Entertainment

Oscars® 90th: Tracing Landmark Trends in Film Sound

Dolby Institute’s Glenn Kiser talks with nominated sound editors and mixers.

This weekend, ABC will air the 90th Academy Awards. That marks not just nine decades of accolades for actors and directors and cinematographers and composers, but also nine decades since the first film with sound, The Jazz Singer, played in theaters.

The advent of sound in cinema has, itself, become a beloved topic of cinema. Films from Singing in the Rain (1952) to The Artist (2011) — the latter, a Best Picture winner — are about Hollywood’s transition to “talkies.” And from that colossal leap forward to more recent jumps in audio innovation, new technology and techniques have always opened up storytelling possibilities for filmmakers and sound artists.

Technology as trendsetter

Film is a reactionary art. German Expressionism was the outcome of a depressed economy in post-WWI Germany. The rise of “roadshow” films in the 50s and 60s — movies with wide-format pictures and intermissions — was a gambit to lure people away from their TVs, newly pervasive in homes.

But where trends in filmmaking react to cultural shifts, trends in sound design react to new technologies. That is, as new tools become available, sound professionals take advantage of them to tell stories in new ways.

So says Glenn Kiser, director of the Dolby Institute and host of an annual podcast collaboration between the Dolby Institute and the SoundWorks collection featuring conversations with artists nominated for an Oscar in sound editing and sound mixing. This year, Kiser explored the craft with the talent responsible for Baby Driver, Blade Runner 2049, Dunkirk, The Shape of Water, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

“When a new kind of technical innovation becomes available, that drives a tremendous amount of innovation and stylistic change in the sound world,” says Kiser. A great example, he says, was the move to Dolby Digital in the early ‘90s.

The summer blockbuster film was starting to become an annual fixture with movies like Batman Returns and Jurassic Park. As these films featured more elaborate visual styles and effects driven by bigger budgets, they also demanded more elaborate soundscapes. Fortunately around this time Dolby launched Dolby Digital, a technology that could handle and compress more sound complexity.

“The digital technology could replicate an increased dynamic range,” says Kiser. “It was a little bit like using a new toy, and for a period, movie soundtracks got complex and bombastic and really kind of loud.”

But as artists became more accustomed to the tools, their use became more subtle and nuanced: a “period of experimentation” before an “equilibrium,” according to Kiser.

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A Short History of Cinema Sound

The first movies with sound debuted more than 90 years ago, but companies continue to improve audio quality. The latest innovation is Dolby Atmos®, used in Oscar® nominated films like Baby Driver, Blade Runner 2049, Dunkirk, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Expand Timeline

1926

The Talkies Era

Early experiments with adding sound to films focused on two methods: recording the sound directly on the film or recording it on discs that were played simultaneously with the film. The sound-on-film method eventually won out.

Vitaphone

Used on The Jazz Singer, a film whose wild success guaranteed the death of silent films. The last major system that recorded sound on phonograph discs.

Photokinema

Recorded sound on a disc similar to a phonograph record, which was played in tandem with the movie. Key film: Dream Street

Movietone®

One of the first sound-on-film systems, used on early feature films and on some newsreels until 1939. Key film: What Price Glory?

Vitaphone

Used on The Jazz Singer, a film whose wild success guaranteed the death of silent films. The last major system that recorded sound on phonograph discs.

Movietone®

One of the first sound-on-film systems, used on early feature films and on some newsreels until 1939. Key film: What Price Glory?

1940 – 1974

The Mono Era

Until the 1970s, almost all movies were mono, and the quality was little better than a phone line. Studios experimented with better sound, but most of the experiments were short-lived.

Sensurround

Highly amplified low-frequency rumbles literally shook theaters—in some cases, rattling tiles off the ceiling. Key film: Earthquake

Fantasound

Created for Disney’s Fantasia, but used in only 14 US theatres, a result of the system’s cost and the attention and resources devoted to World War II.

