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JACK MATHEWS

Making Sound Commitment To Old Films

June 18, 1987|Jack Matthews

When technicians sit in front of a television screen and punch computer keys that turn black-and-white movies into colorful videocassettes, it's called colorization--and cultural vandalism.

So, what do you say when Richard Chace sits in front of his television screen punching computer keys that turn flat monaural movie sound tracks into an earful of stereo for home video systems?

Apparently nobody is saying anything.

"I haven't had one single complaint," said Chace, a former radio engineer who has stereo-converted 35 movie sound tracks for videocassette release in the last two years. "I wondered if we were going to have that gun (the colorization controversy) pointed at us but everybody likes stereo."

Chace's stereo conversion process, for which he is currently seeking a patent, usually involves taking the original film sound track, electronically "cleaning" it, and then--with the help of a computer and a dubbing system--reassigning specific sounds to the left or right channel of a new stereo track.

The effect, for the growing legion of videophiles with state-of-the-art VCRs and sound systems, is stunning. When Steve McQueen's car slides from right to left across your screen in "Bullitt," the sound slides with him. When Clint Eastwood fires his .44 in "Dirty Harry," both you and the punks get it in the right ear.

" 'Dirty Harry' sounds marvelous," said Eastwood, who has commissioned Chace to convert the mono tracks of four of his films and plans to do more. "It would be better to do it (make a stereo track) from scratch. But this is a good alternative. It's pretty close."

Eastwood sees no parallel between stereoizing and colorizing.

"Colorization is really obscene," he said. "It doesn't look good, it looks artificial and cheap. This is actually enhancing sound. It doesn't change the sound, it doesn't add sounds. And it's done with our blessings."

In the case of "Big Jake," a John Wayne Western released the same year (1971) as "Dirty Harry," the stereo conversion was done without the blessings or the knowledge of director George Sherman. In fact, when Sherman was asked to discuss the stereo version of "Big Jake," he didn't even know of its existence.

"That sounds wonderful. I wouldn't have any objections to that," Sherman said. "If it was a musical and there was some distortion, you might complain about that. But I don't see how it could harm the quality of the film."

As a matter of fact, Chace has converted several musicals, including "White Christmas," "Stormy Weather" and two of Ted Turner's colorized classics, "Forty-Second Street" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy." The directors of those films, which were made in 1933 and 1942, respectively, aren't around to comment.

When you compare the sound technology of today with that of 40 years ago, it's hard to imagine anyone defending the original sound against enhancement. Until recently, the ability to record has been much better than the ability to play back.

With the limited sound systems available in the pre-Dolby era, the tracks were often distorted and thin sounding. Engineers had to manipulate the recordings--the dialogue, sound effects and music-- so that when they were played back in those acoustical dungeons, the audience could actually hear them.

The systems available now (but still being resisted by many penny-pinching exhibitors) allow for playback of the full range of the original mixes.

What Chace is doing is going back to the original tracks and remixing them to approximate a three-dimensional sound effect for listeners. When you listen to the renovated tracks on good equipment, you are struck by how pure the actual recordings were, even in movies made 40 or 50 years ago.

Chace's stereo conversions can be played on monaural systems and, because the dirty noise has been erased in the process, they will actually sound better than the original mono tracks. If you don't like the stereo effect, you can revert to mono with a flip of a VCR switch.

(Proponents of colorization make the same claims. In the colorization process, original black-and-white prints are cleaned up before being transferred to tape for computer coloring and if you don't like the looks of it on your TV set, you can turn the color off.)

For the moment, stereo-conversion is not a major commercial issue. The costs of doing it is low--an entire 90-minute track can be converted in about a week at a cost of less than $20,000--and so are the returns.

The stereo segment of the home video market is fractional. To enjoy stereo videotapes--either Chace's conversions or those transferred from films originally mixed in stereo--you have to have a hi-fi VCR and a separate speaker sound system. You can get the sound system with a stereo television or with external speakers. Either way, the entry level investment for state-of-the-art listening is around $1,000.

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