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 the sound, it becomes a pantomime. And while early films couldn’t 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, we have mostly 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.
Length: 125 minutes / 2.08 hours
What’s interesting about Fantasia (1940) 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 backward in sound technology, it was, in fact, a great leap forward. 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.
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. 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 outgrown its humble roots and Fantasia helped to lay the groundwork for the sounds we hear today.
The Jazz Singer
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 (1927). 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 simply 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, except for 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 more natural 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 vast world of cinema we know today. While some other movie 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