Simply irresistible

AUDIOFILE - Val A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - December 4, 2015 - 9:00am

A movie writer friend once told me that life as we know it wouldn’t be the same without the razzle dazzle world of cinema.  Life itself is a stage, and we find refuge in seeing our favorite actors on the silver screen portray roles characters caught up in stories that mirror our personal experiences of pain and suffering, confusion and frustration, joy and triumph.

Cinema has been a money-making machine and its lure is simply irresistible ever since French inventor Louis Le Prince made the world’s first successful attempt to record moving images in 1888. The two-second film of people walking around Oakwood Grange garden, entitled Roundhay Garden Scene, may be crude today, but it was then largely hailed as the invention of the century.

My fascination with moving objects on screen was awakened at very young age by my sister and her friends’ favorite game called Shadow Theater. All they needed was total darkness, a candle which would illuminate a white blanket hung in a clothesline, and images of dogs, cats and other animals they would cut out from paper. They would manually move the images projected at the back of the blanket by the flickering flame of the candle. It was a sheer thrill for me then as the images’ shadows seemed so real.

If I was awed, you can just imagine how thrilling it must have been to the patrons of silent films in the late 1920s. It was the age of the silver screen and Charlie Chaplin reigned supreme. But throughout silent films’ popularity, the idea of combining motion pictures with recorded sound never dimmed. At the backroom, the search for technical advances to make it work was at fever pitch. And when the age of the ‘talkies’ finally came, everybody got caught in irresistible world of cinema.

Film and sound engineers have made it a mission to make our viewing as real as life itself. Since our ears and brain process sounds from everywhere (in a 360-degree angle, or even the dimension of height), the sound in films must also be as palpably vivid as we hear it in real life.

Thus did they conclude that the stereo setup (two-channel system) was inadequate for cinematic use. Even as early as the 1930s, Bell Telephone scientists were already convinced that having more channels was better in expressing a sensible imitation of an orchestral performance — two channels at the left and right, and one in the middle.

From the ‘50s to the ‘60s and onwards, Hollywood sound engineers supplemented magnetic stripes to the edge of epic 70mm widescreen movies. This resulted in up to six separate tracks or sound channels. Spectators appreciated the effect: Multiple channels more accurately reproduced the multidirectional sounds our ears pick up in everyday life. The center channel was located behind the screen for the actors’ voices; left and right front speakers for the music, and eventually, left and right surround speakers on each side of the movie theater for the peripheral sounds — a bomb exploding, bats shrieking, a dog shaking itself dry, fireworks fizzing, a stone coffin opening, waves breaking on the shore… Motion picture viewing was never the same again.

Film enthusiasts have much to thank Ray Dolby for. Dolby, who invented the noise reduction system in tapes, helped advance home audio technology. This is what we now know as “Home Theater” – cinema right in your own living room. First, there was the Dolby Surround with four channels in the 1980s’ laser disc. Now, the 5.1 (an even 7.1) — channel-system from a DVD format is a standard in home video.  That amounts to six separate or “discrete” channels of sound: left and right front main channels (like stereo), a dedicated center channel speaker for the actor’s voices, two left and right surround speakers at the sides of your listening area for all those ambient environment sounds, and a sixth deep bass subwoofer channel — it’s the .1 in 5.1, which is the source of the shakes and shudders of thunder and powerful musical bass effects.

But whatever it is — be it DVD, Blue Ray, HD for video; or Dolby Digital or AC3, True HD, SDDS for audio — movie viewing has come a long way. But even now, as it was back then and will probably always be, its main purpose is still to entertain us with stories filled with humor, horror, suspense, action, drama, romance and more.

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For comments or questions, please email me at audioglow@yahoo.com for quick answers to your audio concerns.

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