By Scott Michael Bosco
It was the spring of 1975, Easter Sunday to be exact, when I first saw the movie EARTHQUAKE. Although the film had started November 15 (in those day there were still premier theaters), it took time to reach the suburbs, even in New York.
When the print ads appeared in the New York Daily New it quite proudly proclaimed that it was to be presented in the “startling new multi-dimension of SENSURROUND”. The ad proclaimed, “You Fell it as Well as See it!”
Entering the theater, I was immediately struck by the sight of huge black rectangular structures, roughly the size of a small car, set up beneath the screen and standing on their ends in the back corners of the theater.
When the curtains parted – yes, there were curtains on the theater screens then too – the screen lit up with the following words, accompanied by a calm but authoritative male voice…
“Attention: This motion picture will be shown in the starling new multi-dimension of SENSURROUND. Please be aware that you will feel, as well as see and hear realistic effects such as might be experienced in an actual earthquake. The management assumes no responsibility for the physical, or emotional reactions of the individual viewer.”
Needless to say this sent the entire audience into a murmur of hushed excitement. It was also the perfect way to set up the needed nervousness and tension which mounts in expectation of California’s biggest earthquake in history.
Then about an hour into the film – it hit!
Our first reaction was to grab the armrests. When the first jolt hit, immediately your attention is detracted away from the screen and to whomever you were with just to acknowledge that you’re both feeling the same thing. It was a shared experience of amazement that was enhanced with a terrific visual display of destruction.
More than an audio experience, SENSURROUND fills the theater with y low bass, sub-audible (sonic) effects (Harmonics). Huge air movements are released that hit the torso and diaphragm, sending vibrations throughout you body. This creates a sound pressure wave form comparable to an actual earthquake. In fact, the waveform is very similar to the 1971 Sylmar quake. In terms of Hz SENSUROUND is in the low teens!
The effect was extremely jarring and definitely added a dimension to the film making it “an event”, as the ads proclaimed.
When the Oscars rumbled around, EARTHQUAKE was given two Special Academy Awards, Technical Achievement Awards Class II, Class III for SENSURROUND, the Reciprocation Camera Platform which was used to create the realistic movement of an actual trembler, and awards for Special Visual Effects and Sound.
The success of SENSURROUND prompted UNIVERSAL to apply it new wonder to MIDWAY a WWII spectacle. In it SENSURROUND was called upon to enhance and create “the sights, sounds, and actual sensation of combat. So real you can feel it!”
For EARTHQUAKE one had to wait 52 minutes for the SENSURROUND to kick in. In MIDWAY as soon as the first cord of music is heard, all else is obliterated. As planes take to the air you are there!
The air pressure level was so extreme the cuffs of our jeans flapped wildly from SENSURROUND as the planes took off.
In fact, when UNIVERSAL released its third SENSURROUND film, ROLLERCOASTER in June of 78’ the SUNSURROUND had to be turned down at my local theater because it was setting off alarms systems in attached stores. Fortunately, multiplex theaters weren’t in vogue.
There were, however, rumors that SENSURROUND caused structural damage to building. This may be started when EARTHQUAKE premiered at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood and there was fear the vibrations would affect a notable chandelier… thankfully, it didn’t.
Part of what makes SENSURROUND is the coupling of the SENSURROUND horns – black boxes in front and in back of the theater – to the theater itself. In a sense, the building structure itself becomes a huge speaker with sound pressure levels running 110 to 120 dbs.
For ROLLERCOASTER, UNIVERSAL tried something new be incorporating music into the SENSURROUND track, as well as some high frequencies. This added to the impact of the film and the range of the sound – which otherwise was MONO.
An optical track mixed from a monaural three-track consists of –
Entire soundtrack in MONO.
A control track which triggers the SENSURROUND when fed into a device called the SENSURROUND BOX.
The SENSURROUND BOX controls the amplitude of the low frequencies responsible for the rumble.
Due to the enhancements, a quadraphonic effect is added by allowing higher range frequencies, music, or screams, to be raised in volume along with the SENSURROUND, steering it to either the front or the back of the theater.
For EARTHQUAKE this was also done, but not as often nor with the same sonic punch. In ROLLERCOASTER there is about 13 minutes out of two hours of SENSURROUND. That includes music, sound effects, and rumbling of the rollercoaster. But MIDWAY tips the scales with almost every scene of combat rattling you seat.
The SENSURROUND horns are huge black boxes, which come in three different sizes – Model M, Model C and Model W. Within the black boxes are horns which resemble 18-inch speakers sensitive only to low frequencies. The cone travel is about 50 times greater than a normal speaker capable of handling 1,000 watt of power. The horns are modular and can be attached to accommodate the theater size. (In one case, 8horns equal 32 feet.) The Model C horn is a corner type which used the theater walls to conduct the sound, thus acoustically coupling the theater so the sound and vibrations surround and go through you.
SENSURROUND was developed specially for EARTHQUAKE when producer Jennings Lang approached Joseph Hiatt, MCA/UNIVERSAL studio creative technical expert, studio general manager, who then assigned W.O. Watson and Dick Stumph.
After ROLLERCOASTER there were no other films produced in SENSURROUND, although SENSURROUND was added to BATTLESTAR GALACTICA as an after thought. Another film it was applied to was ZOOT SUIT.
Will SENSURROUND ever surface again? Although it was used as part of the UNIVERSAL STUDIOS EARTHQUAKE ride in Florida I can testify it is NOT the same I experienced in the theatre.
As with the amount of time between earthquakes, it would be nice to think another SENSURROUND movie is in the works - perhaps with an even more dynamic soundtrack to rattle bridge work. But it seems more likely to be a thing of the past. Like
Cinerama, CinemaScope, and 4-track or even 6-track 70mm it’s always best experienced where they were born – in the theatre.
With the advent of Dolby Digital the amount of separate multiple channels of sound allowed 35mm to hold what could only be put on larger celluloid like 70mm (The film image was actually 65mm with 5mm taken for the soundtrack.)
Now enthusiasts can wallow in theatrical presentations at home. Add to that the various large screen options and the home theatre became a reality. Although not a replacement for the true widescreen splendor or Cinerama the clarity of the image is more akin to the depth that 65mm camera presentations could deliver, perhaps even excel.
So with these advancements the next step in theatrical realism what about SENSURROUND for the home? Well in the early 90’s Cerwin Vega released a speaker series dubbed SENSURROUND and even used the theatrical logo. With many people still new to the concept of theatrical audio these speakers were available in packaged systems. But in the end these were just speakers and had nothing to due with SENSURROUND; it simply capitalized on the past association the company had in the development of the theatrical sensation.
Even with today’s advancements in sound and bass performance SENSURROUND is still rooted only in the theater. Not in any multiplex, or IMAX theater - only the memories of those who experienced it.