Hi, John Hess from Filmmaker IQ.com and today we’ll look at the epic history of synchronized sound at the movies. Our story begins with one of the original
American pioneers of film – the prolific inventor Thomas A. Edison. Edison didn’t invent motion
pictures, but he did invent the phonograph in 1877 – a device which could record and
playback sound etched onto a wax cylinder. In February of 1888, Edison attended a lecture
by motion photographer Eadweard Muybridge – the man who first documented the gait of
a galloping horse and inventor of a very crude projector device called the Zoopraxiscope.
Aftward the two men met privately – why not marry the the idea of Edison’s sound recording
with hugely successful phonograph with moving pictures of Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope? There
was a one major technological hurdle – there was no way of amplifying sound for large audiences
to hear. The Phonograph used larged horns to direct and amplify sound but this wouldn’t
be enough for a crowded theater. Because of this Muybridge abandoned the idea
and returned to photographing his motion studies – but not Edison. He believed the future of
film was not in projection for large audiences, but in individual exhibition – Edison saw
a future of coin-operated entertainment movie machines. By the year’s end he had a crude
design in mind and set his lab assistant William Kennedy Laurie Dickson on the task of developing
a machine that would be called the Kinetoscope. In 1894, Dickson and Edison experimented with
recording sound and images together for playback on a device that would be called Kinetophone
– a Kinetoscope connected to a phonograph. This film restored and synced by Walter Murch
in 1998 is the only surviving Kinetophone film in existence and dates from sometime
around 1894 to 1895. So from the very beginning – the design of
motion pictures included the use of synchronized sound. Unfortunately getting and keeping sync
was nearly impossible in these early machines. But the Kinetoscope by itself did catch on.
On April 14, 1894, Andrew Holland opened the first Kinetoscope parlor in New York City
where for 25 cents you could get a chance to see five of Edison’s peep show viewers.
Though there was money to made in arcade entertainment, with the advancement of film projection, it
was becoming clear that Edison was wrong about individual viewing and that motion pictures
would find a place in public theater exhibition. Again sound faced the technological barrier
that had discouraged Muybridge from the very beginning.
Other inventors did take a crack at the sound sync issue. In 1900 at the Paris World Fair,
three separate photograph synced devices were exhibited, the Phonorama, Chronophone and
Phono-Cinema-Theatre. But these sound-on-disk systems suffered from three major problems:
sync issues if the stylus on the phonograph should skip a grove, amplification, and the
fact that wax cylinders and later on 12 inch discs, could only hold at most maybe 5 minutes
of recording time. The marriage of film and sound would have
to wait. But in the mean time, film would go from a arcade novelty to a major international
industry. When sound technology finally caught up, the movie business was a game of moguls
and big money with sound threatening to turn the entire industry on its head. Twenty years after Edison and Dickson’s first
sound and film experiment, the movies were now a major entertainment outlet. But it’s
important to note that even though we call it silent film it was never really silent.
When the nickelodeons gave way to the Movie Palaces around 1915, these large movie establishments
would employ live orchestras to play music and add sound effects to the happenings on
the screen. Some directors like D.W. Griffith even commissioned scores to be performed along
with specific scenes in his films. But only the biggest theaters could afford
such luxuries. Smaller venues would make do with a pianist which was still a big expense.
So now the effort was now on to trying to get pre-recorded music to go along with silent
films so smaller theaters wouldn’t have to pay for musicians. Instead of recording audio
to a separate disc as Edison had tried, inventors focused on imprinting the audio right onto
the film strip itself. In 1919 three German inventors – Josef Engl,
Joseph Massole, and Hans Vogt patented the Tri-Ergon process that converts audio waves
into electricity which drove a light. This light would then be photographed on the film
strip negative – the density being the strength of the signal. When playing back, a patented
flywheel would control the speed and the a light would shine through the audio strip
and onto a reader which converted the light back into electricity and into sound.
That solved the sync and length issues with sound on disc – but not amplification. That
would be tackled by a giant in the development of radio broadcasting: Dr. Lee de Forest.
