THX Creator Tomlinson Holman is the ICTA’s ICON of the Year

Courtesy of Tomlinson Holman

The history of the cinema industry is one of constant innovation. The 20th century saw near-constant experimentation with large formats, color film, and visual effects, to name just a few of the ways the pioneers in our industry made seeing films on the big screen a must. But seeing is only a part of the overall cinema experience. Going back to the silent film days, when live musicians or records would provide a film’s score, sound has been an indispensable part of going to the movies. But the technology behind cinema sound remained largely static between 1926, when Warner Bros.’ Don Juan became the first feature to utilize sync sound, and 1983.

It was in that year that aural titan Tomlinson (Tom) Holman created a sound system that incorporated room acoustics and a patented overall sound experience to create a sound system that allowed audiences to finally hear movies as filmmakers and sound designers intended. The system was named by Lucasfilm’s Jim Kessler, who–looking for something snappy–combined Holman’s initials with an “X” (for the audio technology term “crossover”), creating an acronym that, coincidentally, George Lucas had used in the title of his debut feature (THX-1138) nearly a decade earlier. It was too perfect a name to pass up, and THX was born.

Born in the small town of Oregon, Illinois, Holman grew up walking to the movies on Saturday mornings, moviegoing having been a family tradition ever since Tom’s father served as a relief projectionist in the 1930s. Studying at the University of Illinois, Holman doubled down on his passion for moviegoing, continuing to work with the college’s film production unit after graduation and reading everything about audio he could get his hands on.

Later on, Holman took a job at the audio hardware company Advent, where he was mentored by its founder, the legendary sound engineer Henry Kloss. Holman’s work attracted the attention of Lucas, hot off the success of Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, who hired him as Lucasfilm’s chief engineer of post-production in 1980. Over a seven-year stint at Lucasfilm, Holman would rack up a number of impressive credits, including Return of the Jedi (the first film to use the THX system) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, on which Tom served as an audio engineer.

In 1987, Holman began teaching at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts (USC), commuting weekly to the Skywalker Ranch to continue work on THX and its spinoffs. In 1995 he left Lucasfilm to found his own TMH Corporation. In 2011, he began a ten-year stint at Apple, where he provided input on technical matters related to audio until his retirement in 2021. Over the years, Holman shared his knowledge with a new generation of audio engineers through his books Sound for Film and Television, Surround Sound: Up and Running, and Sound for Digital Video; his forthcoming book, Cinema Design, is a personal and technical look at sound design in cinema.

In 2002, Holman received the Academy Award for Technical Achievement “for the research and systems integration resulting in the improvement of motion picture loudspeaker systems.” Other accolades earned through his career include the Audio Engineering Society Silver Medal, IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Masaru Ibuka Award, Samuel L. Warner Memorial and Eastman Kodak Gold Medals from SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers), the Ed Greene Award from CAS (Cinema Audio Society), and lifetime achievement awards from CAS and CEDIA (Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association).

This January, at the International Cinema Technology Association’s (ICTA) L.A. Seminar Series, another well-deserved award gets added to the list: The ICTA Industry ICON Award, recognizing Holman as someone who has “made outstanding and significant contributions to cinema technology, and as a result, to the enhancement of the moviegoing experience,” says Mark Mayfield, vice president of ICTA and program chairperson of the L.A. Seminar. The impact that Holman has had on countless moviegoers worldwide is impossible to quantify–because, says ICTA President Frank Tees, THX is more than the famous “Deep Note” that plays before every THX Certified film. It’s more than just a sound system. “Rather, THX was a certification of sound components, acoustics, viewing angles, and much more to deliver what the director intended in a repeatable way to moviegoers around the world. If you have been wowed watching a movie in a modern commercial theater, whether THX Certified or not, you can thank Tomlinson Holman.” Below, Boxoffice Pro speaks to Holman about his legendary career.

