You’ve never seen a movie screen this big. No matter who or how old you are or where you’ve been, no screen you’ve seen was as large as this one.
What’s more, there were three of them. Situated almost side by side, with just a little space in between, they were housed inside a building big enough to park passenger jet airplanes, on a major Hollywood studio lot. Where else, right?
But the screens weren’t there for audiences. Or at least not the large-sized, paying theatrical movie patrons. And they weren’t there for we visitors that day, either.
The screens were there for sound engineers, technicians and sound effects personnel. Less an army and more a platoon. The sound men (they all were) sat behind gigantic mixing boards – each one bigger than a sheet of plywood – with so many round knobs and rectangular sliders as to cause visual confusion: optical illusions capable of producing vertigo, all in service to noise.
Synched-up, three identical moving images simultaneously played on each screen.
Action occurred. Dialogue was spoken. And gravel noisily crunched underfoot when actors strode purposefully across a parking lot to a 1930s automobile.
The 15-second scene was played. Once. Twice. Fifteen times. Each time with the identical vocal track uttering the same three words of dialogue: “You got dimes?”
Behind the sound boards, adjustments were made. Imperceptibly. By men without headsets but wielding nimble fingers sensitive enough to perform surgery on an insect.
And the scene played again and again. And again.
The Roxy Theater in New York City seated 6,000 patrons before it was torn down in 1960. At Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, where Rockettes today kick, still seats 6,000 inside the monument to Art Deco architecture.
But comparatively, those big picture palace screens were kid stuff compared to the California screens on the studio lot.
Sound design is a subtle art. And science.
You never notice it when it’s done right. The 2017 movie, Dunkirk, is a good example.
And it slaps you right in the face when sound design is done wrong. Any Italian Neorealist movie, for instance.
Neorealism was a European film “movement” popular after the end of the Second World War. Emphasizing nonprofessional actors performing at on-location shooting under natural light, the aesthetic had a documentary feel. There was a gritty, harsh reality to the film – matching well, typically, the film’s subject.
Until, that is, actors opened their mouths and spoke. That viewers didn’t understand Italian was the least of it.
The dialogue’s sound was sterile, artificial and antiseptic. As though recorded in a studio rather than an on-location set when it was filmed. Which is exactly what had been done.
Neorealism as Old-Fashioned Fakery.
And so, on the Hollywood sound mixing stage that day, the 15-second scene played and played until the sound men were content.
There as part of a two-week class for college professors sponsored by the Directors Guild, we visitors watched and listened like little kids plopped for the first time in front of a Peek-A-Boo storyteller.
As we were exiting, one college professor says to another: “What did that guy say to the Jack Nicholson character?”
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