In 1906 De Forest patented the audion tube – the first electronic device that could take
a small signal and amplify it – a key piece of technology for radio broadcast and long
distance telephones. In 1919, de Forest’s attention turned to motion pictures as he
realized that his audion tube could provide much better of amplification for these optical
sound on film systems. Three years later in 1922, De Forest had designed his own system
and opened the De Forest Phonofilm Company to produce a series of short sound films in
New York City. They churned out lots these sound films – several
one and two reel photofilms a week and by the middle of 1924, 34 theaters on the American
East coast had been wired for De Forest Sound. Over a 1000 films were made in the span of
four years from vaudeville acts to plays to speeches from prominent people like President
Calvin Coolidge, even this comedy routine from Eddie Cantor in 1923 But De Forrest�s success out East did not
pique the interest of Hollywood. He had offered the technology to moguls like Carl Laemmle
of Universal and Adoph Zukor of Paramount but they saw no reason to disrupt the silent
movie cash cow business they had with something as frivolous as sound. That is until one studio
took a gamble, going back to a sound-on-disc technology. Vitaphone was a sound on disk process created
by Western Electric and Bell Telephone Labs that used a series of 33 ? discs. When representatives
tried to sell the technology to Hollywood in 1925 they faced the same disinterest that
De Forest had. That is except for one relatively minor but venturesome studio: Warner Bros.
Pictures. In April of 1926, Warner Bros. with the financial
assistance of Goldman Sachs established the Vitaphone Corporation, leasing the sound technology
from Western Electric for the sum of $800,000 with the intent of subleasing to other studios.
Warner Bros. never intended the technology to create “talking pictures” – instead using
it to provide synchronized musical accompaniment for Warner Bros. films. To demonstrate their
new acquisition Warner Bros launched a massive $3 million dollar premiere in the Refrigerated
Warner Theater at Broadway and Fifty second Street in New York City on August 6, 1926.
(It was called refrigerated because the movie theater was really the first time people of
that era got to experience air conditioning). The feature film was Don Juan with a lavish
score performed by the New York Philharmonic along with many sound shorts including a brief
speech from the president of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America: Will Hays. The premiere was a resounding success with
critics praising it as the eighth wonder of the world. Warner took the show on the road,
hitting Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detriot, St. Louis as well as touring Europe. Despite
the success, industry insiders weren’t sure about sound’s future. You see the entire economic structure of the
film industry would necessarily have to change. New Sound studios would have to be built and
new expensive recording equipment installed. Theaters would have to be wired for sound
and there was really yet to be a standard sound process. The star system, with actors
trained in the ways of pantomime, would be upturned as now they would be required to
speak for the first time. Foreign sales would plummet. Silent film’s
title cards could easily be translated for export, but not dialogue and dubbing a foreign
language was still technology of the future. Even the musicians who found employment in
the movie palaces would have to be laid off. For all these reasons Hollywood hoped that
sound would be a passing novelty but the moguls began to move to protect themselves anyhow.
Loew ( which would become MGM), Famous Players Lasky (soon to be Paramount), First National,
Universal and Producers Distributing Corporation signed an agreement which came to be known
confusingly as the “Big Five” agreement, where the studios agreed to all adopt a single sound
system should an industry wide conversion come to fruition.