Congratulations on your ICTA Icon Award! Exhibition is a part of your family’s DNA. What did your father impart to you about his experiences working in exhibition?

He was about 20 when he had that [relief projectionist] job. It was in the Depression. He absolutely wanted an engineer as a son, because engineers worked during the Depression. I am an engineering dropout, but I became a distinguished engineer at Apple. There’s nothing bigger than that. So fate, or whatever it is, is built in. I was fulfilling my father’s destiny for me. He didn’t get to know that, because he died young.

You grew up going to the movies at the Oregon Theatre and the Coronado Theatre. That was where you saw the first CinemaScope film, The Robe, as well as films such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. How influential were those moviegoing experiences on your career?

They were very important, because we were in a backwater. We didn’t get television until I was 10 years old. I’m a pre-television kid, basically. I went to both the small-town Oregon Theatre in Oregon, Illinois, and the Coronado Theatre, which is still there in Rockford. It’s still something to go to, a grand thing with twinkling lights in the ceiling and these layers of art. It’s not running as a movie venue anymore, but it certainly was a movie palace and I certainly got that treatment. Being a small boy, it was all just completely overwhelming. That’s what we seek to do today.

The THX sound system was a synthesis of 30 years of developments that hadn’t been implemented into theater auditoriums. In addition to bringing many of those developments together, there was also an element of discovery in THX. What was that year like for you at Lucasfilm, looking at the sound design process from the production soundstage all the way to the movie theater?

No one had ever been given the opportunity, because the Hollywood studios were all existing spaces, albeit with some upgrades. Nobody had built a new studio from the ground up. That’s what George Lucas was up to with the prototype dubbed “C Building” on 3210 Kerner Boulevard [in San Rafael, California], which, by the way, was just sold off at auction. All the chairs, all the sconces, everything is gone. Things have a limited lifetime. At any rate, it was a blank sheet. I wasn’t given much direction. The one meeting with George was [about how the sound at] the theater down the hill from his house sucked, [and what could I do to make it better?] There wasn’t a specific task to go and build a sound system. I’m the one who took apart the whole chain and, as an engineer, really just tuned up the parts. When it came to the theater loudspeaker, I realized that the voice of the theater was very long in the tooth. Even its own developers tried to put it out to pasture, and they couldn’t do it. They had a chicken and egg situation between the dubbing stages and the theaters with an 80 percent market share. Even they knew it had its limitations. They tried to put out something that wasn’t all that dissimilar from THX.

In particular, I realized that THX would only work in theaters with guaranteed acoustics. It was the first time anybody, anywhere tried to mass-produce room acoustics. That’s the opposite of what you do if you’re building concert halls. Each one of them has a signature, and it’s useful for certain music, even specialized that way. Some of them are adjustable, but mainly it is a home for an orchestra, like Disney Hall [home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic] is.

The cinema is supposed to be the same cookie cutter experience for everyone. In some ways that’s simpler to do, but on the other hand, you’ve got to convince theater owners to put the money in, so it’s harder to do a retrofit than it is to build from the ground up. Once we had a formula for the ground up, we could get uniform, consistent behavior room-to-room-to-room for 3,500 theaters. That’s the biggest accomplishment. The goals of THX were largely accomplished. George got the Irving Thalberg Award [at the 1991 Oscars], handed to him by Steven Spielberg standing underneath a THX logo, for doing things for the entire industry.

But it became impossible to manage getting [the system] around to 3,500 theaters. We burned out technicians. There were divorces. It was a victim of its own success, in essence. On the other hand, once the patents ran out, there was a guy in the film tech forums who said, “You should absolutely do one theater with THX, because they’ll teach you a lot. Then just go off and duplicate it.” From George’s point of view, it improved the whole industry. From a THX point of view, it was not so good for making money [Laughs.]

The THX system was initially made to hear more of what was already there on the soundtrack of the master. What was the experience like playing the Academy demo reel of Raiders of the Lost Ark for sound designer Ben Burtt and audio engineers Gary Summers and Jim Kessler? That was the culmination of a great deal of work.

