Douglas Shearer was on of the technical geniuses whose talents were vital to filmmaking and the creation of motion picture magic.
Born into a prominent Montreal family that fell on hard times when his father's business failed, Douglas Shearer left high school in the midst of his graduation year and found a job.
Fascinated by light and sound, Shearer shadowed his supervisors at Northern Electric Company, studying their experimental work in the use of electricity for carrying signals over long distances.
Hoping to further the singing, acting, modeling careers of his younger sisters, Norma and Athole, his mother took his two siblings and moved to New York City: Shearer stayed behind with his father, and despite his lack of a secondary school diploma he began studying engineering at McGill University.
By 1923, his sister Norma was experiencing success in front of the camera, and Shearer decided to buy a rail ticket and try his own luck in the burgeoning film industry in California. In 1925, he began his career with MGM Studios with the mandate to experiment with lighting, film, and cameras. When he asked about sound, his boss, Irving Thalberg, said, "That's a long way off, if it ever comes. But yes, sound if you wish."
When MGM decided to make sound pictures in 1928, Shearer was, despite his lack or formal academic training, appointed head of the sound department? a position he held until his retirement. Taking the silent film White Shadows in the South Seas (1928) to a New Jersey recording studio, he added sound effects and music. In those early years, the common practice was to record the sounds effects and the music but not the dialogue. Shearer initiated the idea of playing the soundtrack for a musical number so it would be filmed in sync with the music. That groundbreaking film was The Broadway Melody (1929), which won the Oscar for Best Picture that year. It was billed as an "All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!" movie.
Shearer won his first Academy Award for Best Sound Recording with The Big House (1930). At the 1931 ceremony, he shared the stage with younger sister Norma, who won an Academy Award for acting? the only time in Oscar history that a brother and sister were awarded on the same night.
To improve the experience of the moviegoers, Shearer and his team invented what would become the first sound "mixer". In 1936, the "Shearer Horn" became the industry standard.
"The public probably little realizes the various advances in sound pictures," said Shearer, "but some of our troubles and problems have had an element of humour. For example, we experimented much in early days to prevent the falling rain from sounding like dropping bullets when recorded. We learn to damp' the sound with blotting paper on window sills, or felt on the ground out of camera sight."
During World War II, Shearer "disappeared" from Hollywood for a period of nearly two years. Later, it was explained that Shearer, who was also an aviator, had been tapped to work with the Office of Naval Research as a consultant on radar development and devices that determine when and where nuclear explosions take place.
Back in Hollywood, Shearer continued his work in sound technology, earning three more Oscars? two for special effects (Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, in 1944, and Green Dolphin Street, 1947) and another for sound (The Great Caruso, 1951).
Shearer's most important contributions include the development of a sophisticated recording system that largely eliminated unwanted background noise during the sound recording, and the co-creation of the MGM Camera 65 wide-screen system, used for the wide-screen photography of Ben-Hur (1959), which earned him a special Oscar. Shearer is also credited with advancements in projection work, colour balance and background process photography.
During his tenure at MGM, Shearer was involved in improving virtually every scientific and technical aspect of the motion picture business. Upon his death in January of 1971, The New York Times gave Douglas Shearer's obituary 15 column inches on the front page? an honour usually reserved for giants of industry, heads of state and very few actors and actresses.
He was considered one of the greatest sound men in the industry, Shearer held patents for wide-ranging technology, from studio dubbing processes to radio navigation systems for aircraft.
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