Earth-shattering: FJI salutes the 40th anniversary of Sensurround’s quakes and battles
This article will be presented in the startling new multi-dimension of
Please be aware that you will feel as well as see and hear realistic effects such as might be experienced in an actual movie theatre. The publisher assumes no responsibility for the physical or emotional reactions of the individual reader.
And the chief emotional reaction you might have is: “I’m getting old.”
“You might’ve finally stumped us with this one,” admits the communications director at a leading North American circuit. “I spoke to two of our most tenured operations folks, and neither has a recollection of Sensurround…” Another one wrote: “Unfortunately, we will not be able to participate…as 40 years is a bit too long ago for us.” Putting together this story, I began to wonder: Am I on a ride heading in the wrong direction?
“Why would you want to know about Sensurround?” Mark Collins, director of projection technology at Marcus Theatres, responded when I brought up the topic during our discussion about their new Cine-Sation seats. “Ah, that’s right…1974…Earthquake…” The Nov. 15 release of the Universal Studios film not only created a heightened sense of involvement with the action on the screen, not unlike the in-seat transducers discussed, but also an entire genre of disaster movies that has been accompanying us all the way to today. Not to mention a very popular theme-park ride at Universal Studios and its own film cycle of Midway (1976), Rollercoaster (1977), the theatrical version of Saga of a Star World (the “Battlestar Galactica” pilot repurposed in 1978), as well as the compilation film Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack (1979).
“That was the entire gamut of the experience,” Collins chuckles. Technically, however, there was more to the giant Cerwin-Vega speakers, additional amplifiers and different incarnations of the proprietary decoder box. “Everyone seems to think, ‘Well, they just turned up the bass for Sensurround.’ That is not how it worked,” he assures. “Sensurround had its own ‘pink-noise’ audio generator that was set for very, very low frequencies that you could really feel. The pink-noise effect was automatically controlled by a sub-harmonic that was in the soundtrack… So if you played that print in a regular movie theatre, you would never hear the sub-harmonics. Only the special device could pick up that audio track to then reproduce the special effects of the earthquake, rollercoaster ride or whatever else it was.”
Universal Studios had, in fact, tried to file a rather all-encompassing patent covering any frequency response that is transmitted below 30 Hertz and above 20 Hertz. It is in this infrasonic range, I am told, that we do not hear anything—things just shake. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was so impressed that Universal’s Sound Department received a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for Sensurround, right away in 1974. Previewing the capabilities of the Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the then-new headquarters in Beverly Hills for their member newsletter, Academy officials called the auditorium “the most technically and acoustically advanced in the world.” In the next edition (The Bulletin, Number 9, Winter 1975, page 2), committee chair Gordon Sawyer detailed: “We have included equipment and engineering capabilities for every known film format—there will be three projectors which can accommodate 35mm or 70mm and two 16mm projectors. We’ve installed equipment for every kind of sound known today, including stereophonic, quadraphonic, 6-track and Sensurround. Additionally, we’ve tried to anticipate 25 years into the future...so that we have ways of getting in and out of circuits, adding new wires, so we can add new devices as they come along.”
Emboldened by such praise, and trying to enforce these patents, Universal sent lawyers on the heels of Apocalypse Now. In 1979, that caused a different kind of rumble by measuring the in-theatre subwoofer levels and frequency response to establish whether these values were infringing on Sensurround. While that particular action was dropped, the lawyers did check again for Altered States in 1980-81 when Warner Bros. introduced Megasound (“A Revolutionary New Concept in the Sensation of Sound”) on Dolby-encoded 70mm 6-track and with extra subwoofer power and speaker arrangements inside the auditorium. Ultimately, Universal decided the frequency range on the Sensurround patent was unenforceable. Or, more likely, because such sound-enhancement gimmicks were fading away and cinemas were wholeheartedly embracing the advancements of Dolby Stereo by that time (see chart).
Unlike what came after, “the Sensurround equipment was not an investment to the exhibitor. It was a rental,” Collins says. “A company came in to install the subwoofer-type speaker boxes, four to eight of them, six by four feet or so, all around the auditorium, along with the actual device that produced the audio, as well as extra amplifiers.” Phil Rafnson, chairman of MiT-Moving iMage Technologies, was working for RCA as a service technician at the time. “I did installations for General Cinema around Indianapolis, lots of places. For Sensurround they brought a big stack of amplifiers which were set up somewhere downstairs. We put these huge speakers in the front and back of the auditorium, on the walls in some of them. It was not directional. Everything would just move; all this really shook the place up. Afterwards, the guys from Hollywood would come out and do the setup to the film’s soundtrack and all the necessary testing.”
Did Rafnson enjoy Sensurround? “It worked really well,” Rafnson recalls. “They just blew the place away! Midway was one of the big ones.”
“I saw both of them at Mann’s Chinese Theatre and Earthquake was huuuuge to me,” adds Rafnson’s MiT colleague, sales and marketing executive VP Joe Delgado. “Everybody says Jaws was the first blockbuster. I say it was Earthquake with Sensurround. There were lines and lines around the block…”
Additional research confirms that the release of Earthquake—showing at the Ziegfeld in New York City, Kinopanorama in Paris and Chinese in Hollywood, for instance—was very much in the vein of traditional roadshow-type engagements. Midway was up to some 300 U.S. installations, from a mere 17 for Earthquake. “In the early to mid-’70s there were still a few theatres,” Collins concurs, “for movies that would often play for two years straight in one auditorium. Those engagements were leveling off, but something like Earthquake still would have lasted 15 to 18 weeks, which is an eternity by today’s standard of four weeks and the movie is gone.”
