Silence versus Sound in Films

         A historical progression of film has shown that it can be studied from the standpoint of being a form of art as well as from the standpoint of being an industry. From the standpoint of being a form of art, it is easier to study the history of film as opposed to other forms of art. It is relatively new in comparison to other forms of art like music or painting, which have been around since the dawn of civilization. Much like the music industry, the art of making movies has also become more of a business. Every week, one can see the top grossing movies that are being played in theatres across the country in newspapers and on the Internet. One can look at the technical innovations involved in the business of making films from an industry standpoint though. One of the biggest changes in the history of film has been the addition of sound to film.

         The birth of film came in the form of silent moving pictures. Photography was the key process at the birth of film. It was discovered that by alternating still pictures rapidly one could create the illusion of motion. When strips of film were projected on to a screen for a whole audience of people to view, the term “motion pictures” was created. The creators of these motion pictures began to use these pictures to tell stories with the use of subtitles. The audience could read what was happening or being said on the screen. Different techniques like editing and the use of different camera angles were starting to be used to help create a sense of feeling or set the tone of the story. At this time, a theatre might have had a pianist play music to help set the tone of the films, but there was no sound.

         Historically, the roots of sound in film can be traced back to the music created specifically for a film. This music is known as a film score. A film score is music that is usually composed for orchestras and it is to be played along with a film. Film scores help set a certain mood or create a certain tone in a film. They do this by being synchronized to the images on the screen. Today, film scores have become a valuable part of cinema, and an analysis of the score is always included in analyzing the film as a whole. It has been said by some though, that a great film score is one that you do not notice at all. A great film score fits with the action on screen so well that the music and the scene are one. Film scores are essentially sound in film, but the real birth of sound in cinema refers to the creation of a sound track for a film. Sound tracks are audio tracks that have dialogue and sound effects, as well as the musical score that run synchronized with the pictures of the film.

         The use of a sound track added to motion pictures opened up a new age of cinema. The introduction of a recorded track to be played and synchronized with the motion on screen could allow audiences to see the actors in films actually talking on screen. Much like the first films that had pictures moving were given the name “movies,” films with talking sound added to the pictures were called “talkies.” The first major film to be given this title was Alan Crosland’s 1927 film entitled The Jazz Singer. Based on a play by Samson Raphaelson, the film featured music and dialogue performed by the famous Jazz musician, Al Johnson. Before this, production studios had tried numerous technologies in order to create their standard use for recording sound in film. The sound used in The Jazz Singer was produced using the Vitaphone sound-on-disc technique. This technique did not incorporate the sound track onto the filmstrip itself but played it synchronously on a separate player. The effect worked well, and The Jazz Singer was the highest grossing film that Warner Brothers studios had to date. Later technologies involved actually incorporating the soundtrack onto the filmstrip itself, creating a guaranteed synchronicity between the sound and pictures of the film.

         While this all this was taking place in America, the introduction of sound in films was having the same effects globally. Europe had its first sound film premier in Germany in 1928, and many other European countries followed shortly after that. Japan had actually produced its first sound film a year before America’s The Jazz Singer, but the full transition to sound films in Japan took place much more slowly than in the rest of the world. This was in part due to Japan’s use of what they called the benshi. In Japan, Benshis were live narrators that would stand to the side of the screen the movie was being projected on and provide dialogue as well as sound effects for the silent films. Benshis could become as famous as their actor counterparts while they were used in Japan.

         With all the advantages that came from the introduction of sound in film, there were some that rightfully criticized it. At first there were skeptics and critics who thought that sound in film took away from the audience’s experience of creating the story using the pictures for themselves and using their imaginations. Another criticism is that the inclusion of sound in film takes away from the production techniques that were perfected by early film makers. The use of editing different silent scenes together to create a message and a sense of montage for the audience was one of these techniques and was held in high regard by early film theorists. Some critics say that the use of sound in film takes away from cinema in its purest form, this being cinema as a form of art. The use of sound in film was widely seen as profitable in the industry of cinema though. Many people in theatre-going audiences today are so used to sound in film that they could never find enjoyment in viewing a silent film.

         There is and always has been that constant struggle between artists who create for art and artists who create for money. Overall, this is the argument between sound and silent cinema. It is sad in some cases that money usually takes precedence over art; but, depending on the audience, silent films can speak to a viewer more than films that talk.

Works Cited

“Sound Film.” Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sound_film).

“The Jazz Singer.” Wikipedia {http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Jazz_Singer_%281927_film%29).

Brian Schuldt

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