There have been so many technical leaps and innovations since the birth of cinema in 1896, with many failures and successes but more than not, they are failures which inspire. Cinerama was the godfather of the modern widescreen, multi-track surround sound cinema, but it wasn’t the first attempt at widescreen, any more than The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first attempt at talkies. They were just the most successful versions and one’s which have paves the way for what we have today.
The rest are more like cousins, some closer than others. Smell-O-Vision for example, only used once with the relatively unknown “Lost” film, Scent Of Mystery (1960), was reissued by being adopted and re-cut into a Cinerama movie Holiday In Spain (1962), but Cinerama was about fall into obscurity itself, so the film was lost again, only to be restored in the last couple of years.
Cinerama is credited with the introduction of multi-channel sound systems and helping set the standard for stereophonic sound and I believe even coining the term, in cinemas, yet it was Cinemascope a year later in 1953 which is the grandfather of what is still in use today, 2.35:1 ratio, yet there were other attempts, not least the little known “Fantasound”, Walt Disney’s attempt in 1940 with, you guessed it, Fantasia (1940). But let’s face it, it was way too costly and unnecessary to an audience who were still marvelling at sound, mono would have been more than enough in 1940.
But I’m not an expert of EVERY single technological breakthrough in film, in fact I’m not an expert at all, just an enthusiast but several have made in an impact on me, whether I’ve been lucky enough to experience them first hand, such as three-strip Cinerama or have just been fascinated by the concepts, usually via anecdotes.
Sensurround is one of those formats. Only used between 1974 to 1979, though possibly 1981, only five movies were recorded in this format, with a sixth rumoured to exist. The sixth was a little known movie called Zoot Suit (1981), which according to some sources and there are pictures to justify this, was the final Sensurround film though it may have been a technicality, there being justification for using the process other than emphasising the music. That film’s process was dubbed Sensrround +.
…was introduced as the soundtrack format for Earthquake (1974) and the idea was to use incredibly deep base in order for audience to feel the rumble of the earthquake rather than just hear it. And it worked a treat, with nausea and discomfort being reported, but it was also a big hit, turning a decent enough, all-star disaster flick into one of that years great event movies.
The other issues were that the bass was so deep and powerful that it was damaging the structural integrity of the theatres themselves as well as in multiplex’s, interfering with other performances. In short, it was an intriguing idea and one which began the sub-woofer trend which we still love today. But it was ultimately too powerful and limiting to be viable for long.
Earthquake is the most famous of the Sensurround films and one which is the top draw for Sensurround revivals. But it is not an easy task. There were three Sensurround processors, Models I, II and III, but II and III where simply upgrades to the first and they are quite common. But the Mod I and the only one capable of accurately presenting Earthquake’s earth shattering sound-scape is very rare, with only a couple left and they are owned by Dolby. But they are loaned out for showings of Earthquake from time to time.
I won’t pretend to understand it this blueprint but I understand the principle of Sensurround. Here it is for those who can.
and still…. ????
After Sensurround, Warner Brothers tried their hand a similar multi-channel format. Megasound was born. Megasound was in many ways the forerunner today’s Dolby Digital 5.1 in its configuration and unlike Sensurround, it evolved organically, and was limited to 70mm prints. Evolving out of TODD-AO’s 70mm format, it worked its way through tests with the 70mm prints of Superman:The Movie (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979), with the name “Spit-Surround”.
- ALTERED STATES (1980)
- OUTLAND (1981)
- SUPERMAN II (1981)
- WOLFEN (1981)
…and 20th Century Fox…
SOUND 360 movies…
- DEMOLITION ALLEY (1979)
- DAMIEN: OMEN II (1980)
But neither lasted in these forms, yet both are probably closer to their cousins than Sensurround.
In the end it was DOLBY who won out, slowly developing their multi-channel system at a pace which allowed cinema’s and audiences to keep up, but there is no doubt that it was DTS in 1993, debuting with Jurassic Park, which raised the bar and the rest is literally history, or in this case, the rest were literally consigned to history, whether they liked it or not.
..here is a short film from February 2006, just short of nine years ago, following a revival presentation in York, England.
Sensurround is the brand name for the process developed by Cerwin-Vega, along with Universal Studios in the 1970’s.
Well, so long Sensurround. Whilst we never really got a chance to know you well, your contribution to the evolution of cinema, like so many other “failed” formats, is undeniable. Sensurround; Dolby Atmos’s second cousin, twice removed.