Hollywood Cinema and its Listeners
by: Gianluca Sergi
Cinema is an audio-visual medium and the
consumption of films involve both our visual and aural senses. This is
a rather obvious fact which we may find hard to disagree with. Yet, when
it comes to investigating the act of experiencing films scholars would
seem to have concentrated almost exclusively on the visual impact of films.
Indeed, in the light of the developments which have taken place in the past thirty years, there would seem to be enough evidence to suggest that film sound has played a key role in Hollywood films' strategy to engage audiences and provide them with new 'pleasures'.
Approaching audiences of Hollywood films from an aural perspective might therefore have far reaching consequences: if we are to accept that audiences not only look at, but also listen to films then we must be prepared to investigate a whole different set of cultural implications, skills employed and pleasures offered. Film sound requires the spectator to perform extremely sophisticated and demanding tasks which would seem to suggest a view of Hollywood audiences a far cry from the accepted view of being ‘comfortably inactive’. This would also clearly contrast with the notion of the audience as in a 'dreamlike state’, a kind of receptive state in which the spectator dozes off lulled by a succession of continuously edited sequences. This is a view widely accepted in psychology and often reported in film theory, as it is exemplified by the following quote from Bruce Austin’s book on film audiences:
"The spectator gives himself voluntarily and passively to the action on the screen and to its uncritical interpretation supplied by his unconscious mind" We don’t hear eye to eye: experiencing films differently
It might be possible to suggest that there is at least one sense in which the difference in audience terms between viewing and hearing is obvious. As spectators, we bring to the cinema more than just our money and a coat, we enter the cinema complex already laden with our cultural background and the expectations that it elicits. Although it would be unwise to attempt to dissociate any particular component from its overall context, it is clear that within our cultural patrimony we move differently, select different ‘areas’ of knowledge and exercise our senses according to the stimuli we encounter. This is true of all activities including, of course, cinema going. However, in the (understandable) quest for unity in film criticism, this fundamental aspect has often given way to a rather more limiting and, at times, misleading view according to which there is no major conceptual difference between the two acts of seeing and hearing a film because the image structures our perception of the soundtrack. As in Ellis’s view, the image is seen as the primary (and often unique) source of useful information/pleasure for an audience.
This view, predominant as it might be, appears very debatable when we pay some attention to the processes through which we learn to listen and to look. Crudely, we can identify several sources of aural and/or visual references which constantly ‘update’ and refine our hearing and viewing skills. However, it is immediately obvious that the sources primarily concerned with sound differ substantially from those relating to the image. In the latter case, photos, paintings, sculpture, graphics, etc. provide us with our main source of visual reference. In the former case, radio, home hi-fi systems, car stereo, pa systems, telephones, etc. absolve the equivalent function for our ears. The differences between these two sets of references are pervasive indeed, spanning from their historical and technological development to their modes of production, and from the condition of reproduction to the pleasures offered.
What is relevant to this study is
that these sources provide us with an incessant flow of aural and visual
‘experiences’, both in a historical sense (in the sense of things learnt
and ‘stored’ for future reference) and in a more interactive and dynamic
sense (the way in which we react to those ‘experiences’ change according
to our age, state of mind, circumstances, etc.). These not only guarantee
us a vocabulary of images and sounds, but also provide us with the necessary
confidence with which to articulate them. In other words, they shape our
visual and aural expectations and our way to approach films. In short,
visual and aural sources are not mutually exclusive, and indeed they often
work together, they still remain profoundly different.
"We wanted to create a friendly atmosphere. We used familiar-sounding computers. The matrix dot printer you are used to hearing in offices and that people recognize is exactly the kind of equipment that exists on those submarines" As a first step, then, it should not be too difficult to recognize that, although as spectators we bring ‘one’ cultural patrimony to the filmic experience, we also employ different strategies and skills, we refer to a different set of references, and we perceive sounds and images differently. In short, our way of listening to a movie is different from our way of viewing it: this is true in technological terms (different systems of production and reproduction), in physical terms (a different set of sensual expectations[[6 ]), and in mode of address (the sound track and the image track, although obviously working within the same narrative framework, cannot but differ in their address to audiences).
