Blinded by Science

Technologies needed to create cinema’s spectacle have been with us in one form or another for well over 100 years now. Martin Dew looks at how the technology of film entertainment  has developed and wonders if the public was ever receptive.

 

It’s extraordinary to think that Thomas Edison first experimented with high frame rate film images at 46fps as early as 1891, while Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair) held in Paris in 1900 showed off such technologies as infinite aspect ratios, synchronised sound, and massive screen projection systems. The public’s appetite for awe-inspiring technology for the delivery of moving pictures has apparently never waned, and cinema exhibitors today still rally to lure in the public with ever-more impressive, immersive picture and sound experiences. But while the average moviegoer appreciates an enhanced experience, there’s little evidence to suggest that he or she is looking to understand the specifics of the actual technologies on offer.

 

Technologies come and go. Indeed, one industry veteran once suggested that 3D keeps coming back “like athelete’s foot”. There’s no guarantee that an apparently once sought-after technology will always have commercial legs. In that context (and outside of the realms of technology showcases and exhibitions), it’s worth examining the two key timelines of the evolution of both sound and picture technologies, and why 1.37:1 Academy Ratio and Academy Optical Mono were challenged for supremacy. It was, after all, the ubiquity of the cathode ray tube in living rooms in the 1950s which spurred exhibitors to explore uncharted waters of immersive cinema.

 

 

As if the arrival of talkies in 1929 had not elevated cinema to new heights, surround audio was not long behind with Disney’s introduction of the ‘Fantasound’ system for the 1941 release of ‘Fantasia’.

At a cost of $85,000 for a 54-speaker fit out in each location, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco were the only three cities to get a taste of these first documented presentations of surround sound. Walt Disney himself invented the concept with the help of Bell Labs, and the system included three front screen channels and two rear channels of discrete audio. As large-format projection, such as Cinerama, Vistavision and Todd-AO 70mm took hold, so too did corresponding multi-channel surround technologies. Three or five separate screen channels, plus a rear mono surround channel of magnetic striping, would capitalise on added real estate available either side of the picture on the larger film format prints.

 

Declining US theatrical audiences in the 1960s and 1970s, combined with the advance of the shoebox-style, one-speaker-per-screen multiplex cinema, meant that a technology revolution was inevitable. Dolby Laboratories, with its legacy of professional and domestic tape noise reduction, introduced Dolby Stereo for the release of “A Star is Born” in 1976, and four channels of matrix surround information were encoded onto the analogue, non-deteriorating optical track of 35mm theatrical release prints.

Dolby also developed its enhancement of the analogue technology in the 1980s with Dolby Stereo SR (or ‘Spectral Recording’), increasing the dynamic range of playback. The 1979 release of “Apocalypse Now” included Dolby Stereo 70mm with six-track magnetic striping, with the addition of noise reduction and twin surrounds. The three screen channels and two rear channels allowed space for a discrete .1 low-frequency effects track, an architecture later adopted for Dolby Digital. In 1992, “Batman Returns” ushered in Dolby Digital or SR-D. Scanner-read data blocks housed between the sprocket holes of 35mm release prints were converted into an AC-3 bitstream, delivering 5.1 channels of full-range audio (20Hz–20kHz). Meanwhile, DTS roared onto screen with the release of ”Jurassic Park” in 1993, and its 5.1 timecode and synchronized CD-Rom.

 

The Rise and Fall of Big Picture

In 1932, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences determined that the aspect ratio of film should be slightly reduced in size (although still 4-perf), from 1.33:1 to 1.37:1, to accommodate an optical soundtrack. Academy Ratio would consolidate the look of movies for another 20 years.

 

By the early 1950s, however, with audiences starting to dwindle, film studios knew that drastic action was required to get people back into picture houses. Cinerama was culled from a WWII military simulator and used three synced 35mm (6-perf) cameras to capture a 2.59:1 aspect ratio with a 146° field of view. The resulting presentation used three projectors on a massive 105ft-wide curved screen (as in the case of The Cooper Theater, Denver), and with seven channels of audio. The unwieldy economics of Cinerama combined with a rigid photographic focal length (and not always seamless joins between three projected onscreen images) saw competitors hot on the trail for more efficient widescreen options.

 

Executives at Fox cultivated a 1920s French technology, the Anamorphoscope. Any film shot with an anamorphic lens would squeeze an image from side-to-side by a factor of two; when the same film was projected with a 2x anamorphic lens in the cinema, the image was unsqueezed to deliver a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. “The Robe” was the first title to use this new 4-perf 35mm process. Soon all the studios followed suit, with the exception of Paramount who, in turn, developed the side-winding non-anamorphic challenger ­— Vistavision.

 

Probably the two most historically important widescreen breakthroughs of the era were Todd AO and MGM 65. Both used 5-perf 65mm film stock running vertically through a camera and projector. In each case, the release prints were delivered to cinemas on 70mm stock (the extra 5mm of width being preserved for multi-channel magnetic sound stripes). Todd AO theatrical releases sported a 2.2:1 aspect ratio, using spherical, not anamorphic lenses, and were projected in massive auditoria with deep curved screens. Meanwhile, Panavision developed 1.25x anamorphic lenses for the MGM 65 system, which lead to the king of all large-screen films, “Ben-Hur” (1959) with its 2.76:1 aspect ratio.