CinemaScope®

Instead of optical tracks, represented the soundtrack in magnetic stripes to create four channels of sound. Key film: The Robe

Sensurround

Highly amplified low-frequency rumbles literally shook theaters—in some cases, rattling tiles off the ceiling. Key film: Earthquake

CinemaScope®

Instead of optical tracks, represented the soundtrack in magnetic stripes to create four channels of sound. Key film: The Robe

1975

The Stereo Era

When audiences in 1977 “heard” the massive spaceships passing over their heads in Star Wars (recorded in Dolby Stereo), the experience forever changed expectations for cinema sound.

Dolby Stereo

Encoding four channels of sound down to two channels to record on film and then decoding them back to four channels allowed for stereo in the limited space on film stock. Key film: Star Wars

Dolby Stereo

Encoding four channels of sound down to two channels to record on film and then decoding them back to four channels allowed for stereo in the limited space on film stock. Key film: Star Wars

1978 – 2012

The Multichannel Era

Multichannel sound started with 5.1 (left, right, center, left surround, right surround, and subwoofer channels) in Dolby® Stereo 70 mm.

Barco® Auro 11.1

Adds a layer of five height channels to traditional 5.1 to feel more immersive. Key film: Red Tails

Dolby Surround 7.1

Uses the bandwidth available from the transition to digital cinema to add two separate surround channels in the back of the theatre. Key film: Toy Story 3

Dolby Stereo 70 mm

Applying Dolby noise reduction techniques to the magnetic soundtracks on 70 mm film allowed for the first full 5.1 surround sound. Key film: Apocalypse Now

Sony Dynamic Digital Sound™ (SDDS)

Allowed for as many as eight channels of sound: five in front, two side surround channels, and one bass channel. Few movies used all eight channels. Key film: Last Action Hero

Dolby Digital

With an ingenious use of space, provided a 5.1 digital soundtrack and an analog backup. Key film: Batman Returns

THX®

Not a recording system, but a set of quality standards to ensure accurate playback in theatres and other venues. Key film: Return of the Jedi

DTS®

Placed the soundtrack not on the film but on a separate CD-ROM. Key film: Jurassic Park

Barco® Auro 11.1

Adds a layer of five height channels to traditional 5.1 to feel more immersive. Key film: Red Tails

Dolby Surround 7.1

Uses the bandwidth available from the transition to digital cinema to add two separate surround channels in the back of the theatre. Key film: Toy Story 3

Sony Dynamic Digital Sound™ (SDDS)

Allowed for as many as eight channels of sound: five in front, two side surround channels, and one bass channel. Few movies used all eight channels. Key film: Last Action Hero

DTS®

Placed the soundtrack not on the film but on a separate CD-ROM. Key film: Jurassic Park

2012 – 2017

The Object-Based Audio Era

By precisely placing and moving individual sounds anywhere in the theatre, filmmakers create a virtual reality of sound that puts moviegoers in the middle of the movie action.

Dolby Cinema™

Dolby Cinema delivers the total cinema experience, combining Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision™ with inspired theatre design to transform moviegoing into a completely captivating cinema event. Key film: Tomorrowland

Dolby Atmos

Delivers moving audio—sound that can be precisely placed and moved anywhere in three-dimensional space, including overhead. It brings entertainment alive all around the audience in a powerfully immersive and emotive experience.Used in more than 500 titles from all the major Hollywood studios. Key film: Brave

Dolby Cinema™

Dolby Cinema delivers the total cinema experience, combining Dolby Atmos and Dolby VisionTM with inspired theatre design to transform moviegoing into a completely captivating cinema event. Key film: Tomorrowland

We’re experiencing something similar now with the transition to Dolby Atmos®. However, sound mixers are already accustomed to working in surround sound, so the jump has been much smoother.

“It’s given mixers the ability to pull music into the overhead speakers, creating a lot more acoustic space for articulate sound design and music to coexist,” says Kiser. So while previously sound mixers were limited in introducing sound elements, like score, from different directions around the viewer, they can now descend sound subtly from overhead to create a more nuanced experience for the audience.