Meanwhile Warner Bros didn’t halt on their Vitaphone investment. They announced that
all their 1927 films would be produced with synchronized musical accompaniment and in
April of the same year built the very first sound studio in the world. In May, production
would begin on the film that would cement sound’s place in Cinema: The Jazz Singer. Originally the Jazz Singer was suppose to
be a silent film with vitaphone musical accompaniment. But Al Jolson improvised those famous words
and Warner Bros. left them in. Later Jolson adds more dialogue in this tender and intimate
scene where his character sings to his mother. Did you like that mama? I’m glad of it. I’d rather please you than any other. Oh darling, would you give me something? You’ll never guess, shut your eyes mama. shut em for little Jackie… I’m going to steal something. I’ll give it back to you someday you see if I don’t. Mama darling. If I’m a success in this show. Well, we’re going to move from here. Oh yes, we’re going to move up to the Bronx Lot of nice green grass up there, a whole lot of people you know, the Ginsbergs, the Gutenbergs, and the Goldbergs, A whole lot of bergs I don’t know them all…. And I’m going to buy you a nice black silk dress mama. You’ll see, Mrs. Freedman the butcher’s wife, she’ll be jealous of you. Yes she will, you see if she isn’t. And I’m going to get you a nice pink dress that will go with your brown eyes. What do you mean no. Who is telling you.Yes you’ll wear pink or else. Or else you’ll wear pink. And darling, I’m going to take you to Coney Island Yes, we’re going to ride on the Shoot d’ shoot. And the Dark Mill, you ever been in the Dark Mill? Well with me it’s alright. I’ll kiss you and hug you… Now mama.. stop now, you’re getting kittish. Mama, listen, I’m going to sing for you like I will when I go on stage with the show. I’m going to sing it jazzy now get this… Blue skies smiling at me Nothing but little blue skies do I see… Blue birds singing a song…. Nothing but blue birds all day long You like that slapping business? Never saw the sun shining so bright, never saw things going so right… Noticing the days going so by when you’re in love oh don’t they fly Blue days … STOP! As you see the film slips back into silent
film title cards. Thsse were the only two pieces of improv were the only pieces of spoken
dialogue in the film but the impact was enormous. This wasn’t a speech or a canned performance,
this was seeing actual drama unfold on the screen. And although synchronized sound had
been around before, it was the Jazz Singer that was the first feature film to use it
in such a realistic almost voyeuristic way. The film went off to be an international success
earning 3.5 million dollars worldwide. At roughly the same time Fox Film Corporation’s
William Fox who was not part of the Big Five Agreement but a minor studio, much like Warner
Bros., also saw potential in the talkies. In 1927, Fox acquired the Tri-Ergon sound-on-film
process for $50,000 and began releasing Newsreels with sound. These newsreels were a hit and
Fox began sending camera crews around the world to interview famous personalities on
camera pumping out three to four newsreels per week to Fox theaters.
In a shrewd move, Fox negotiated a reciprocal contract with the Vitaphone corporation in
which each studio would license the other’s systems, technicians and theaters thus covering
both Fox and Warner Bros. should one sound system become standard over the other.
By the end of 1927 it was becoming quite clear – sound was here to stay. A dismal year for
the industry, only the sound films were able to attract and do big business. Even the worst
sound film outsold the best silent ones. The moguls were forced to act. With sound a sure thing, the studios began
the process of picking a standard in accordance to the Big Five Agreement and there were a
lot of optical sound-on-film options. While still pushing Vitaphone, Western Electric
had developed their own optical system under Electrical
Research Products Incorporated and won the contract with Paramount and Loew’s. RCA and
General Electric had perfected a system called Photophone and after narrowly losing the contract
to Paramount, acquired Joseph P. Kennedy’s Film Booking Office, Pathe and Keith Albee-Orpheum
to create a new major RCA controlled studio: Radio-Keith Orpheum – RKO By the summer of
1928, every studio in Hollywood was armed with some sort of sound system license.
Warner Bros. continued to lead the way making the first 100% all talkie – Lights of New
York in 1928. It did so well in the box office that Hollywood insiders who thought silent
pictures and talkies could coexist at least for a while, realized that silent film was
all but dead. In 1929 three quarters of all films made in
Hollywood were released with some kind of pre-recorded sound which included 335 all
dialogue features, 95 features with mixture of dialogue and subtitles and 75 features
with musical score and sound effects. 175 silent films were released into smaller provincial
theaters that had not been wired for sound but even those were becoming more scarce.
In just a span of 2 years, from 1927 to 1929 the entire industry was retooled from production
to exhibition – at an estimated cost of $300 million dollars more the 4 times the valuation
of the entire industry. This money was lent from corporate Wall Street giants J.P. Morgan
and Rockefeller group who controlled Western Electric and RCA. But the investment paid
off in big profits as audiences came in droves to see the talkies.
It was because of sound that Hollywood was able to survive the first wave of the Great
Depression that started with crash of the stock market in October 1929. Had it not been
for the bold moves of Warner Bros and Fox pushing the industry early on, the money required
for sound conversion would have been delayed for another 10 years or so. And when effects
of the crash finally made its way to Hollywood in 1932, silent film was all but a forgotten
memory. Fox’s Movietone and RCA’s Photophone were the standard in the United States and
Tobis Klangfilm’s Tri-Ergon was the standard in Europe. Warner Bros. who had made bank
with Vitaphone had plenty of cash to make the switch to sound on film.
