Sound Film - History - Crucial Innovations

Crucial Innovations

A number of technological developments contributed to making sound cinema commercially viable by the late 1920s. Two involved contrasting approaches to synchronized sound reproduction, or playback:

Advanced sound-on-film – In 1919, American inventor Lee De Forest was awarded several patents that would lead to the first sound-on-film technology with commercial application. In De Forest's system, the sound track was photographically recorded on to the side of the strip of motion picture film to create a composite, or "married", print. If proper synchronization of sound and picture was achieved in recording, it could be absolutely counted on in playback. Over the next four years, he improved his system with the help of equipment and patents licensed from another American inventor in the field, Theodore Case.

At the University of Illinois, Polish-born research engineer Joseph Tykociński-Tykociner was working independently on a similar process. On June 9, 1922, he gave the first reported U.S. demonstration of a sound-on-film motion picture to members of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. As with Lauste and Tigerstedt, Tykociner's system would never be taken advantage of commercially; De Forest's, however, soon would.

On April 15, 1923, at New York City's Rivoli Theater, came the first commercial screening of motion pictures with sound-on-film, the future standard: a set of shorts under the banner of De Forest Phonofilms, accompanying a silent feature. That June, De Forest entered into an extended legal battle with an employee, Freeman Harrison Owens, for title to one of the crucial Phonofilm patents. Although De Forest ultimately won the case in the courts, Owens is today recognized as a central innovator in the field. The following year, De Forest's studio released the first commercial dramatic film shot as a talking picture—the two-reeler Love's Old Sweet Song, directed by J. Searle Dawley and featuring Una Merkel. Phonofilm's stock in trade, however, was not original dramas but celebrity documentaries, popular music acts, and comedy performances. President Calvin Coolidge, opera singer Abbie Mitchell, and vaudeville stars such as Phil Baker, Ben Bernie, Eddie Cantor, and Oscar Levant appeared in the firm's pictures. Hollywood remained suspicious, even fearful, of the new technology. As Photoplay editor James Quirk put it in March 1924, "Talking pictures are perfected, says Dr. Lee De Forest. So is castor oil." De Forest's process continued to be used through 1927 in the United States for dozens of short Phonofilms; in the UK it was employed a few years longer for both shorts and features by British Sound Film Productions, a subsidiary of British Talking Pictures, which purchased the primary Phonofilm assets. By the end of 1930, the Phonofilm business would be liquidated.

In Europe, others were also working on the development of sound-on-film. In 1919, the same year that DeForest received his first patents in the field, three German inventors patented the Tri-Ergon sound system. On September 17, 1922, the Tri-Ergon group gave a public screening of sound-on-film productions—including a dramatic talkie, Der Brandstifter (The Arsonist) —before an invited audience at the Alhambra Kino in Berlin. By the end of the decade, Tri-Ergon would be the dominant European sound system. In 1923, two Danish engineers, Axel Petersen and Arnold Poulsen, patented a system in which sound was recorded on a separate filmstrip running parallel with the image reel. Gaumont would license and briefly put the technology to commercial use under the name Cinéphone.

It was domestic competition, however, that led to Phonofilm's eclipse. By September 1925, De Forest and Case's working arrangement had fallen through. The following July, Case joined with Fox Film, Hollywood's third largest studio, to found the Fox-Case Corporation. The system developed by Case and his assistant, Earl Sponable, given the name Movietone, thus became the first viable sound-on-film technology controlled by a Hollywood movie studio. The following year, Fox purchased the North American rights to the Tri-Ergon system, though the company found it inferior to Movietone and virtually impossible to integrate the two different systems to advantage. In 1927, as well, Fox retained the services of Freeman Owens, who had particular expertise in constructing cameras for synch-sound film.

Advanced sound-on-disc – Parallel with improvements in sound-on-film technology, a number of companies were making progress with systems in which movie sound was recorded onto phonograph discs. In sound-on-disc technology from the era, a phonograph turntable is connected by a mechanical interlock to a specially modified film projector, allowing for synchronization. In 1921, the Photokinema sound-on-disc system developed by Orlando Kellum was employed to add synchronized sound sequences to D. W. Griffith's failed silent film Dream Street. A love song, performed by star Ralph Graves, was recorded, as was a sequence of live vocal effects. Apparently, dialogue scenes were also recorded, but the results were unsatisfactory and the film was never publicly screened incorporating them. On May 1, 1921, Dream Street was re-released, with love song added, at New York City's Town Hall theater, qualifying it—however haphazardly—as the first feature-length film with a live-recorded vocal sequence. There would be no others for more than six years.

