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Sound of movies


Sound is 50 per cent of a movie, but it's almost everything to sound engineer Ioan Allen, who has five Academy Awards to his name and epics such as Star Wars, A Clockwork Orange and Superman on his resume.

The 73-year-old, who is currently in India, has been instrumental in several major sound engineering innovations in Hollywood. But what still sends shivers down his spine is the mellow voice of actor Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, telling a young Luke Skywalker how it was "before the dark times. Before the empire".

"The role of sound is to work with the visuals and give a good movie experience. It is not to make the audience run out of the theatre saying the sound was terrific, " says Allen, who is senior vice-president of US-based Dolby Laboratories.

So it helps immensely if you keep the sound as real as possible. That has been Allen's aim ever since he started in Hollywood in the 1970s. "When I was working on Star Wars (1977), I persuaded George Lucas to use the old-style boom mic, " says Allen. The idea was to record the voice from above the chin and avoid the unnatural, metallic twang produced by the lapel mic.

But the biggest change was recording the sound on the new, multi-channel Dolby Stereo that could be played to great effect even in small theatres with the old mono sound system. Allen and his team convinced more than 40 theatres to upgrade their audio systems, but the advantage was that new technology could be adapted to the old set-up. The sound thrilled and the successes of Star Wars and Close Encounters of The Third Kind gave way to more inventions, but Allen's focus has always been on creating new technology that is compatible with older formats.

It's never been easy to convince hard-nosed studio executives and tight-fisted theatre owners. "Introducing digital stereo was a challenge. There was this VP marketing at Universal (Studios) who threw us out of the office saying that it is good story and seats that sell and not sound, " says Allen. By then, Allen and his colleagues had struck up a personal equation with the more powerful filmmakers and producers. "People like Gary Kurtz (producer of Star Wars) and Stanley Kubrick had the power to carry on with their decision. If not, studio heads would have said that the old sound system was good enough. "

Allen and his team spearheaded innovations in 1986 (Dolby SR) and 1992 (Dolby Digital). He became a fellow of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers and received Academy awards for scientific and engineering achievement. In 1989, Allen received an Oscar for continuous contributions to motion picture sound along with Ray Dolby, the company's founder.

Now, Allen is back on the field, talking to filmmakers, producers and exhibitors in India about the company's new Atmos surround system that provides realistic and immersing audio experience. "When I joined the industry in 1969, most films were in mono sound and the quality was far from real. It took us so many years to create something that is potentially close to recording reality. Today, you could recreate sounds of a Chennai street with all its noises, honking and everything, " says Allen.
For him, new technology is not just about creating a big bang on screen. Along with creating majestic sounds of empires clashing and heroes averting catastrophes, the innovations also give enough space to highlight the subtle sounds and the silences. "After Star Wars, many started to associate us with sci-fi movies. That changed once filmmakers realised how new technology can help all kinds of movies, " says Allen. The sound in Oscar-winner Life of Pi has been most impressive, says Allen. "The beauty is not in the scenes showing the shipwreck but in the many scenes with quiet atmosphere. It showed the silence between echoes and that has been remarkable, " he says.

In the course of this journey, Allen has found that most often directors play a big role in deciding the quality of sound. "Some are in a hurry while others sit with you and discuss what they want. Peter Jackson is like that. He is interested in sound and tells you what he wants. JJ Abrams is like that, " says Allen. But even if directors are willing, the quality depends everything from the type of mic used to how a film is distributed. "We have created the best of technologies. We are not the weakest link anymore, " he says.


Hollywood had the mono soundtrack system from the late 1920s. It was followed by the Dolby stereo era in the 1970s and by the digital surround system since early 1990s


1971 | One of the first movies to use noise reduction technology for recording, released with conventional mono optical soundtrack


1977 | Used Dolby stereo and released in more than 40 theatres equipped with the new technology;followed by the release of 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'


1987 | The sci-fi movie, directed by Paul Verhoeven, was the first to use Dolby Stereo SR


1992 | Tim Burton's superhero movie used the Dolby Stereo digital for the first time

STAR WARS EPISODE 1: The Phantom Menace

1999 | The sci-fi thriller is the first to use Dolby Digital Surround EX while 'Jurassic Park' (1993) used DTS system

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