The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview

New Technologies



In January 1950 the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, an organization which had been founded in 1916 and which was dedicated to 'the advancement in the theory and practice of motion picture engineering', changed its name to the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. In doing so, the Society both acknowledged and anticipated the changes that were taking (and would take) place in post-war entertainment technology.

Television would, of course, become an increasingly powerful presence in leisure-time activities. As the number of home receivers skyrocketed in the early 1950s (from 4 million in 1950 to 32 million in 1954 in the United States alone), more and more people traded their moviegoing habit in for a home-viewing habit. However, 'television' means more than the familiar broadcasting of TV signals and reception on home TV sets. It also encompasses a broad array of other electronic recording, transmission, and playback technologies. Broadly understood, television includes any technology involving electronic signal encoding. If not in name, the SMPE had been the SMPTE in fact since the mid-1920s, when it helped to engineer the transition to sound, expanding its interests to include radio, electrical recording, signal amplification, and other electronic technologies.

In a sense, stereo magnetic sound, in which electronic signals are recorded on magnetic tape, is a television technology. More properly, television is a sound technology, evolving out of radio, electronic transmission, and other sound-related technologies. It is clear that the two technologies are closely interrelated. It is no accident that film sound expert Ray Dolby, an American physics student at Cambridge who founded Dolby Laboratories in London in 1965, was, as an undergraduate at Stanford, a central figure in the development of the Ampex videotape recorder ( 1956). At Dolby Labs in London, Dolby developed a crucial noise reduction system for sound recording (c. 1966). Later, at Dolby Labs in San Francisco, he introduced a four-track, optical stereo sound-on-film system ( Dolby SVA, 1975); a six-track, 70 mm. magnetic format; a spectral recording system ( Dolby SR, 1986), as well as a digital sound technology in 1991.

In short, motion picture technology is necessarily bound up with television technology, especially in the present era. The major technological events that have occurred in the aftermath of the widescreen revolution of the 1950s have been the so-called 'second coming' of sound ushered in by Dolby in the mid-1970s and the influence of video on film production (High Definition Television, editing on video), distribution (cable, videotape, and disc), and exhibition (home video).


The attempts by 20th Century-Fox to innovate and diffuse stereo magnetic sound in the 1950s failed, largely because small and independent exhibitors refused to install the necessary equipment. However, large urban theatres continued to run CinemaScope films in four-track, magnetic stereo, as well as 70 mm. films, made in Todd-AO, Super Panavision 70, Ultra Panavision 70, and other wide film processes which featured six-track, stereo magnetic sound. The 70 mm. blockbuster dominated the marketplace in the 1960s. It included films such as Ben-Hur (MGM Camera 65, 1959), Spartacus (Super Technirama 70, 1960), West Side Story (Super Panavision 70, 1961), Lawrence of Arabia (Super Panavision 70, 1962), Cleopatra (Todd-AO, 1963), The Sound of Music (Todd-AO, 1965), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (Super Panavision 70/Super Cinerama, 1968).

The multi-track stereo sound in 70 mm. houses was dramatically better than that in the average movie theatre and better than that which most audiences could hear at home on their FM radios and record players, which, for most consumers, were monaural. But home sound systems gradually began to improve. In 1948 Columbia Records had started to release high-fidelity 33¾ r.p.m. longplaying records. By the mid-1950s, a number of audiophiles owned high-end, reel-to-reel stereo tape players.

But home stereo did not begin to secure a foothold in the market-place until 1957, when the American record industry began to release (two-track) stereo records. Within a few years, stereo recordings (of largely classical music) were being produced for home listeners in the United States and Europe. By 1961 a handful of American FM stations began to broadcast radio programmes in stereo. The allocation of space to potential broadcasters on the FM bandwidth was initially limited; the American Federal Communications Commission did not open up the FM spectrum until 1964. Even so, FM and FM stereo remained limited phenomena until the 1970s. By 1969, all music, both classical and popular, had gone from mono to stereo; and improvements in home stereo systems had filtered down from the audiophile to the average consumer. As Steve Handzo notes ( 1985), 'by the early 1970s there was a better sound system in the average American teen-ager's bedroom than there was in the neighborhood theatre.'

Dolby Stereo brought high-fidelity, four-track stereo sound within the financial reach of the average neigh


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