Most discussion on the subject of 70mm film exhibition places an emphasis on the texture of the images for reasons both understandable and entirely justifiable. But what this inadvertently obscures is that advances in audio technology have been tied into the development of 70mm (and other modes of large-format film exhibition) just as tightly as the accompanying developments made on the visual side1. For instance one need only look at the first real sustained run of 70mm film exhibition in the United States, during the mid-1950s, which began when the producer-slash-entrepreneur Mike Todd took the lessons he learned from a prior venture, Cinerama, and came out the other side with his latest project, named Todd-AO2. The Todd-AO process, as it came to be known, called for movies to be shot on 65mm stock and then projected via 70mm prints, with space made on the latter for six entirely separate audio tracks. This was because the process also called for five speakers behind the screen itself: left, left-center, center, right-center, and right (the sixth track was often reserved for effects, to be output from speakers away from the screen). What this allows for, in the films that make full use of the tech’s possibilities, is an unusually immersive sound-on-film experience—one where, to name a single example, you might hear the dialogue travel across the frame in conjunction with a character, if while speaking it they happen to be moving from left-to-right or right-to-left.
With the precedent set and (perhaps more importantly) the speakers already installed at the movie houses, many of the other 70mm ventures and technologies inaugurated during this period of time (there were more than a few) went on to utilize that same audio layout. And so eventually six-track sound became a standard of theatrical exhibition—albeit one constantly tinkered with—for the remainder of the 20th century. However, the elegant and effective Todd-AO layout, with its five discrete channels all grouped together behind the screen, did not last beyond the first run of 70mm roadshow films, eventually ditched in favor of “surround” methods that placed at least two or three audio tracks away from the frame itself. At this point, it seems rather safe to say that relatively few movie theaters in the United States remain capable of exhibiting a film down to the letter of Todd-AO standards. But one among them is the Somerville Theatre.
“We went through the trouble and the expense of setting up the old Todd-AO configuration”, wrote David Kornfeld, the Somerville’s head projectionist, in an email sent last week. “Five front channels, one surround. Every 70mm production before (around) 1976 utilized that standard, to a greater or lesser degree.”
Kornfeld confirmed to me in the same email that while it may have been a standard of 70mm presentations for some time, the concept of five discrete sound channels behind the screen did indeed fall by the wayside, and sees basically no contemporary usage (“two of the [screen] channels are not in use during non-70mm exhibition”). Which means the Somerville isn’t afforded many opportunities to show off this particular installation. But one such opportunity is, luckily, a recurring one: Their annual 70mm & Widescreen Film Festival (currently ongoing, 5.17-5.22), dedicated to those namesake formats. A highly ambitious project even within the context of repertory film programming, the Somerville’s yearly 70mm Fest began only after the theater’s staff finally completed their long-term efforts to get the projection booth as prepared as possible for the many nuances and vagaries of large-format exhibition.
“Many technicians warned us it would be futile,” Kornfeld continued, “[and] finding all the sound processing equipment needed to reproduce the various 70mm formats (there are ten, we can run eight, the remaining two are obsolete)—said equipment not having been made for decades—took many years. Once it was all located and purchased, it had to be installed, configured, and made to work with our current system. All new speakers and the wiring for them were installed. Magnetic heads had to be found, installed, and aligned, along with the entire sound system. A DTS process and readers also had to be located and installed. On top of that, an entirely new booth had to be constructed, and the 70mm projectors located, bought, refurbished, installed, and aligned. The entire project, from its conception to hitting the screen with 2001 (1968) in February 2015, took about seven years.”
This year’s festival showed off a handful of the 70mm sound formats which Kornfeld cites above. Per his email, three of the eight movies programmed this year were prints outfitted with Dolby six-track magnetic sound: The Dark Crystal (1982), Poltergeist (1982), and The Remains of the Day (1993, 5.21, 6:45pm). The most recent film in this year’s festival, Dunkirk (2017, 5.21, 9:30pm) will play with 5.1 sound from a DTS track. And finally, three films played with sound mixed in the Todd-AO standard: West Side Story (1961), It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (5.22, 7:30pm)—though it should be noted that in those last three cases, what you’ll be hearing is not exactly the “original” sound, but rather DTS tracks which reconstruct the six-track magnetic sound featured on the original 70mm releases.
When I attended the Somerville’s first 70mm & Widescreen festival in September 2016, it was not the cinematography of any specific film that left the sharpest memory, but instead this six-track Todd-AO sound, and most notably during West Side Story and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. On that specific level, both were unmatched. These are, of course, radically different films in nearly every manner: West Side Story is the adaptation of the Broadway musical directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad is the 190-something minute comic epic directed by Stanley Kramer and featuring a speaking cast of well over 40 performers. But they do share a highly specific quality made possible only by the specifics of the Todd-AO process—both stage a majority of the action in extremely wide medium shots which bring at least two or three characters into the same frame, and then utilize sound mixing in purposeful conjunction with those compositions.
In West Side Story, the multi-channel front sound is used to define and even expand the space within the frame, not only by situating characters in specific places but also by using pitch and volume to illustrate who’s close to the screen and who’s far away. It becomes a natural extension of the blocking—sound as a reflection of mise en scène, and to an extent very rarely seen. And in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the five-channel sound is most notable when used to expand the film’s absurd sense of busyness, its impressively untoward enormity: Kramer often collects four, five, six or more actors together in the same wide-angle shot, packed together from one end of the screen to the other, so that all their dialogue emerges from seperated, crossed-up sources, all to further emphasizing the packed-train-at-rush-hour atmosphere of the whole piece (there’s not a lot of overlapping dialogue, but one might reasonably say the film is something of a precursor to Altman’s films of the 70s anyway). In brief the five-track front sound emerges in both films not as some roadshow gimmick, nor as unnecessary tech fetishism, but instead as an integral part of a larger form.
For those who missed the festival this year, take heart knowing that many of the films which played are moderately likely to return at some future iteration.
“Print availability and the number of films made in the format always limits what we can show”, said Ian Judge, general manager of the Somerville Theatre, also by email. “The festival repeats itself by design, as well as by necessity—we are trying to give new and younger audiences a chance to see these films as they were meant to be seen, as well as let older audiences experience them again in their native format”.
Some of the prints may be “restrikes”, and the Todd-AO sound mixes are indeed reconstructions, but the speakers behind the screen at the Somerville still bring us one step closer to how these films were originally intended to be exhibited. On the sizeable list of exemplary film experiences to be had in the Boston area, screenings of 70mm prints that utilize the Somerville’s five-channel front sound rank near the very top.
1. This remains as true now as it was in the mid-20th century. For example just look to Alfonso Cuaròn’s 2018 film Roma, which prominently advertised its Dolby Atmos sound mix as an integral part of its large-format theatrical engagements. “Even [with] 7.1… we were limited to four channels”, explained sound mixer Skip Lievsay in a feature published by Indiewire. “And now on the Atmos we have 65 specific locations that we can create within the room”.
2. The AO in Todd-AO represented the Southbridge-based American Optical Corporation, which Todd contracted in 1952 to design, develop, and help manufacture lenses and other equipment needed to make undistorted 70mm film projection a viable possibility.
THE 2019 70MM & WIDESCREEN FILM FESTIVAL CONTINUES AT THE SOMERVILLE THEATRE UNTIL 5.23. FOR SHOWTIMES, TICKETS, AND INFORMATION ON THE THEATRE’S OTHER PROGRAMMING, SEE SOMERVILLETHEATRE.COM.