Dolby Stereo and the sound of the 1980s

Think of the films you love most from the late 70s through the early 90s. Raging Bull, The Last Waltz, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, The Princess Bride, Stop Making Sense, The Terminator, Goodfellas. There’s a good chance that you may never hear the original soundtrack again.

For 50 years after the talkie revolution, the optical, mono, analog soundtrack was ubiquitous on 35mm prints around the world. There were alternatives–primarily four-track magnetic stereo. But that more than doubled the cost of making prints, so optical mono remained the standard.

All that changed in the late 1970s, when after Dolby introduced an optical stereo format for 35mm prints. It didn’t sound as good as four-track magnetic, but it was a whole lot cheaper. The 35mm version of Dolby Stereo (Dolby used the same name for an entirely different format in 70mm) made multitrack audio ubiquitous in movie theaters for the first time. [12/10: I altered this paragraph because my original version implied that Dolby introduced this technology in the late 1970s. It was introduced in 1976.]

Dolby used three technologies to improve the then 50-year-old mono optical soundtrack. First, they split it in two, turning it into discrete, two-track stereo. Then they added a noise reduction filter. Finally, they used some electronic wizardry to channel the two tracks into four different directions. The technology could decode properly-mixed left and right tracks into left, center, right, and surround channels.

By 1978, Dolby Stereo was the norm for action movies, sci-fi, fantasy, concert movies, and musicals. By 1985, almost every Hollywood movie used the format. By 1990, independent and foreign films used it, as well. The big blockbusters, of course, were released in 70mm, with the far superior, magnetic, six-track Dolby Stereo. But the 35mm prints of the same movies used the optical, two-track, four-channel version.

The rise of Dolby Stereo in movie theaters corresponded with the rise of stereo television, first with Laserdiscs, HI-FI VCRs, and finally stereo broadcasting. As it happened, a Dolby Stereo mix worked reasonably well as standard two-track stereo. It didn’t really need the decoder

But it sure sounded better with it. In 1982, Dolby licensed the channeling technology to home audio receiver manufacturers, under the brand name Dolby Surround. The decoding technology is media-agnostic; as long as the media carried two-track stereo, the right receiver, with the Surround feature turned on, could convert it to four-channel surround. To my mind, this was really the beginning of home theater.

Digital 5.1 audio came to movie theaters in the early-to-mid 1990s. But all of the successful digital formats steered clear of interfering with the analog Dolby Stereo soundtrack, needed for backward compatibility and as a backup. Thus, although seldom heard, Dolby Stereo remained on almost all prints until the studios stopped making prints.

When digital 5.1 sound came to home media with DVDs, it was renamed Dolby Surround 2.0, to differentiate it from 5.1 sound. It was pretty common in the early days of DVDs, but soon disappeared. Today, it’s almost impossible to find a Dolby Surround 2.0 mix on any Blu-ray disc. The movies from the glory days of Dolby Stereo are almost always remixed to 5.1 (or 7.1), without even supplying the original mix we heard when we fell in love with them.

I understand that many people, including the filmmakers, prefer the newer, fancier mixes. But I do wish they would include the originals.

Watching Interstellar in 70mm

On director Christopher Nolan’s orders, Paramount released Interstellar on film as well as digitally. I believe this is the first new movie released in over a year.

And not just 35mm. it’s also being released in conventional 70mm and 70mm Imax, along with various digital formats.

I’ve already posted my review of the film. This article is about how it’s projected.

Imax–the original, 70mm version–is probably the right way to see Interstellar. It offers the biggest frame and the biggest screen. At least that’s the theory. More on Interstellar in Imax below.

I chose instead to see it in conventional 70mm at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater. It’s closer to my home, and much less expensive (matinee: $5). Besides, it’s the Grand Lake.

Unfortunately, I waited too long to catch it in their downstairs auditorium, with its spectacular design and huge screen.

