Sound has been an essential part of cinematography since its inception and has found its niche even in the Art of the Silent Film. To put the viewer in the position of a listener, the creators of silent films referred to a variety of sounds and accompanied their works by live music performances. However, with the development of film industry, the lack of synchronized sound became more acute and fostered technological innovations in this field.
The first films incorporating visual and audio effects were highly successful among the viewers and brought about a cinematographic revolution. This period turned to be both progressive and stressful since the already well-established film industry had to adapt itself to the new unification of sound and image. In general, the conversion of silent films to sound movies did not only change the way of Hollywood films production, from Don Juan to The Jazz Singer and The Singing Fool but also was used to the advantage of the most influential filmmakers of that time, including Warner Bros., AT&T, and Fox.
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The Reference to Sound during the “Silent Era”
In contrast with the common misconceptions concerning the conversion of silent films into sound movies, this process did not take place all at once and was based on the gradual development of the film industry. In the history of cinematography, the historical period from 1895 to 1926 is commonly known as the “silent era”. However, the films made at that time were seldom silent as they often included recorded or live music and various sound effects. Starting from the earliest cinematographic experiments, movies were often presented as a part of vaudeville shows, performances, traveling lectures, circuses, and phantasmagorias. The musical accompaniment of the early movies varied from a single musician to a small orchestra performing to augment the audience’s perception of a motion picture. For instance, Thomas Edison’s films projected in 1896 were accompanied by Dr. Leo Sommer’s Blue Hungarian Band. Some of the later film presentations included prerecorded sound effects that were reproduced in the auditorium by a phonograph. Thus, the first motion pictures were rarely watched in silence, although the audio background added to them was not synchronized with the images on the screen.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the more regular use of moving pictures in vaudeville shows increased the demand for a more substantial musical accompaniment. The sound effects that could not be created by a single pianist were produced by the small orchestras. From the perspective of film accompaniment, the majority of sounds were performed by the trap drummer who emphasized the pratfalls of stage comedians or any other remarkable moments throughout the movie with a synchronous cymbal crash or kettledrum hit. The inability to preview the motion picture resulted in the differences in its accompaniment in every next show or theater. As a result, the audience’s perception of a film depended on sound effects related to specific visual signals and the inclusion of well-recognized musical patterns.
In contrast to the modern movies, the early cinematic works did not perform the narrative function and were used primarily as a means to convey a sensorial experience. However, during the first ten years since their introduction, the duration of films changed from 1-2 minutes to 5-10 minutes. Moving pictures were frequently used by traveling lecturers as an addition to their slide show presentations. The addition of synchronous sounds that brought images to life was commissioned to an employed team of sound-effects men who usually performed behind the screen. This practice has led to the emergence of vocal “impersonators” like LeRoy Carleton who used his voice to provide sound accompaniment to his lectures. However, with the development of film industry, these man-made sound effects had to be replaced by an innovative technology of sound and image synchronization.
The First Attempts to Synchronize Sound and Image
The Development of Vitascope by Thomas Edison and William Dickson
The idea of a synchronous reproduction of image and sound on the screen existed from the initial stage of the film industry development. To achieve this goal, a number of inventors throughout the world worked on the development of innovative technical devices in this field. In 1887, William K. L. Dickson started the development of a motion picture apparatus on the basis of the phonograph invented by Thomas Edison. By joint efforts, Dickson and Edison created an innovational device called Kinetoscope that was successfully used to display the films in hotels, saloons, department stores, and nickelodeons. However, Edison realized that his profits could significantly increase with the development of a movie screen projector. In April 1896, he presented the results of his collaboration with Thomas Armat, a designer of the projector. The new device called the Vitascope was used to present the first motion pictures on a public screen in the United States. This event has become a turning point in the development of film industry.
The Difficulties Faced by the Pioneering Synchronization Technologies
In spite of the immediate success of the Vitascope, this technology as well as a number of similar ones faced significant difficulties in the maintenance of synchronization. First of all, each of them involved the use of hand-cranked projectors and cameras as well as disks or cylinders that could be easily scratched. In addition, the lack of acoustic amplification made these techniques suitable only for the presentation of movies in the small rooms.
As a result, the majority of innovative systems, including Chronophone developed by Gaumont, Kosmograph designed by Messter, and Cameraphone created by Norton failed to demonstrate the expected results. As a result, the goal of image and sound synchronization was still not reached and required the development of more progressive technologies.
The Transition to Sound
The development of innovations in telephone and radio industries as well as the invention of electrical amplification has turned the theoretical conversion to sound into the practical reality. The revolution in the film industry was made by Lee de Forest who applied the notion of electrical amplification to film sound with the development of the Phonofilm system for recording sound-on-film in 1922. In contrast with the existing film sound systems, the Phonofilm recorded the sound waves on the motion picture in the form of oscillating light and dark wave patterns. At the initial stage, this technique provided perfect synchronization but suffered from poor sound quality. However, the problems with sound were fixed by the addition of light-valve technology developed by the engineers Theodore Case and Earl Sponable. Regardless of the fact that the Phonofilm system was used by more than 50 theaters by 1924, none of the major film studios was interested in using this technology for film presentation.