This development has coincided with an emerging trend for sound design and music to share tonal elements and frequencies with one another. What was once a very bright line between music and sound design has become increasingly blurred, leaving audiences sometimes unsure of where score ends and sound designs begin, but both work in concert to move viewers emotionally. More on that below.

Unlocking acoustic space with Dolby Atmos

This year’s Oscar-nominated films make expert use of this acoustic space.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, 2017
© 2018 & TM Lucasfilm Ltd. All rights reserved.

Three of the year’s five films nominated for both sound editing and mixing — Baby Driver, Blade Runner 2049 and Star Wars: The Last Jedi — were mixed natively in Dolby Atmos, and the artists behind them use every corner of the room to craft a soundscape that’s as immersive as the stories their films tell.

“Maybe my inexperience with Dolby Atmos was a good thing, because I just had fun with it,” shares Julian Slater in a conversation with Kiser for the podcast. Slater served as sound designer, supervising sound editor, and re-recording mixer on Baby Driver and is nominated in both sound editing and mixing categories.

“Whenever Baby’s listening to music in his earbuds, we used the high speakers, and the music is much more around you, high in the surrounds, than traditionally you would have it,” Slater says. “And then when Steven Price’s score plays, that’s then thrown much more in the traditional left-center-right and just pulled back a bit to get a bit off the screen.”

Baby Driver, 2017
© 2018 CTMG. All Rights Reserved.

When Kiser talks about “acoustic space,” this is what he means: more room to articulate different parts of the design in different parts of the space.

Animation realism

In one genre, a sea change in sound design came as the direct result of a similarly profound change in how stories were being told.

Prior to 1995’s Toy Story, animated films were rooted in a tradition defined by Walt Disney: heavy on music and dialogue, light on sound effects. And where there were effects, they had a “cartoony” quality, like the thump of the score’s percussion as a character bumped his head.

But as Pixar’s filmmaking style introduced more maturity in both the visual style and in the themes animated films typically dealt with, the studio also elevated its sound design to more closely resemble the soundscapes of live actions films.

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A glossary of sound design terms

Navigate the tabs below to learn some of the lingo sound artists use in their craft.

Sound Editing

Sound editors construct sounds used in movies like spoken dialogue, the swing of a lightsaber, or King Kong’s 1933 roar (reportedly the roars of lions and tigers in a zoo, reversed and slowed). Sound editors may specialize in sound effects, dialogue, or Foley.

Sound Mixing

The mix is where all the different sounds are assembled into what you hear in the theater. A sound mixer places different sounds — sound effects, dialogue, score, everything — at carefully selected volumes and locations in the theater to complement what’s happening on screen. The sound of a car screeching by in a Fast and Furious movie, for example — where you literally hear it wail from the left side of the theater to the right — moves thanks to the sound mixer.

Here you see sound designers working on the mix for Blade Runner 2049.

Joe Walker, Mark Mangini, Theo Green and Ben Wallfisch
Doug Hemphill
Ron Bartlett and Doug Hemphill

Spotting

After visual edits on a film are complete (also called a “picture lock”), the director, composer and sound editor sit down to watch the movie and select the parts that will need music and sound effects. Because they’re watching the film to spot specific moments, this process was given the name “spotting.”

Foley

Foley is sound that is constructed in a specialized soundstage made to create a wide range of effects, from footsteps crunching through snow to people splashing in the ocean as the Titanic sinks. It’s part of sound editing, but a good Foley artist knows what everyday objects can make surprising sounds (did you know a pair of gloves can sound like bird wings flapping?). The term is a tribute to sound legend Jack Foley, who first practiced the art of recording live sound effects to match the picture.

ADR

Sound editors construct sounds used in movies like spoken dialogue, the swing of a lightsaber, or King Kong’s 1933 roar (reportedly the roars of lions and tigers in a zoo, reversed and slowed). Sound editors may specialize in sound effects, dialogue, or Foley.

