Imagine for a moment that the commercial film had developed a bit differently. Imagine movies without background music. Raised in this hypothetical tradition, we are thoroughly accustomed to seeing a film where music is only present if played on screen by a musician, or comes from a radio or jukebox. This world resembles the “real” world, more or less, in its depiction of sonic space. Then one day, brought up in this relatively non-musical tradition, we attend a screening of a film from another dimension, say, Star Wars with John William’s epic score full of dramatic, and illustrative music. How unreal would this seem. What excess: every mood and action accentuated by a symphony. What curious classical music, robbed of its proper musical structure, it modulates and changes color, chameleon-like, in moment-to-moment reflections to the film’s images.
But that’s not how film developed. Movie music in fact predates the invention of amplified sound.
Starting with silent movies
The silent movies were hardly silent. Music and songs to accompany the projected moving image predates by many years the mass marketing of the talkies. The first music for a film may have been delivered by balladeers who were hired to sing and narrate the screenings of a silent movie adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera. However, short films with sound were being made as far back as 1900. The first film to have sound was shown at the 1900 Paris Exhibition where there were no less than three systems being demonstrated. One of them, The "Phono Cinema Theatre", featured an extraordinary array of acting talent including Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet who would read a script as the film was being shown. Popular operas were most often the subject of these early experimental sound films, but various technical problems kept sound films from becoming commercially viable for years to come.
The need for music to facilitate the action of a silent movie seemed to have been intuitively obvious to early silent movie-maker since, very early in the development of the film industry, it became common practice for a score to accompany major movies. The script would code the music to the picture and local musicians would attempt to keep up with the score. Film soon created a new style of music (dramatic music) and generated a large number of jobs for local musicians. A movie house of any size had a piano player and large theatres featured orchestras of various sizes playing appropriate accompaniment. The biggest movie houses built in the 30s were designed with large pipe organs that would play during intermission as well as through the picture.
The majority of silent movies however, did not come with a score, so the local conductor, or solo musician, would work out the most appropriate music for each scene. Many became skilled at thematic interpretation so the music would fit the images and move the story along (dramatic, comedic, historical, patriotic, etc.). Most of them drew on their knowledge of light classical music. More than anyone else, cinema musicians were responsible for the popularity of light orchestra music beginning in the early 20th century. As a result, the public was stimulated to purchase light classical music to play on their recently acquired home gramophones.
In 1919, a book of generic musical scores for silent movies was published, Music For Small Orchestras Suitable for Cinema .
For some movies, when they were shown in major cities, the orchestra would be quite large, as was the case for D. W. Griffith’s benchmark silent film The Birth Of A Nation, which was accompanied by a full orchestra score at each screening. In London, in 1922, the Australian conductor Eugene Goossens conducted the 65 piece London Symphony to accompany the United Artists spectacular The Three Musketeers. In 1925 MGM released The Big Parade which was about W.W. I, had a score that included a song that became a pop hit, My Buddy. This song is still popular in Irish pubs. Another movie that came with a score was Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 movie Modern Times. Chaplin, who had built his career in the silent era continued to make silent movies long after the talkies had become popular. This score also had a pop song Smile which was a hit record for Nat King Cole in 1956.
The introduction of the sound film came in 1927. Over night the talkies made redundant the movie accompanist and the local performance of music with the film presentation. The scoring and musical performance process was centralized to those centers where the rest of the movie was made. Composers and musicians who immigrated to Hollywood and other movie making centers found new jobs in scoring and recording for film. The movie directors and producers also gained more creative control over the music, the theater operator was able to reduce operating costs, and a consistent quality of performance was guaranteed. As an added bonus to movie goers, those theaters with large organs often continued the tradition of having an intermission performance. Radio City Music Hall in New York is probably the most famous movie theater to continue an intermission schedule. It may also be one of the last.
The development of film sound
Recorded sound that would accompany film predates by several decades sound that was integral on the film medium. In 1889 one of Edison’s protégées, Laurie Dickson, presented Edison with a demonstration of a silent film that was shown with the accompaniment of sound from a crudely synchronised phonograph record. In 1896 Charles Pathe used long play records and mechanically synchronised a Berliner gramophone to the projector. That same year Oscar Messter took this approach one step further by using several synchronised gramophones in an attempt to make the unamplified sound louder.
From the turn of the century to the late twenties, the development of film sound and record/ gramophone technology was closely interrelated. Once optical sound became well established, the two methods of disk/groove and film/optical modulation would continue to have an association but more through adapting.