Pleasures on offer, tasks to perform.
"In 1978, America seems sound-obsessed. You can feel the full impact of a symphony or a rock concert in your living room; you can take it with you in your car or in a pocket-size radio"Although this new ‘sound wave’ was rippling throughout the Western world, Hollywood lagged behind conspicuously. Indeed, the conditions of reproduction in cinemas in the same period were at a low point. The huge costs involved in upgrading from mono to magnetic stereo (the only ‘real’ alternative to mono) had de-facto frozen any meaningful development of the relationship between Hollywood films and their ‘new’ listeners. Audiences of Hollywood films, both in America and abroad, had now access to home hi-fi systems, they could attend concerts and experience earth-rattling amplification, and they could even enjoy better sound in their own car than at the local cinema. Most crucially, this new ‘sound obsessed’ generation who went to concerts and owned hi-fi systems was roughly the same 15-30 demographic group which Hollywood was targeting, and had been doing so for some time.
This meant two things. Firstly, Hollywood had to play ‘catch up’ with sound quality once again (indeed, this is something which has happened at regular intervals since the inception of sound in the cinema), it needed to react in order to gain the same aural appeal on young audiences that the new consumer technologies seemed to have. Secondly, and most importantly, this ‘reaction’ would have to deal with the now higher-than-ever set of aural expectations, born out of the availability of increasingly sophisticated means of sound reproduction, which that same young audience was bringing to the cinema. Perhaps not surprisingly, these two key aspects were perfectly clear in the minds and intents of the emerging generation of filmmakers, like Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola and co. They understood the crucial relationship which exists between aural expectations born outside the film theater and what Hollywood film sound could offer to its listeners. They also showed a clear awareness of the importance of addressing their listeners’ demands and expectations in a more ‘direct’ manner, as this words from Lucas indicate:
In short, the 15-30 generation now expected and demanded powerful sound, capable of reaching the listener from a multiplicity of perspectives and in a more tangible/physical manner. Similarly, they expected the hardware available in theaters to be able both to match those characteristic and to compete with the kind of quality they had rapidly got used to hearing not only at huge concerts, but also in their house and, increasingly, in their car. To a certain extent, this search for a more sensual involvement should not be too surprising when we consider that this was also the generation of liberated sex and drug consumption on a mass scale.
Although a long time coming, Hollywood’s
response to these demands was comprehensive. From
the mid-70s, films began to employ multi-channel technology capable of
delivering extremely detailed sound from a multiplicity of perspectives
(today’s digital systems regularly employ six discrete channels -
up to eight with Sony’s SDDS). The extension of frequency and dynamic range
available in film sound (which used to lag a long way below human capability)
was also dramatically increased by the introduction of Dolby at first,
and digital sound later. In some respect, we are now on the opposite end
of the scale, as Walter Murch humorously points out:
It is, however, when we look at the developments
concerning the place where these new breed of Hollywood films met their
audience that the magnitude of this change appears most noticeable. First
of all, cinema architecture began to reflect the acoustic demands of the
new sound systems. The old movie palaces and even their smaller relations
were fundamentally built still following blueprints which had rarely had
to cope with any severe acoustic demands (stereo was a rarity and confined
to a few first-run theaters in big cities). As Tomlinson Holman, the
inventor of THX, points out, this is a fundamental issue:
This new architecture needed to address a series of well-documented problems and worked to a precise brief. To name but some of the most important aims: i) to reduce the possibility of unwanted echoes (by employing better phono-absorbent material and avoid too many ‘bouncing' surfaces); ii) to minimize background noise (like sound spillages from adjacent theaters in multiplexes, the noise of the projector and air ventilation systems, etc.); iii) to accommodate surround speakers correctly (by arranging the placement of the speakers bearing in mind the layout of the seating plan and the needs of surround sound). This new attention and care in producing sophisticated soundtracks and spaces capable of reproducing them in all their dynamic potential shows an evident positive shift in the weight given to the figure of the spectator as listener (a change this which is made all the more significant by the lack of any similar developments with regard to the film image in the same period).