Interstellar had by then moved upstairs, to the former balcony. The upstairs screen is still quite large, so it can still provide a good, immersive experience, especially when projecting 70mm film.

In one sense, it’s more immersive than the downstairs auditorium; the front row is much closer to the screen. So close, in fact, that even I chose the second row. Unfortunately, this auditorium has a center aisle; wherever you sit, it’s always going to be just a bit off center. When you sit near the front in a movie theater, you want to be dead center.

I hadn’t been in that theater in decades. The last time I saw a 70mm film on that screen was probably Poltergeist in 1982.

Before the movie started, I walked to the back of the auditorium to peer into the projection booth. On the left I saw a 2K digital projector. On the right, a 35/70mm film projector.

The show began with trailers, digitally projected. Actually, I was surprised that the second trailer, for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, wasn’t on 70mm film. Tarantino–like Nolan a major proselytizer for physical film–plans to release this western in 70mm. (The first trailer was for The Imitation Machine.)

But when the third trailer started, a slight vibration on the screen and a few flecks of dirt told me we were back to celluloid. The trailer was for Inherent Vice, a comedy by another cinematic luddite, Paul Thomas Anderson. And yes, the trailer was in 70mm.

And so was the movie I came to see–Interstellar.

There’s no question about it; 70mm provides a beautiful image, and Interstellar makes great use of it. The picture was bright, colorful, immersive, and detailed. Although I was disappointed by the movie, I loved the presentation.

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But I can’t honestly say that it looked better this way than it would have looked with 4K digital projection. Watching a film on film provides a nostalgic effect for me now–I’ve been watching movies that way all of my life. The big advantages of 70mm, when compared to 35mm, is that there’s less vibration and a brighter image. Digital provides an even brighter image and has no vibration at all..

I understand that Nolan wants people to see Interstellar on film, preferably in a large format, and I respect his preference. But I doubt that what I saw looked better than a first-rate digital presentation.

Would it have been better in Imax? Gary Meyer attended an Imax press screening of Interstellar, and it was ruined by technical problems. It’s worth reading his report at Eat Drink Films.

Physical Film Coming Back with Interstellar

I love digital projection. After a long period of skepticism, I embraced the new technology enthusiastically years ago. To my eyes, a well-transferred DCP looks better than any projected film format except Imax.

And yet, I’m excited about Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar coming out on real, to-goodness film. This is despite the fact that I have no idea if the movie itself is any good. Of the five of Nolan’s films I’ve seen, I loved two (Memento and The Dark Knight), liked two (Insomnia and Inception), and hated one (The Dark Knight Rises). That certainly puts the odds in his favor, except that the The Dark Knight Collapses (my preferred name) was the most recent one.

Nolan is one of today’s most committed fans of physical film. If it wasn’t for his box office clout, he would never have forced Paramount to release Interstellar on film. In fact, it will open first in film formats in the middle of this week. If you want to see it digitally, you’ll have to wait until Friday.

Like his Dark Knight films, he shot most of Interstellar in 35mm anamorphic scope. But the more spectacular moments were shot in Imax. Here are the ways its being shown:

Imax: I’m not talking about the fake, digital Imax which isn’t really Imax, but the original, 70mm, 15-perf version which is still the biggest and best image yet projected. Here in the Bay Area, it will play at the AMC Metreon. This is probably the best way to see Interstellar, because it can show the sequences shot in Imax to their greatest effect. And show the full height of those scenes. The rest of the picture will be letterboxed to a scope-like ratio.

70mm: Only Oakland’s wonderful Grand Lake Theater will screen Interstellar in traditional, 5-perf 70mm. Not as immersive as Imax, but the posh movie palace provides a more pleasing, relaxing, and enjoyable experience than any AMC theater. It’s also a lot cheaper than Imax.

35mm: I don’t know how many Bay Area theaters will screen Interstellar on cinema’s oldest and most standard format: 35mm. But I can tell you that two theaters within easy bicycling distance to my home–the Cerrito and the California–are among them.