The film industry in particular developed early in the process methods of interlocking sound recordings to picture, invested heavily in improving the recording and reproduction process, and industrialized the post-production approach to sound production (the adding, manipulating and mixing of sound after the vision is photographed). Things invented for the film industry were modified for the music industry and vice versa. Later when radio and TV came along, adaption of film and sound equipment would occur in these industries as well.
In 1907 Carl Laemmle of Paramount Pictures used a German invention called the Synchroscope to lock a record playback to a silent film. In 1906 Edison introduced the “Cameraphone” for synchronising a camera to a phonograph recorder, and in 1908 its playback system, the “Cinephone”, was available. The record would play at a standard speed and the projectionist would adjust the speed of the film in order to maintain sync. The system was not very good and the sound was always ahead or behind the picture. By 1913 Edison had perfected the “Kinetophone” so that moving pictures could be projected and synchronized to sound reproduction from a phonograph and horn that was placed behind the screen. In order to achieve sync, a long cord and pulley system ran between the projector and the phonograph. This was equally unsatisfactory since the cord frequently stretched, slipped or broke all together. The public was tolerant in the beginning and amused by the numerous incongruities of lost synchronization but the system did not improve and the public lost interest. None of these approaches were successful due primarily to the short time the record would play, the inability to maintain synchronization, and the limited response and loudness of the still mechanical reproduction system.
Between 1903 and 1910 there were several methods attempted to solve these problems. Developed in France, the Chronophone attempted to make the playback systems louder by taking the output of the record player and mechanically amplifying it using valves and compressed air. Many inventors were at work on methods of mechanically locking the projector to the phonograph. None of the systems which appeared before amplification were successful. While Edison would continue to work on synchronising records with film, the amplification breakthrough came from another lab.
Those discoveries that had grown from Bell’s telephone inventions would play a far more important role in giving film a voice. In 1912, Lee DeForest was finally able to convince the labs which Alexander Graham Bell established, Western Electric Co, that they should continue the development of the amplifier tube which he had patented five years before. The amplifier tube was already being used in broadcast, but now it would be used to develop electrical recording. The lab was starting to get good results when World War I broke out and the entire sound project was put on hold until after the war. During the war a lot of other experiments in the area of amplification were conducted. This work was useful when the recorded sound project was resumed. One of these components, the Thelofide photo cell, was used for communications during the war, and later was used as the sound reproduction cell in optical film playback systems. The Thelofide cell was used until it was replaced by photoelectric cells.
In the early 20s Western Electric built its own sound studio and set about shooting several in-house demos as it developed its process. It was so committed to sound recording that it created two teams simultaneously working on the problem. The one group was interested in using an electrical process to improve disk recording and playback. During disk recording, sound coming through a microphone was amplified and a stylus was electromagnetically controlled to vibrate laterally and cut a groove on the blank master. On playback, a stylus travelled along the groove, and this motion was converted into electrical energy that was amplified and reproduced by a speaker. One aspect of this development was the choice of record speed and disk size in order to provide enough time per record to match one reel of film. The disk diameter chosen was 16”, rotating at 33 1/3RPM (the speed Columbia Records would later adopt for their LP). Western Electric’s work included improving the method by which a disk could be synced to a film.
The other group explored a means of "filming" sound and making it a part of the same medium that held the pictures. For sound on film, the sound coming through a microphone is converted into a variable light beam that is photographed by a type of film camera. The sound is later reproduced as the now developed film passes between a photocell and a beam of light. The changes on the surface of the photocell are amplified and reproduced by a speaker. Their development required designing a new film path so that a smooth and continuous film travel would be maintained across for the sound reproducer mechanism of the projector while freezing at a regulated rate the movement of the image during each frame’s projection onto the screen.
Western Electric believed that disk recorded sound for film had some advantage over a new optical process in that the mass duplication of records had been perfected, while film sound processing was entirely new. It was this fact that made it decide to first introduce a system using records in sync with the film. In the long term however, it believed that the film should contain both the picture and the sound. While the recording and playback mechanism in both processes was different, the amplifiers, microphones, and speakers were nearly identical in their requirements. These three elements represented a common ground of development that would be needed before either of the processes were commercially viable. Western Electric made significant improvements in the DeForest amplifier design. Western Electric did not pursue magnetic recording. This was pursued by other labs and that story is in another post of this blog.
The lab’s E.C. Wente developed a high performance condenser microphone in 1916. The company had already gained extensive experience in speaker design and public address through its work in expo and convention installations, and in 1926, Wente headed a team that developed an efficient moving coil speaker suitable for large systems. Western Electric was well placed to dominate the film sound and record mastering business.