In 1925, Warner Bros., then a small Hollywood studio with big ambitions, began experimenting with sound-on-disc systems at New York's Vitagraph Studios, which it had recently purchased. The Warner Bros. technology, named Vitaphone, was publicly introduced on August 6, 1926, with the premiere of the nearly three-hour-long Don Juan; the first feature-length movie to employ a synchronized sound system of any type throughout, its soundtrack contained a musical score and sound effects, but no recorded dialogue—in other words, it had been staged and shot as a silent film. Accompanying Don Juan, however, were eight shorts of musical performances, mostly classical, as well as a four-minute filmed introduction by Will H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, all with live-recorded sound. These were the first true sound films exhibited by a Hollywood studio. Warner Bros.' The Better 'Ole, technically similar to Don Juan, followed in October.

Sound-on-film would ultimately win out over sound-on-disc because of a number of fundamental technical advantages:

  • Synchronization: no interlock system was completely reliable, and sound could fall out of synch due to disc skipping or minute changes in film speed, requiring constant supervision and frequent manual adjustment
  • Editing: discs could not be directly edited, severely limiting the ability to make alterations in their accompanying films after the original release cut
  • Distribution: phonograph discs added expense and complication to film distribution
  • Wear and tear: the physical process of playing the discs degraded them, requiring their replacement after approximately twenty screenings

Nonetheless, in the early years, sound-on-disc had the edge over sound-on-film in two substantial ways:

  • Production and capital cost: it was generally less expensive to record sound onto disc than onto film and the exhibition systems—turntable/interlock/projector—were cheaper to manufacture than the complex image-and-audio-pattern-reading projectors required by sound-on-film
  • Audio quality: phonograph discs, Vitaphone's in particular, had superior dynamic range to most sound-on-film processes of the day, at least during the first few playings; while sound-on-film tended to have better frequency response, this was outweighed by greater distortion and noise

As sound-on-film technology improved, both of these disadvantages were overcome.

The third crucial set of innovations marked a major step forward in both the live recording of sound and its effective playback:

Fidelity electronic recording and amplification – Beginning in 1922, the research branch of AT&T Corporation's Western Electric manufacturing division began working intensively on recording technology for both sound-on-disc and sound-on film. In 1925, the company publicly introduced a greatly improved system of electronic audio, including sensitive condenser microphones and rubber-line recorders. That May, the company licensed entrepreneur Walter J. Rich to exploit the system for commercial motion pictures; he founded Vitagraph, which Warner Bros. acquired a half interest in just one month later. In April 1926, Warners signed a contract with AT&T for exclusive use of its film sound technology for the redubbed Vitaphone operation, leading to the production of Don Juan and its accompanying shorts over the following months. During the period when Vitaphone had exclusive access to the patents, the fidelity of recordings made for Warners films was markedly superior to those made for the company's sound-on-film competitors. Meanwhile, Bell Labs—the new name for the AT&T research operation—was working at a furious pace on sophisticated sound amplification technology that would allow recordings to be played back over loudspeakers at theater-filling volume. The new moving-coil speaker system was installed in New York's Warners Theatre at the end of July and its patent submission, for what Western Electric called the No. 555 Receiver, was filed on August 4, just two days before the premiere of Don Juan.

Late in the year, AT&T/Western Electric created a licensing division, Electrical Research Products Inc. (ERPI), to handle rights to the company's film-related audio technology. Vitaphone still had legal exclusivity, but having lapsed in its royalty payments, effective control of the rights was in ERPI's hands. On December 31, 1926, Warners granted Fox-Case a sublicense for the use of the Western Electric system; in exchange for the sublicense, both Warners and ERPI received a share of Fox's related revenues. The patents of all three concerns were cross-licensed. Superior recording and amplification technology was now available to two Hollywood studios, pursuing two very different methods of sound reproduction. The new year would finally see the emergence of sound cinema as a significant commercial medium.

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