HULK SMASH: A NOTE TO THEATER OWNERSHIP/MOVIE-GOERS CONCERNING THE EFFECT OF SOUND

September 20, 2011

IGNORANCE IS BLISS.

NOTE: WARNING FOR THE LITERAL MINDED, IGNORANCE IS NOT ACTUALLY BLISS. IN FACT, IGNORANCE IS ACTUALLY BAD WHEN COMES TO THE FOLLOWING: KNOWING IF YOU HAVE EARLY STAGE CANCER, VOTING, ATTEMPTING HOME REPAIR, KNOWING IF THAT MILK IS PAST-DUE, ENGAGING IN ANY SORT OF COHERENT DISCUSSION, THE EXISTENCE OF [INSERT TOTALLY AWESOME BAND HERE], AND WHICH OF THOSE SPIDERS ARE POISONOUS, YES THE ONES RIGHT FREAKING THERE!

BUT WHEN IT COMES TO GOING TO THE MOVIES AND ASSUMING EVERYTHING IS ALL FINE AND DANDY WITH THE PROJECTION SO THAT YOU CAN JUST SIT BACK, RELAX, AND ENJOY A MOVIE, THEN YES…

IGNORANCE IS TOTALLY BLISS.

WHEN YOU KNOW A BUNCH ABOUT THEATER PROJECTION (HULK NEVER ACTUALLY WORKED IN ONE. HULK IS JUST, YOU KNOW, A NERD) YOU WILL LIKELY BE ASSAULTED WITH A BEVY OF VERY STUPID TECHNICAL ISSUES. THESE DAYS, HULK PRETTY GOOD ABOUT STAYING OUT OF THEATERS THAT ARE CARELESS WITH THIS STUFF, BUT EVEN THE BEST WILL HAVE THEIR MINOR ISSUES.

EXAMPLE OF HULK’S INNER DIALOGUE: “THE FRAME LOOKS AN INCH TOO HIGH ON THE SCREEN… SHOULD HULK SAY SOMETHING? THAT NOT THAT BIG A DEAL. BESIDES, HULK’S IN THE MIDDLE, GETTING OUT COULD BE AWKWARD. GOD HULK CAN’T WAIT TO STOP THINKING ABOUT THE FRAME BEING AN INCH TOO HIGH [GRUMBLE, GRUMBLE] WHOA, THAT GUY IN THE 3RD ROW LOOKS LIKE MANDY PATINKIN.”

… THIS HAPPENS A BUNCH. SOMETIMES YOU SAY THINGS TO THE THEATER MANAGEMENT. SOMETIMES YOU DON’T. IT LARGELY DEPENDS ON YOUR ENERGY LEVEL/NOT WANTING TO SEEM LIKE A PRICK/YOUR SIZING UP OF THE COMPETENCY OF THE USHER.

PLEASE UNDERSTAND THAT HULK IS NOT LOOKING TO FIND PROBLEMS WITH THINGS. THERE IS NOTHING MORE IN THE ENTIRE WORLD HULK WANTS THAN TO JUST GO TO THE MOVIES AND EVERYTHING BE AWESOME, SO THAT HULK CAN SIT BACK AND HAVE A WHOLLY VISCERAL AND THRILLING EXPERIENCE. THE LAST THING HULK WANTS TO THINK IS “I’M IN A THEATER RIGHT NOW.” REALLY, HULK WANTS WHAT WE ALL WANT.

SO ANYWHO, HULK SAW DRIVE THIS PAST WEEKEND AND DIDN’T MENTION THE FOLLOWING:

THE THEATER HAD A BLOWN SPEAKER.

THE MOVIE THEATER SUPPOSEDLY PRIDES ITSELF ON PROJECTION AND THESE SORTS OF TECHNICAL ISSUES, AND THIS IS, FOR ALL INTENTS AND PURPOSES, A BIG ONE.