The successful operation of the Phonofilm system was immediately followed by the development of concurrent technologies of sound and image representation. In 1925, the manufacturing branch of AT&T called Western Electric designed a sound-on-disk system that synchronized a turntable with a film projector. While the developers expected that their invention would be immediately bought by the majority of Hollywood film studios, the success of silent movies reduced the demand in the cinematographic experiments to attract the audience. However, the new system was fully appreciated by Warner Brothers Company that did not own theaters and was looking for the new techniques to screen its products. As a result, the company signed exclusive contracts with Western Electric and used the new system called Vitaphone for the release of their first sound movie.
The First Sound Movies
The film Don Juan was created with the purpose to introduce the opportunities of the new Vitaphone system and to raise the public interest in sound movies. In fact, the movie was initially created as a silent film, so its new version produced by Warner’s was complemented by the sound track consisting of music and synchronized sound effects. The sound version of Don Juan created with the application of the Vitaphone system was released on November 1, 1926. In spite of the remaining minor technical defects such as the imperfect tone quality and the lack of clarity of in the reproduction, the work of the program was approved by the critics.
The Jazz Singer
The real breakthrough in the field of filmmaking was made by the release of the second Warner Brothers’ feature film The Jazz Singer. Unlike the first movie produced by the company, this motion picture included lipsync recordings of songs and some dialogues. The film starring the popular vaudeville actor Al Jolson was directed by Alan Crosland. In fact, The Jazz Singer appeared to be more a singing picture than a talking picture. With the exception of a few segments of synchronized speech, the movie was based on singing performances of Al Jolson in blackface.
This motion picture clearly displays the conflict of generations that manifests itself in the collision of two opposite musical cultures, namely the religious songs and profane jazz. The combination of these musical traditions into a single performance gave birth to a new film genre, the musical. In general, The Jazz Singer represented a kind of transitional form of a movie that combined two technological eras by means of incorporating the features of a silent film with the partial synchronization of sound and image.
The End of the Silent Film Era
With the release of every new sound movie, the epoch of silent films was coming to its end. The critics usually relate the beginning of the new history of filmmaking to the release of the sound picture The Singing Fool. It was the second sound movie starring Al Jolson that was presented to the public in 1928. The transitional period in the film industry lasted from 1927 to 1931, when the film studios produced both silent films and talkies. During this period, only certain fragments of talkies included synchronized dialogues and sound effects. Respectively, the newly released films were often advertised as “part dialogue” and “all dialogue”. Only in 1931, the distribution in the United States was switched to full-sound features. Since then, the silent movies became treated as a classic film genre praised for its elegance and simplicity.
The transition to sound has become not only a progressive achievement in the film industry but also a cause of significant social changes. The development of sound and image synchronizing programs eliminated the need of the cinema orchestras that served as the largest employers of musicians throughout the world in the 1920s. As a result, thousands of musicians as well as many vaudeville actors have lost their primary source of income. The small orchestras were kept only by the most luxurious movie theaters that organized slide-show performances with live entertainment. In a few theaters, this tradition existed up to 1960s. However, for the majority of musical talents of that time, the radio has become the only job alternative that could hardly be compared with their impressive performances in the cinema orchestras.
The broad horizons opened in front of film-makers with the introduction of new cinematographic techniques required making additional efforts to innovate their facilities. Big Hollywood studios took specific measures to adapt their technical infrastructure to the new possibilities of sound. For instance, the walls of the building used as a set had to be sound-proof while the humming camera and the hissing arc lamps had to be silenced. In its turn, the sound-recording process had to be controlled by qualified personnel of different kind, including electrical engineers and soundmen). The produced film had to be edited by the specific professional equipment that was yet not fully developed. Under the pressure of intense competition, all these measures had to be performed within the short time to strengthen the company’s position in the global film industry.
On the whole, the transition to sound has marked a new stage in the development of cinematography that was full of new opportunities and achievements. Prior to the development of sound-producing devices, the motion pictures that were commonly referred to as “silent films” were accompanied by live performances of musicians and small orchestras. However, the need to create a technology able to synchronize image and sound encouraged the inventors to work on the development of numerous progressive projects.
Although some of them turned to be not functional due to some technical issues and lack of equipment, the efforts of Thomas Edison, William Dickson, and Lee de Forest have led to success. As a result, the world has seen the first sound movies, namely Don Juan, The Jazz Singer, and The Singing Fool. The successful release of these motion pictures resulted in the end of the silent film era that will always be treated as one of the crucial periods in the filmmaking history.
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