 

By the latter half of the 1960s, the age of widescreen and large-format theatrical spectacle had largely gone into retreat, and the age of experimentation had all but ceased. The industry consolidated on two predominant aspect ratios for general cinema release and presentation: 2.35:1 anamorphic (or 2.39:1 depending on projector aperture), and 1.85:1 Flat, but now in generally much smaller auditoriums.

 

A question of standards

With Dolby Stereo in-cinema audio rising from the ashes of the inadequate standards of presentation that permeated US cinemas in the 70s, a bedrock for improved presentation emerged. In 1983, the THX Division of Lucasfilm Ltd set out to revolutionise the way audiences experienced films again. Audio guru Tom Holman formulated a strategy for professional cinemas after George Lucas had determined that the complex sound mix of “Return of the Jedi” should be presented optimally in as many cinemas as possible. Holman would frequently adopt an art gallery metaphor to expound the concept, claiming that “if the filmmakers are the painters, then THX are the picture framers.” For a cinema operator to have a screen ‘THX-Certified’ and be able to show the famous Broadway trailer before a feature (under licence), they had to conform to strict criteria.

 

A THX cinema had to reproduce dialogue accurately and intelligibly, achieve reference-level audio, be agnostic to audio or vibration leaks from adjacent auditoria, include a behind-screen baffle wall, and mitigate background noise to a measurable NC30. The viewing angle to the screen from every seat should be no less than 32°. A proprietary THX crossover was also mandatory in every booth, the latter of which had to be furnished with a double glass enclosure to mask the sound of a 35mm projector. In some ways, THX was the chrysalis of today’s PLF  screens, although of course IMAX 15/70 was already well established by the 1990s as a spectacle venue for vertigo-inducing documentaries and short subjects on its floor-to-ceiling 1.43:1 towering screens.

 

A New Order

The great disruptor in the form of object-based audio from Dolby lent credence to the concept of spectacle cinema once more. The 2012 launch of Dolby Atmos with its replacement of conventional channels with ‘nodes’, sound effects-plus-metadata allowing scalability across any matrix of speakers, and ceiling-based immersion, was revolutionary. The development of ever-brighter, efficient light engines from the likes of Barco, Christie, NEC and Sony, in single and dual configurations, meant pictures kept up with audio. Addition of HDR systems could now boast film-like contrast and image detail enhancement.

 

This new coupling of picture and sound would inevitably lead to the birth of premium large format cinema with which we are now so familiar. Ever more tightly-honed franchises with their own USPs are born year-on-year. Dolby Cinema sports its angular, acoustical ‘cocoon’, explosively potent audio, Dolby Vision HDR and dynamic walkway; IMAX offers up its 12-point-source rock concert-like public address, high-resolution proprietary laser light engine, and DMR-produced content; ScreenX from CJ 4DPLEX takes your senses further by draping screens over three walls with five synchronised Christie projectors delivering a 270° field-of-view.

 

Not all technology survives scrutiny. Cinerama never recovered from its ongoing technical problems, costly production budgets and corresponding lack of content. Barco Escape (not dissimilar to ScreenX and arguably the offspring of Cinerama) took its bow earlier this year, ironically suffering from the content conundrum too. 3D, although enjoying vast technological improvements over the past five years, has seen a decline in audience appetite. Even the marriage of AR or VR to either in-cinema applications or in-lobby attractions is proving questionable in the short-term.

 

Does tech really tantalise audiences?

THX conducted research in the early noughties in the US and EMEA that suggested up to 20% of audience members would travel further from home to seek out a THX screen. Dolby has reportedly conducted similar studies, assessing the audience perception and draw of its own technologies.

 

Cinema exhibitors spend less time pushing technology to audiences than touting more generalized improvements they offer. For some years, as a result of pressure from US chains, the Studios have listed PLF auditorium types and technologies available (such as IMAX 3D, Dolby Atmos, 4DX etc.) along the base of billboard advertising banners and at the end of 30-second TV spots. Pre-feature trailers promoting specific audio or visual enhancements are commonplace.

 

For more discerning consumers, the UK’s big three, namely Vue, Cineworld and Odeon, disseminate further information via a simple click on their websites to explain what features audiences get inside, for example, an IMAX or ScreenX auditorium, as well as their home-developed PLF brands. At the same time, as much emphasis is placed on F&B offerings as part of the wider experience. Vue told CT magazine, “With our marketing and communications we place focus on the big screen experience as a whole: great content presented in the best way — the technology of our screens and sound — enjoyed in maximum comfort.” In the end, perhaps that’s the crux. Technology makes experiences better. There’s no need to expand on the details. The average cinemagoer will tell you IMAX is big; Dolby sounds great.

 

Consumers have always proved most interested in ‘what’, rather than ‘how’ or ‘why’. Whether at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900 or an augmented reality multi-sensory experience in 2030, cinemagoers have, and always will be drawn in by the content, not how it is conveyed. Sad for those of us who spend our lives dreaming up a model for the ultimate cinema, but not a reason to ignore the virtue of its pursuit. Putting on a movie show that a filmmaker will be proud of is a worthy cause, and one that those who purport to love the art of film must never overlook.