this as a step backwards in sound technology, it was in fact a great leap forward. In order to recreate the sensation of a live orchestra playing classical music, an innovation known as “Fantasound” was developed, specifically for this movie. This system was the first instance of what we now know today as “surround sound”. Without getting into too much technical jargon, some of the other benefits that came out of this audio development were multi-track recording and noise reduction, both of which are used elsewhere in a multitude of different applications today.

So, you may ask yourself, “Why go through all the trouble of making it seem like the audience was listening to a live orchestral performance?” We’ll put aside the fact that this technological achievement was absolutely astounding to have been created in 1940 just to point out that this orchestral performance was the crux of the whole film. In order to be immersed in the experience provided by Disney’s animators, the sound needed to move and flow as smoothly as the visuals did. From the dancing of the Nutcracker Suite, to the flooding of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, to the terror of Night on Bald Mountain, these segments (and many others) needed the full sound of Leopold Stokowski’s orchestra to completely envelop the audience in these animated worlds. The medium of sound had out-grown its humble roots and Fantasia helped to lay the groundwork for the sounds we hear today.

The Jazz SingerThe Jazz Singer
Year: 1927
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 88 minutes / 1.46 hours

Of course, in a post about pioneers of sound, I would be completely amiss if I did not include The Jazz Singer. Films up until this point were limited in what they could convey. Sure, the musical score set the tone of a film, but sometimes just reading dialogue off of a caption card isn’t enough to convey the true emotion of the actors. The challenge in making the actors “talk” was due to lip-synching. Since we all experience people talking in real life, we have a good sense of what’s being said even by just watching someone’s mouth move. If the sounds coming out of their mouth don’t match what their lips are doing, our mind rejects the speech. But, as recording techniques, both for visuals and audio, increased in accuracy, the lip-synch issue soon became a thing of the past. The first step toward that future was through The Jazz Singer’s songs.

Just like The Artist (2011) was mostly silent, with the exception of a sound-filled nightmare, The Jazz Singer wasn’t entirely filled with speech. In fact, the majority of the audible speech in the film comes through the variety of songs sung by Jack Robin (Al Jolson). These songs are easier to synch because they follow a musical pattern, instead of speech, which can be incredibly random. While other films had synchronized speech before The Jazz Singer, this film about a man’s dream of becoming a famous jazz singer against his father’s wishes was the first feature-length example of such a technical achievement. This film straddled the line between the silent films of the past and the wide world of films we know today. While some other film might have eventually made this jump, history has marked The Jazz Singer as the pioneer for the “talkies”.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 spectacular sounds


One response to “#192. Pioneers of Sound

  1. Pingback: End of Act Four | Cinema Connections

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