As computers, smartphones and the Internet have crept into our daily lives, it’s not always easy for us to see how dramatically technology has changed in just a few decades. A night at the movies, however, can put the changes into sharp focus.
Today’s filmmaking relies heavily on cutting-edge video, audio, and computer graphics and editing. It takes advantage of better sound systems, larger dynamic ranges, and other audio and visual tools as key elements of storytelling. Films we grew up loving or embraced just a few years ago today look stale, slow or even hokey.
Audiovisual technologies are changing cinema, as are the pressures of filmmaking. To keep up, cinemas need outstanding AV systems — and integrators need to sell the audience experience in order to secure these bids.
Photographers began experimenting with motion in images in the 1850s. The first short films, which appeared in the 1890s, were known as “moving pictures,” according to University of Washington communications professor Jerry Baldasty. Devoid of sound or plot, they focused on showing that recorded moving images were possible.
Plot was added to moving pictures long before sound; in the 1900s, filmmakers began telling short stories via film. Adding sound to film became possible in the late 1920s, but for many years sound had to be carefully controlled in order to be comprehensible during playback.
“It’s long been said that you do a great job in sound when no one notices it,” Oscar-winning sound designer and re-recording mixer Gary Rydstrom tells Popular Mechanics. The principle remains true today, with the caveat that a well-designed and properly installed sound system can help cinema audiences experience the work as intended, without being pulled out of the moment by the technical limitations of sound delivery.
Rydstrom is now known for his years of work with Skywalker Sound: an impressive pedigree given the fact that Star Wars became the first film released with a stereo soundtrack, courtesy of Dolby Stereo. In 1991, Batman Returns offered Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, which came from five points (center front, left and right, as well as the left and right sides) and which made it possible to mix sound digitally for the first time.
By 2010, the Toy Story line of films had implemented Dolby Surround 7.1 to situate speakers in the back of the theater. A few years later, Dolby Atmos allowed sound to be choreographed around a space, creating “a movie I felt in my guts and bones for at least a week afterwards,” Jordan Kushins writes at Popular Mechanics.
Meanwhile, visual effects had been used nearly as long as moving pictures had been made. Early effects focused on jump cuts, miniatures, back projection and matte paintings. Optical effects made possible by film came later, followed by cel animation, scale modeling, digital compositing and computer graphics imagery, according to Tim Dirks of Filmsite.
Advances in cinema technologies have changed the way movie makers tell their stories on screen, too. According to Cornell University psychologist James Cutting, today’s movies use shorter shots, incorporate more action, and continue to push the boundaries of an ever-increasing dynamic range available on film. To present works of cinematic art as intended, venues need audiovisual systems that could process and produce the same nuances captured by the recording equipment.
Today, movies and filmmaking are ubiquitous, notes the Sheffield Institute for the Recording Arts. Websites commonly use video to introduce or enhance their offerings, and video recording is simple via smartphone, allowing nearly anyone to create video and share it with the world. As a result, audiences are more well-versed in the fundamentals of audio and video composition and editing — and they have big expectations for professional film.