#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 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.

Year: 1940
Rating: G
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 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 (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

#191. The Anthology

The majority of film plots are created by stringing together scenes of dialogue or action to tell a story. These segments cannot stand on their own very well and need the rest of the film’s context to be understood. But, what if a scene contains an entire plot? What if these segments are almost entirely unrelated to each other? Sure, short films have been made that would fit the first description, but what if a movie was comprised entirely of short films? These feature-length movies are known as “anthologies.” Often, the anthology film will have a common theme that will tie the independent segments together, but many times these films are just a way to get in as many gags as possible in the shortest amount of time. This week’s two movies are anthologies but are anthologies for two completely different reasons.

                                                     History of the World, Part 1History of the World, Part 1
Year: 1981
Rating: R
Length: 92 minutes / 1.53 hours

Sketch comedy is perhaps one of the most prolific users of the anthology structure. Most jokes don’t take more than a few minutes to set up and deliver a punchline. Furthermore, if these comedic segments are not related to each other, the anthology is the best way to present them. One of the best examples of the comedic anthology is The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), which is a series of unrelated comedy sketches. Of course, the comedy group best known for comedy sketches would be Monty Python. The film that best utilizes their skill for sketches, and is perhaps the closest approximation of a Flying Circus movie, would be The Meaning of Life (1983). This anthology follows a bit more of a structure, as it progresses through the stages of a person’s life, albeit not the same person.

Another structured anthology film would be that of History of the World, Part 1 (1981). While there’s not nearly the amount of character parallels like in Three Ages (1923) or character cross-linking like in Cloud Atlas (2012), the theme of this Mel Brooks comedy is that of history. As such, the anthology of sketches is arranged chronologically, starting near the beginning of civilization. From the creation of many ideas and products in the Stone Age, the next sketch highlights the events of the Old Testament. Even within these sketches, other sketches can reside. The logical transition for the film is then to a sketch about the Roman Empire, which pulls in some New Testament references. After a brief stop-over at the Spanish Inquisition for a big musical number, the film concludes with the French Revolution, as well as a few previews of the unmade “Part 2.”

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

One of the challenges of animation is continuity. Because characters must be drawn in the same way, and the animation must abide by the same style throughout a film, sometimes these movies would take an incredibly long time to create (obviously, before the heavy use of computers). One way to speed up production would be to have several animation teams working on shorter segments unrelated to each other. Furthermore, the music for a film is usually composed so that it carries a melodic theme throughout. However, if famous pieces of music are the structure of the film, it can be difficult to tie these different musical works together to a coherent narrative. Granted, if the pieces are all performed by the same person, like in Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), the performer can be the theme of the anthology. However, Fantasia (1940) is not like that.

Anyone familiar with classical music will know the animation of Warner Brothers and Walt Disney have ingrained certain musical pieces into our cultural fabric. Fantasia was meant as an ever-evolving film. New segments were intended to be inserted in subsequent re-releases, thus expanding the film’s anthology as time progressed and the animated sequences were completed. Unfortunately, only Fantasia 2000 (1999) stands as the sequel to this groundbreaking film. Still, Fantasia’s legacy is seen in how easy it is to recognize pieces like Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (Bach), the Nutcracker Suite (Tchaikovsky), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Dukas), Rite of Spring (Stravinsky), The Pastoral Symphony (Beethoven), Dance of the Hours (Ponchielli), Night on Bald Mountain (Mussorgsky), and Ave Maria (Schubert).

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 awesome anthologies