The voice of the theater was limited on the low end in the bass, and it was limited in the high end in the treble by about an octave. Human beings hear 10 octaves, and they were cutting off more than two. Extending that frequency range on the master allowed them to hear it. It was actually recorded there, but they hadn’t heard it when they mixed it. That was jaw-dropping to Ben Burtt, who had worked on it. It was rewarding to see the mixers so happy. As an engineer, you don’t affect the movies, because you don’t make the content, but on the other hand, I affected the quality of it. That was another dimension of the whole experience. It’s what I could do to help the movies out as an engineer. That was my point of view from day one.

It’s really why I dropped out of engineering in college, because it looked like engineering was not being put to the purposes I wanted. I did a lot more engineering after I left engineering! I had some good teachers, but nevertheless, I think it was important to be the “rebel,” in George’s terms, and drop out. When I went to Advent to get a job, I had something I’d made [to show them]. The MIT boys had all the equations, but they had never built anything. That’s how I got the job. That’s how I found a mentor. Mentorship is extremely important. For somebody in their late 20s to get that job with Henry Kloss, it’s just unbelievable.

There are a lot more stories about the early days of THX. What were some of your discoveries?

I snuck in behind the screen at the Harvard Square Theatre in Cambridge. It was a great big empty stage house. If you clapped your hands back there it would go on forever. The speakers were mostly aimed at the auditorium, but some came off the screen and reflected around and came back later. You could hear that in the voice, that it had a little twang to it. The manager somehow figured out that I left and came in backstage. He wanted to just throw me out, but I asked why it was so reverberant back there. He told me that it had been full of drapery, but the fireproofing had expired, so they had to take it out and they couldn’t afford to fill up the whole fly loft with drapery for something that’s never used. They had no way of damping down the reverberation backstage.

That’s the vaudeville problem. One of the talks I’ve given at the ICTA is about the history of horns and compression drivers. In vaudeville days, to change over to the movie, they rolled out a gigantic, wooden exponential horn with a 10-foot-square mouth and put it behind the screen, because they had lots of space backstage. Then in the ‘20s, when vaudeville started to die, there were 20,000-some cinemas built. It’s unbelievable. They threw away the stage house from vaudeville, so they had to wrap up the horns and make it shallow. That was the beginning of problems. I have a talk about that, which is coming up at the ICTA. How have we shrunk things? We didn’t shrink the wavelengths, so how did it all get shrunk? The thesis is that they’ve gone too far today and shrunk it down to one seat depth, 17 inches or something. I’m going to talk about why we should give it another row’s worth behind the screen.

You also provided the industry with the name for 5.1 surround sound audio systems.

That went absolutely everywhere. It was in a 1987 SMPTE [Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers] meeting about the number of channels to go onto prints digitally. One person said two channels, left and right, like the conventional analog optical. One said four: left, center, right, and surround. One said eight: five channels across the front, two surrounds, and a subwoofer. I put up my hand and said, “5.1” The discussion just ended. “What is he talking about? Point one of a channel is not point one of a channel.” In technical terms, the actual true story is that it’s 5.005, because the subwoofer channel is only partial bandwidth, so it’s a little bit of a channel at .005. I said, “Yes, but 5.1 is marketing rounding.” That saved the day. How many times have people walked into Hi-Fi stores and said to the salesman, “What’s the point one?” He will say, “Well, that’s the subwoofer.” That isn’t even true, because it’s a separate channel that gets to the subwoofer, along with other things, so it’s more complicated than that, but it’s a simple enough story to get it across to the public. 5.1 is still the most omnipresent in the world today in a theater of any kind. Most of the world is 5.1.

Audio frequency has been examined and expanded over the years. Is the future of film sound going to be in filmmakers and designers further exploring spatial sound?

