Shearer Sound

For a quiet young man, Douglas Shearer makes more noise than anyone else in the world

ANGUS McSTAY July 15 1938

Shearer Sound

For a quiet young man, Douglas Shearer makes more noise than anyone else in the world

ANGUS McSTAY July 15 1938

Shearer Sound


For a quiet young man, Douglas Shearer makes more noise than anyone else in the world


FOR A quiet young man, Douglas Shearer makes more noise than anyone else in the world. Though mild-mannered and reticent, he is continually creating major disturbances in motion-picture theatres, but is never tossed out by the ushers.

Shearer is acknowledged by fellow technicians as the film industry’s leader in the recording and reproducing of sound, be this a whisper in the trees, an earthquake, or a storm at sea. His scientific and technical achievements have been many; but the story behind these is one of an uphill fight, waged over a period of years, against disbelief, doubt, and downright opposition.

Now this young man from Montreal—yes, he’s another Canadian who went to Hollywood—is being showered with academic honors and awards, and is continually being invited to address international gatherings of acoustics engineers who scoffed at his earlier experiments. The list of his aforementioned achievements, since the advent of sound in pictures, is a formidable one and too technical to detail. It represents years of tireless research, hundreds of experiments, mazes of abstruse calculations, infinite patience, and dogged perseverance.

His reward is that, at thirty-eight, he is credited with having contributed more to the general entertainment value of current film fare than any other individual in the industry.

You have only to recall the rich color tones of ‘‘Romeo and Juliet,” the dramatic earthquake effects in “San Francisco,” the ear-filling solo and choral work in “The Girl of the Golden West,” and the storm and locust-plague sequences in “The Good Earth, to understand how sound films have progressed within even recent times.

Shearer has the distinction of being the only person who has twice won the coveted awards for scientific and technical achievement presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This annual award was first established in 1930, when his sound effects in “The Big House” were hailed as the outstanding advancement in film recording.

Significantly, during the subsequent five years, no development in sound was considered of sufficient merit to warrant the award.

The sound men were still figuratively groping in the dark. The following year, however, it was again presented to Shearer, this time for his effects in “Naughty Marietta.” What makes the honor singularly important is that it is conferred by fellow technicians, by vote, and is the highest tribute within their power to pay.

For a time, the fact that he was Norma Shearer’s brother proved a handicap. The unenlightened held the belief that this was the major reason for the young man’s presence on the payroll of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. They forgot that, spurning the assistance his sister might have given him, he got his start at a rival studio. Only a few of those in close contact with the inner workings of the picture industry knew of the experimental work that Douglas Shearer was quietly carrying out behind the scenes. While he is being generally acclaimed today for his achievements, these intimates will tell you that Shearer has been standing on his own feet for years and had won technical acceptance in his own right long before the public ever heard of him.

Schoolboy Experiments

THE story of Douglas Shearer rightly goes back to 1843, when James Shearer sailed from Glasgow and settled in Montreal. The newcomer went into the lumber business and, seeing additional possibilities, was one of a syndicate which early built a power-generating plant on the Lachine Rapids. As the growing city’s limits widened, the plant was later absorbed in the Montreal Light, Heat and Power merger. To some degree, Hollywood’s ace technician may have inherited his scientific aptitude from Grandfather Shearer.

Douglas Shearer’s interest in the communication of light and sound was born early. While a youngster attending Roslyn School in Westmount, a residential suburb of Montreal, he was permitted a personal room in the basement of his home where he might experiment with his electrical gadgets.

One of his early triumphs was the building of a telegraph set the wires of which ran over lawns and backyard fences to the cellar of a schoolmate who lived some houses away. During this adolescent span, he also constructed a telephone hookup from tin cans and miscellaneous materials

and, in the midst of putting this in operation, plunged into darkness every house within a three-block area.

Candidly, the neighlîors, not to speak of repair crews, were becoming a little annoyed at periodic fuse blowouts and mysterious outbreaks of short circuits. The time arrived when even the maid in the Shearer household was afraid to touch an electrical appliance. There had been too many instances when she had screamed at electric shocks and even been hurled across the room by their force.

