Tag Archives: Sound

Great Expectations, Joyous Results…Dull Journey

(This was supposed to be a post about a sound effect and my history with it—a small scale version of the Cab Hailing effect I wrote about in prior posts—but my research into its history was so boring, I had to shift the focus to writing about my ever-growing parental fears.)

When I was 5, my brother and I got the Disney LP Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House. A lot of my friends had it, too. (I bet most of you reading this remember it as well.) Ostensibly a “score” for Halloween parties, for me it was an evergreen, a year-‘round, all-purpose sonic thrill ride.

Side A began with a woman’s voice, very chilly and foreboding, provoking me to listen:

You are a bold and courageous person, afraid of nothing. High on a hilltop near your home there stands a dilapidated, old mansion…

From there, she helped me imagine such scenarios as walking through that haunted mansion, being attacked by my cat and even having a run-in with cannibalistic Martians. Side B was one graphic sound effect after another, such as thunder, creaks and screams, which is the brief track that inspired this post:

About ten years later, after I’d retired that LP in favor of scarier sounds (i.e. girls laughing at me), I watched David Lean’s 1946 Great Expectations. And when delusional Miss Havisham sets herself on fire, I was treated to an aural Proustian flashback…


For the sake of first-time listeners…

Is this a “discovery” that’s blog post-worthy? Not in and of itself. Sure, it’s interesting, but I expect anyone who knows the LP and has seen the film has already made the same connection, and everyone else would say, “Who cares?” But when I compared how I reacted in 1984 to what I did on the internet today, I thought, now that’s noteworthy.

1984
Moments after I heard the scream in Great Expectations, my mind screamed (just as loud) “THE DISNEY HALLOWEEN RECORD!” I was damn certain it was the same scream but it wasn’t easy to confirm. The only way would be to hear both side-by-side. With nothing better to do, I accepted the challenge.

My pursuit included: a used record store; a friend’s turntable and tapedeck; me combing patiently through subsequent TV Guides looking for another screening of Great Expectations; $$$; time; passion; hunger; luck; and a phonebook. (My research always included a phonebook, God love ‘em. Mine was dog-eared at “Books – Rare and Used.”) I’m talking hours of work spread over a month of Saturdays—just to confirm that I heard what I thought I heard.

And believe me, the confirmation was oh-so-sweet.

Today
On the other hand, to prepare for this post, I used these contemporary resources: Netflix; iTunes (yes, the Disney LP is on iTunes); some DVD-ripping and video-editing software; a few mouse clicks; and IMDB, which lead to this bonus: the discovery that the sound editor for Great Expectations ended up working for Disney by the mid-50s, which would explain how this scream became part of the Disney sound effects library. Minutes of minimal effort. (It took only a little longer than it took to write this paragraph.)

And believe me, the confirmation was oh-so-dull.

Clearly, I enjoy the Chase and miss it terribly. I wonder if it will be minimized into non-existence thanks to our information-filled, computer-based trend. I don’t fear that my son will lack the Hunger for knowledge (no matter how meaningless or trivial some of the info may seem), but I fear he’ll lack the resources to find what’s out there beyond the damned internet.

I know the ingenuity I have for research stems from lessons learned in my teen years, and in recent years I’ve seen many interns panic at the notion of leaving their web browser comfort zone. (A friend told me saw an apprentice editor use iChat to find someone to buy AA-batteries for her instead of running out to get them herself. W. T. F?!)

I don’t feel cynical fearing a nation/world full of squishy bodies and squishier minds, terrified of Microfiche. Hey, maybe that’ll be a future Halloween party “record”:

You are a bold and courageous person, afraid of nothing. High on a hilltop near your home there stands a dilapidated old library

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I had originally littered this post with Shit I Miss, i.e. scoping chicks at the library (a teenage pastime) and letting my imagination wander while scouring Tower Records. Please feel free to let us know what simple pleasures you miss thanks to the internet and other recent technological advancements. (And I’m not bemoaning modern technology, just noticing that it’s definitely a trade-off.)

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Filed under Film, Gripes

Big Brother is Blogging You

This post might mean the most to those around 40, 45 years old. Do you recall back in 1984, there was a whole lot of craziness about Orwell’s book and whether not it had come true? It was so pervasive and hand-in-hand with everything else happening in popular culture at the time. (Do you remember Weird Al’s MTV hit “Big Brother Just Wants to Have Fun”?) Everyone and their teenage cousin carried the book around like it was our generation’s Catcher in the Rye. And we were all quick to cry out that “Big Brother was watching us!” which was our shorthand for any adolescent criticism of the government or our parents, i.e. “Man, my folks are just like Big Brother, man.”

It's a webcam...Get it?

OK, cut to now. It seems that we’ve finally seen Big Brother…and he’s us. Blogs, Twitter, GPSs, Facebook, etc., willingly let everyone know what we’re doing, where we are, what we’re thinking—all of the things that were labeled Orewellian back in the 80s. We all assumed the infiltration of our privacy would come from our government; maybe we were too naïve to realize that the self-obsession of the 70s would re-blossom in this century as techno-version of a six-year-old boy dancing in his underwear in front of his parents’ friends: We want everybody to watch us.

I don’t think I’m expressing anything terribly unique, but I’ve yet to see a Time cover story (look above for my idea of what that very-unsubtle Time cover could be), an essay, a book, etc., that revisits those paranoid early 80s and places them in a 2010 context. Is it such an article out there and I’ve missed it?

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Since it would be out of character to not include a clip, here’s a portion of Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eight Four (1984), which I think is a forgotten film. It had a pretty big novelty factor when it was released, but it had a lot of cool shit going for it, too: John Hurt is great casting as Winston Smith; the Eurythmics score attracted a lot of well-deserved attention; portions were filmed on the exact calendar days in 1984 that were noted in the book, which was hyped in the press; and the purposely washed-out look was commented upon in the reviews.

But the reason I’m showing this clip is because of a sound effect. I saw this only once in 1985, and this one sound left a huge impression on me. This scene is towards the end, after Winston’s been tortured and is talking with Inner Party member O’Brien. Listen for Winston’s body hitting the floor.

I never forgot this moment in the film, and it stuck with me because of the sound. Better than any visual, I felt his pain. (And the sound of the tooth being pulled out is nothing to sneeze at either.) That should have been a dead giveaway to me that this whole ‘sound in film’ thing was calling out to me.

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W.C. Fields and the Musical Laughtrack

I don’t like to have humor spoon fed to me. I think humor is best when it’s smart—even if it’s lowbrow. The laughtrack is the easiest example of a tool of comedy that insults my intelligence. I know there are a handful of reasons for them in a show, and not all of them are evil, but I’ve always been able to laugh without being cued by the creators that something funny just happened. Turns out I’m a minority. My wife says it’s uncommon, and I’ve heard that from others over the years. Many times, late at night, I’ve woken her up with my gales of laughter, watching a film while next to her in bed.

This could be hereditary. My Pop once told me of drawing stares on a Philly subway in the 60s, as he laughed uncontrollably while reading a Jules Feiffer book. Last year, history repeated itself: while reading a Philip Roth book on a NY subway, I was convulsing with laughter and I could feel the same stares. As I got off the train, a woman walked over and said, “OK, I have to know what made you laugh so hard?” She was being nice, but it still makes me wonder: is laughter exclusively a group experience? Is there something inside that warns us that to laugh alone is a sign of marching to the beat of your own drummer?

But I digress. I mean to talk about mickey mousing, which is when music in a film is put in synch with the action, as a way of reinforcing its point. Obviously, the term derives its use from animation, where one can easily see it’s necessity: since there is no sound recorded with an action something has to be added, so why not music?

Mickey mousing’s derogatory meaning comes when music is used to directly steer a viewer to a punch line or emotion. I can’t remember if it was Mel Brooks or Billy Wilder, but one of them said he stayed clear of using music cues to tell the audience that a joke just happened. Likewise, Sidney Lumet said this on his audio commentary for The Verdict: “I believe the [score] should not be doing what the movie’s doing. It shouldn’t be (what we call) ‘mickey mousing’ what’s going on. It should provide something else.”

