If you think this summer’s movies are especially loud, you’re right.
But you’d also be right if you said films are quieter these days.
Much has been made of the visual effects wizardry releases, such as “Batman Forever,” “Waterworld” and the upcoming “Virtuosity,” but digital technology also is making its mark on the audio side of film-making.
The result, say sound engineers, designers and technicians, is not just films with a greater dynamic range, but which also pack a bigger aural wallop.
“Movies are louder today,” says Robert Budd, a special projects engineer at Warner Bros. Studios, who recently supervised design of the post-production sound-mixing facility on the lot as well as the audio system in Warners’ new Steven J. Ross Theater.
The recent advent of the digital soundtracks increased the range of audio levels available to filmmakers. Another important development, says Budd, is commercial theaters’ use of digital release formats: Dolby’s Digital Theater Sound (DTS), Sony’s SDDS and LucasFilm’s THX.
Digital technology on the recording side also has made a difference. “They give you a soundtrack with greater dynamic range. That means films are quieter in the soft spots and louder in others,” Budd explains. “But the people who are mixing the soundtracks are working at the direction of the people making the movie. At that point, it’s a question of the director’s taste, how they want the movie to play.”
Budd points out that it’s not just action-adventure or sci-fi fare that benefits from a digital technology. “I’ve listened to the digital soundtracks of ‘Batman Forever’ and ‘Bridges of Madison County,’ which are almost diametrically opposed on volume level. There’s nothing in ‘Bridges’ that comes up to the volume on the first 10 seconds of ‘Batman,’ but ‘Bridges’ is an excellent example of the use of quiet sounds. There’s a scene with a babbling brook, and the detail and quality of the water sounds are excellent.”
Sound designer Frank Serafine, who created and mixed the effects track for Paramount’s upcoming “Virtuosity,” says an all-digital environment has added substantially to filmmakers’ cache of tools.” ‘Virtuosity’ is the loudest movie I’ve ever heard,” he says. “Movies in general are louder now because of the advanced technology we’re using, but also of the younger directors in the business now. (Virtuosity helmer) Brett Leonard used to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band, so he knows how effective sound can be.”
Serafine says the heightened reality afforded by pristine digital recording increases an audience’s sense that a film is louder. With assistants Marc Lopez, Francois Blaignan and Mike Mancini, Serafine recorded brand new effects for “Virtuosity,” rather than relying on sound libraries already in existence. For one scene, they used slingshots to break large panes of glass, recording the shattering noises through a digital filter. For another scene showing virtual rigging being set up in the film, Serafine went to a Home Depot store and recorded its hydraulic forklifts.
“Loud, realistic sound is another way filmmakers have of frightening an audience, making an experience come to life,” Serafine says. “If you hear a gunshot in real life, you know it. We’re creating a virtual sound environment and drawing the audience into it.”
Serafine believes an audience shouldn’t be acutely aware of a film’s sound effects, however. “When sound isn’t noticeable, it’s best. We’re doing both louder and quieter sequences now because of digital recording, but that should be transparent: The audience shouldn’t be thinking about the sound.”
Despite a sound designer’s best efforts, an unappreciative theater employee can make it all for naught. “The problem with loud movies is that the projectionist sometimes turns it down, then nobody can hear the dialogue,” acknowledges Serafine.
“That problem comes up,” agrees Tim Schafbuch, director of LucasFilm’s THX Theatre Alignment Program, a division that deploys technicians to inspect and fix problems at exhibition sites. TAP is hired by the studio’s distribution arms, and beginning with “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” many studio features include an 800 number in the closing credits for audience members to call if they have a complaint about the projection or sound quality.
“It’s up to us to contact the theater, then go out and remedy the problem,” Schafbuch says.
Schafbuch says TAP representatives also sit in theaters during regular public screenings and conduct sight and sound evaluations.
Although the service – which Frank Serafine affectionately refers to as the “sound police” – has not been advertised, Schafbuch reports that about 200 concerned citizens have called to report exhibition violations. And not all those calls have been from cranks.
“We’ve been quite surprised. A lot have been legitimate, substantiated problems,” Schafbuch says.
He recalls a specific example: “Somebody reported poor sound quality in ‘Die Hard,’ and we discovered that they’d run every showing that first weekend in mono, and it was a stereo theater. For a multimillion dollar movie, on something that simple, we can make a difference.”