Optical recording prior to Western Electric’s involvement
We will return to the work at Western Electric later but first, the early history of optical recording is worth exploring. The development of optical recording has a history as long as disc recording and predates the appearance of silent movies. Initially, those developing optical recording did not specifically see its application as synchronised with moving pictures. Rather, an optical process was considered a more elegant, less crude, method for recording sound compared to the mechanical groove of the phonograph and gramophone. In 1878, Professor Blake of Brown University, using a vibrating mirror similar to the one Alexander Graham Bell had used, made optical recordings of speech sounds on a moving photographic plate. In 1879, Bell was able to transmit sound by talking along a modulated beam of light which was picked-up by a light sensitive device (selenium cells). He also photographed the sound. This approach became the starting point for many experiments. In 1880 Charles Edgar Fritts filed a patent for a process to photograph sound on light sensitive paper and later reproduce it by means of a photocell. While the literature was voluminous, no experimental hardware or demonstration was developed.
In 1885, Bell filed a patent for recording sound on round flat photographic plates. The system used a constant intensity light source that was projected through a small opening that was modulated by an ingenious method. Just above the place where the light went through the stationary glass aperture that covered the opening, a tiny jet of ink was directed against the surface. The ink jet was attached to a sounding board that picked up the sound. As the sounding board vibrated, the ink nozzle would jiggle in sympathy with the sound. This flow of ink would modulate the light that was striking the photographic disk.
In 1887 Eugene A Lauste, a Frenchman, joined Edison. He spent years working on various projects related to motion picture. In 1888 he had read an article about Bell’s work with selenium cells and reasoned that it should be possible to have the optical sound on the same film as the picture. It was not until 1900 that he had an opportunity to work on his idea. He worked for several years on the development of optical sound and in about 1905 moved to England. In 1906 he applied for a patent that showed a well thought out approach. To modulate the recording light, Lauste used a rocking mirror and a constant intensity light source. Unfortunately this system was too sensitive to camera vibrations. In 1910 began working with light modulators that proved successful. In 1901 Ernst Ruhmer, in Berlin, started publishing the results of his work in photographic sound reproduction. He worked on it for 12 years. Toward the end of the decade, some of his Photographophon films were brought to America and shown to William Fox of 20th Century Fox. Lauste also worked with Ruhmer in Berlin and then returned to the U.S. in 1911. While there, Lauste made what is probably the first motion picture film with sound made in the U.S. Lack of capital, the outbreak of W.W. I, and the unavailability of the amplifier halted the development of sound on film for nearly a decade. Lauste returned to the U.K shortly after his brief time at 20th Century Fox. The Tobis system of film recording was introduced in Germany in 1918. It used a modulated light source for recording and a photocell for reproduction. This system was first used by the large German film producers U.F.A. and Klangfilm. In 1923 a Danish system was used by Gaumont in France and British Acoustic Films in the U.K. It was also in 1923 when Lee DeForest demonstrated his Phonofilm system.
In 1920, Theodore Case patented a fast acting photo-cell system and two years later discovered that one of the tubes that he had used for a wartime communication system was particularly suitable as a modulating light source for optical recording. He also continued to improve the response of the photocell. From 1922 to 1925 Case worked with DeForest, with the result that several experimental pieces of equipment were built (primarily in cooperation with the projector and camera company Bell & Howell). Toward the end of 1925, Case and DeForest had a parting of the ways but both continued to independently develop film sound.
In 1926, Case showed his system to William Fox. Fox decided to license it and prepared a strategy to exploit the system which he called Movietone. Fox also negotiated an agreement with Western Electric to provide the amplifiers and speakers. In early 1927, Fox began showing newsreel type short subject sound films. They were shown before the silent feature film, What Price Glory?. The Movietone newsreel series continued for decades to come. Movietone brought contemporary history alive and created a taste for vivid journalism. In May 1927 Fox released Seventh Heaven with a fully synchronised film score. In 1929, the making of silent films by Fox was discontinued. Later, when the Western Electric light valve was adopted by the industry, Fox switched from the Case system.
In the U.S., the industrial giant General Electric had also become interested in film sound. In 1921, GE’s Dr Charles Hoax demonstrated a sound on film device that had grown from a radio code recorder that he had developed. Hoax also determined that a narrow optical track would provide acceptable performance. The outcome of this work was to conclude that the sound track could exist on the edge of the film without taking up an unacceptable amount of the picture area. The first movie to use the GE system, now called Kinegraphone, was a Paramount picture about the air force during W.W. I. The picture was first shown in 1927 and travelled to key U.S. cities with all the sound hardware needed to show the film. Westinghouse, during this period, was also working on speakers and photocells. In 1928, RCA established the Photophone company to provide optical recording and reproduction systems. Both Westinghouse and GE had an arrangement whereby RCA acted as the sales outlet for products developed by the two research and manufacturing companies. Several eastern theatres were equipped with the Phonofilm system, but the public reaction to the first sound films was so bad that William Fox, in 1924, ordered them removed from seven locations.