The focus here, however, is a specific kind of mickey mousing which is when a soundtrack was added to silent films as they were “updated” for the audiences of sound era. That was how I first noticed this technique: as a kid, I would watch silent films on PBS, and they’d always be spiced up with silly, fast music and an abundance of sound effects created by musical instruments. There were timpani booms, kazoos and penny whistles. Lots of penny whistles. I was too young to think they were insulting my intelligence, but I was definitely like WTF? Pretty soon I was watching these with the volume down.

In the mid-80s, I taped an early talkie onto VHS, the W.C. Fields short film The Dentist (1932). This may be the funniest film I’ve ever seen. Here’s a sample, when Fields goes is golfing…

Then, as now, I laughed so incredibly loud watching this alone late one night, I think I woke my mother on the floor above.

When Criterion put out W.C. Fields 6 Short Films, I was thrilled to retire my fifteen-year old VHS tape.  In typical Criterion fashion, it looks great, obviously created from the best possible archival elements. But the sound? Well, here’s the same scene from that DVD…

Really? Really?! Whoever added the music blows the joke and, in the process, makes the gag less about a completely out-of-left field and malicious sight gag to just a silly bit of business. There are a few more instances of this short, but you get the idea.

The DVD doesn’t come with any explanation for this though I feel pretty damn certain the music-less version (my VHS) is the original. There are notes on the DVD about the transfers, which contain some clues: “The Dentist was created from a 35mm composite duplicate picture negative and a 35mm optical soundtrack negative; two scenes excised from the film in accordance with the provisions of the Hays Code have been restored from a 16mm composite duplicate negative, along with original opening and closing credits.” That last fact—about the credits—means a lot: there was a prior version of the film that Criterion did not use for their source material. (How weird is it to write anything negative about Criterion.) And though it’s not clear, the scenes that were excised had been in the initial release of the film but were removed after 1934, when the code was enforced.

You can watch the two and judge for yourself—but to me it’s crystal clear. The proof comes from the people I laughed awake.

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Filed under Film, Plucked from Obscurity

Jaws: Before and After

Screw any introduction of myself (that will come later). I’m just going to leap into this blog thing. My first post is both praise for my favorite film and an indictment of a drop in standards.  When Jaws came out on DVD in 2000, I was understandably thrilled. Pretty quickly, however, I was appalled to see—hear—that the sound was quite different than I had remembered…

How did this happen? How did the sound of a three-ton shark crashing through the side of a boat go from sounding like a ’73 Buick Riviera driving into your living room to Zelda Rubenstein dropping a champagne glass in your kitchen? I can only speculate.

Y’see, Jaws was originally mixed in (glorious) mono, and, naturally, that doesn’t sit right with the present-day sound-crazed home-theater owners. So when it was time to make the DVD, Universal did what was necessary to make a 5.1 mix for the film, which included re-recording several sound effects. And whoever was hired to do that phoned it in. (The whole film is missing chunks of great sound FX.) And someone (Universal? Spielberg?) gave it a stamp of approval. And this new mix was the only soundtrack available on the DVD!

And so here I was, a sound editor buying his All-Time Favorite Film, cringing at a desecration and daydreaming of the day when the word “blog” would be invented. I should be clear that I wasn’t the only one to think the sound FX work for Jaws was amazing: this film won only three Oscars, and one of those was for its Sound.

Gratefully, when Universal did its money-grubbing 30th Anniversary Edition DVD in 2005, the mono track was included—though it defaults to the 5.1 mix, which I think (as I’ve made perfectly clear) sounds like shit. And as I note in the clip, if you’re lucky enough to see a new print of Jaws (which looks gorgeous, BTW) in a movie theater, it will have this less-than-thrilling soundtrack.

One of these days I’ll post more examples of the tremendous inadequacy of the new soundtrack. Laughable and sad.

And yes, I welcome—encourage—anyone who was responsible for the sound FX on the remixed Jaws to drop me a line. I’d love to hear what you have to say to a fellow sound editor.

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