Helen Hanson is a Professor in Film History at the University of Exeter as well as Academic Director of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. I’m a great admirer of Hollywood Soundscapes: Film Sound Style, Craft & Production in the Classical Era, her new book. Hollywood Soundscapes not only provides us with new knowledge on the craft and production of film sounds styles in the classic era but is also an inspiring example of how to produce methods through which to do so.
Professor Hanson came to Warwick to talk on Lela Simone, the music supervisor of the great Freed Unit at MGM, and thus responsible for the sound of some of the greatest musicals of all time: An American in Paris (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953) and many others. I sought Professor Hanson out to talk at greater length about her superb book.
The discussion touches on how her initial research question, ‘who were the most significant people working in sound in the classic era?’ changed into an account of how style is framed around structures that develop from group work and the sharing of knowledges. We touch on how the structures surrounding the work and practices of a sound editor in the 1930s might be shaped not only by the technologies that he or she was using but also forms of knowledge, professional networks and the conventions and expectations of the work.
One of the wonderful aspects of Hollywood Soundscapes is how we get detailed accounts of stereophonic sound systems that did not quite succeed. We touch on the Vitasound system which added speakers and amplified sound and also on the Fantasound system Walt Disney developed for Fantasia, two examples on which there is a much more extended and detailed account in the book itself.
The discussion ranges from what constituted ‘ear appeal’ at any point in time to what she would advise a beginner to look for if he or she wanted to analyse and better understand the ways in which sound is created and deployed in film.
The conversation touches on generic expectations in relation to the crafting of soundscapes. Sound technicians had a sense of how to shape the sound for different genres. When mixing the sound for a drama, for example, they looked for high contrast sound. For comedy, there was a tendency to seek a louder sound mix. But different studios had different practice conventions. Warners, for example, liked to record wild sounds.
Hanson notes that, ‘The networks of professional and personal relationships made me understand how multi-talented technicians were. They understood aesthetics, technologies and economics. They understood how to please management.’
I hope the podcast sparks an interest in reading Hollywood Soundscapes, a very considerable contribution to what we know about sound in the classic era and an equally great contribution to methods of how to go about finding out more. The podcast can be listened to below: