The Sawyer Soundscape

The Sawyer Soundscape

Posted by Mike Matessino on Jul 18th 2017

The 1973 musical adaptation of Tom Sawyer, produced by Arthur P. Jacobs and presented by Reader’s Digest, was originally released in 70mm six-track sound with an Overture and Exit Music. For the Twilight Time Blu-Ray release I oversaw the efforts to present the film as close to that original version as possible. While the film had a widescreen LaserDisc release in the 1990s with stereo sound, subsequent VHS and DVD releases as well as versions prepared for broadcast eliminated the Overture and Exit Music, while an earlier DVD offered only “pan/scan” picture and no multichannel sound. There was much work to do. The high-definition master provided by MGM restored the Panavision film’s 2.35:1 picture quality beautifully, but like earlier releases only contained 2-channel audio and was missing the musical bookends. TT undertook the effort to transfer the original 65mm 6-track mag, which did contain the Overture and Exit Music. After conforming the audio to the new master and performing the requisite cleanup, it then needed to be repurposed for the current 5.1 format.

(Technobabble alert!) Six-channel audio from the days of 70mm presentations was configured with five channels across the screen and one surround channel. In some instances (such as the label’s previous release of 1960’s Exodus), the two extra front channels (sometimes referred to as “baby boom”) were created by combining Left+Center and Right+Center, then applying offset to one and phase inversion to the other, resulting in a 5-channel spread that would fill out a larger cinema. In cases like that, the two extra channels can simply be dropped when a 5.1. mix is created. But for many films, the five front channels each contained distinctive information. Such was the case with Tom Sawyer. As this situation has cropped up in recent years, formulas have been developed whereby the two added front channels are distributed to the Left-Center-Right signals in such a way that the resulting “image” closely matches the original spread of the five channels. In other words, when done properly, the information from those two added channels will appear to emerge from where those extra speakers would have been placed.

Tom Sawyer on Blu-Ray has both 4.0 and 5.1 audio because as a consequence of this work with the original 6-track sound, I discovered that the surround track was actually used very little. Even most of the songs had little or no surround information. The 4.0 audio on the disc therefore presents the audio exactly as in 1973 and is effectively what would have been heard at 70mm screenings. But the enhanced 5.1 audio is the result of an effort to take things further for an updated presentation.

This was a happy result of TT’s commitment to Isolated Music Tracks. For Tom Sawyer, 16-track 2-inch master tapes created for the soundtrack album were available, along with a monaural dialogue-music-and effects stems – the music component of which could be utilized for surround placement. I used Fiddler on the Roof (1971) as reference, as that film was from the same era and studio and also featured a score adapted by the great John Williams (for which he won his first Oscar® — and was likewise also nominated for Tom Sawyer). The result is a richer and more enveloping musical experience, with sound effects and LFE enhancement also incorporated where this seemed appropriate.

For the Overture and Exit Music, I engaged longtime colleague Daren Dochterman to create screen graphics in a font and style matching the credits on the film. Additionally, he recreated the blue Reader’s Digest card that appeared on the film initially as the Exit Music began. When all of this work was completed – including the Isolated Music Track, which presents the songs without the vocals – I worked with our authoring facility in laying out the disc’s functionality so that viewers would have the option of playing the movie with or without the musical bookends. This involved laying in the graphics, establishing the data stream jumping points, and determining how this would affect (or be affected by) the isolated music and commentary tracks. There is a lot happening on this disc! The restoration of the Overture that opens the companion feature Huckleberry Finn (1974) was similarly done as well.

Finally, we also at last have the bonus features that haven’t been presented since Tom Sawyer’s LaserDisc debut. Among these is rehearsal footage with screenwriters/songwriters Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman and John Williams making all of the musical goodness that TT’s Blu-Ray has now served up, plus a vintage River Song Featurette and an Audio Commentary with both Shermans and director Don Taylor. There’s only one word for how it feels to have worked on this release of the Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn Double-Feature Blu-ray: gratifaction! Feel it yourself – with or without paintbrush in hand – when it sails homeward this week.