Returning to Western Electric
Western Electric had been trying to get the film industry interested in what it had developed. It showed its system to Nathan Levinson who had been employed by Warner Brothers to equip its Hollywood radio studio. Levinson went straight to Sam Warner who made the trip back east to see and hear the Western Electric system. He was convinced of its viability and set up a special demonstration for his brothers. When an orchestra appeared and music filled the projection room Harry Warner couldn’t contain himself:
“That’s the answer to sound pictures, no wonder this thing hasn’t taken hold. It hasn’t been done with showmanship. Think of it! Now we can bring fine music into small (theatre) houses that can’t afford orchestras. We can bring symphonies and opera and great performers into every town in the land and all over the world. Put the finest music by the best talent on the screen. By giving a voice to the screen, people from the four corners of the earth can be brought together through this visual and vocal medium.”
Warner Brothers took the plunge into sound even though the rest of the industry, with the exception of Fox, remained disinterested due to the public’s reaction to what they had previously seen and heard. Vitaphone was the name Warner’s gave to its version of the Western Electric process.
The first Warner sound presentation was shown in New York in August 1926. It was a collection of Vitaphone shorts featuring the great artists of the day. There was an introduction of the film, followed by Don Juan with John Barrymore. This was Warner’s newest and best silent film which also had a complete film score recorded by the New York Philharmonic. The sound program was a great success. Much of the success of the shorts had to do with the work that was done to make the artists respond to the camera and not act like they were playing to a concert theatre. But getting the artists to change their live concert style of presentation and work to the camera was not easy. A typical example was the reaction of the violin virtuoso Misha Elman to the new media. He would chin his violin, lean back and look at the top balcony. Patiently, Herman Heller (musical director for Warner Bros.) would explain that the camera would take care of that and his face would be in front of every member of the audience no matter where they sat. Again and again, Elman would say, ‘But I always look at someone in the top balcony when I give a concert’.
During the winter of 1926, Warners released two other silent films with full scores (The Better’ Ole and When A Man Loves) and packaged them with a collection of Vitaphone shorts. They too were successful. The Vitaphone score for The Better’ Ole was a medley of war songs and demonstrated the effectiveness of popular as well as light classical scoring. Elsie Janis, a popular artist at the time, sang the same numbers she had sung in her war time tours and was accompanied by members of the 107th regiment. With the exception of Fox, the industry remained unconvinced and considered sound films a fad that would pass.
On October 6, 1927 The Jazz Singer was released. On hearing the playback of a short speech that Jolson ad libbed between two songs Sam Warner decided to leave it in. Of the many strategic decisions he made, this may have been one of the most far reaching. It was the first time that an actor had delivered dialogue from the screen. The public was electrified, they wanted talkies not just synchronised sound. The film industry was now convinced. By the end of 1927, the other big producers, MGM, First National, Paramount, Universal and Producers, had evaluated the two major systems and had selected the Western Electric system. A construction boom began in Hollywood as all of the movie companies began to construct sound stages.
Western Electric was contracted to supply all of the technical expertise and sound recording hardware to the studios. In order to keep up with the demand, Western Electric went from 180 people involved with developing film sound in 1928 to 2400 installing it by the following year. Western Electric, RCA and the film companies who were working on developing the practical application of film sound had to confront the changes that were required in the production process in order for sound to be recorded. In Edison’s early sound work, the recordings were made and then, those on camera would lip sync to the sound. But for sound and picture to be simultaneously recorded the set had to be quiet. The practice of yelling directions and several productions occurring within ear shot of one another was over. The original reason why film makers came to California was for the many days of sunlight, with most sets being built outdoors. But the sound of birds flying by, or trucks driving behind the set could not be tolerated once the need for good sound became an issue. The sound stages became a necessity.
The equipment of film production that had been developed for nearly fifty years also had to become quiet. Everything from lighting to the camera itself needed to become quiet. The silent film industry had developed a lot of skill with camera movement, but the talkies had the effect of, at least initially, stifling mobility. Actors could only move from one microphone hidden in a flower arrangement to another hidden in a floor lamp. Within a couple of years, techniques were developed in sound booming of microphones and in post production dubbing that would make the use of sound no longer an impediment to the visual performance, but for a while, cinematography took a step back in order for sound to take a step forward.
