The Sound of City Lights


My Charlie Chaplin “hand turkey”.

As  I have mentioned, Kyle and I like to watch old movies, and we are working through the AFI top 100.  A few weeks ago, “City Lights” finally came in from the library.   We had been on the waiting list for – I kid you not – a whole year.  I didn’t realize it would be that popular!  Let me tell you, it was hilarious and well worth the wait.

In City Lights, Charlie Chaplin plays his famous character, “The Tramp”.  In this film, the Tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl who mistakes him for a millionaire.  Throughout the course of the film he tries to find ways to make money in order to woo her and help her pay for a surgery to repair her sight.  He also befriends an actual millionaire, who only recalls that they are pals when he is drunk.  Basically the people that he befriends and loves cannot see him for who he truly is.  Chaplin often uses the Tramp to explore somewhat dark or political themes in a lighthearted way with lots of slapstick comedy, and City Lights was no exception.

Before I dig into the sound of City Lights, I should probably mention the transition from silent films to “talkies”.  The first film with sound was “The Jazz Singer”, which premiered in 1927.  The Jazz Singer did not have talking throughout, rather, mainly just the singing was synced to the actors.  Otherwise, they still used title cards for most of the dialog.  After The Jazz Singer was released, talkies became instantly popular, and silent films declined rapidly.

Chaplin had built his fame around silent films, and pantomime in particular.  Through this medium, he could reach international audiences.  Because he did not use spoken dialog, he was not limited by the English language.  (In fact, the first time you hear the Tramp’s voice is in Chaplin’s next film, “Modern Times” – the Tramp sings a tune which is entirely gibberish.  So funny and fitting for the Tramp!)  He worried about what would happen if he gave the Tramp a voice.  Would it make the character less funny?  Would it change the audience’s opinion of the films, who are used to Charlie Chaplin’s miming?  Or would it alienate his international fans?

City Lights was his last “silent” film, but he did take advantage of the synchronization technologies by putting in his own musical score and sound effects – and even poked fun at the popular talkies.  City Lights was Chaplin’s first film after The Jazz Singer was released, so I think it probably gave him anxiety to try and captivate audiences that desired to see those talking films.  So he was very careful and clever with how he treated the sound in City Lights.  First, the music which was composed to fit the action of the film, as well as introduce musical themes for each of the characters, so it took on the very important roll of helping move the story along.  Having music that fits the action of the film was still new with talkies – it was all synchronized to the film (just as the dialog would be).   There are not a lot of sound effects in the film, but when Chaplin uses them, he uses them deliberately.

Here is a funny clip, which shows how Chaplin decided to treat dialog for this film:

This scene in the beginning of the film where rich and important people are dedicating a statue and making political speeches.  Instead of dialog, Chaplin used a kazoo sound effect for the speeches making the scene humorous, and poking fun at the popularity of talkies.  Another fun sound effect was the in the boxing scene, where the Tramp tries to win money by boxing.  The music again is playing with the action, but in addition, there is a boxing bell which really gives the scene life.  I’m not embedding the video because it’s so fun to see in context, but if you can’t resist, you can see the scene here.

I highly recommend seeing this movie, especially with a friend or in a group.  It’s too funny not to share laughs!   It is also a great family film – many children would  find the Tramp’s antics and pantomime fun and understandable.  While you are watching, try to notice the music and sound effects.  Do you think they were effective in this film?  

Gravity in Atmos and 3D

Last month I went to see the movie, Gravity, in Dolby Atmos and 3D.   The TV trailer doesn’t give you many clues or spoilers (George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are in space! They run into trouble!)  but I promise you it is worth the watch.

Dolby Atmos is a newer type of surround sound where the speakers actually line the theater, and sounds can also go above you, essentially creating a ‘realistic’ soundscape to enhance your experience.  (This is opposed to a setup like 5.1 Surround, where the where there are 6 speakers: center, left, right, left surround, right surround, and a sub woofer.)  Theaters with Atmos capability are starting to pop up, and when I found out that the Showplace Icon in St. Louis Park (just outside of the Twin Cities) now has Atmos, I knew I needed to go see something in Atmos as soon as possible.

I admit I had a few reservations about going to Gravity.  The theater was only offering it in 3D if you wanted to see it in Atmos, and I have never been a huge fan of 3D (especially the kind where you wear the shutter glasses-those give me a headache!).  To me it seemed like a big novel trend, and not really worth my time.  Also, I’m so used to binge-watching entire television series on Netflix that I wondered if an hour and a half was really worth the 14 bucks I would spend; however, my Facebook friends convinced me that it would be.

Of course, the feature I was really interested in exploring was Atmos.  The thing about sound design is that if it’s good, the audience shouldn’t even think about it.  If you do notice the sound it is likely because it is bad or off in some way.  I tried to pay attention to it , and focus in on qualities of Atmos that would sound different from regular 5.1 surround.  Most noticeable was the vocal panning.  In one scene, George Clooney was off the screen to audience right, and you heard his voice come from that direction, but as he floated towards the middle where Sandra Bullock was, you heard his voice move smoothly around from the right to the center when he got on screen.   While it seems obvious, this is actually very different from a normal film sound where the vocals are mainly panned to the center (and maybe slightly to the left or right).  The idea is that you should hear his voice as you would if he really were floating around you.  This was a little distracting but I can’t honestly tell if it was distracting in a bad way.  I think it was distracting because it’s new and different.  In film or television, we are so used to the dialog being panned to the center (or even hearing actors impossibly clearly when they are far away from the camera), so it will be interesting to see if this changes our perception of “normal”; if film dialog techniques change into more realistic panning with Atmos.

The other distraction was Mission Control – it was difficult to say what they were trying to do there.  You heard a sort of radio voice of Mission Control, but it seemed to revolve around my head, and I didn’t really understand where the sound was coming from.  (Was it in the astronaut’s helmets?  Or maybe revolving to represent that they were on earth while the space station was revolving?)  I basically ended up accepting it and ignoring it, but I would have to see it again to figure it out.

Besides Atmos effects, it was interesting what they did with treating the sound in space, since you can’t actually hear sound in space.  The film makers did take some artistic license, because the movie isn’t soundless.  For example, when the astronauts are working outside the space station, you still hear sounds of the tools working on the ship.  They sound very muffled, like they are underwater.  We discussed this in my Sound Engineering class, and one theory was that while you can’t hear the sounds, but you might feel the vibrations in your space suit, so perhaps the sound designer was trying to convey that.   I looked into it, and at least two astronauts have said that you do not hear sounds on your spacewalks, except for what is in your headset, your breathing, and your spacesuit sounds.  While you wouldn’t actually hear sounds in space, this isn’t too distracting, unless you are a killjoy and demand that No Sounds Should Be Heard!  But that would make for a pretty boring movie.

Gravity ended up being one of the most intense hour-and-a-half movie-going experiences I have had, at least in a long time.  The sound design and the 3D made the already intense film more intense.   It wasn’t too long or too short, and it effectually conveyed to me the feelings of what it might be like emotionally (if not factually) to be in such a situation of trying to survive alone in space, with tons of space junk flying past you.  For what it’s worth, the 3D effects surprisingly worked well for me for this film (especially for floating objects in the space stations-it’s like you are there! up in space!), and the RealD glasses didn’t give me a headache. :)

Gravity is still playing around the Twin Cities, although I do not know if the St. Louis Park Icon theater is still showing it in Atmos.  However, here is a list of upcoming (and past films) that are in Atmos.