Yes, I think it is. And that’s because it’s hard. We’ve got the frequency range and dynamic range. Movies play as loud as anybody ever wants. The next generation is space. I like to make the joke from “Star Trek”: “Space. The final frontier.” There are worlds to explore. We now have the capacity. The question is whether we have the time and wherewithal on the art side to bring it off. It does happen in some movies. It certainly happened in Gravity. Gravity absolutely sets a standard, but it happened because the director [Alfonso Cuarón] got very involved very early on. They threw out the 5.1 mix, started over, and were very attentive to the mix. Another one was Roma on Netflix. Again, [Cuarón] was very engaged. He probably went too far in having everything be immersive. You couldn’t hear the dialogue very well, so it kind of went overboard, but it’s experimenting.

Most of the Dolby Atmos movies are, frankly, B-movie features trying to be A features. They have to tick the Atmos box to get into the bigger theaters in their first weeks. These big action pictures can make things fly around, but [they don’t] really stretch the art like Gravity and Roma. I think it’s a matter of the intelligence and attention of the directors. That’s why I went to USC to teach. I wasn’t teaching in trade school. I was teaching an element in an art school. 3,500 students came through my class, and it was to affect the outcome [of cinema as an art form].

Can you give us one of those students as an example?

The most obvious one is John Singleton, who said in his tribute to me at CAS [the Cinema Audio Society Awards, where Holman was honored in 2018] that he sat in my class and then used what he learned directly in Boyz n the Hood. I was never so happy. He was a big supporter. He took the class twice, for reasons that the federal government prevents me from telling you. He even said that he wasn’t ready the first time, but the second time he paid attention and took notes. For example, he went to grade school on the flight path of LAX in South Central Los Angeles. There were airplanes [flying ahead] all the time. He could have tried to shoot it in such a place, but then you would have created impossible cutting situations and edits. So he shot it quietly and then added the airplanes in. He learned that from me. [Laughs] The way he got the picture [greenlit] was, the studio initially took a look at the script and said to him, “You’ve got this helicopter scene, and that’s just too expensive for your budget.” He said, “No problem. I can do that with a searchlight and sound effects.” He got the picture. I’m always the last one out of the theater, because I’m watching the end titles to see if I had a hand in it!

You’re in the process of writing your next book, Cinema Design. What has that experience of reflecting back on your life and career been like?

I want to write it all down before I go. I’ve dealt with so many architects over the years. I’ve had to teach each group the same stuff. For example, I did two different projects with [architecture, design, and planning firm] Gensler. I had to teach the same stuff over again, even though it was the same architect. It was the Paramount screening room and one screening room that we did at Apple. [Writing the book is] to get it all down in one place. Who knows if any more cinemas are going to be built? I still think thousands of people coming together at once in the same mindset is a good thing and will continue to go on, but I don’t know. I only need three copies. One for the Library of Congress, one for the British Library, and one for the Deutsches Museum Library. So that somebody like me, 50 years from now, can go and look at it and learn about what was wrong with Radio City Music Hall and the Cinerama Dome.

What happened at Radio City Music Hall was that the back wall was made of a custom woven [material] with a sound-absorbing material behind it. Between 1930 and 1980, when we looked at it 50 years later, it had all crumbled. There was a huge echo. In the eighth row center, the best seats in the house, I made a stronger echo off of the back wall than from the front. We couldn’t change it, because it was on the National Historic Register. I pointed it out to them, and we didn’t put THX in Radio City Music Hall, but they knew it. When they eventually remodeled, they rewove the same fabric, but put new absorbing material behind it, and fixed it back to the 1930s acoustics. There are lots of stories like that. Madonna fixed the Cinerama Dome. The Cinerama Dome always had cross echoes from one part to another. Somebody would be opening their candy and you’d hear it crossways, because it went up this big reflector. They always knew it was there, but they couldn’t afford to fix it. Madonna’s people demanded they fix it for Evita. So the dome got fixed. Art drives life! [Laughs]

Courtesy of Tomlinson Holman

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