Music to My Ears

.         "The most important event in film history was the introduction of sound" (Cook 205). The idea of sound accompaniment with film has been present since the invention of film, but mastery of the combination took several decades to achieve.

        Thomas Edison had commissioned the Kinetograph, which was the first viable motion-picture camera, invented in 1889 by W.K.L. Dickson to accompany his phonograph. In 1900, at the World's Fair in Paris, three different sound systems were revealed; but they offered only minute long performances. In the United States, the Kinetophone did receive moderate technical success developed by the Edison Corporation. The Kinetophone was Edison's unsynchronized sound-film system that was never successfully marketed, but did set the way for further advancement in the development of sound on film (Cook 205).

        All of these early inventions did have three major problems in common. These difficulties included the following: synchronizing the sound recording with the filmed event, amplifying the sound for presentation to a large audience, and reconciling the brevity of the cylinder and disc formats with the standard length of motion pictures. Devices were created to help with the synchronizing; but, if the phonograph stylus skipped a groove or a filmstrip broke (which was frequent in these times), the resynchronization was virtually impossible. Concealing a battery of single-horn speakers behind the screen, which was not very economical or practical, helped solve the problem of the sound amplification. The last problem was the most difficult to solve because the standard filmstrip length of the time was far exceeded the four-minute length of the phonograph-cylinder and the five-minute length of the twelve-inch disc. The invention of automatic changers was meant to help in this process, but often the changing of the discs lead to a loss in synchronization. Also the large discs resulted in poor sound quality (Cook 205-06). These three problems continued to plague the film industry for several years, but help would soon be on its way.

        Because these problems were difficult to face, many film companies just relied on piano players or full-scale orchestras to make up for the problem. This idea was impractical and also very expensive for many film companies. The idea of sound-on-film would help to end this problem. Since synchronization was such a problem, it was thought that, if sound were recorded directly onto the filmstrip, synchronization would never be a problem again. The first successful attempt to achieve this idea was in 1910 by Eugene Augustin Lauste, who was a former mechanical assistant to W.K.L. Dickson. This was done on the basis of a 1907 British patent for converting sound-modulated light beams into electrical impulses by means of a photoconductive selenium cell (Cook 207). Basically this means that sound waves are converted into patterns of light and shade and printed onto the filmstrip. Lauste called his invention the shotocinematophone, but he did not receive any financial backing. This idea did lead to RCA's Photophone, which was one of the two major sound-on-film systems Hollywood incorporated into their cinema during this era.

        Competing with sound-on-film was sound-on-disc, such as the Vitaphone, in which sounds were recorded on phonograph discs not the film itself (Cook 208). Films using this method are not truly "talkies" because they were originally shot as a silent film and then an audio accompaniment was added later. This method is similar to the way in which The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith and Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (A Symphony of Horrors) by F.W. Murnau were filmed.

        I think the invention of sound-on-film was truly amazing. For inventors to realize that sound wave could be converted to light waves and then back again is ingenious. It really helps one to appreciate the current cinema technology by watching silent films. Though silent films require the viewer to focus more on the picture, "talkies" allow for more emotion and drama to be conveyed. I appreciated films like The Birth of a Nation and Greed for what they were, but I did not truly enjoy the films shown in class until Duck Soup and King Kong because of the synchronized music, sound effects, and voice. These films allowed the viewer to be fully captivated into cinema because true life and beyond was achieved in cinema.

Work Cited

Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. 4th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.

Brent Bauscher

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