Secondly, in a somewhat logic extension of this development, the ‘aural lure’ of sound began to be exploited also ‘outside' the auditorium itself, by for example installing speakers throughout the cinema complex and playing back music and trailers from present and forthcoming films (in some cases even in the cinema toilets!). Far from being only a marketing device (though important as it is) this constitutes a further important element as it increases audience expectations by extending further the playground to the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the filmic experience. Thus, the Hollywood sonic playground seems to extend well beyond the actual auditorium and the film projection, it pervades the whole of the theater experience, heightening our expectations and enticing us to ‘come in and play' from the moment we enter the cinema complex .
Once we reach the auditorium, we
are confronted with a situation where we are placed ‘inside’ the filmic
space, not just ‘before’ one (i.e. the images on the screen). The invitation
to explore these new surroundings is emphasized by the way sound designers
have approached the concept of audience space and the reproductive environment.
As Gary Rydstrom points out:
This awareness of the correlation between
audience involvement and (filmic) space is a key factor. Working on the
soundtrack as a kind of architectural construct, Hollywood sound ‘architects’
have chosen to regard sound as an increasingly tangible expanse in which
to arrange a series of sound objects for the audience to engage with. As
Walter Murch points out:
This powerful, sensual involvement with this three-dimensional (sonic) space is clearly designed to appease those high expectations we referred to before, heighten the cinematic experience and provide audiences with a constant source of pleasure. The Hollywood listener is bestowed with an aural experience which elevates him/her to a state which may define as the super-listener, a being (not to be found in nature) able to hear sounds that in reality would not be audible or would sound substantially duller. This is a new breed of spectators who can expect screen objects to fly above their heads into (and out of) the auditorium.
Most important, however, is the consideration
that all this is not just simply ‘given’ to the audience, but it is there
to be ‘earned’. In other words, the concept of the passive, uninvolved
spectator suspending his/her mental functions does not apply to the Hollywood
listener. The demands that Hollywood soundtracks place on the spectator
are several and require rather complex mental and physical functions.
Contemporary sound systems are powerful enough to move a significant amount of air. As a consequence, the spectator can be 'hit' with sound, and thus experience the film with a far greater degree of physical involvement than ever before. This creates a situation where audiences have to deal with enough constant sound pressure to lead to physical exhaustion, if exercised over time. Sound designers are aware of the physical demands they place on their listeners, as this quote from Cecelia Hall, speaking about Top Gun, clearly illustrates:
"Our biggest fear was that we were going to pound them (the audience) into oblivion. We knew the sound effects could not be unrelenting because by the time you got to the end of the movie, you’d be so exhausted that you’d have no energy" []Thus, a listener is required to sustain physically aggressive soundtracks, to process dozens (sometimes hundreds) of different tracks in any single moment of a film, to navigate in this ocean of sound by correlating sound direction and its (visual) source, and to constantly update his/her own personal sound data bank with sounds never heard before. All this, as ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement) supervisor Juno Ellis correctly points out, requires a great deal of engagement and discernment:
Chaos in the hall: who is in charge
of the soundtrack?
On the other hand, there are aspects of this relationship which betray a rather more chaotic situation than what it might appear on the surface. Most noticeably, the concept of a unique soundtrack, experienced by a 'unified' audience is a famous casualty. We can in fact identify at least two other 'parallel soundtracks' to the film's own: the 'structural' soundtrack (i.e. sound produced during the film performance by the cinema structure itself), and the audience's very own soundtrack (i.e. sounds which initiate from the audience). The issue of a structured soundtrack can be defined as being directly dependent to those conditions of reception which may affect our experience of the film soundtrack. These possible 'influences' include aspects already mentioned, such as sound spillages from adjacent theaters, noisy ventilation systems, lack of proper insulation of the projection booth, distortion due to excessive volume levels or inadequate speakers, and so on. Any, indeed, all of these factors inevitably interact with the film's own soundtrack creating a sort of hybrid difficult to assess also because it is likely to vary from theater to theater. However, this would still seem to be a problem mostly related to a technological/architectural nature and therefore in some ways 'adjustable'. Far more complex is the situation pertaining the 'audience' soundtrack.
