Learning Space dedicated to
the Art and Analyses of Film Sound Design
What's new?
Site Map
Site Search
Sound Article List
New Books

The Sonic Playground: 
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.  
    It is not the aim of this essay to expound the (many) reasons behind this bias, others have already discussed this issue at length,[1] but rather to draw some light on the virtually unknown figure of the spectator as listener. In fact, one of the most obvious consequences of the image-biased approach is the focusing  on film audiences as 'viewers'. Countless accounts of spectatorship have emphasized this (presumed) one-dimensional nature: from the theory of the mirror image to the notion of looking and being looked at, film theory would appear to have accepted almost uncritically a view that is perfectly summarized in this passage by John Ellis:

    'The spectator looks up towards the image: image dominates the proceedings. It is the reason for cinema, and the reason for the spectator's presence at the event of the film projection'.[2]
This apotheosis of the image as the very reason why audiences all over the world flock to Hollywood movies is just a natural step from viewing the cinema experience as primarily a visual one and the film auditorium as reflecting, almost underwriting, this 'truth' by arranging seats so as to allow the audience to worship the screen. However, the undeniable fact that the screen is the focus of our 'visual' attention when seated in a cinema auditorium does not constitute sufficient evidence to suggest that Hollywood addresses its audiences relying solely (or even mainly) on visuals. The relevance of the image should not be interpreted as a hierarchical assessment  of what should be seen as worthy of attention.  

 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'. 


Hollywood sound has undergone a huge change, both in production and, more relevant to us today, in reproduction:  "sentence out" 

This new sound is experienced by audiences in a technologically advanced ‘space’ (the film theater itself) which is used, as we shall see, as a kind of sonic playground for the spectator to actively join in, make sense of what is around him/her and discover 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" [3]
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. 
 Thus, when we go to the cinema our experience of the event is informed and aided not only by past cinema attendance, but also by our ‘cultural’ understanding of sounds and images and the way they might interact. Hollywood filmmakers understand this particular dynamic and integrate it in their approach to film sound. As Cecilia Hall [4] points out, talking about John McTiernan’s 1990 film The Hunt for Red October, one of the key emotional aspects of the movie was to create a sound environment for the American submarine featured in the film that would feel somehow more familiar than its Russian counterpart. To achieve this she appealed to the audience’s (aural)  cultural background: 

"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" [5]
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. 
 The late sixties and early seventies saw a great advancement in all areas of sound technology, the latter was also fast becoming affordable for consumers on a mass scale. The general response of the public matched this developments and, as Charles Schreger reminds us: 

"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"[7]
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[8]. 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: 

    "The audience today know what good sound is, and they expect it. They don’t expect to walk into a theater and hear static and hiss and no low end. They know good sound, and they respect it"[9] 
Thus, the process of change that the industry eventually began in the early 70s, although mainly driven by external pressure (market considerations, availability of new technology) and internal innovation (the rise of the ‘movie brats’ generation of filmmakers) was also partly responding to audience demands and expectations. The introduction of new sound technologies and the rise of cultural phenomena (such as the rock ‘n roll concerts) had a huge impact on increasing film audiences (aural) expectations. These focused on several aspects: the quality of sound reproduction, the sonic pleasures on offer, and the kind of experience which could be expected by an audience. In other words, Schreger's ‘sound-obsessed' new generation of spectators craved and obtained a change which affected the whole axis film-theater-audience, as a closer look will reveal. 
 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[10]. 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: 
"We've actually got too much dynamic range. We have to control it in the mixing or we will blast people out of the theaters" [11] 

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: 
"There’s a fundamental difference between a concert hall, which is a space for production(...) and a movie theater which is a space for reproduction"[12] 

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 [13] 

 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: 
"People love surround in movies (..) it opens up the space" [14] 

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: 
"You (the sound designer) are given an architectural space and you put things in it and make it look good" [15] 

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.  

Due to contemporary recording practices, where conditions on the set may require sounds to be recorded afresh in the acoustically-friendly studio environment, film sound is very often not produced by its visual source on (or off) screen. Indeed, most of the sounds we hear in Hollywood movies are literally designed. This is mainly because their real equivalent would often simply not sound ‘right’ for the kind of emotional and narrative impact that they are meant to achieve. If in doubt, try this little experiment: attempt to describe what the sound of one of Indiana Jones’s punches actually sound like. Its texture could never be produced by a fist hitting a face (or any other part of the body); its duration and ‘width’ greatly outlast the length of any impact.  

 The goal clearly is not reality, but expressiveness. In other words, audiences are asked by the filmmakers to accept an ‘interpretation’ of that sound that bypasses the original features of that sound (i.e. the actual straightforward sound recording of a punch) in favour of narrative effectiveness (i.e. the ‘designed’ punch sound).  

 This would at least seem to suggest that, regardless of how improbable this ‘interpretation’ may be, audiences show a remarkable willingness to give more ‘latitude’ to sound than they seem to be prepared to do with the image (to stick with the same example, can you imagine Ford’s fist grewing in size, cartoon-like, just as it is about to strike?).  

 To make matters even more intricate, some of these sounds are themselves a combination of sounds aimed at achieving that kind of ‘filmic eloquence’ mentioned above: from a soufflé of animal noises (employed in the creation of countless effects, including LaMotta punches, E.T.’s voice and even the fighter jets in Top Gun) to bicycle chains and plastic bags (famously, some of the helicopter sounds used by Murch and Coppola in Apocalypse Now).  