Indeed, only two Marcus Theatres in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, were set up for Sensurround. “They were huge 1,000 seat auditoriums that would grab hold of a picture exclusively.” Southtown (http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/13504) had Earthquake and Capitol Court showed Midway and Rollercoaster, Collins believes. Equally of note is that “they were twinned right around after the Sensurround engagements ended…and both those theatres are gone today.” Though not because their walls had crumbled from Sensurround. “No, it wasn’t that,” he laughs. “There are many stories about that happening, however.” Collins mentions the Orpheum and “old” Atwood Theatre (then just called Cinema) in Madison, Wisconsin. “They did have plaster fall from the ceiling and off the walls.”
Throughout Grauman’s (then Ted Mann’s) Chinese, netting had to be installed, the legend goes, as the technicians found out very quickly after they kept the system running at full force while going out to lunch. “The engineers had to retrofit the theatres with the special sound system, but first had to run tests on the system in the theatre. They would install and setup the sound system, turn it on and go to lunch. When they got back … they would do structural inspections from the booming sound. It wasn’t unusual for plaster, pictures and draperies to be shaken off the walls. All the speakers were right, left and lined up down-front, so they would cause a great sound pressure and oscillation that would directly affect the audience. This truly was the beginning of sub-bass enhancements.”
MiT's Rafnson also mentions potentially hazardous light fixtures, since these “large single-screen auditoriums had big chandeliers in those days. I knew there were some theatres where they just couldn’t play Sensurround.” Thankfully, “nobody ever got hurt or anything like that,” he assures. Film-Tech contributors quoted at in 70mm.com mentioned a girlfriend complaining about a sick stomach and a wife getting a nosebleed while watching Earthquake. At the Elaine theatre (location not specified), “the shock waves killed all the goldfish in the pet shop at the other end of the mall. And projectionists apparently “consumed a lot more alcohol on the job than normal” to try to numb headaches from the constant rumble in the booth. Even celebrities were affected. While Liza Minnelli reportedly had to interrupt her rehearsal in Copenhagen because of interruptions from next door, all Sensurround presentations ended in Hackensack, New Jersey, when part of the ceiling came down at the UA Fox Theatre during a showing of Rollercoaster. Again, “nobody was hurt, but the fact that 10 seats got crushed spooked the management.”
When the Branmar Cinema in Wilmington, Delaware, “which had shown all the Sensurround films, closed in the late ’80s, you could still see the cracks in the ceiling from the process!” At another unnamed location, “ceiling tiles would vibrate loose and fall on the audience, giving the true Earthquake effect.” In Luxembourg, hotel guests were evacuated after the cinema owner next door “thought that the number of subwoofers proposed by the installer wasn’t enough” and had doubled it. At the Fairlawn in Toronto, in70mm.com further reported that the Sensurround noise of Rollercoaster would cross over into the other half of the twinned theatre. “The only option was to run the picture simultaneously in both houses.” Agrees Menke, "In those days it wasn't unusual to have just a twin or a four-plex, and the sound resonated into the other auditoriums. Customers complained all the time."
Culling from my own family history, we did have the exact same problem in our movie house. Instead of double-booking, however, we offered an Earthquake rebate for the other movies that were playing. That did wonders for the publicity too, in addition to all the customer reports about their beer bottles and ashtrays rattling away and falling off the service tables. (This was 1970s Germany, in case you are wondering.) The success that brought people from many kilometers away to a small town of less than 20,000 people certainly made up for my parents being attacked by other exhibitors for accepting the terms imposed on playing Sensurround films.
If you are still ready to rumble or want to experience first-hand what Sensurround is all about, you can book a trip to Germany. After very successfully hosting a full revival of Sensurround in June 2010 that took three years to prepare, the Schauburg in Karlsruhe will be celebrating the 40th anniversary with Earthquake in 70mm during its tenth Todd-AO Film Festival this October. “It takes a lot of preparation,” cinema owner-operator Herbert Born told in70mm.com. “We are bringing in—literally—a truckload of subwoofers to recreate Sensurround. We don’t have the original horns, and besides, they are not up to today’s standards any longer. We do have several of the original control boxes, which we will use with some modifications.” Audiences appreciate all the effort, he noted. “We have guests coming from near and far—even from abroad—to experience this unique sound system.”
Two years ago in Los Angeles, Mark Collins “was very, very fortunate to attend a demonstration at UCLA, where they showed all of the non-mono soundtracks and systems from about 1969 all the way through to today.” The event was hosted by the International Cinema Technology Association; Ioan Allen of Dolby “put together this demonstration of all of these sound systems that lasted for ten seconds and then they were gone. It was an amazing evening. Of course, we had to do Sensurround, with the original system in place. By today’s standards it was…not very nuanced. But during the earthquake scenes, you could really feel this great big rumble all over your body and in the chairs.”
Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
The author extends a special thanks to www.in70mm.com for staying true to its mission “to record the history of the large-format movies and the 70mm cinemas as remembered by the people who worked with the films. Both during making and during running the films in projection rooms, and as the audience, looking at the curved screen."