Art of pic sound gets loud and clear airing

The present, past and future of cinema sound were discussed at a lively panel session Sunday in the Variety Pavilion sponsored by Dolby Laboratories.

An examination of the fine art of sound mixing and sound editing was begun with the observation that the verisimilitude of motion picture sound is usually obtained by meticulous means that would escape the average viewer. Production and post-production exec Tony Sloman recalled that the sounds of airplane engines in “The Battle of Britain” were created when the movie’s sound designer found out-of-date engines from the original Spitfire planes and dubbed their roar over the sounds of the more advanced engines used in filming.

Panelist Francois Groult, sound designer of Luc Besson’s “Jeanne D’Arc,” described the use of similar artificial means to re-create the heat of medieval battles.

Although panelists agreed that technological advances in sound recording and editing have been swift and constant, Danish director Henning Carlson reminded that ultimately, “It’s a matter of talent.”

Moderator Peter Cowie, international publishing director of Variety and editor of the annual “Variety International Film Guide,” observed that the increasing importance of the international box office for English-language pictures and the new dominance of the action picture have created new challenges for dubbing.

Gerard Rousseau, sound mixer for Cannes entries “Le Temps Retrouve” and “Nos Vies Heureuses,” opined that “the frequency of the English language is easier to understand than French,” and so French dialogue usually must be recorded at a higher level than English.

Tim Partridge, director of film distribution at Dolby Laboratories in the U.K., added that because “soundtracks these days are literally full of sound — every single track is used for effects or music, with only a small gap left for dialogue, it makes it harder for dubbing.”

Sloman lodged a complaint at the “lunacy” that the sound mixers who created the tracks for movies’ international versions are usually not the original designers, and so distortion is inevitable. Partridge agreed that the practice is “strange.”

Groult remarked upon the varying attitudes of directors toward sound design: “Often they’re interested but don’t know the language, so they give you some general direction then leave you alone.” He cited Besson as a relatively hands-off director.

Dutch helmer Fons Rademakers (“The Assault,” “The Knife”) said he’s the opposite: “I’m always there; I don’t leave my sound designer alone for one minute.”