Wednesday, April 22, 2009

An interview with Tomlinson Holman, pt. 1

by Matteo Milani, U.S.O. Project, April 2009

This is the last chapter dedicated to the new era of film sound, started in the early 80's, thanks to George Lucas and his talented crew. His efforts to develop new technologies had taken the cinema experience radically into the future. We take for granted technologies like THX, now been absorbed in the popular culture. I had the pleasure of interviewing Tomlinson Holman, the developer of the THX Sound System and its companions Theater Alignment Program, Home THX, and the THX Digital Mastering program. He was at Lucasfilm for 15 years, winding up as the company's Corporate Technical Director.

Mr. Holman is Professor of Film Sound at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television and a Principal Investigator in the Integrated Media Systems Center at the university. IMSC is the Engineering Research Center for multi-media of the National Science Foundation. He is founding editor of Surround Professional magazine, and author of the books Sound for Film and Television and Surround Sound Up and Running, both published by Focal Press. He is an honorary member of the Cinema Audio Society and the Motion Picture Sound Editors. He is a fellow of the Audio Engineering Society, the British Kinematograph Sound and Television Society, and the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. He is a member of the Acoustical Society of America and the IEEE. He has lifetime or career achievement awards from the CAS and the Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association. Tom holds 7 U.S. and corresponding foreign patents totalling 23, and they have been licensed to over 45 companies.


MM: Could you describe the movie sound at the beginning of the 80's, a period of study and development about a new way of experience movies that eventually became THX. But what was there before it (untrained professionals, unprepared audience)?

TH: Just after WWII cinema sound systems had gotten standardized. Drawing on the developments of the '30's, but adding to them the outgrowth of technology developed for the war, the 'Altec Voice of the Theater' became "standard," with 80%+ market share in theaters, and thus in dubbing stages. This chicken-and-egg served decently for decades, but even its own inventor tried to improve upon it, but couldn't crack the chicken begets egg paradigm. An example of the WWII technology employed is the permanent magnets used in the loudspeakers. They were originally developed for bombadier crew earphones! The loudspeakers of the 1930's needed dc current to form their magnetic fields. So the 'Voice of the Theater' was a great step forward, but also froze technology at the 1947 level until 1980.

What I did was to consolidate many of the developments made between 1947 and 1980, add a few of my own (which got patented), and make one comprehensive system out of it, and then install it only in rooms that met required acoustical standards. It was the first time ever that anyone tried to standardize on room acoustics from place to place, eventually around the world, within certain parameters--the very opposite of, say, concert hall design, but in many ways far simpler.

[..] With the introduction of surround sound, audio mixing engineers were forced to adapt the old rules and paradigms to that had been used for mixing a stereo production. Answers were needed for new questions. Tomlinson Holman, the father of THX cinema surround, pointed out that the most important decision in creating surround sound was the choice between two primary listener perspectives: the 'in-audience perspective', where the listener sits in the best seat in the house, sonic activity is located at the front, and surround creates reverberant ambience; and the 'onstage perspective', where the listener sits in the midst of the musicians, encircled by active sound sources.
[excerpt from Spaces Speak, are You Listening?: Experiencing Aural Architecture]


MM: You're in the film history, as you invented the "de-facto" standard of theater industry. How could you describe your early days at "Lucasfilm"?

TH: Heady. We were on a mission to improve the whole experience of going to the movies. THX was only one of the resulting developments, but it had the most public face eventually.

People have been asking the question for years: what does THX stand for? And this is was exactly Jim Kessler's marketing intent: keep 'em asking question after question, and they're taking about you!" [...] "It's gotta sound cool, high-tech, and I wanted a way to credit Tom Holman, the inventor," said Kessler. Doodling around, "I just wrote the initials for Tom Holman Crossover on my desk one day." "Crossover" was a reference to the way the speakers divide the treble and bass for ideal acoustics. Traditionally, the crossover is done passively, in a loudspeaker. Holman had designed an electronic crossover. Kessler wrote "crossover" with an X, as in "X-over." He smiled as he recognized the letters THX from George's film THX 1138. "George always seemed to like them, and had used them as a private joke on a license plate on Harrison Ford's roadster in American Graffiti." Kessler liked that the name was both very "Lucas" and still not immediately identifiable as Lucas. "THX, that's perfect!" So Kessler rushed down the stairs and into the cool dark mixing theater beneath him, where Lucas was sleeping on the couch during another marathon Jedi mixing session. Lucas woke up and watched in silence as Kessler waved the paper around and ranted about how perfect the name would be. "Great" was all he said, and that was the end of it.
[excerpt from Droidmaker]


MM: Could you technically describe the C building in San Rafael, the site of the original THX speaker installation?

TH: Within the first weeks of joining Lucasfilm I had a conversation on the phone lasting past midnight with the architect/acoustician of the C building dub stage. He wanted a text book approach as he was an MIT grad and trained members of the team headed by Leo Beranek, who had written the great classic book 'Acoustics'. Beranek's "recommendation" for cinemas was an average of cinemas he found pre-1952, and in the stereo era, I thought the reverberation time should be shorter than what were in fact old vaudeville theaters revamped for cinema. He wanted 1.2 s RT60 and I wanted something like 0.6 s. We compromised on 0.9 s but he forgot some absorption so it came in at 0.8 s. When we finished and listened to movies in the room, I was convinced of the utility of lower RT than the average 1930's theaters for improvement in speech intelligibility and localization.

The first phase of Holman's work would be the new sound mixing environment for the dubbing stage. "Bring a new level of quality to film post-production," said George Lucas to Tom. C Building was his canvas. [...] The Sprockets theater was a marvel. Visitors to C Building from Hollywood and from theater exhibitor companies were stunned by the audio. "They wanted that sound in their new facilities," said Tom Holman, "because it was clearly better."
[excerpt from Droidmaker]

The reverberant process smears together the syllables of speech and the sound effects so that a loud sound will cover up a soft one that comes after it. [...] If you want reverberation, you record it on the sound track and if you don't want it, you turn it off. That's really a rather different way of doing things. That makes it pretty independent of the number of people in the auditorium. [...] There's a fundamental difference between a concert hall, which is a space for production, where the orchestra plays and interacts with the hall, and a movie theater, which is a space for reproduction.
[excerpt from Sound-On-Film]


MM: How Ben Burtt helped you to develop the system at Lucasfilm? Did you shaped with him the sound post-production workflow and method in an innovative way?

TH: I was hired as a back up in case the computer division didn't get it all done digitally within three years. It didn't, but their work eventually became Pixar and some went to Avid, etc. So the work flow was pretty much standard, but highly cleaned up: three generations of magnetic heads made the response flatter and flatter, 3000 man-hours of modifications to a music industry console for features and sound improvements beat film consoles, and many more. Ben was vital in being the main customer, and at recognizing the value and quality of what was being done. He also taught me a great deal about workflow, history of Hollywood sound, etc. I remember one time we were in the first small room before the C building in a store front. We were working on Raiders. He told me that the sound source for opening the lid of the ark in the last reel was within 20'. I couldn't figure it out. It turned out to be lifting the back off the toilet above the water chamber, and slowing it down. I was astonished at his methods and remain in awe of them as heard recently in Wall-E. I liked later to define the difference in roles as "I make it sound good; he makes it sound interesting."

Film sound consoles weren't very good because they were custom built to the needs of film sound in small quantity without much competition. We bought a music industry console built in much higher volumes and with a lot of more competition and changed its functions to make it into a film sound console.
[excerpt from Sound-On-Film]

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