What’s wrong with the sound in movies

My wife and I saw the new Star Trek movie in Imax 3D last night.  It wasn’t too bad.  She complained about it being too loud (fuddy duddy) whereas I was impressed with the acoustic treatments in the theater and the clarity of the low end frequencies.  Imax has always been cool with the large screens, but I have always been more impressed by the sound.  Incidentally, I was really disappointed in the screen size.  I was expecting the huge 4:3 screen that I used to watch documentaries on.  This was just a slightly larger 16:9.  When I go to Imax I expect to feel like barfing.

But the thing that got me was the nature of the sound effects.  Here you have these massive, epic sequences and they just didn’t sound right.  Why it didn’t sound right hit me during one seen where the camera shot was on the ground and the Enterprise is careening through a series of sharp-peaked mountains.  Every time the Enterprise hit a peak (It’s brave new mission to be destroyed during the filming of each movie) the sound was immediate.  You heard the hit, and felt it, thanks to the amazing Imax subs, exactly as it happened.

Come back in your imagination with me to somewhere around 1995.  I was at my first air show, the Winnipeg International Air Show.  I was with a friend and we spent an hour or two shopping the grounds for a new F-14.  I remember being amazed as I walked through the belly of a C-5 Galaxy and around a B-1 Lancer.  The show was about to start so we mozied to the show grounds and waited for it to start.

We waited for a bit, with some of the requisite ’80’s music playing over the loudspeakers.  I had seen a CF-18 take off and was looking around the sky for it.  I suddenly saw a small speck out in the west that was not moving like a bird.  It flew in a straight line and came closer and closer.  I could soon make out the tail fins.  And it was coming in fast.

I was a little apprehensive.  I’m a farm boy and I’d seen a CF-18 once flying over a field, but this was the first time I’d seen one flying like this.  It was flying like it wanted to show what it could do.

It entered the airfield with the mach indicator reading all 9’s with a dot in front of it.  It was flying like an arrow.  A 0.999 mach arrow.  With increasing velocity it slid through the air faster than I had ever seen before.  And what did I hear?

Nothing.

I didn’t hear anything.  And I became nervous.  I like loud things but I didn’t know what to expect because it was acting in a way that I had not expected.  I expected it to be awesome.  I did not expect it to be silent.

Then I heard a ripple making its way across the crowd.  It was almost like the pressure wave was surfing the heads of the people to my left.  It didn’t get louder, but I could hear the wave coming to greet my ears with utter disregard.

And then it hit.  It was a blast of sound like I had never heard before.  I had heard jets, but I had never heard the sound racing towards me before.  It was amazing.

That is what is missing in many movies nowadays.  There is sound, and the guys who do the sound are, literally, amazing.  But there is one thing that is missing.  The experience of being in the movie.  Sound is the conduit for that.  When everything is experienced as if you were in the middle of the action, even when the camera isn’t, lessens the immersion.

There are a few movies that do it well.  I think that I remember Saving Private Ryan having sound like this.  The end of Aliens, when the processing station blows up on LV-426, is another one.  Ripley sees the light, covers Newt’s eyes, and, then, you hear the explosion.

When making a movie, if you really want to bring the audience in and immerse them in the experience you need to do this.  It is the anticipation of the noise, not the noise itself, that makes it memorable.  In Mythbusters when have you ever heard the shock wave exactly when the explosion happened?  Nope.  And what is Adam and Jamie’s level of anticipation each time?  Epic.

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