DCP: Yes, you can see it digitally, as well.

I like digital, but it’s had the effect of turning physical film presentation into something special. That’s fine with me. I like special.

Four surprising facts from early film history

Historical reality has a way of conflicting with the what we all assume. Here are four totally surprising, unintuitive facts about the early days of cinema.

Animation preceded live action

The first moving images weren’t photographed. They were drawn. Parlor toys such as Zoetropethe Zoetrope used multiple illustrations to create the illusion of movement–as cartoons would decades later–to create the illusion of movement.

The Zoetrope wasn’t the first toy to use Persistence of Vision. The far cruder Thaumatrope had been invented (we’re not really sure by who) by 1824. The Zoetrope came a decade later.

It would take nearly another 40 years before Eadweard James Muybridge used multiple cameras to photograph a running horse, and thus creating the first live action moving image.

Silent movies grew out of sound movies

If any one individual can be called the inventor of motion pictures, it’s Thomas Edison employee William Kennedy Laurie Dickson. Realistically, no one man created the technology, but Dickson was the first (as far as I can determine) to punch sprocket holes in George Eastman’s new photographic film so that it could move in a reliable stop-and-go motion through a camera or projector. He created the 35mm, four-perf pull-down standard that is only dying now with the digital revolution.

And according to his own account, as quoted in Terry Ramsaye’s A Million and One Nights, he was given the task "to combine Mr. Edison’s phonograph with a practical zoetropic moving figure device." Dickson also claimed that he showed Edison a talking picture in 1989.

Did this happen? Ramsaye, along with later historians, doubted it. A few years later, Edison released the Kinetoscope without sound.

But we do know that Dickson, still working for Edison, successfully created a way to record and show sound movies in the mid-1990’s. that was just around the time that Lumiere, in France, began to project motion pictures onto a screen in front of paying customers for the first time.image

Narrative cinema grew out of special effects

Today, you can prove your maturity by complaining about blockbusters where the story appears to be nothing but an excuse for the special effects. I’ve even done it myself. And yet, historically speaking, that’s pretty much how it happened.

It’s difficult to say who first started telling fictional stories on film. If you film a scene from a stage play, is that a narrative or merely a recording (especially if there’s no dialog)? Does it count if you film a man watering a lawn, and a mischievous teenager disrupts the chore.

But a real story, taking ten or more minutes? Arguably, the true inventor of narrative cinema was also the inventor of special effects, Georges Méliès. A professional magician, he started making movies because he could do effects in them that were impossible on the live stage. Eventually, he expanded his "trick films," providing stories such as A Trip to the Moon to provide a bigger canvas for his effects.

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Colorization preceded real color

You don’t need digital technology to colorize a black and white movie. It was done from almost the beginning of cinema.

The early ways to add color were many. Tinting gave one color to the whole frame, with the color standing out most in the light parts of the image. Toning also colored the entire frame, except that the color stood out in the dark areas. Combined together, tinting and toning could create a vivid two-color effect.

They also hand-painted prints in those days, which must have cost a fortune.

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All of these were available in the 1890s. The first commercially successful system using what was then called "natural color" (in other words, the colors were recorded in the camera), was Kinemacolor. In came out in 1908,

MVFF: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Lark

Wednesday night I finally got to a 2014 Mill Valley Film Festival event–a screening at the Lark of one of my favorite westerns, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

imageBelieve it or not, this was my first visit to the Lark. Yes, I’ve been covering it at Bayflicks for years, but this was the first time I actually stepped inside.

The Lark is a modest-sized neighborhood theater of the sort that dotted the small towns and suburbs before the invention of the multiplex. The art deco décor has been lovingly restored. The lobby is small, with two small areas off to the side where people can sit and talk.

The screen isn’t huge, but it’s big enough to create a real movie feel. The seats are comfortable, with good drink holders.

