When George Lucas’ “Star Wars” premiered in theaters on May 25, 1977, his film reintroduced stereophonic sound to moviegoers and changed the face of cinema audio.
Before “Star Wars” (and Dolby)
As television affected the film industry in the 1950’s, the major studios had to react quickly, and offered something that was “bigger and better.” In 1953, Twentieth Century Fox was the first studio to introduce widescreen, high-fidelity motion pictures in “CinemaScope.” Other widescreen formats would soon follow, including Paramount’s “VistaVision,” Todd-AO and Panavision.
Stereophonic sound was added to this, through the use of recorded magnetic striping onto motion picture film stock. Due to the expense of encoding magnetic stereo sound onto film, this was usually limited for “roadshow” presentations of big-screen spectacles in major cities, while most suburban cinema venues would stick to monaural optical sound prints.
Enter Dolby Laboratories
Dolby Laboratories, which was known for its noise-reduction techniques in prerecorded audio cassettes, wanted to improve audio recording and sound presentation for the motion picture industry, feeling that the existing Westrex (former Western Electric) and RCA motion picture sound systems were outdated.
The company developed noise-reduction technology for motion picture sound recordings in the early 1970s and Dolby engineers decided that quadraphonic sound would well-suited for its noise reduction technology.
“Star Wars:” A game-changer for the film industry
The major breakthrough for Dolby’s motion picture sound system was the release of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” (Episode IV: “A New Hope”) in 1977. According to a 2013 blog post that was published by the company, every print of “Star Wars” had a Dolby-encoded stereo soundtrack, on magnetic sound prints (for 70mm prints) and for optical prints (for regular 35mm prints).
To make sure that theaters could get the most out exhibiting “Star Wars,” executives from Twentieth Century Fox and Dolby encouraged theater owners across the nation to upgrade their sound equipment for Dolby presentation. The plan worked and “Star Wars” was a commercial (and groundbreaking) success. Dolby’s system would expand to more theaters, during the 1978 release of Steven Spielberg’s science-fiction masterpiece, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
How surround sound has improved the cinematic experience (over the years)
We have come a long way from Dolby’s entry in motion picture audio- from surround sound, to digital sound and “Atmos,” to competing systems including DTS and Ultra-Stereo, to home theater systems, it was all thanks to Dolby engineers (and sound designer Ben Burtt) for providing better fidelity and depth into cinema audio.
David Konow’s in-depth article on Dolby and “Star Wars” (via “Tested”)
Questions about Dolby, DTS, any sound format or the films in the “Star Wars” franchise? Drop a line at the comments section!