MEANING IT WAS A FRONT SPEAKER, ON THE LEFT SIDE OF THE SCREEN, SO THE DIALOGUE WAS WAY, WAY LOW. NORMALLY HULK WOULD JUST LEAVE IF THIS THE CASE AND SEE THE FILM IN DIFFERENT SHOWING (THIS SADLY, THE EASIEST OPTION IN MOST CASES), BUT GIVEN HULK’S SCHEDULE RIGHT NOW THERE WAS SIMPLY NO OTHER TIME OR WAY HULK WOULD HAVE BEEN ABLE TO SEE THE DARN MOVIE. THEREFORE, HULK WENT TO TELL AN USHER, WHICH AGAIN, AT THIS THEATER YOU ARE TOTALLY ENCOURAGED TO DO.

CONVERSATION GO LIKE THIS:

HULK: “HI. SORRY. I’M PRETTY YOU HAVE A BLOWN SPEAKER, THE FRONT SCREEN-SIDE LEFT. THE DIALOGUE IS WAY, WAY TOO LOW.”

USHER: “Oh no sometimes trailers have different volumes.”

HULK: “NO. SORRY, THAT NOT WHAT HULK SAYING. HULK PRETTY SURE THE SPEAKER’S BLOWN.”

USHER: “Um. Well… let’s see… [LONG SILENCE].”

HULK: MOST THEATERS HAVE REPLACEMENT SPEAKERS CAUSE IT HAPPENS LOT. YOU SHOULD TELL THE PROJECTIONIST. A LOT OF TIMES THEY CAN EVEN BE REPLACED MID-MOVIE.” (NOTE: THIS LARGELY DEPENDS ON YOUR ELECTRICAL RIGGING AND WHETHER YOU CAN ISOLATE CURRENT TO A SPEAKER TO SHUT IT DOWN FOR REPAIR. MOST OF THE TIME YOU CAN. SOMETIMES YOU CAN’T. AND DEPENDING ON SPEAKER SIZE THEY HAVE TO CALL IN TECHNICIANS SO THAT COULD DELAY TOO.)

USHER: “Sounds okay to me though.”

HULK: “HULK THINK IT’S JUST CAUSE YOU’RE STANDING ON THE EDGE BY THE WALL SPEAKERS, IF YOU COME 10 FEET OVER TO WHERE PEOPLE SITTING IT COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. HULK CAN POINT TO SPEAKER THAT BROKEN.”

SHITTY DIAGRAM FOR HOME AUDIENCE! (SERIOUSLY THERE'S A PROBLEM WHEN YOU TRY TO FIND MOVIE THEATER SCHEMATICS ONLINE AND THEY GIVE YOU NOTHING BUT STUFF FOR HOME THEATER SPEAKERS. UGH)

USHER: “Okay, Thank you sir I’ll tell the projectionist.”

NEEDLESS TO SAY IT NOT REPLACED AND HULK PRETTY SURE, LIKE A GAME OF TELEPHONE, THE MESSAGE WAS GARBLED (OR EVEN CONVEYED).

BUT AGAIN, HULK JUST MADE DUE AND LUCKILY DRIVE IS THE KIND OF MOVIE WHERE THERE’S BARELY A WORD SAID AND ALL THE OTHER AMBIENT SOUND TELLS THE STORY. AFTER FIVE MINUTES HULK WAS EVEN ABLE TO TRICK HULK’S BRAIN INTO THINKING IT A DELIBERATE CHOICE TO MAKE AN UBER QUIET MOVIE. AGAIN, HULK USUALLY OKAY AT CREATING THESE SORTS OF MIND GAMES, BECAUSE, WELL MOVIES ARE PROJECTED INCORRECTLY A FUCK TON.

THE KEY IS JUST TO UNDERSTAND HOW THEY AFFECT WHAT YOU SEEING.

SO ANYCRAP, AFTER THE MOVIE HULK WENT TO GUEST SERVICES (WHO HULK SHOULD HAVE GONE TO RIGHT AWAY BUT HULK DIDN’T WANT TO MISS A FRAME) AND THE PERSON THERE TOTALLY UNDERSTOOD THE PROBLEM IMMEDIATELY. THEY SAID THEY DIDN’T HEAR ABOUT IT AND WERE VERY SORRY AND WENT TO GO FIX IT.

