How come sound wasn't added to motion pictures until 1927?

Dec 4, 2000
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Believe it or not...I just bought a new set of clapsticks with attached trail board. We use it shooting double system sound of musical groups. The audio man then takes out the "clams" and fixes other sound problems before sending it back to us. We edit the picture in frame sync using the clap stick "clap" as our mark. The sound is then matched and the result is a perfect audio and video presentation not possible in real life.

The big boys with big wallets go one step forward. They jam time code into the MIDI sound and onto my video. Everything is then put into perfect sync by the 'puter.

One side of my clap board is a color bar chart. We show that to the camera so we have a reference of colors under the ambient light of the shoot. In post we match those bars with know good electronically generated bars for best quality video.

-- David G. Brown
 

Rancor

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Jun 23, 2017
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May I highly recommend "backstage at the Fox 1929", a website covering technical details of the Fox theatre in Atlanta, as installed in 1929.

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Dan Kappes

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Sep 26, 2018
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Apple Valley, Minnesota, United States
I wanted to ask this question here in the Gilded Age section because I didn't quite know where to put it. I think it belongs here as motion pictures first came into being during this era.

Motion Pictures were developed in the final two decades of the 19th century, but sound films didn't come about until 1927's The Jazz Singer.

Did it take longer to develop the microphone than the film camera?

The first silent films about the Titanic were Saved from the Titanic and In Nacht Und Eis, which were both released a few months after the sinking, but the first sound film about the Titanic was released in 1929 and titled Atlantic.
 
Dec 4, 2000
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Microphones developed in 1849 with the telephone when Antonio Meucci, an Italian immigrant, began developing the design of a "talking telegraph" or lephone in 1849. A steamboat boiler explosion on the Staten Island ferry allowed Alexander Graham Bell to win the U.S. patent race for the device in 1876. Meucci was badly injured and his wife sold his patent models to help pay for his hospitalization.

Inventor Thomas Edison decided to create the visual equivalent of the phonograph: a camera and projection system . Edison's assistant William Kennedy Dickson succeeded in 1889. He used a type of celluloid roll film developed for cameras, adding a series of perforations along the sides that held the film steady and moved it through a special camera.

So, the mic and the motion picture camera grew pretty much side-by-side. The problem with adding sound to film was two-fold. One is amplification and the other synchronization. Making sound loud enough to be heard throughout even a small theater took the development of vacuum tubes after WW-I. Getting sound synchronized was another thing. The film in a projector stops and starts 18 or 24 frames per second. But, sound has to be continuous. Early efforts involve large flat records not much different than those used on home Victrolas. It worked but only if the projectionist got his starting point spot on the starting mark of the film.

The answer came when somebody figured out how to put an optical sound track along the edge of the picture. The sound "led" the picture by 24 frames, giving enough film between the sound head and the projection gate to allow both the start/stop of the picture and the continuous movement of sound. That remained the standard system until the 1960s when magnetic tracks were added to improve sound quality and allow for stereo sound.

Equipment for recording lip-sync sound was bulky and early studio microphones limited in pickup range. So, sound movies were made in studios. Shooting sync sound outdoors was difficult at best. The weight and bulk problem was somewhat solved by the Auricon cameras of the mid-30s which could record an optical sound track. Later, they were converted to magnetic striped film. I've heard tell of 35mm Auricons, but only seen and operated 16 mm versions. A fully kit camera with batteries and amplifier weighed in at close to 60 pounds.

In film, all sound is separate from the picture. Studios quickly discovered it was a lot easier to send a silent camera to an event, then add pre-recorded crowd noise, explosions, and steamboat whistles in the editing process. This is why you should never assume that what you hear was "real" compared to what you see. I've heard the same Foley (a name for a machine to put in sound effects) steam whistle sound come from perhaps a half dozen large passenger ships.

And, yes, most of this comes from my experience even though I did not know Meucci or Bell personally. But, I have been a theater projectionist working on 70mm, 35mm and 16mm equipment. I've lugged an Auricon many a mile and have worked with double system sound on an 8-gang synchronizer. Someday I may relate the story of how I almost killed Ethal Merman with a microphone boom.

-- David G. Brown