Monday, October 26, 2015

Last Man Standing

The “movie on video for hire” business has been in decline for a number of years. I’ve been surprised every week while walking down the main street near our home at the resilience, to this date, of this movie hire store that has continued to buck the ‘closing down’ trend – until now.

Conveniently located on the high street, and with a carpark in the forecourt, it’s amazing to think that it has lasted so far into the download revolution. While a Blu-ray player in most households is not too hard to find (see their gaming device), it’s likely you might be hard pressed to find a faithful DVD player still sitting standalone in the TV cabinet. And anyway, if we want to watch a DVD, we just use our PC or laptop…if we can remember where we left it.

For just one generation (or maybe 2 if you count VHS), exciting times could be had on a Friday or Saturday night, given you might not yet be of ‘drinking’ age and couldn’t sneak out to the pub instead.

Heading to the ‘video store’ meant the anticipation of what ‘new releases’ might still be available to hire that night, or perhaps pick a few ‘weeklies’ to enjoy while escaping the monotony of broadcast TV. While in the store, you might also grab a bag of popcorn, a few lollies and drinks, getting set for the night ahead.

In some places, there was a time when the video store would also hire actual players, either DVD players or VHS machines back in the day. It’s a concept that seems such a world away, given that a DVD player can now retail from around $35...or less.

Did the video hire franchise owners see this coming 20 years ago? Who would have thought HD content would ever be available online, considering dial-up internet in 1995 was delivered at maybe 56kbps?

So the question to ask now is whether the video hire business is destined to disappear completely. Considering not every home will have (or want) access to Netflix, high speed internet or on-demand satellite TV, is there life still to be breathed into a local movie hire store? I think we know the answer.

It seems to have come and gone so quickly.  

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Mighty Sensurround Turns 40

Looking back, it could possibly be claimed that the launch of Sensurround around 40 years ago was the biggest thing to happen to audio in movies since the invention of the “talkie”. Colour film had been around for years, and black & white movies were only for ‘artsy’ stuff. But adding a new ‘sound’ feature, beyond stereo, pinned hopes on filling cinemas again with enthusiastic patrons.

Sensurround had a short life that was long in development. Only 5 films, released between 1974 and 1979 used the ‘technology’. MCA/Universal proudly launched it with Earthquake. Then came Midway (1976), Rollercoaster (1977), Battlestar Galactica (1978) and its sequel: The Cylon Attack (1979). Cinemas presenting the films had to be fitted with special sound systems (developed by Cerwin-Vega) to reproduce Sensurround, a low deep rumble, in order for the audience to ‘feel’ the effect.

It actually worked. Some cinemas suffered with bits of their interior falling from the roof because of the rumble, while patrons watching films in adjoining auditoria often complained about the vibration next door disturbing their enjoyment of The Godfather Part 2.

MCA/Universal originally only thought of fitting around 30 cinemas with Sensurround. Two years after the release of Earthquake, 2000 cinemas worldwide had the system ready for screening the World War 2 flick Midway.

Interestingly, the ‘rumble’ used to create the sensation was not actually recorded on the film. Optical audio used on film back then could not reproduce frequencies below 40hz, a requirement of the system. Instead, a special ‘control’ track was added to the film, which then triggered the output of the ‘Sensurround rumble generator’ at specific times in the film/s. That rumble was fed directly to the Sensurround amplifiers and speakers in the auditorium. Because of this, merely ‘turning up the bass’ when watching these films at home today does not reproduce the effect.

What killed it? The Sci-Fi slayer of them all! When Star Wars hit the cinemas in 1977, Rollercoaster suffered the fallout. Star Wars didn’t need Sensurround to break those box office records. The movie industry eventually learned that Sensurround was no longer the drawcard for audiences.

It’s thought that only two original "Sensurround Model-1" control systems exist today, both owned by Dolby Laboratories, which kindly loans them for revival screenings of films using the process. A replica system exists, custom built for a 2004 London revival screening of Earthquake. Later versions (Sensurround Mod-II and Mod-III) are more common and can sometimes be seen for sale on eBay.

Sensurround has left a major legacy however. It inspired rival systems and put focus on the capability of what audio can bring to the movies (even at home), and was a major factor in the increase in subwoofer sales and the rise in subwoofer designs in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Perhaps it even inspired what we expect today when DTS, Dolby or THX help bring our movie-going experience to life.

("Sensurround logo" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use)