SO WHY DOES THIS MATTER SO MUCH? BESIDES ESTABLISHING THAT HULK IS EITHER SUPER ANAL ABOUT MOVIE WATCHING OR JUST LOOKS FOR ANY OPPORTUNITY TO TALK ABOUT PROJECTION NUANCE ON THIS BLOG?

BECAUSE SOUND DIRECTLY AFFECTS YOUR EXPERIENCE.

CUT TO A FEW MINUTES EARLIER, AS PEOPLE AS THEY WERE LEAVING SOME GUY IN A IRON MAN T-SHIRT SAID: “The movie was too fucking quiet. Seriously it was shit. How could anyone make a movie like that? I couldn’t hear him talk. Ryan Gosling fucking sucks.”

TO PEOPLE WHO CARE ABOUT PROJECTION, THE STATEMENT IS BOTH HILARIOUS AND SOUL-CRUSHING. THERE IS A WHOLE CREW OF AMAZINGLY TALENTED PEOPLE WHO SPEND MONTHS OF THEIR LIVES TRYING TO ORCHESTRATE EVERY SINGLE DETAIL IN TERMS OF PICTURE AND SOUND AND THEN THEY HAND THEM OFF TO THE THEATERS THAT PRESENT THEM AND ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN.

HULK KNOW THERE A HUGE MOVEMENT OF LATE TO CORRECT PROJECTION WHETHER IT IN REGARDS TO HIGH-VALUE/HIGH COST THEATER CHAINS LIKE THE ALAMO DRAFT HOUSE OFFERING HIGHER STANDARDS, THE APPROPRIATE BULB BRIGHTNESS FOR 3D, OR TERRENCE MALICK WRITING LETTERS, BUT IT JUST ANOTHER ONE OF THOSE IMPORTANT CONVERSATIONS IN MOVIES.

SHOULD THE THEATER TRIED TO DO MORE? (MAYBE) COULD THEY HAVE DONE MORE? (MAYBE) SHOULD THEY HAVE STOPPED THE SCREENING AND REFUNDED EVERYONE? (PROBABLY NOT) SHOULD THE USHERS HAVE REALIZED THE OBVIOUS PROBLEM BEFOREHAND AND FIXED PRE-SCREEENING? (PROBABLY THE BEST SOLUTION?)

HULK KNOW HULK SAID THIS A “HULK SMASH” COLUMN BUT IT NOT REALLY LIKE THAT. HULK JUST LOOKING TO RAISE THE PROFILE OF A CONVERSATION ABOUT NERDY TECHNICAL ISSUES.

IT’S NOT JUST FOR NICOLAS WINDING REFN AND THE HOST OF FILMMAKERS, CINEMATOGRAPHERS, SOUND EDITORS, AND PRODUCTION PEOPLE WHO POURED YEARS OF THEIR LIVES INTO IT AND WOULD HATE TO HEAR STORIES LIKE THIS.

IT’S ABOUT YOU. BECAUSE EVEN IF IT’S A HUGE PAIN IN THE ASS TO BE AWARE OF THIS KIND OF STUFF,  BECAUSE WHETHER WE ARE IGNORANT OF IT OR NOT, IT DIRECTLY AFFECTS OUR EXPERIENCE.

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12 Responses to “HULK SMASH: A NOTE TO THEATER OWNERSHIP/MOVIE-GOERS CONCERNING THE EFFECT OF SOUND”

  1. JONAH KEEL said

    Werd Hulk. Werd.

    Both Geek Brothers worked in movie theaters, AND the industry, and are about as serious about good projection and sound as can be.

    We feel your pain.

  2. Phil said

    In the spirit of your piece, Hulk, I’ll happily share my favorite theatrical technical blip story… On the Saturday before the ’08 Oscars, the AMC theater by my apartment was running this “Pay $30, get all the popcorn and soda you can drink, AND see all the Best Picture Nominees” deal that I couldn’t pass up, being a rather dedicated fan of the Coens, Clooney, Sidney Pollack, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jason Reitman, James McAvoy, and… others. They programmed that day pretty well, starting off with Michael Clayton, following it with There Will Be Blood, then Atonement, then Juno, and finally No Country (I don’t think I could’ve planned that better myself). I dragged some of my cousins along, and spent a good chunk of the morning talking up Michael Clayton, so of course, when the movie started, I was pretty heartbroken to find out the speakers at the front of the theater were shot, making Clooney and company sound rather like the Prawns from District 9. If you had guessed that my urge to kill started rising, you’d be right.

