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Creating the Roar for the Crowd

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Herma Silverstein of Santa Monica and her friend emerged from “Twister” on Wednesday saying the tornadoes sounded so realistic to them it was like an “earthquake rumbling.”

Michael Lyons and Mohamed Macauley of Los Angeles compared the on-screen storms to real-life thunder.

Another man said the sound of the twisters was terrifyingly realistic. His only complaint was that the volume was cranked up so high that he had to scream in order to converse with the woman seated next to him.

These moviegoers all said they were satisfied with what they heard, even though they saw the film in different theaters with different audio systems at the Cineplex Odeon multiplex at Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade.

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Silverstein sat inside a theater featuring Dolby SR (a system that predates Dolby’s digital system), Lyons and Macauley were listening to the Sony Dynamic Digital Sound and the man who screamed to his friend during the movie was in a theater with DTS (Digital Theater Systems) technology.

Scan any newspaper movie advertisement these days and you’ll probably find tiny check marks, diamonds, dots and stars indicating the type of audio system available in a particular theater.

Audio experts say that this gives moviegoers an easy way of selecting theaters with state-of-the-art sound systems. In general, they add, digital provides a cleaner sound than older analog systems, eliminating wear factors that cause ticks, pops and distortions.

Although the symbols signify fierce competition among the three theatrical audio companies that are seeking exhibitors’ business, does a moviegoer with an untrained ear really notice any difference in sound when the stars of “Twister"--Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton--are straining to prevent themselves from swirling into the middle of a howling F-5 tornado?

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“If you go in with a representative of each company and tune [the sound system] perfectly to their satisfaction, you’d have difficulty telling which one’s which,” acknowledged Mike Smith, a field service engineer with Westlake Village-based DTS.

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Bill Mead, vice president of international business development for Sony Cinema Products Corp., said: “All digital systems offer greater dynamic range than previous analog soundtracks. But trained people can detect differences between various digital systems.

“It takes a trained ear to quantify and articulate the differences, but we think the average public is aware of them in subtle ways in that [sound quality] enhances enjoyment of the film,” Mead added. “At the end of the movie, they walk away feeling they did get a better experience than with other systems.”

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These sound delivery systems should not be confused with THX, a certification system developed by George Lucas’ Skywalker Sound. Under THX, a theater’s visual and sound performance--acoustics, architecture, equipment--is evaluated so that theaters are free of background noise, faulty speakers and sound leaking from theater to theater.

A representative of The Times attended three showings of “Twister” in theaters featuring different audio systems and came away with an earful.

Audio engineers may speak of 5.1 or 7.1 channels, of left surround and right surround speakers and of how many speakers are behind the screen, but when an oil tanker truck explodes on screen or lightning splits a tree or a car goes sailing through a roof, who cares whether the sub-woofer is being used?

In digital systems like Sony’s, there is a feeling of continuous movement. Thunder crackles from one side of the screen to the other. Cars are heard going from left to right. The William Tell Overture blasts away like . . . well, like it would coming from a radio as a storm chaser’s car races across Oklahoma.

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In the analog Dolby format, the sound still seems realistic as farm equipment crashes to the ground and a truck hurtles through one end of a house and out the other. But audio experts say analog systems have obvious limitations in the way sounds move about a theater.

In the analog format, for instance, audiences can hear the sound of someone on-screen walking behind them, but the footsteps seem to walk through the audience, explained Kurt Schenk, vice president of film applications at Dolby Laboratories.

In digital, the footsteps can sound as if someone is walking up the left side of the theater, crossing the screen and returning on the right or leaving the theater.

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In the theater equipped with the DTS system, the entire theater seemed to shake as tornadoes ripped apart barns and sent splinters of wood flying.

If there was one aural experience similar with every system for “Twister,” it was volume.

Jim Calio of Marina del Rey said that when he recently saw “Twister” at the Cineplex Odeon in Santa Monica, the first thing he did was cover his ears.

“We sat down and noticed that the sound was way up--just blasting,” Calio said. “It was blowing our brains out. It was wild. For a good hunk of the movie, we had our hands over our ears.

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“They got the effect they needed,” Calio said. “You felt like you were in the middle of a tornado.”

Calio said he asked the management to turn down the volume but said he was told that Warner Bros. had instructed the theater that the movie had to be played at a certain volume.

Cineplex Odeon officials said, however, there is no such policy--written or unwritten--by which Warner Bros. forced them to keep the decibel level high.

“Unequivocally, no,” said Howard Lichtman, executive vice president of marketing for the theater chain. “Warner Bros. did not contractually or otherwise dictate sound levels [on “Twister”].

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“Generally, sound is something we, at an operational level, deal with, and the sound varies according to the size of an audience. When you have a full audience, generally the sound level is turned up somewhat. Four hundred people in an auditorium can absorb more sound than 50 people in an auditorium.

“Sometimes with films, people will recommend a certain sound level or light level. These are just recommendations on how a particular film is produced. You have to use common sense and vary the sound accordingly. Our theater staff checks each theater for sound to make sure that the sound is appropriate.”


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