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Before THX: The Cinema Shaking Technology of Sensurround

By David Konow

Back in the 1970's, Universal Studios experimented with a theater audio technology that shook audiences in their seats.

Recently, we’ve seen some buzz about Dolby Atmos, a relatively new movie theater sound technology that gives the illusion that there are an infinite number of audio speakers and channels surrounding the audience. It’s hard to believe we didn’t even have wide-spread Dolby Stereo in movies until Star Wars, and if theaters wanted to play Lucas’s space opera, they had to redo their sound system, or Fox wouldn’t give them the film reels.

Several years prior to Dolby Stereo, studios also experimented with a short-lived experiment in movie sound that’s fun to look back on today: Sensurround. It was a gimmick of its time, because the era of the all-star disaster film was in full swing, and while Sensurround wasn’t as high tech as Lucasfilm's THX or Dolby's Atmos, it did try to make movies feel bigger and more realistic through the sheer power of sound, and perhaps helped pave the way for today’s cinema audio technology.

Photo credit: Flickr user hijukal via Creative Commons.

Sensurround was the brainchild of the late Jennings Lang, a Hollywood producer who knew the power of showmanship. Lang was one of the first to call a film an “event” back in 1974 for Earthquake, and legend has it the idea for the film was based on a true event. Lang was in a movie theater when a real life earthquake happened. Then Lang got the idea about making a disaster film where an earthshaker hits L.A., and it would somehow shake the hell out of the audience as well.

“My dad was one of the last true showmen,” says his son, Rocky Lang. “He realized that movies had to be bigger and more event oriented. He was always trying to find a way to make the movie going experience bigger and better.”

"ATTENTION! This motion picture will be shown in the startling 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."- Theater Notice For Earthquake (1974)

By setting up a series of speakers in the theater, and running a soundtrack with very low tones, an earthquake simulation could be done, and there were cues on the Earthquake soundtrack when the special speakers were to be triggered.

Once the room showing Earthquake started rumbling, everyone in the screening room next door panicked and fled the theater.

Sensurround cost $2,000 per theater to set up, and it didn’t require rebuilding the entire sound system like it would with future innovations like THX. Reports vary as to how well Sensurround worked, but it certainly proved very effective during one screening on the Universal lot. In the adjacent theater watching another movie was a group from Nicaragua, who had recently endured a devastating real life earthquake in their homeland. Once the room showing Earthquake started rumbling, everyone in the screening room next door panicked and fled the theater.

Earthquake premiered at the Mann Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Rocky remembers big speakers being loaded off of trucks, like roadies carrying them for a rock concert, that would help shake the theater. “Inside the theater I looked up and they netted the entire arc of the ceiling,” Lang continues. “They didn’t know if the theater shaking would bring anything down!”

Earthquake was a big hit for Universal, grossing nearly $80 million dollars. (The film cost $7 million.) Yet Sensurround was only used in three more movies, 1976’s Midway, 1977’s Rollercoaster, and 1979’s Battlestar Galactica, which was the television pilot episode edited to be released theatrically. In 1976 Universal also had a rival King Kong remake in the works that was going to use Sensurround as well, but the Dino De Laurentiis version produced by Paramount knocked it out of the box.

Although Sensurround was kaput by the end of the seventies, and sound technology has become far more sophisticated since then, it did get a revival in 2006 when Earthquake was screened at the Schauburg-Cinerama in Germany (video above). Even watching footage from the screening on your little YouTube window, you can get an idea of what Sensurround’s impact must have felt like back in the day during it’s brief, and very loud, reign in theaters.

David Konow is a southern California-based writer with a passion for the schlocky films of Hollywood past. His book, Reel Terror, chronicles the history and impact of horror movies.