    To that theater’s credit, they shut down the projection after about five minutes, managed to fix the speakers (I’d never thought about how they could’ve done that until today, Hulk. Thanks for the edification), and passed out a ton of complimentary passes to pacify the crowd of angry movie nerds. Michael Clayton was up and running shortly thereafter, and I’ve maintained loyalty to that particular theater ever since. It’s nice when customer service is a priority.

  3. Interesting Hulk, especially as the same thing happened in a screening of Drive I was at. It was the Closing Night film of the New Zealand International Film Festival and, for the first part the sound was fine. But then, just when the Driver is explaining his working method to the guys in the park the sound for the dialogue totally bottomed out. At first I though it was a deliberate choice by Refn but it just kept going and didn’t make any sense that I could understand. Now, the guys at the Fest and in the projection booth are no dummies but they were unsure as to what could’ve happened – possibly a blown speaker, or some corruption on the digital file. Totally took me out of the film though.
    Like I say, interesting, especially as it was the same film with the exact same problem.
    And also, yes: more care needs to be taken with projection etc. It’s why I try and steer away from the multiplex and go to the more independant cinemas that seem to actually give a damn.

  4. Bevin said

    As a former projectionist, these things bother me a lot. The one movie theater left where I live consistently runs films that are slightly out of focus and it drives me bananas every time. For an immersive experience like film, details matter. It’s hard to get swept up in the movie when you have to strain to hear dialogue or if you notice the film is off center in the screen.

  5. The Duke feels Hulk’s pain.

    They say that laughter is the best medicine so I recommend you read a highly amusing account of trying to persuade the ushers to fix the projection in Mark Kermode’s new book ‘The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex’. Not sure if it’s out in The States yet (assuming that’s where Hulk resides – I presume Hulk could just jump to a country where it’s in print if Hulk wished?).

    Anyhoo, really enjoying the blog – thanks for all your hard work.

    PS – Attack the Block came out on BluRay in the UK yesterday and after reading your rave review I gave it another chance, having been really annoyed by the kids the first time. Thanks. I got Moses completely wrong the first time.

    • FILMCRITHULK said

      HULK THANK! WILL LOOK INTO THAT BOOK.

      HULK ALSO GLAD YOU ENJOYED ATTACK THE BLOCK. AS TO THE MOSES CHARACTER HULK GLAD YOU CAME AROUND, BECAUSE IT REALLY IS SOMETHING THAT RESONATES WITH SOME PEOPLE. HULK WANT DIRECT YOU TO THIS WONDERFUL COMMENT FROM VYCEVICTUS CONCERNING THE VERY TOPIC:

      VyceVictus said
      September 18, 2011 at 4:27 am e

      Hulk smashes with knowledge. Thoroughly enjoyed this movie and your review. This film really resonates with me because I grew up in a similar environment in NY. All the reviews ive read elsewhere touched upon the importance of featuring these inner city black youths as the protagonists and how they’re portrayed, but the experience of your family and your secret identity day job really brings poigniancy to these themes that no other critic has been able to convey. Thanks for that.

      As a now career service member (8 years and counting) growing up this way, I too have observed that key descriptor in the young leaders of crews in the hood which rings true in this film: Soldierly. With what I know now, I look back to all the ruffians and gangsters that I all at once befriended and avoided and realize just how many of them would have been excellent Sergeants, platoon leaders and commanders.

      If even a few people come away with giving second thought to all the decent kids who they would normally dismuss as hoodlums, it makes this film that much more important. Not just as proof of a the viable marketability of a well told small scale film wih blockbuster potential, but as a spark to engage in real substantial discussion about racial and social issues. Or at the very least, the prospect of John Boyega as the next great black action hero.

      • Thank you Hulk & Vyce – I wholeheartedly agree.