Before the movie, Festival Executive Director Mark Fishkin came onstage and introduced James Hetfield of Metallica, who hosted the screening. Metallica is this year’s Artists in Residence, and each member of the band got to select a favorite film to be screened.

Hetfield talked briefly about The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and how it had influenced him. He discussed the three main characters, the use of close-ups, and–not surprisingly–Ennio Morricone’s iconic score. The film started at about 7:15.

The Great, the Crazy, and the Iconic

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is an epic quest motivated purely by greed. Three violent and deadly criminals, all very skilled at their job, set out to recover $200,000 in stolen gold. None of them knows exactly where the loot is hidden, but individually each has a piece of the puzzle. They constantly change allegiances, sometimes collaborating with and then double-crossing each other.

Meanwhile, war rages around them. Director/co-writer Sergio Leone set this western in the American Civil War. Issues like succession and slavery never comes up, but the destruction is vast and senseless. As the rebel army retreats from a town, an innkeeper loudly hails the Confederacy, while privately telling his wife that the Yanks will be better because they pay in gold. Another town has been battered to ruins–perhaps an echo of Leone’s adolescence in World War II Italy. Twice a day, armies clash over a bridge that both sides want and no one can hold. Soldiers on both sides speak with sarcastic hate of their commanders.

And through it all, our three lead characters (I can’t quite call them all protagonists) cheat, threaten, bribe, and murder their way to their ultimate goal.

The Good: Clint Eastwood plays his iconic Man With No Name, although in this film his friends call him Blondie. He’s a thief and a con artist, a quick and deadly draw who feels no remorse after killing someone. When he tires of his partner, he leaves him in the middle of the desert without horse, food, or drink. In any other movie, he’d be the villain. But he doesn’t kill without reason, and he occasionally displays acts of generosity to minor characters. By this film’s standards, that makes him the good guy.

The Bad: Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes stands amongst the vilest villains in film history. His nickname is clearly ironic–his eyes look as evil as Satan. He tortures people for information, robs prisoners, and murders with the slightest of motives. His only code of honor: If he takes the money, he sees the job through. Early on, he kills two men because each of them paid him to kill the other one–and he shoots one of them in cold blood.

The Ugly: The Jewish-American actor Eli Wallach played Mexican banditos in at least three movies, but only here did he make the character funny, touching, lovable, and utterly horrible. His Tuco–devious, dumb, proud, and as wily as a rat–carries The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. When he’s out for vengeance, his cruelty surpasses Angel Eyes. But when he needs the victim of that cruelty, he becomes the dependable partner–just so long as you don’t turn your back. More than anything else, Wallach’s performance raises this movie from very good to great.

Leone and his collaborators tell the story of these men in a flashy and daring style. In addition to the close-ups and musical score I’ve already discussed, there’s the striking use of the widescreen frame, splashy editing–especially in the climatic three-way gun duel–and the dark humor that pervades the picture.

Versions and restorations

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is an Italian film with American stars, shot in Spain, and set in the American west. Like most Italian films of its day, it was shot without recording a dialog track. All of the dialog was dubbed in separate Italian and English versions (and other languages too, I assume).

Leone’s original cut ran 175 minutes–too long for the American distributor, United Artists. So Leone cut it back to 161.  The cuts were made before the English dubbing; the removed scenes could not easily to restored to the film.

That was fixed in 2003, when MGM/UA created the Extended English Language version. They restored and redubbed the cut scenes. Eastman and Wallach dubbed their parts, but another voice actor talked for the late Van Cleef. They also added a scene that Leone had cut from the Italian version, bringing the running time to 179 minutes. They also remixed the soundtrack, taking it from mono to Dolby Digital 5.1.

So the film has now grown by 18 minutes from the version I first fell in love with. I have mixed feelings about the changes, and I still cling to my 161-minute DVD. Some of the recovered scenes add atmosphere and character development. Others fill in plot gaps that never really needed to be filled. I love both versions, but I love the shorter one more.

