The media ecologist

Mega-sound makes cinema the new rock n roll

You need big speakers for this beast. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

It has been almost a truism of television, in the discussions of professionals and the analyses of academics, that television broadcasting is a sound medium with added pictures, while cinema is a visual medium with added sound.

Listening to an average TV broadcast from the next room, you could not only make out what was happening; you could hear a cue (“Goal!!”) and be reasonably sure you could get to the screen in time to see the event repeated – or at least debated.

Film, on the other hand, was what film theorist David Bordwell once called “an excessively obvious” medium. If a film could show you the clock, show the fuse burning down, show the sweating faces of the rescuers, and still have someone say “make it quick”, it would. The visual always came first: dialogue, music, even sound effects always second.

Today’s blockbusters compete with the falling cost of special effects. Computer generated images probably have more impact on the small screen than the large: shows like Doctor Who (and even those like Mad Men, which rely on less visible post-production tools for their period look) are economically feasible because digital tools (and the skills to use them) are so much cheaper than they were before.

In the first war between film and television in the 1950s, size was what mattered. CinemaScope’s spectacle made the cinema an event; television was only radio with fuzzy pictures. Today, consumer HD-TV is ubiquitous, cinemas are now almost all digital, and soon enough domestic media will catch up with the higher-definition 2K and 4K displays the cinemas already have, with screen sizes to match. But what you can’t do at home is really crank up the volume.

Watching this year’s Godzilla – a tale that seems to need retelling for each generation, like Robin Hood or Hamlet – in 3D at the local IMAX was huge fun. This was not because of the size, or the density of detail in the image, but because of the sound. The Dolby system surrounds the auditorium with speakers, and reserves the central place for one huge woofer pumping the bass to subsonic levels that you hear through your bones and lungs as much as with your ears. Headphones can’t give that whole-body vibration.

But the story of the new Godzilla movie is frankly muddled. It mislays characters as easily as it destroys buildings. The visual effects are skilled and the design of the monsters respectably innovative, but the preponderance of night-time settings and rain makes the experience more than a little muddy. Like many contemporary live-action films, the 3D is more about layers than roundness. So what makes the monsters really monster is a monster soundtrack.

Big, loud, stereo sound with massive bass makes you believe in toppling skyscrapers and titanic fights. Next up in the summer blockbuster release schedule is Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction, which will no doubt likewise shake your whole body, shake the building you’re watching in. In that sense these movies are environmental: tying us and our world into a single vibrating unity.

This generation’s Godzilla is a force of nature, perhaps even the personification of Nature as force. Like Nature, he is as capable of massive destruction as he is of protecting the weak and avenging the wrong. Bay’s Transformers, despite lacking Godzilla’s mythic dimension, still have the sonic power to make them the opposite: the force of technology that destroys but also preserves. Transformers 4 might be Hollywood’s answer to Honda’s original Godzilla: the USA’s own vision of its techno-role in the world.

Whether nature or technology, the monsters of 2014 chew the scenery and pummel the audio, immersing us in their environmental symbolism.

Audiences in the 1950s ripped the seats out of cinemas showing kiss-curled Bill Hailey in Rock Around the Clock. Today the monsters come and rips them out for you, metaphorically at least. The sound designer is the uncrowned monarch of the new cinema, and as long as we preserve our homes from ASBO volume, cinema is the new rock ‘n’ roll.