Sound was now common place in the movie theater and it would take another threat to bring
the industry to the next big innovation: the threat of Television. The period from the 1927 to 1950s or early
60s is considered the Golden Era of Hollywood – the Studio Age – a rich period of mass production
in which sound played a crucial role. With sound came the advent of the lavish musical
and the familiar musical animation. The silent slapstick comedy of Chaplin and Keaton gave
way to the fast talking humor of the Marx Brothers and romantic screwball comedies.
Horror gained new ground bringing in German Expressionism influences along with eerie
sound tracks – the first great horror icons, Dracula and Frankenstein were all part of
the sound era. Though the studios would experience ups and
downs in the first 30 years of sound, major industry shaking challenges were just ahead
in the 1950s. First was the Supreme Court Case United States vs Paramount Pictures in
1948. The Paramount decision ended the studios control over their own theaters – declaring
the practice an illegal vertical monopoly. It also limited the practice of block booking,
where studios could force theaters to purchase large blocks of movies – often bundling prestigious
A-pictures with a bunch of low quality B-films. This effectively killed studio’s mass production
mentality bringing an end to the studio system And then came television. Between 1946 and
1955 Movie theater attendance plummeted dropping 50% as suburban audiences decided they’d rather
catch the latest show on television than make it out the theater.
The old way of doing business was dying and Innovative producers realized the only way
to get people out of the house was to show them something you couldn’t get at home. This
is when we see the use of stereoscopic 3D which led to an explosion in Widescreen Aspect
Ratios along with huge projections – making the trip to the movies an experience.
And to create that immersive feel came multitrack sound. For most of the studio era – sound
was recorded and played back on a single mono track. 1940’s Fantasia from Walt Disney would
be the first film released with a multichannel format call Fantasound but only two theaters
were equipped to play back the surround sound – at $85,000 per theater. Who could blame
them? But theaters in 50s were desperate for something
draw audiences out. “This is Cinerama” in 1952 – a bold new widescreen format that used
3 strips of film to create an 146 degree field of view treated audiences to a total of 7
audio channels recorded magnetically onto the film strip. Exhibition placed 5 loudspeakers
behind the screen with two placed in the rear for surround sound.
20th Century Fox’s Cinemascope – also amped up the channels of audio to a total of 4 – left,
center and right for loudspeakers placed behind the screen and the fourth as an surround sound
effects channel which could be switched on and off with a 12 kHz tone to avoid unnecessary
hiss when there was no surround sound present. VistaVision used something called Perspecta
– a mono optical track that could be directed to three speakers using an subaudible tones
to activate left speaker at 30Hz, middle at 35hz and right at 40hz. This really only worked
for isolated sound effects and dialogue and was pretty much abandoned by 1958.
The large 70mm prints of the 50s like Todd AO also boasted a robust six channel sound.
But the problem with many of these systems was they used a magnetic strip that ran along
side the film. This added to the cost of the print and would wear down over time resulting
in little specks of iron oxide that would flake off and jam the projectors.
Once Hollywood had settled into a new groove of filmmaking in the 60s, 35mm with it’s aging
mono optical track became the go to format. But audio technology progresses and a one
company would forever change the audio landscape and become almost synonymous with movie theater
sound. The story of Dolby and film theater sound
really begins back in the 1930s. In the rush to equip theaters with sound, the Academy
of Motion Pictures and Sciences became an important technical resource for filmmakers
and theaters on how to shoot and properly wire for sound. Consistency was always the
problem, big lavish theaters could afford great sound while smaller theaters had to
make do with less than stellar setups. In 1938 the Academy essentially standardized
a frequency response – a sort of worst case scenario which all sound mixing stages would
be calibrated to so that sound editors knew what their mix would sound like even in the
least capable theaters. Theaters with good sound setups would have to handicap their
setups to match this Academy Curve. To our modern sensibilities the Academy curve
killed audio fidelity but it ended up doing one very important thing – it masked the high
range hiss that was so prevalent in the analog recorders of the day.