This year, MGM/UA gave this picture a 4K digital restoration. They stuck to the 179 extended version, and–I’m glad to say–they restored the mono soundtrack. The festival screened the film from a 4K DCP, with the mono sound.

Aside from a rather ridiculous MGM 90th Anniversary trailer (see MGM 90th Anniversary…without MGM), it was a great presentation, showing the deep colors and heavy grain expected in a Techniscope production of the 1960s. Unless there’s an archival dye-transfer print from the original release somewhere, this is as good as the picture can get.

Overall, a very good evening.

Kubrick in digital and on film

Digital or film? For cinephiles, that’s the great controversy of our age. And the arguments get particularly agitated when talking about classic pictures made at a time when digital projection wasn’t an option.

But in the coming weeks, you get your chance to watch two Stanley Kubrick classics on 35mm film, and then again on DCP–the digital format used for professional theater projection. The films are Dr. Strangelove and The Shining.

This Sunday, September 28, the Roxie will screen both films as a double bill. Then, as part of their ongoing series, Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick, the Pacific Film Archive will screen Dr. Strangelove on Sunday, October 4. On Friday, October 24, they’ll screen The Shining. Both pictures will be screened off DCPs.

What motivated their decisions?

PFA programmer Steve Seid told me that that when he requested the films from Warner Brothers, and "they said only Eyes Wide Shut was on film." In other words, he had no choice about The Shining.  I neglected to ask him about Strangelove, which is not owned by Warner.

And what about the Roxie? Seid, who’s on the Roxie board, told me that they don’t have the DCI-compliant projector needed for DCPs. The best they can do, digitally, is Blu-ray. That can look very good on a theater screen, but not as good as a 35mm print.

The Roxie double bill is in conjunction with the Spoke Art gallery, which is running a Kubrick tribute art show which, unfortunately, closes today. Art Spoke’s owner, Ken Harman, provided the prints for the Roxie. Harman told me that "The choice to go 35mm was mostly an aesthetic one, I’m by no means a ‘purist’ and appreciate DCP, however being able to view films in 35mm is getting more and more rare…"

Harmen did not tell me where he got the prints. Seid assumes "that the Roxie found either archival or private prints." In that case, those prints should really be a treat.

The Castro now has 4K projection

Top technology has been an important part of the Castro‘s appeal for a long time. The theater was, I believe, the first rep house to get Dolby stereo, digital sound, and DCP-compatible digital projection. I believe it’s the only local rep house that can project 70mm film, and one of only two that can handle 50’s-style,dual-strip 3D.

And now they’ve added the digital equivalent of 70mm film–4K projection. 4K projects four times the resolution of standard 2K. I’ve never seen a side-by-side comparison of the two, and I’ve heard conflicting opinions from experts on this. But I suspect that the difference is significant, especially if the film was shot in a large format and if you’re sitting close to the screen (as I usually do).

Last year, I was delighted to learn that the Pacific Film Archive had a new, 4K projector. But the PFA has a small screen–too small for an immersive experience. Not so with the Castro’s large screen.

Back in May, I wrote about a stuck pixel that marred the Castro’s digital screenings. At the end of that article, I disclosed that I had "emailed my Castro press contact about this issue, but he could only give me information off the record." Now I can tell you what he told me: that they might simply fix the problem, or they might instead upgrade to 4K projection. Today, he revealed that "We have completed installation of the 4K projector."

I am, of course, delighted.

When can you see the new projector in action? The Castro will screen Double Indemnity off a DCP tomorrow night, but that one is probably 2K (although I honestly don’t know). However, they’ll be screening The Leopard in 4K on August 24, and Lawrence of Arabia that way August 30 and September 1. Both films were shot in large film formats (Technirama and Super Panavision 70 respectively). I suspect that both films will look great in 4K projection.

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