As in any respectable playground those who visit it wish to be more than just 'observers', they want to interact with it. In this sense, theater architecture, noticeably seating arrangements, has limited the degree of visual interaction of the spectator (it is impossible not to acknowledge the 'restraining' nature of the cinema seat, obliging the audience to face the screen and limiting audience physical movement). This is not, and could not be, the case with sound, given the latter's modern dimension as multi-perspective (i.e. sound is generated from various points in the auditorium). As a logic result, audiences are relatively 'free' to establish a rather complex interaction with the film soundtrack. This begins outside the auditorium (from the usual socializing 'chitchat' to talking about the film one is about to see; from food munching to drink sipping, etc.) and is then somewhat naturally carried on inside the auditorium itself.
Once inside, this 'interaction' takes a different form. The talking may stop, but the munching, drinking and, more importantly, the laughing, crying, screaming, does not. This interpretation of the relationship between audiences and sound as having a different dynamic from the one with the image would also seem to be 'institutionally acknowledged' by the fact that although the audience is made well aware that there is to be 'no talking' during the projection, there is no perceived need to adopt a similar strategy for the image (perhaps with a similar request that there should be 'no looking away'?). Indeed, there are many ways in which one could see how the audience's own soundtrack could support, undermine, reinforce or even contradict the film's own (by, for example, laughing at the 'wrong' time, screaming when prompted through a scary moment, applaud (or boo) at the end of the film, etc.).
Hollywood filmmakers seem to be aware of this 'threat' to the integrity of their soundtrack and have tried to address it. A good example of this attempt is Lucasfilm's revolutionary and comprehensive sound program which includes THX and TAP (Theater Alignment Program). Crudely, the THX program aims at recreating in the theater the same conditions and sound quality which can be found in Hollywood mixing studios. Its stringent criteria also address the issue of the 'parallel soundtracks' by demanding that a series of parameters regarding 'structural' conditions, such as those already illustrated above (background noise, sound insulation etc.) must be met if certification is to be awarded. Moreover, realizing the further problem of the differences between theaters that a print may encounter, the TAP program was created to complement the THX treatment. The Theater Alignment Program also comprises, amongst many other sophisticated quality controls on the film's sound and image track, a series of 'print policing' strategies (including a 1-800 phone line and a web site for cinema customers to report any problems encountered when viewing/listening to a TAP-managed print). Behind all this remarkable and unprecedented interest in the quality of both recording and reproduction of the film soundtrack lies the awareness that, regardless of the individual efforts of the filmmaker, a variety of factors 'outside' their control interact at the point of reception, hence, as this quote from James Cameron clearly indicates, the desire to minimize the 'damage':
At home, audiences of Hollywood movies are free to manipulate virtually all aspects of a film soundtrack, such as sound direction (by arranging speakers at will), loudness (simply by pumping the volume up or lowering it down), the relationship between surround and front channels (most home surround processors have separate controls for them) and, perhaps most importantly, their talking and commenting over the film soundtrack are not anymore 'forbidden' and are free to reach level of sonic interaction with the film unobtainable in a cinema[].
Thus, given these considerations, it would
seem unwise, at best, to address the issue of the interaction between Hollywood
films and their listeners/viewers as a unified event and, similarly, to
talk of a passive, uniform spectator of that event.
The playful nature of the audience relationship with movie soundtracks is one such dimension. As we have seen in the case of the 'audience soundtrack', audience members interact aurally with each other and with the film in many ways. In the former case, there is talking to each other, commenting on the film, etc.; in the latter case, the same interaction is achieved through clapping, booing, munching, sipping, laughing, crying, and so on. Whilst the level of sonic interaction varies considerably from culture to culture (clapping and cheering at the actors/events on screen, for example, is a practice more commonly accepted in some countries than others), this interaction is too evident to be unnoticed.
