‘Dick Tracy’ Brings In Arresting New Cinema Sound System : Film: Hollywood hopes digital technology will draw more viewers back into theaters.

As originally created by cartoonist Chester Gould, policeman Dick Tracy was ahead of his time in popularizing a lot of modern crime-stopping technology--fingerprinting, night scopes, teletype, police radios and the like.

This summer, the movie “Dick Tracy” will be used to introduce audiences to a new hiss-stopping technology--digital sound for movie theaters.

Earlier this month Eastman Kodak and the Optical Radiation Corp. introduced a potentially revolutionary joint venture, Cinema Digital Sound (CDS), a three-years-in-the-making system that finally brings perfectly noise-free, deterioration-free, crystal-clear sound to the movies.

This pristine six-track sound isn’t just for showcase houses in Westwood. What’s significant, the two companies promise, is that the technology will soon be available even to the smallest theaters.


Reaction from the industry, ever on the lookout for ways to get viewers away from their home entertainment centers and back into theaters, was swift.

Several exhibitors have already signed up to put the digital equipment in their chains--locally, the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood and Crest in Westwood will be among the first theaters to go digital--and Touchstone was the first studio to announce that it would be releasing a film with a CDS sound track encoded on select 70-millimeter prints.

“Dick Tracy” producer Barry Osborne says he’s convinced that CDS “will become the standard--I’d say within a year. It’s a great concept, but more than that, it’s a simple technology that really works. It’ll start to spread to 35-millimeter films within a year and I don’t think it’ll take long for theaters to upgrade, because it’s so superior to what they have now, and not that costly.”

It’s not yet known how many theaters will be involved in the initial “Tracy” rollout, but the technology will be heard in at least 100 70-millimeter, six-track theaters in time for this year’s spate of Christmas releases. By April of next year, even ordinary 35-millimeter movie houses will have the chance to buy the decoding equipment necessary to read the digital track, which is printed on the film strip alongside the visual image in the place where the analog sound “squiggle” normally sits.

Filmmakers have as much good reason to cheer as exhibitors, noted editor Tom Siiter, who worked on the ear-shattering CDS demonstration film. “Now you can have the same-caliber sound as a ‘Lawrence of Arabia'-style epic on your average 35-millimeter film. An average release can be in six-track discrete sound--with no increase in cost, other than mixing costs.”

Besides dazzling sound separation, having a digital track on a film print also opens the door to other computerized possibilities.

“If you have a foreign-language release,” said Eastman Kodak marketing VP Leonard Coleman, “you can discretely put an English-language track in the sound track along with the original, and then program the decoder to read the channel with that language.”

Further down the line, increased off-screen special effects could also be automatically triggered in theaters by the MIDI control channel, in the sensationalistic manner of Disneyland or William Castle.

“You now have a digital track on film that theoretically a PC computer could read to create motion in seats to match a ship rocking on the ocean, or fire lasers into the audience at a ‘Star Wars'-type film,” pointed out publicity coordinator David Harney.

Future laser beams and explosions aside, though, theater owners want to know just how inexpensively they’ll be able to upgrade their operations in order to blow patrons away now with mere sound.

The cost isn’t negligible--around $20,000 for a decoder system for a theater already equipped with 70-millimeter six-track Dolby. The expense could conceivably be much greater for a 35-millimeter house whose creaky speaker system needs to be brought up to par.

But “everybody isn’t going to have to immediately yank their old speakers and power amplifiers out of the existing theaters,” said Optical Radiation’s Howard Flemming, who helped develop the technology. “Remember when the compact disc player came out and you plugged it into your existing hi-fi? Your old hi-fi did sound much better.

“So there are ways of (exhibitors of lesser means) getting the system without having to completely renovate their entire theater. There can be a curve of improvement. They can control the dynamic range and bass so that the cones don’t fly out of the screen and hit a patron in the third row.”

With many home video enthusiasts already initiated into the realm of flawless digital sound through laser disc players and Surround Sound speakers, making the theatrical aural experience at least comparable, if not better, was vital for the industry.

“I think it’ll have an impact where, when properly done, it’ll bring people back into the theaters,” said Coleman, reminiscing inside the renovated Eastman Kodak building in Hollywood. “Historically, sound technology introductions have increased box office.

“This building was set up by George Eastman when he came out to Hollywood in 1927--not to work on pictures, but on sound. We had the pictures really established before 1900, but when sound came in, it was felt engineering and technology needed to be brought in by an engineering group. We provided that free service to the industry to bring about the first sound tracks. When that hit, silent pictures were virtually a dud. And we’re providing a needed service again.”

It will take years for analog-sound pictures to go the way of the silent picture--or, to use a more contemporary example, the way of the vinyl record--but films as old as “The Wizard of Oz” will soon be remixed and reprinted with the CDS system.

“In terms of film preservation, it’s important as well,” said “Tracy’s” Osborne. “A digital soundtrack won’t degrade the way a magnetic sound track does.”