Young Doug’s father and mother ominously suggested that he had better find himself some harmless hobby, the repercussions of which would not reach neighborhood proportions. Stamp collecting had its merits, but he gloomily chose photography and was allowed to buy a camera. He experimented with lights and lenses, but still continued to smell up the place with weird witches’ brews he called developing fluids.

The early boyhood years went quickly. He played football for Westmount High and. with his sisters, learned swimming and diving from Jimmie Rose, who is still coach of the Montreal Athletic Club and one of the Shearer family’s closest friends today.

At seventeen, Doug Shearer was a freshman at McGill University. The Great War wras at its peak. Tor; young to go overseas, he joined the field telephone unit of the McGill Officers Training Corps. The day he was eighteen, he checked out of college and joined the Royal FI ving Corps.

Just as he was ready to proceed to England, he had a bad bout of influenza. When he recovered, the Great War was over.

On top of this disappointment came a greater one. Financial difficulties had arisen when certain of his father’s investments, including the building of two race tracks in the Montreal area, failed to come up to expectations. Young Shearer had to surrender any hope of resuming his McGill studies for his coveted Bachelor of Science degree. He went to work.

Because of his aviation training he was able to explain the intricacies of engines, and joined the sales organization of an automobile distributor. He stayed a year, but felt he wasn't doing right by his ohms and amperes. He wanted to get back into engineering, so he joined the telephone division of the Northern Electric Company in Montreal. Here, he was in his element. Later, he switched to the electrical cable department, this work taking him to power plants throughout Canada. He kept his eyes and ears open and was not ashamed to ask questions.

Seven years had passed since the Armistice and Shearer was twenty-five. Meanwhile, his family had moved to New York and then to Hollywood. When his two weeks vacation came due in the summer of 1925, he bought a roundtrip ticket to the Coast. He would be spending the greater part of his holiday on a train, but at least he could put in a few days with his people.

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Norma was in pictures, but had not yet attained the place she holds today; Athole, his other sister, married to Howard Hawks, the great director, had never evinced much interest in a film career, although she is just as beautiful as Norma and you can hardly tell the t wo apart.

Doug Shearer toured the studios and was fascinated. Great things, he felt, were being done. He announced that he was staying! Not that he wanted to be an actor, he gravely explained as his mother and sisters chuckled; he was going to work behind the cameras! So he turned in the return half of his ticket to Montreal.

Research in Hollywood


know him, Shearer did not seek a job at either of the two studios where the recommendations of his sisters would have carried certain weight. He was going to be a cameraman, but he was not going to slip through the family entrance. On his own, he finally landed a job with Fox Films— as property man; this being a polite term for a form of glorified furniture moving. For months he helped set stage, meanwhile learning all he could about the technical end of this new field he had entered.

He studied motion-picture photography at night. His reading consisted of all the scientific books and trade papers he could afford. He shunned the night life of the picture colony. Even today, he still avoids the gay side of Hollywood, preferring to conserve his energy for long hours of work. Within the year, Fox made him an assistant cameraman. Shearer started experi-

menting with trick shots. When they had seen some results of his work, MetroGoldwyn-Mayer suggested that he join them. Feeling that this major film-producing company offered greater scope, Shearer made the switch.

Shortly after, there were rumors that a rival studio was experimenting with the synchronization of sound to films. Still keeping his ears open and missing nothing, Shearer carried on considerable undercover investigation. He advocated preparedness, but received no encouragement from his studio executives.

With typical Hollywood inertia, the movie moguls sniffed at the idea. The genera! opinion was that sound, if it came, would be a passing fad; let someone else carry out the preliminary work and shoulder the risk as well as the cost; the company conducting the experiments was one of the weaker sisters anyway. “Besides,” said one astute executive, “we’re making money anyway—why worry!”

In spite of this general opposition and disbelief in his convictions, Shearer continued to study the subject. He spent long weary nights del ving into frequency characteristics, volume distribution, amplifier capacity, directivity and harmonic considerations. He carried out countless experiments; finally, he knew he had something.

