The New Motion Picture Sound

By Serafine, Frank | American Cinematographer, August 1980 | Go to article overview

The New Motion Picture Sound


Serafine, Frank, American Cinematographer


With the advancements being made in computer programming, digital synthesis and digital signal processing film sound is coming of age

Being a confirmed Trekkie - a devotee of that incomparable television series, STAR TREK - and a longtime science-fiction moviegoer, I was unbelievably honored to be invited to create the sound effects for STAR TREK, The Motion Picture, a true media legacy.

Prior to working on this film, the majority of my experience was in the music and audio synthesis recording world, where the sounds must provide some sort of conceptual imagery. But on STAR TREK, THE MOTION PICTURE, the visuals were already established. Now the sounds must not only create particular aural impressions, they must enhance existing futuristic film sequences and subsequently increase the film's audience appeal.

Through studies with the Ravi Shankar family School of Music, I had learned of the psychological and physiological properties of different tone clustersbasically, minor clusters produce sad or mournful sensations and major clusters, jubilant and cheerful. This knowledge was especially useful for setting a mood and conveying the ambience of specific situations. The highly advanced sound units used on this project were invaluable, for I was creating sounds that had never been heard before, that complemented visuals that were beyond the moviegoer's realm of experience. This would have been next to impossible with conventional equipment.

Accoustical re-recording, digital synthesis and multi-track recording with SMPTE time coding units for locking in the audio and video from a film transfer allow a single synthesist to create full orchestration, dialogue processing and special sound effects to the picture. The impact that synthesized sound effects can have on the motion picture industry is becoming increasingly apparent. Here is a viable and cost-effective means of producing music and audio effects for practically any film project. And new audio systems are being introduced onto the market every week, bringing virtually unlimited audio possibilities to the fingertips of the sound image composer.

Motion picture sound has remained horrendously obsolete. Particularly in comparison to the sound quality available in the record industry. But it's beginning to realize its day with the advancements being made in computer programming, digital synthesis and digital signal processing. For me, STAR TREK, THE MOTION PICTURE was a vehicle to launch motion picture sound into the digital arena and an opportunity to realize one of my special effects dreams.

Outlining the several areas divided, the sound for STAR TREK was a mammoth undertaking. The first exploration was location dialogue engineered by Tom Overton using Shure SM-7 microphones, Nagra 4.2 recorders, and a Stellavox portable mixer at non-Dolby. Much of the dialogue production recording could not be used because of noises inherent to a number of sets due to film projectors and other miscellaneous sound problems characteristic of location sound. The bridge of the Enterprise where the majority of action takes place, was one of these sets. It was crowded with display monitors at the different crew stations. Only 40% of location sound was, therefore, used. The other 60% of dialogue and foley such as footsteps, switches, clicks, etc., were later re-recorded in post production on the foley stage and edited and mixed later as predubs on the mixing stage. Any adjustments in these sound tracks are later made by the editors.

Assisted by dialogue loop editor Sean Haneley, actors playing characters such as Mr. Spock and James Kirk would then substitute another reading later in the dubbing studio. The recording of the actors' voices to match the picture was handled in post-production at Paramount Studios through a process called Automatic Dialogue Replacement or A.D.R. In anothercommon technique of looping, the actor will hear the originally recorded line, then read it for recording, and read it again until the editor thinks it matches. …

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