RCA was equally busy during this period. It purchased a chain of theatres (B. F. Keith and Orpheum), a film production company (Film Booking Office) and organised “Radio Keith Orpheum” - RKO. The new company went about equipping its locations with the RCA Photophone system. RKO made many pictures using the name “Radio Pictures”. Photophone was also licensed to Pathe and Mack Sennett. One of the first features made by Pathe using Photophone was King of Kings directed by C.B. DeMille. The variable area optical recording system that GE had developed in the RCA system won preference over the variable density approach that Western Electric used. The consequence of this was Disney switching to Photophone in 1933, Republic in 1935, and Columbia and Warner Bros. in 1936.
The movie companies had to come to terms with which silent artists might have a suitable voice and make it into the age of talkies. The only thing rivalling the sound stage construction boom in Hollywood was the market in diction lessons. Many actors with European accents simply packed their bags and travelled back to Europe where talkies were also beginning to be produced. The talkies also eliminated the on set musicians who were there to get the actors in the mood. On the other hand, there was a whole new industry to develop sound with music editors, scoring composers, copyists, music producers, and studio musicians and engineers.
In the theatres
Public access to sound films was rapid. During 1928, over 1000 theatres installed Western Electric or RCA sound systems. By the end of 1929 nearly 5200 theatres in the US and 1800 overseas were equipped with sound systems, and 40 production sound stages were in operation. By 1930 there were about 13,500 theatres equipped with sound. Interestingly a high portion of them had both disk and optical playback. It would be some years before it became clear that the optical medium would prevail. Fortunately early in the process (early 30s) the sound performance criteria that the manufacturers of sound equipment and theatre sound contractors would aim to achieve in the playback system of a theatre was standardized. This was done to ensure that all films would sound the same regardless of the theatre’s equipment.
Through the years, the film industry has introduced many different sound formats such as Sensurround and Cinerama to name just two. In all cases these more exotic formats were used on special movies that feature multi-track surround sound coming from 3 to 6 locations in the theatre. In most cases these multi-track soundtracks were provided on separate magnetic or optical film, and were played back from a sprocketed sound reproducer that ran in sync with the picture. Films with elaborate sound were seldom heard outside of major cities where a few theatres were equipped with the additional equipment. With some films, the special equipment travelled with the film and was installed only for that film.
Up until the mid 70s when Dolby introduced its optical stereo playback system, the vast majority of movies that had been made were released in mono and with standard optical tracks. Multi-track sound was mixed to mono for the film to be shown in local cinemas. Dolby Labs began in the mid 60s developing and selling professional sound product designed to reduce the hiss of analogue tape recording. A scaled down chip based product was then developed by Dolby for the cassette machine and the emerging home multi-track recorder market. Dolby labs continued to work in the area of noise reduction and sound storage.
When the Dolby stereo for film system appeared it was quickly embraced since it was significantly less exotic then previous multi channel sound playback systems. In addition to achieving stereo utilising the same optical track width (as used in mono), the Dolby process improved the frequency response and dynamic range of the optical medium. Dolby redefined the sound specifications that had been in place since the early 30s. The cinema operator invested in Dolby sound as they needed something new in order bring back an increasing number of people that were staying at home and watching TV. By the mid 80s Dolby went one better then stereo TV when they developed a surround sound system using the same optical track area of the film.
Dolby and others (most note worthy Lucas Sound’s THX) evolved their technology into the digital realm. Dolby provides five to eight channels of surround sound and still on the same film as the image. While THX is used on some films, the Dolby system is far and away the most common. These surround formats are now an integrated feature of the home theatre. Most DVD films, broadcast programs, and many computer games have surround sound 5.1 (5= left front, center front, right front, left rear, right rear 1 = sub woofer) encoded in their audio that can be reproduced by low priced surround sound speaker systems for an enveloping home movie theatre experience.
One hardly need emphasize that the acceptance of music in film and television. Every movie goer, tin ear notwithstanding, becomes aware from time to time of the power of music in dramatic films. Such moments tend to occur when they take note of how emotional or overwhelming a film score has been. What has been blaring in the background the entire time suddenly comes to the foreground of consciousness. Suddenly the story is perceived to inhabit a world filled with musical sound, rhythm, signification, until a few scenes or measures later, we drop off, and once again become more involved with the story. Then the music is “working” once more, masking its own insistence in the background of the listener/watchers consciousness.
Today that story is told beyond our vision as we sit in the center of our home theatre. We can blink and miss a frame, or close our eyes if we are compelled to turn away, but our ears hear it all and pull us into the illusion of emersive cinema beyond the screen, outside of our 130 degree vision, to a 360 degree soundscape.