SF Weekly's Ultimate Guide to Bay Area Filmgoing

"The Final 10 Percent": The Art of Moviegoing

Strangely, over the years I've had a lot of problems with the Castro, a great rep house to be sure but one in which, for example, the recently revived Picnic's Kansan high noon looked like dusk. The programs there are so good, however, that I decided to call the head projectionist and see what's what. He was surprised by my perception: He says that the bulbs they use (for their old-fashioned projectors) cost $1,500, are rated for 900 hours, and are often pulled earlier, when he perceives a problem. They were freshly installed for the theater's current Vertigo run, and indeed the 70mm projection of that film looks more than fine, as did the 35mm projection of Marnie. From his description they're doing everything right, so who knows? Cinema beauty is in the eye of the beholder, anyway, although we should never settle for a thumb in same.

-- Gregg Rickman

Sound Advice
Before the advent of digital sound, when movies weren't so damn noisy, movie sound was mostly conveyed by means of an analog optical soundtrack. This means that a wavy line, analogous to sound waves, was photographically imprinted on the film stock, right there alongside the frames of the film. An optical sound reader in each film projector turned these optical waves into electrical waves that were amplified and sent to a speaker. This was fine, except that an audible hiss, rather like the ones that come off of cassette tapes, would sound throughout the theater, along with an occasional pop or crack.

In 1976, San Francisco's Dolby Laboratories came up with a way of reducing this hiss and bringing stereo surround sound to the movies. The company called the process Dolby Stereo, and its first big releases were Barbra Streisand's A Star Is Born and Star Wars. Two optical sound channels were placed side by side on the film; from these, four channels of sound were extracted: left, right, center, and "surround," or rear. It quickly became de rigueur on big Hollywood releases. (It's now called just "Dolby.") The company improved on the technology in 1986 with Dolby SR (for "Spectral Recording"; it debuted on RoboCop), which remains the analog-sound standard.

Dolby introduced digital surround sound in 1992 with Batman Returns. ("Digital" means that the sound is stored as binary computer code, consisting of ones and zeros.) Dolby Digital provides six separate (or "discrete") channels of sound: left, center, right, left surround, right surround, and a subwoofer or bass channel. (This is known as the "5.1" configuration.) Dolby Digital resides in an unusual place: still on the celluloid itself, but between the sprocket holes of the film. (The company can include other information between the sprockets as well: The theaters' Dolby computer processors automatically read software updates off the film as it is screened.) Putting the sound there allows it to exist alongside a conventional Dolby SR soundtrack, and means that a given print can be projected in any theater, whether it's equipped for Dolby Digital or not. (This is a smart move: Many a theatrical innovation has foundered because it did not allow for such back-compatibility.)

Dolby felt the heat in 1993 when DTS (Digital Theater Systems) presented DTS Digital Surround to accompany Jurassic Park. DTS also provides six discrete channels of sound in the 5.1 configuration, but it doesn't exist on the film stock. Rather, DTS puts it on a separate CD. DTS says that its process uses less data compression than Dolby Digital and thus provides greater fidelity and frequency range, and less distortion. The CD is kept in sync with the movie by means of a time code on the film stock next to the standard optical soundtrack. (That keeps the print compatible with non-DTS systems.)

In June of 1994, Sony jumped in with SDDS: Sony Dynamic Digital Sound. (The movie? City Slickers 2.) SDDS provides digital surround sound with a whopping eight discrete channels: right, right center, center, left center, left, right surround, left surround, and subwoofer/bass. Its digital sound code resides on the film itself, the same way Dolby Digital does, but SDDS uses two separate digital tracks on each edge of the film. SDDS can also provide six or four digital channels for theaters not configured for eight.

What, then, is THX? Something different. THX isn't a sound recording or playback technology; it's a sort of quality-assurance program for theater sound -- basically, a Good Housekeeping seal from George Lucas. Developed by Lucasfilm (and named after Lucas' first feature, THX 1138), THX was first used with the movie The Empire Strikes Back. THX simply means that a theater has been certified to adhere to exacting standards in seven areas: background noise (air conditioners, etc.), isolation (no external noise sources, such as the theater next door), reverberation, viewing angle, projection, equipment (amplifiers, speakers, and projectors), and equipment installation (speaker placement).

Besides these unquestioned improvements, the bottom line is that movie sound can now be much louder and clearer. This can be a mixed blessing, as those of us who were pounded into submission during The Rock and other summer blockbuster duds can attest. Digital-sound providers say that digital isn't just for big movies with ear-ringing, head-thumping sound: It can enhance the clarity of quieter movies, too. Most small movies, however, can't afford the added expense of a digital soundtrack; there isn't movie-patron demand for it either. Digital sound will remain the domain of big-budget "Hollywood" pictures for the near future.

--Joe Mader

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