Sound could be synchronized to cinematic action, he insisted. His superiors gave him bland smiles that were intended to be tolerant. The answer was “Okay ; sound can be synchronized to cinematic action so what?” The intimation was that Shearer ought to play with his cameras and stop annoying his betters.

And then, like a thunderclap, sound hit the screen when Warner Brothers released “The Jazz Singer” and Al Jolson sang a song to his own piano accompaniment and swung around on the stool to ask: “How did you like that, momma?”

Momma liked it and so did the public. Wherever the picture was being shown, people were practically breaking down the doors to get in. Police reserves were called out to control the box-office response. "The Jazz Singer” caught the big producers unprepared. Warner Brothers, the weak sister in the film industry, had taken a long chance and had won ! They had also shrew'dly made arrangements whereby they held a time monopoly on the patents; and they had other talking pictures ready for release on the heels of their first success.

The diehards of Hollywood continued to reiterate that talking pictures were a passing fancy, but when the revenue from silent films fell off sharply and the producers were being driven frantic by demands from theatre managers for talking pictures, there was insane activity. The checkmate, as mentioned, was that Warner Brothers, with commendable business foresight. had tied up the process rights. Their rivals had to evolve their own methods of producing sound films.

Belatedly, the other studios swung into action. Sound engineers in the fields of telephonic communication, radio and phonograph-record manufacturing were hurriedly summoned to Hollywood at the fabulous salaries that are customary in emergencies. There were months of delay as new picture-making equipment was developed and installed.

Early sound production was crude and primitive. Several stars of the silent days were tossed with Herodian cruelty upon the scrap heap because their voices didn’t register. Some of them died of broken hearts. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had an ace in the hole the other studios lacked. That was Douglas Shearer. Wearily confessing their misjudgment, they told him to go ahead and make sound films but make them fast.

Solving the Sound Problem

O HEARER went quietly but swiftly to ^ work. He was twenty-nine when the responsibility for the fate of his employers fell squarely on his shoulders. There were innumerable problems to be overcome, but his months of research were gaining their reward. Warner Brothers were using synchronized sound on records; hampered by the patent restrictions which prevented the use of disks for dialogue transcription, Shearer exjXTimented with the recording of sound on the film itself.

His earlier and painstaking studies of the theory and application of photographing sound waves gave him an advantage. While he modestly insists that he never actually invented anything, Shearer admittedly did take existing principles established by voice-reproduction technicians and skilfully adapt their essentials to the new needs of sound reproduction by way of the screen. That he was given the first Academy award for his scientific achievements is sufficient proof of the esteem in which his work was held by technical colleagues, even though many of these were on the payrolls of rival studios.

The first problem was that the whirr of the camera provided a background to the dialogue and could be heard upon the screen. To prevent extraneous studio noises from being recorded, some means had to be found whereby the voices of the actors only would be heard. So they enclosed the cameraman and his equipment in a soundproof box; and this near-suffocated individual was usually a stretcher case before the take was filmed.

Because the camera could not now be moved, the first talking pictures were merely photographed plays that had been Broadway stage successes; there was no opportunity for distance shots or close-ups. Not till the development of portable sound-recording trucks, could pictures

with an outdoors setting be filmed. Today, the soundproof camera booth, or “blimp.” can be swung over the scene on immense but silently-running cranes.

Another factor contributing to the lack of action in early sound pictures was the fact that actors speaking lines could not move beyond the range of the fixed microphones. This was later solved by the introduction of the overhead microphone which, hanging from a travelling “boom,” now follows the actor as he moves about. An additional costly expenditure was the building of soundproof stages, doublewalled and insulated, and each on a heavy concrete foundation to offset possible vibration. Then it was discovered that the arc-lamps, kliegs and Cooper-Hewitts emitted splutters which the sensitive microphone picked up; a newr system of studio lighting had to be evolved.

Shearer persevered and, in course of time, his company forged ahead. In addition to solving major problems, he brought about a host of minor improvements, many of a highly technical nature but meaningless in detail to the layman.

He was also responsible for the recording of combinations of sound tracks on a single film. The earthquake sequences in “San Francisco” are a case in point. For these, the director shot his scenes and dialogue, and turned them over to Shearer for the blending of additional sound effects.