“The great stylistic advance of the early Pixar films was that the sound world was so detailed that if the audience closed their eyes, they might think they’re watching a live-action film,” Kiser recalls. “So essentially you have a naturalistic, real-world treatment of the sound, specifically the ambiance and design, for animation. That had never been done before.”

And the Academy has taken note. To date, Pixar has been nominated three times for sound mixing and seven times, including one win, for sound editing.

Dialogue in the soundscape

An interesting recent trend in sound design Kiser has observed is the changing role of dialogue in the sound design — specifically, using unclear dialogue as its own kind of sound effect and using the sonic qualities of dialogue to have an emotional effect on the audience.

He points to Christopher Nolan’s films as an example, and it’s certainly evident in Dunkirk, but the technique is also present in other films from last year, such as The Florida Project. The idea is that in some scenes the audience can hear every word articulated clearly, but in other, especially more chaotic scenes, principal characters sound muddier or less distinct.

This is an artistic choice, and a recently popular one at that. Throughout cinema’s history, filmmakers have relied on ADR to supplement on-set sound recording to help clarify a character’s dialogue, especially in chaotic or action-filled sequences. A director can always choose to make a character’s words come through clearly, so why choose not to?

Dunkirk, 2017
© 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved

“Nolan has some really interesting concepts on how to use dialogue as sound design,” Kiser shares. “He has said in real life you don’t always catch everything that everyone says, and if you have to lean in and listen a little harder to understand what’s going on, that’s a way to engage an audience.”

“There are particular moments in this film where I decided to use dialogue as a sound effect,” Nolan once told The Hollywood Reporter speaking in similar terms about his movie Interstellar. “Sometimes it’s mixed slightly underneath the other sound effects to emphasize how loud the other noise is.”

Dunkirk is a loud, even assaulting, film with this same effect of dialogue buried beneath noise. It is unintelligible in the way that war is unintelligible, and the muddy dialogue contributes to its realism.

Stronger ties between score and effects

Another more relatively recent sound design trend, according to Kiser, is a stronger collaboration between the sound department and the music department. This may seem surprising, but there used to be a significant rift (what Kiser calls a “total firewall”) between the two.

Taking a step back, a little on the filmmaking process: the sound team and the music team generally come to the film at the same point in a process called “spotting.” That is, these teams sit down with the director to watch the film and take note of where score and certain sound effects need to be inserted.

Shape of the Water, 2017
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.

Since both the sound team and the music team are responsible for setting the mood and tone for much of the film, they used to sometimes compete, in a way, for how best to convey a moment. The score would strike a certain brassy chord as a monster roared, for example, not accounting for the fact that the sound editor had already planned and carefully constructed an effect for that same roar.

As recently as five years ago, Kiser says, this would’ve been a main theme in his podcast series. Today, that’s not as much the case as that “firewall” comes down.

It’s hard to imagine anything like that in a film like Baby Driver, where music and sound effects are inextricably linked. The score, the soundtrack, and noises from the main character’s Subaru WRX all work in concert to achieve the effect of the film.

Slater recalls the opening of the film and its transition from the title card to the main character’s hearing condition: “We re-pitched the Sony logo so that it turns into the sound of tinnitus. That then turns into Steven Price’s strings, all in the same key. Then, while Steve’s strings are still playing, the brake squeal of the Subaru that pulls up is kind of in a reverse echo that’s in the same key. And then that turns into the beginning of ‘Bellbottoms’”— the first song in the film.

“One of the reasons for doing that, other than it’s really cool, is that we wanted the audience’s ears to be pricked up from the very first frame,” said Slater, “to try and convey that, in this movie, sound is important.”

But of course, whether or not the film deliberately says so, sound is always important. “Sound is as important as picture,” Nolan said in that same interview with THR. While the visual of a film only comes from in front, sound can come from every part of the theater — including from above with Dolby Atmos — to envelope an audience in the story.

And as trends come and go over the next 90 years of filmmaking, that much will remain true.

Explore the Oscar® Nominees That Use Dolby Technology

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