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Monday, 21 January 2008

Soundscapes and Wide Screens

In a Blog post responding to Lost, In Transition, Carlo C draws attention to something that I hadn't been aware of before; that in the Lost soundtrack, in addition to the forest whispers sometimes heard by the characters, there's also 'hidden audio' that carries a certain amount of story freight. Or maybe the illusion of it. Only time will tell.

I'd never really registered the presence of any hidden audio - but then I'm used to sound being the least-considered element of TV drama. You almost never hear a 5.1 mix that makes effective use of the rear speakers, for example. There's a common industry argument that it's pointless to add an element that many people won't get.

About ten years ago, very few people had widescreen TVs and even fewer were able to receive anamorphic widescreen broadcasts - it seems like another age now, but those first-generation sets were analogue-only. The only way to get a widescreen image was to zoom on a letterboxed picture.

I can recall a demo that ran for ages in the basement of the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street; it was a widescreen set showing a zoomed VHS of Star Wars, and it looked appalling.

(I don't know about anybody else who passed through there, but it seriously dampened my enthusiasm for any upgrade. And let me tell you, I'd been waiting for widescreen TV ever since I'd seen it prefigured in Kubrick's 2001. In fact, 2001 was the movie I'd promised myself for the first screening when I got one.)

Anyway, my point is that at that time, despite the entire industry being on-track for widescreen broadcasting, the commissioning/scheduling end of the business was very leery of it. The result was that, for a year or two around '98-99, a large amount of stuff was ordered and shown in a compromised 14:9 format that managed to irritate everyone equally.

(4:3 is the old-style 'square' TV screen. 16:9 is the standard for widescreen TV. There's been no such single standard in the history of the movies, so theatrical films still have to be cropped or letterboxed to fit your TV screen. The 14:9 compromise gave a picture which fitted neither shape; it displayed with black bands above and below the picture on 'normal' TVs, and to either side of the picture on widescreen TVs.)

This was the time when I was shooting Oktober for ITV. We shot it on Super-16 in 16:9 widescreen, but ITV decreed that the broadcast master be a 14:9 telecine transfer on digital tape. We took the opportunity to make a 16:9 transfer while we had the negative in the telecine suite, but that went into a cupboard at Carnival and hasn't been screened since.

(There was never a physical positive print; all the editing was done offline on digitised rushes and when the picture cut was complete, the camera negative was cut to conform. The assembled negative was then scanned and electronically reversed to give the positive image - so no generational loss, and no added grain.)

So what I'm saying is that a lot of quite recent material was made in a form that limits its potential for exploitation now. Much as viewers used to complain about letterboxed movies, they now turn away from anything that doesn't fill the 16:9 screen. So even the oldest archive material gets zoomed to fit, and invariably looks cramped and odd.

As far back as the 50s, Richard Greene was arguing that ITV's 35mm Adventures of Robin Hood should have been shooting in colour. His argument was that it would be an asset for years to come. At the time, it was deemed to make no economic sense.

But, as we should have learned by now, times do change.

1 comment:

Carlo Conda said...

The hidden audio isn't in the music soundtrack, it's in certain scenes as a type of 'ambient' noise. That may have been what you meant, though.

And the hidden audio, along with whispers, have been confirmed by the creators and sound-editors of the show. Some instances use normal stereo channels, while others implement 5.1 by also using the rear and center speakers. These 5.1 moments are mostly 'whisper' scenes and utilize 5.1 audio for the voices to give you a sense that the whispers are all around you. They are also generally harder to transcribe due to the amount of overlapping voices, even when the channels are seperated.

Cheers!