Similarly, as we have seen, contemporary sound systems are capable of producing intense sound pressure on film audiences, thus involving the latter also on a physical level. This is more than just about being 'loud'. Unlike the bi-dimensional image, the three-dimensional nature of sound allows soundtracks to be enveloping. Moreover, multi-channel, multi-directional sound is today organised around the auditorium, not around the image on screen. This is not to underestimate the importance of the image: images clearly suggest sounds (although the degree of this relationship clearly varies from film to film). However, sound is directed to and orchestrated around the seats to put the spectator literally 'inside' the film, reducing the distance between audience and narrative world. Audiences are invited to share the same sonic dimension as the characters on screen: as Michael Cimino once remarked, 'sound can demolish the wall separating the viewer from the film'[]).
On a different level, the popularity throughout the world of theatres bearing the THX logo or boasting the latest digital sound systems, not to mention the remarkable diffusion of home sound systems, suggests a third dimension where the contemporary Hollywood listener can be seen as active. By choosing in which cinema to see a film audiences actively seek the best comfort available. In this respect, sound plays again a key role: audiences know that a cinema showcasing the THX logo will almost inevitably guarantee comfortable seats, large screens, and high-quality sound. The commercial success and huge popularity of high-end sound reproduction systems (all mainstream Hollywood productions are now released in digital sound format) testifies to the relevance of this particular audience choice.
This combination of technological comfort, physical involvement and social interaction suggests a figure of the Hollywood listener that we might be tempted to define, in opposition to the view originally expressed in the quotes by Austin and Ellis at the beginning of this article, as 'comfortably active'. The industry has long acknowledged the importance of providing audiences with the necessary aural comfort and choice: filmmakers provide enough visual clues to facilitate the process of linking image to sound (no matter how improbable that link might be), and cinemas provide all the necessary 'creature comforts' to make sure that contemporary audiences enjoy an aurally sophisticated environment in which to be active part of the ride, in the many ways we have detailed previously, and not merely passive 'spectators'.
Today's Hollywood listener is a discerning,
demanding auditor, whose aural expectations fillmakers attempt to appease.
Whether this makes for 'better' soundtracks or rather leads down a path
towards theme ride style soundtracks is a debatable issue. What appears
certain is that contemporary audiences have at their disposal an unprecedented
array of choices and possibilities to be actively involved in the movie-going
experience, and that sound plays a key role in this picture. Recent developments
point towards and even greater attempt to position audiences inside the
sonic playground. The introduction of the new Dolby EX sound system is
one good indicator of this continuing trend. Developed by Lucasfilm and
Dolby Laboratories, Dolby EX is the brain child of sound designer Gary
Rydstrom. It basically adds a channel to the surround (centre surround),
allowing sound to be much better placed around the auditorium: now audiences
are within a sonic environment where sound can reach them from no less
than six different directions: front left, front centre, front right, surround
left, surround centre and surround right. The sonic playground is becoming
ever more playful. There appears to be plenty of audiences ready to play.
 Cecelia Hall has been responsible for some of the most innovative soundtracks of the last twenty years, including Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun, and The Hunt for Red October for which she won an Oscar.
 It is interesting to note that regardless of the advances made in the past few years by large screen televisions, the depth, width and quality of the cinema image stands virtually unchallenged by any consumer products.
 Here, it is important to acknowledge that it would be virtually impossible to conduct a meaningful empirical study of the many kinds of audiences of Hollywood cinema. Therefore, these considerations are more based on Hollywood's own perception of audiences needs, with all the risks and omissions that this inevitably entails.
 James Cameron, quoted in TAP publicity material Aligned Success (Lucasfilm, 1992), available from LucasArts Entertainment Company- THX Division- P.O. Box 2009 San Rafael, California 94912, or at THX web site (www.thx.com).
 Obviously, television is perfectly aware of this issue and has attempted to incorporate, at least partly, the audience soundtrack in their programmes by giving it an 'institutional' role. The best example of this is to be found in the use of audience-laughter in sitcoms.
this sense, it interesting to notice that audiences are active also in
the sense of demanding regulation on issues like sound levels. Following
audience complaints about sound level in film trailers, Dolby Laboratories
have now designed a loudness meter to prevent trailers from being too loud.
© Gianluca Sergi 1999
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