The master sound track, A, carried the dialogue; B, the rumble of the earthquake; C, falling walls; D, crashing timbers; E. the crackle of flames; F, the screams of the panic-stricken; G, the sirens of the fire engines; H, the discord as a piano hurtled to the street. As the picture was run off in the projection room, the “mixer” brought in the sound effects, regulating their volume at his control board as he watched the silent action on the screen and, something similar to the symphony conductor’s task, created a combination of sounds which were recorded on a single track. It was that which had you gripping your seat if you saw “San Francisco,” and nearly frightened you to death.

Better Sound Reproduction

C HEARER'S next task, and the one on ^ which he is still engaged, lies in the natural reproduction of sound in theatres. While the improvements in recording were consistent, he felt that theatre reproducing equipment had not kept pace with other refinements in motion-picture making. There were problems of increased amplification. and it was his conviction that the existent loud-speaker system in theatres constituted the principal limitation to naturalness of reproduction. Shearer began to investigate whether or not a speaker system could be developed which would provide a needed increase in fidelity.

For the sake of clarity, the screen was perforated with many small holes, twentyfive to forty to the square inch. This stepped up the reception, as far as theatre audiences were concerned, but otherwise faultless recordings were still producing only average results. Shearer decided that, if theatre equipment was failing to keep pace with studio recording practice and advancements, perhaps that was another problem he had better tackle.

With the pending release of “Romeo and j Juliet,” later destined to make film history, Shearer felt that the cadence of the I Shakespearean lines and the full color of ! the musical score should be presented with | their original fidelity. His sister, Norma, and Leslie Howard had done a splendid acting job; in addition, the picture had been several months in production and the ! financial investment had been heavy. Shearer wanted the film brought to the 1 audience without that sound distortion which existing theatre equipment would give it.

He embarked on another program of research that brought about an entirely new form of motion-picture sound reproduction. Theatre equipment consisted of rows of horns, like the old-fashioned

appendages of early phonographs or radios, ranged behind the screen. Shearer began studying them. Bass notes, he ultimately discovered, issued from the horns and spread, much as a nozzle sprays water from a hose; the high notes didn’t spray but travelled in a narrow stream. Hence, certain seats in theatres, and the people sitting in them, did not receive the sound impulses fully.

Shearer started to work on a system of horns that split sound impulses, sending the bass tones through one set of amplifiers and the trebles through another, all carefully calculated and angled to produce equal sound, not only in the down-front seats but in the last row in the balcony. This accomplished, he found that the new system would produce more overtones, frequencies, and color, in dialogue and music.

Thereupon, he insisted that, wherever “Romeo and Juliet’’ was shown, he be allowed to install his own reproducing equipment on loan. The upshot was that theatre managers, impressed by the improvement in sound reproduction, were reluctant to surrender the Shearer system and found all sorts of excuses for hanging on to it. Shearer again regarded this not as a personal development but as another gift to the film industry at large. Most theatres are today equipped with the Shearer setup, and for that you and 1 who go to the movies must be grateful.

Despite his technical triumphs and his top position in Hollywood, Douglas Shearer is as quiet and modest as he has always been. He has a luxurious office now, and you have to get past two gorgeous-looking reception clerks before you reach him. He is still a busy man, but will give you much of his time if you are his friend.

He is unmoved by his honors, but is too mannerly to refuse them. Should he be praised by someone whose opinion he respects, he will vouchsafe a modest thank-you smile. He still shuns the Hollywood night haunts, and dresses conservatively in a region where the brightplumaged males are a lap ahead of the current fashion.

Quietly happy, he has a home in the California foothills where he lives with his wife, Anne Cunningham, who is a scenario writer; they have a three-vear-old son. Survival of his earlier years in Montreal, he swims when he has time, boxes under the tutelage of a former trainer of Max Baer, and flies his own plane. He has invented several aviation devices, including an infra-red direction-finder, now in commercial use.

That is the man no longer known as “Norma Shearer's brother.” If you are ever with an electrical engineer and he asks you if you have seen the latest Shearer picture, don’t go into rhapsodies over Norma; he’s referring to her brother!