 This would again suggest that most Hollywood sound is not only ‘artificially’ constructed, but also not at all a unique event, rather a combination of events that the audience has to ‘splice’ together and make sense of.  

 Moreover, audiences are asked to perform these tasks under fairly extreme physical conditions.

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" [[16] 
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: 
    "Audiences have gotten more sophisticated in what they want from sound"[[17]
Indeed, this combination of heightened expectations (beginning before the actual film performance) and increased aural sophistication have produced a highly demanding, active and discerning listener of Hollywood films. This new generation of listeners expects to enter a playground where sound objects are, to follow Murch's analogy, placed around for him/her to play with. The promise is a world of sonic wonders and pleasures which is very appealing even though, or perhaps precisely because, this requires a certain degree of physical and mental participation. 

Chaos in the hall: who is in charge of the soundtrack?  
 Hollywood's careful 'orchestration' of all the aforementioned issues notwithstanding, the relationship between Hollywood films and its listeners is far from being devoid of blurred areas. There are contradictions to be found, both in the theater and out, which makes this a rather difficult partnership to assess. 
 On the one hand, Hollywood has been investigating thoroughly its potential: from the introduction of new technologies (such as Dolby, THX and Digital sound) to their use in production (multi-channel, increased dynamic range, multi-layered soundtracks), from their reproduction in theaters (now built with sound demands in mind) to their home fruition (where the circle has now closed again and home consumers can enjoy cinema-like sound quality after the recent introduction of Home THX and Digital sound systems), the signs of the industry's desire to explore its spectators as listeners are all too apparent.  

 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': 

    "All that stands between us and entropy is TAP. We work so hard to create quality, it is a relief to know that there exists an organization whose sole purpose is the preservation of quality at the actual place where the film and the audience first meet[[18]] 
Paradoxically, this glaring contradiction of Hollywood filmmakers creating a very 'inviting' and playful sonic environment whilst at the same time hoping to standardize the condition of reception (hence, somehow regulate the audience reaction to sound) still presents us with the most damning piece of evidence that audiences as listeners are indeed active and constantly involved in an interactive relationship with the film's soundtrack. This view of an active listener is also reinforced by the situation existing in the other, often overlooked, place of fruition of Hollywood films, the home. 

 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[[19]].  

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 comfortably active spectator.  
 The concept of being active or passive spectators is one that in film scholarship has been firmly located in the spheres of meaning and intepretation. The argument is deceptively  simple: a film that is 'easy' to understand will not call for an active involvement on the part of audiences. On the other hand, a movie whose meaning is somewhat 'cryptic' (or open to alternative interpretations) will solicit an active response from the spectator. Leaving aside for a moment the rather slippery notions of meaning (films are not necessarily about 'meaning something') and intepretation (is there ever one single 'correct' interpretation that we can isolate from the many possible ones?), this view overlooks the aural dimension of film going and  underestimates other dimensions of movie-going where audience behaviour may be categorised as 'active'. 

 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'[[20]]).  

 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[21]. 

 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. 

[1]See, for example, Rick Altman's 'The Three Sound Fallacies', in Sound Theory, Sound Practice (Routledge: New York & London, 1992).   

[2] John Ellis, Visible Fictions (London & New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982), p.41.  

[3]Hugo Mauerhofer as quoted in Bruce Austin, Immediate Seating - A Look at Movie Audiences (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1988), p. 46.  

[4] 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.   

[5] Cecilia Hall, in Vincent LoBrutto, Sound-on-Film - Interviews with Creators of Film Sound (Praeger Publishers: Westport, CT, 1994), p.191-192.  

[6] It is worth remembering that where the image is two-dimensional, sound is a three-dimensional construct.  

[7] Charles Schreger, 'Altman, Dolby and The Second Sound Revolution', in Elizabeth Weis and John Belton (eds.) Film Sound - Theory and Practice (Columbia University Press: New York, 1985), p. 349.  

[8] 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.  

[9] George Lucas, in John Young, 'Sound Revolution', Hollywood Reporter, (June 22, 1993) p.T-12.  

[10] 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.  

[11] Walter Murch, in Vincent LoBrutto, op. cit., 1994, p.99. 

[12] Tomlinson Holman, in Vincent LoBrutto, op. cit., 1994, p.204.  

[13] Obviously, conditions of reception can vary widely from cinema to cinema, but I am mainly referring here to today's most popular place of fruition of Hollywood films, the multiplex cinema.  

[14]  Gary Rydstrom, in Vincent LoBrutto, op. cit., 1994, p.238.  

[15] Walter Murch, in Vincent LoBrutto, op. cit., 1994, p.92.  

[16] Cecilia Hall, in Vincent LoBrutto, op. cit., 1994, p.195.  

[17] Juno Ellis in Vincent LoBrutto, op. cit.., 1994, p.218.  

[18] 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 (  

[19] 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.  

[20] Michael Cimino, in Charles Schreger, op. cit., 1985, p. 351.  

[21] In 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
 to old  version of this  article   
         Your Learning Space for Film Sound

Site Map

Star Wars Sounds Film Sound Clichés Film Sound History Movie Sound Articles Bibliography
Questions & Answers Game Audio Animation Sound Glossaries Randy Thom Articles
Walter Murch Articles Foley Artistry Sci-Fi Film Sound Film Music Home Theatre Sound
Theoretical Texts Sound Effects Libraries Miscellaneous