MEANDRI, ILARIO (University of Turin)
1967: the year of the “Ambient Machine”: Local adaptation of global technologies in the Italian film sound post-production process of the late Sixties
[JB note – this was a Skype-in session. Kinda weird at first, but as with all videoconferencing we all settled into it pretty quickly. Ilario did a great job communicating his paper through the tricky medium of live streaming video – especially as his subject was cinema foley!]
[abstract only] One of the main revolutions of the sound post production process in the Italian cinema of the late Sixties was the birth of independent Foley studios. Before 1963-1964 ca. foleys were employed as freelance artists working at the Foley-stages of the sound post production facilities in Rome. By the end of 1965 the Foley artists formed a cartel and founded a new independent business. The new Foley companies would now provide to the studios all the required post-production sound effects: Foley-stage sounds (hereinafter: FFX), non-sync ambient sounds loops (AFX) and moviola-synchronized special sound effects (SFX) – the last two had previously been the responsibility of the film’s editor or/and the direct-sound editor. This novelty led rapidly to a series of technical and process innovations. The first noteworthy one is the foundation of the Foley AFX and SFX sound archives. Over the following years, in building AFX and SFX for movies by Fellini, Leone, Risi, Rosi, Petri, Pasolini, and Monicelli – to cite but a few – Foley companies formed the core of the new archives which ended up by becoming one of the richest and finest sound collections in the world.
By the end of 1967 a new device was invented: the so-called “Ambient Machine”. The new machine consisted of 3-up-to-5 Philips (later Hitachi or others) 1/8 inch compact cassette deck players with discrete unbalanced outputs connected to as many channels in the mixing console. In the years following this experimental introduction, all the pre-existing 35mm magnetic tapes of the AFX archives were re- transcribed to a new 1/8 tape AFX archive. The capstans of the Philips players were expressly modified to increase tape speed thus mitigating the loss of quality of the 1/8 inch tape. The use of the new device rapidly spread among the Foley businesses and the new method was welcomed by the studios’ dubbing mixers. Within a few years approximately 90% of AFX or Italian cinema were made with this new set of locally produced one-of-a-kind Ambient Machines. The device dramatically improved the process by allowing the Foley and the dubbing mixers to avoid the time-consuming operation of creating, transporting and then loading the 35 mm AFX magnetic reel loops into the 35 mm interlocked magnetic heads of the studio. It was now possible to resort directly to the “ambient machine” and to produce AFX on the go while mixing FFX and SFX 35mm reels.
This did not only result in a faster process: the Foley were now able to bring the whole AFX repertoire, consisting of several cases full of 1/8 inch tapes to the dubbing. Thus, in collaboration with the Foleys, the director was now able to build AFX on the go, during the dubbing process. The loss of quality is counterweighed by the possibility to create richer and poetically striking AFX, with a flexibility that was unknown to the previous process – an aesthetic gap that is clearly identifiable by analyzing Italian productions after 1967-1969. To my knowledge this device is unique to the Italian practice and represents an interesting example of glocal reception and adaptation of global technologies. In spite of its historical significance, to date there have been no references to this practice in sound history literature.