Tom Holman, president of TMH Corporation, 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. He is most widely known for his 15-year stint at Lucasfilm, where he became the company’s Corporate Technical Director and developed the THX Sound System and its companions the Theater Alignment Program, Home THX, and the THX Digital Mastering program. Holman holds seven U.S. and corresponding foreign patents, which have been licensed to more than 45 companies.
Q: What’s the creative role that sound plays in a project?
A: Sound people know they have great power, yet it is rarely recognized. This is at once the strength and weakness of working in sound- you know it works, but your mother will never understand what you do. On the other hand, savvy storytellers can use sound as a route to an emotional connection with the content that is less obvious to an observer than the perhaps more literal picture or plot elements.
Examples include keeping ambience constant across a picture cut, which helps to orient the audience by changing the visual perspective, but not changing scenes. Another is in the use of surround sound. Nowadays a producer/director/sound designer can choose whether the viewer is to be treated as a "voyeur" or a "participant" in the action, depending on the relative balance of the screen channels to the surround ones. This is manipulated throughout a movie to engage us more fully, or to provide relief from over-stimulation. The best media producers alter this balance from time to time aesthetically and effectively.
Q: How should filmmakers and producers look at getting the most out of their use of sound?
A: It comes down to planning. In the living-room scene at Xanadu in Citizen Kane, Kane and his love interest, Susan Alexander, sit a long ways apart. Gregg Toland’s well-known contribution to the scene is the extreme depth of field of the shot. An Orson Welles contribution is in the script: she says "Huh?" to one of his lines because she can’t hear him clearly. This is due to the imputed reverberation of the large, live room, something out of the script rather than present on the set shot in a studio environment. The reverberation was added in post-production by sound supervisor James C. Stewart. So planning for this went as far back as the scriptwriting.
Q: How has sound evolved? What are the current creative developments?
A: Starting in 1940, multichannel surround sound had a way of being introduced and then dying out, over and over, before its final introduction was successful in the mid-1970s. 5.1-channel sound was codified in 1987, but wasn’t introduced to cinemas until 1992, and not in a broadly successful consumer electronics product, the DVD, until 1997. HDTV adopted the same standard in order to keep up with film.
The spatial capability has room for expansion. 5.1 was chosen as the minimum number of channels that would do the job of accompanying a picture, and there were severe constraints in terms of digitizing the sound and fitting it on the release print. But as time has moved on, so has upward pressure on the number of channels. You see it starting with Dolby’s Surround EX, DTS’s Surround ES, and Sony’s 7.1 channels. These systems do offer a sensation that everyone with normal hearing can appreciate. Adding channels does not result in louder sound, but rather potentially more lifelike spatial sound for all patrons.
Q: What does the future hold for audio, and how will it impact film and television production?
A: With a first introduction experimentally, then into premiere cinemas, then more cinemas, then homes, we can expect more channels to be the wave of the future. This won’t have much impact on production sound recording if production pays attention to the needs of the sound department, but they will have an impact on sound effects and music recording, as more channels are added to the mix. We have been working for a number of years on a 10.2-channel system, called the TMH Sound System. We produce our own program material, much of it audio only but some with an accompanying picture, and have made some 20 installations (eight permanent and 12 temporary show introductions). While this is edge of the art for now, we expect it, like 5.1 sound before it, to prove itself in the marketplace as time goes by.