        It’s one of life’s great tragedies that people rarely afford others the room for understanding that they so easily apply to themselves. The contrast between Brewis, who pretty much has life handed to him on a plate, and Moses, who has had to raise himself, could not be more marked.

        That and John Boyega is a badass of the highest order.

  6. It would frighten most film lovers to know what passes for quality control at your typical multiplex.

    Only last week I presided over a screening that unfortunately had the same problem you mention (a blown speaker). Talking with the projectionist and theatre manager (who were sympathetic and attentive) I asked all kinds of technical questions, not only because it was my responsibility to but because I’m interested in this stuff for the same reasons you are.

    As I chatted up the supervisor I learned that this 16 screen theatre typically has ONE projectionist working. The manager would “like to” reintroduce some “checklists” they used to use but they really don’t have any corporate policy requirement for real-time quality control (in other words if there is a problem in your auditorium when seeing a movie here you will be extremely lucky if the theatre knows to correct it before being asked to). I’m more than certain this is the rule across multiple circuits based on my own anecdotal evidence. I struggle to understand how even the most conscientious projectionist could reliably ensure the quality of 16 or more auditoriums simultaneously.

    Self immolating cost saving measures aside, this is partly attributable to evolving theatre tech. Digital presentations are easier to manage overall and are less prone to what audiences would perceive as traditional issues. The movie is delivered on a solid state drive, transferred (downloaded) into the projector (this takes a while) and played time-synched with discs for the soundtrack, depending on the system being used (some work differently). Relative to endless feet of celluloid coiled on enormous platters, with spans of it hanging like web strands in between moving parts, advantages of the new systems are implicit but they’ve also created malaise. Brightness, focus, proper masking and sound (level, calibration) are still opportunities for trouble. Even worse is that traditional film projection (and there is still plenty out there) suffers ever more because institutional knowledge about working with it continues to erode. Wobbly, soft or inscrutable images are the rule and not the exception when seeing stuff on traditional film these days unless an extremely dedicated/knowledgeable staff is putting on the show. Toss in the well documented impact of 3D and it’s like pouring gas on the fire.

    As you’ve pointed out too few people even know when they are getting a substandard experience or if they do sense something is wrong they probably can’t articulate or pinpoint what it is. This is a sad side effect of the problems being so pervasive anymore.

    So – NEVER feel bad about calling out a theatre or staff about an issue you KNOW is wrong in a cinema. I personally have a hard time doing it sometimes because I DON’T WANT TO MISS ANY OF THE MOVIE but when something like this is wrong…you already are.

  7. Joon Kim said

    My reaction to a showing of The Lion King 3D was completely muted by the theater’s weak sound. Nothing had impact. I think even the rear surround speakers weren’t on.

    Of course, this was in addition to the fact that the 3D glasses dimmed the less-then-optimal projection.

    Ugh. I spent the entire movie simmering from the lackluster presentation standards.

  8. Well said. For me, the most egregious and consistent interruptions come from the audience and not the theater itself. I feel an overwhelming sense of dread every time I sit in a theater, wondering if I’m going to be forced to address another person’s behavior and how that person will respond. Will they be respectful and stop? Will they continue in spite of me? Will they become belligerent? If its not talking, its the constant beeps and ringtones of a cell phone. I don’t think I’ve been to a movie absent auditory distractions from my movie-going neighbor since the days before cell phones. Cell phones RUINED the movie-going experience for me, and smartphones just put the nail in the coffin. The constant ocular distractions from bright screens in front of me or in the periphery are intolerable. That’s why lately I’ve been investing my time and money in really good televisions and sound systems and a NetFlix account, that is, unless its something I really feel compelled to see before it goes to DVD.

    I can deal with projection, I can deal with bad sound. I cannot deal with the people.

  9. I saw The Hours in a theater that had something massively wrong with one of the speakers. However, since the net result was that the movie sounded as though it were underwater, I spent the first 10 minutes thinking that it was a clever device on the part of the filmmakers to integrate the audience into Virginia Woolf’s suicide experience. The next two hours, not so much.

  10. [...] A NOTE TO THEATER OWNERS/MOVIE-GOERS REGARDING SOUND [...]

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