‘Big Sound’ revives the big bang

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “The Big Sound” film series revives moviedom’s biggest sound Saturday with a special screening of the 1974 “Earthquake,” filmed in the short-lived Sensurround process.

Universal’s brief fling with Sensurround encompassed just four films, including “Rollercoaster,” and went out of hearing range 20 years ago. Still, the Museum was surprised at how difficult a task it faced to re-create the experience.

“It would have been nice to have a one-stop shopping experience,” LACMA film director Ian Birney said. “But, as with so many things, once it outlived its theatrical vitality, there was no thought given to preserving the elements.”

Birney first sought out a print from Universal only to discover that none existed in the format. He was prepared to drop the event when a chance conversation with a film collector gave him a potential line on a four-track magnetic scope print of the picture. It eventually turned up via SabuCat Prods. and cleared through the studio.

However, the screening also would require special speakers and a decoding device to prevent sound distortion. Birney tracked down Robert Leonard, a former audio engineer in the Universal Sound department and one of the three inventor/patent holders of Sensurround. Leonard — who will speak prior to Saturday’s screening — supervised the installation and located four jumbo sub-woofers at BGW Corp. needed to carry the low-frequency “rumble” necessary for the effects.

The most daunting challenge was finding the decoding devices. Leonard said the decoders were altered as the process evolved and later models wouldn’t work for “Earthquake” — the first in the series. Again, it appeared as if the event would have to be scrubbed, when a staffer suggested putting out a call on the Internet. Within 48 hours there were three responses: from Boston, Denver and Movie Palace Inc. of Casper, Wyo., which wound up lending the device to LACMA.

“I don’t know whether we would have done it if we had had any idea how difficult and time-consuming it would be,” Birney said. “But I’m glad we did and happy to report that we did a run-through and everything works perfectly.”

“Earthquake” screens at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

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