But masking the problem doesn’t make it go away. As the music industry became more sophisticated
in the 60s, recording artists turned increasingly to multi-track recordings – this high end
hiss became a serious problem. If noise was bad on one channel, mixing together 16 channels
only amplified the problem. One engineer by the name of Ray Dolby came
up with a solution. By splitting up the input signal into frequency bands and applying compression
before recording the sound onto a tape he could record a much better signal to noise
ratio on the recording medium – for playback, the Dolby would reverse the compression and
the result was dramatically reduced noise. This system, Dolby A, was introduced in 1966
and pretty quickly became a standard in the recording industry. Dolby’s attention then
turned to the film industry. In 1971, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange would be the
first film to use this Dolby noise reduction on all magnetic generations up to the print
master though the final release print was an optical mono track.
But the cat was out of the bag. Academy curve was replaced the following year with Dolby’s
X-curve which is defined using pink noise and calibrated from a listening position of
two thirds of the way back in a theater – which incidentally is the best place to sit when
you go to the movies from an audio standpoint. For the first time, sound engineers were calibrating
speakers for the psycho-acoustical response and taking into consideration the reverberation
of any given room size. Armed with Noise Reduction and the new EQ
standards, Dolby released a new audio system – Dolby Stereo with the release of 1976’s
“A Star is Born” -Dolby Stereo sported 4-channels cleverly encoded onto the two optical strips
that ran along the film. The two channels were known as Left Total (Lt) and Right Total
(Rt). A center channel was derived from everything that was in both channels and 3db down. A
surround channel is recorded down 3db on both Lt and Rt channels so that one channel is
plus 90 degrees and the other was minus 90 degrees.
In 1977, Dolby Stereo would get it’s first real showcase in Star Wars which did just
okay at the box office. Star Wars would go on to win an Special Achievement Academy Award
for Ben Burtt in the sound effects department. A sequel later before the release 1983’s Return
of the Jedi, George Lucas and Lucasfilm got in on the movie sound business with the THX
sound system. THX wasn’t a recording format but rather a quality assurance system. THX-certified
theaters had to pass several rigorous criteria in terms of reverberation time versus volume,
picture sharpness, noise limits and screen properties all for the honor of being a certified
THX theater and playing this sound effect dubbed Deep note:
Movie sound was serious business. In 1986 Dolby released Dolby SR, the second generation
professional recording system with even better noise reduction and recording dynamic range
which gave engineers master recordings that were indistinguishable from live sound. 1987’s
Robocop and Innerspace were the first films to be released with Dolby SR.
Coming into the 90s, in 1992, Dolby released Dolby Digital with the film Batman Returns.
Dolby Digital uses a 5.1 surround sound format using their AC-3 compression algorithm. The
digital data was printed in between the sprocket holes and the Dolby analog tracks were kept
as a back up or for theaters that didn’t have a digital reader.
A year later two new digital sound formats were also released: DTS and SDDS – (DTS) Digital
Theater Systems premiered with Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park in almost a call back to vitaphone
using a CD-ROM for audio playback which was synchronized to a timecode embedded on the
film strip. Sony Dynamic Digital Sound (SDDS) which premiered
with the film Last Action Hero printed digital data on both edges of the 35mm print sporting
7.1 surround sound – the first format to exceed Cinerama in terms of audio channels.
As we move into digital projection the audio component is simply embedded as a file with
the digital package. Current Digital Cinema formats are able to handle upwards of 16 channels
of audio. The always forward thinking Japanese broadcasting service NHK has even debutted
their 8K projection with an astounding 22.1 channel surround sound.
What industry insiders thought was a novelty in 1927 is now, in the words of of Spielberg,
“half the picture”. Cinema and moving pictures have this amazing
grip on our collective psyche – it’s more than just merely entertainment or frivolous
escapism. At the core these stories told through camera direction and performance remind us
of a fundamental human fact – that you and I are not alone -that what you feel isn’t
only felt by you – that we are all on this human journey together. The act of storytelling.
What may have started out as reenactments around a flickering campfire are now reenactments
on a flickering screen – and sound – to hear your fellow human being speak or hear the
howl of the wolf and the sound of the surf crashing into the shore – Sound was the final
key to unlocking cinema’s amazing power. No matter how you slice the history of cinema,
it is a story of inventors and showmen, magicians and technicians, dreamers and those with the
courage to make those dreams come true. Be part of that amazing tradition. Make something
great. I’m John Hess and I’ll see you at FilmmakerIQ.com