MAKING SOUND COMMITMENT TO OLD FILMS

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.

You can spend more, and get more, by buying equipment that decodes surround sound. In Chace's Hollywood Boulevard studio, you can watch Eastwood entering a subway station in a scene from "Dirty Harry" and "feel" the sound all around you. You don't need the $450,000 worth of equipment that Chace has to get the effect but the additional speakers will add a few hundred dollars to your bill.

The stereo movement is inevitable. Stereo adaptable television sets are gaining a larger share of the market and though few stations currently broadcast in stereo (locally, only Channels 4 and 5 broadcast stereo over the air; some cable customers have other choices), the competition from stereo TV sales will soon force others to join in.

As people become exposed to the fuller sound environment of quality stereo or even to the hi-fidelity mono that comes with the new systems, they are going to be less likely to settle for the muted one-dimensional sound that is choked out of those single 4-inch television speakers that resisted improvement for nearly four decades.

In the meantime, Chace Productions Inc. is preparing some stock. Chace said he has an order for 39 more stereo conversions from Paramount Pictures and that he is now adding conversion units to keep up with the demand.

Most of the films Chace has converted were already out on videotape, so check labels carefully if you want the stereo version. A spokesman for Warner Home Video, one of Chace's biggest customers, said only the stereo versions are being shipped on re-orders, but not one of the six video stores checked was even aware of their availability.

Unlike colorization, which can only be done for video, the stereo conversions can be used for theatrical presentation. Chace said that has already been done in England with "White Christmas," and he is hoping that his just-completed conversion of "Yellow Submarine," an animated Beatles movie, will find its way into theaters.

Next year is the 20th anniversary of "Yellow Submarine," and Chace, who used the original Beatles stereo recordings for his track rather than converting the mono versions on the film negative, is encouraged by the success of the compact disc release of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band" album.

But his "Yellow Submarine" conversion was commissioned by Warner Bros. only for overseas release. The film, whose American video rights are owned by United Artists, has never been released on tape in the United States.

Whatever happens with "Yellow Submarine," Chace said working on it was the highlight of his young stereo career.

"I have always loved that movie," he said. "I always said I wanted to have my own copy of 'Yellow Submarine' and watch it frame by frame. My dream came true."

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