Not until microphones, vacuum tubes, loud speakers and audio amplifiers were developed to their present high degree of perfection were talking movies ever possible as a labratory experiment. There general acceptance by a rather critical public is proof enough of the success of engineers to give movies its own voice.
What Radio Has Meant to Talking Movies
Charles Feldstead, Sound Engineer, Universal Pictures Corp.,
From Radio News, April 1931
In the photographs shown above and below, Clarence Brown is directing Greta Garbo and Robert Montgomery in a scene for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's "Inspiration." The turntable arrangement is rather interesting, showing as it does the facility with which a sequence can be filmed as the actors descend a flight of stairs. Note the microphone placed overhead on a boom arm.
There can be no question in the minds of intelligent and discerning people that the talking motion picture has come to stay, and that it has become just as much a part of our national life as has radio broadcasting. By making it possible for the average person not only to see but to hear stage plays and operas, and famous actors and singers at a cost that is far from prohibitive, the "talkies" have done a great work in thus bringing to the mass of the public stage productions that formerly were only for the enjoyment of the minority who could afford the relatively high admissions. The writer has often heard the statement made that the sound motion picture will not continue to meet popular favor, that it is merely a passing fancy, and that consequently it will not last for more than a few years longer. When the skeptical persons who make these statements are pinned down to grounds for their opinions, they give absurd and illogical reasons for their belief, and generally their arguments are absolutely without foundation.
It is very true, of course, that the quality of the music and speech accompanying the present sound motion picture still leaves something to be desired. However, when one thinks about it, it is surprising that the voices and music are as excellent as they are. The sound motion picture is yet a baby in its swaddling clothes. Why, it has been a matter of only about three years (about March, 1927) since the first practical public demonstration of the present talking picture was made. In comparison with radio broadcasting, when it was first becoming universally popular in 1922, the sound motion picture is very far advanced. Of course, in the eight years since that time, great improvements have been made in the design of sound recording, amplifying, and reproducing equipment. Another year will see a considerable improvement in the quality and effectiveness of the talkies. New developments and changes are being made every day. The engineers and technicians in charge of the recording and projecting of sound pictures are working constantly on the improvements and additions to the sound devices that are necessary to give perfect reproduction.
Improvements in the amplifying, recording, and projecting apparatus alone are not all that is needed. Thoroughly trained, highly skilled men are also necessary. While most of the technical men are recruited from the ranks of the radio broadcast technicians, and as a general rule are skilled men, this new work is quite different and considerable training and experience are required to fit these men properly to fill their positions. It takes time to break men in for this work, and the industry is so comparatively new that there are but few trained men available. Naturally, as the men become better acquainted with their work, they are going to devise new and improved methods for performing their duties. This is especially true of the men who have to do with the placing of microphones, and with the "mixing" of the volume of sound picked up by the microphones. The technicians who operate the film recording machines are usually camera men, or men from the film laboratories. The wax, or "disc," recording men generally have had experience with phonograph record manufacturing companies. Their new work is so nearly like the old that these men need very little special training.
Construction of the enormous "silent" stage that was used for the shooting of Universal's "Broadway" and "King of Jazz." To the left of the partly completed stage may be seen two smaller silent stages with the sound department--the one-story brick building--in between.
Ever since the advent of the motion picture, back around 1900, constantly repeated attempts have been made to give sound to the "silent drama." Most of these sound devices made use of different forms of the phonograph record for the recording and reproducing of sound. There was one system, though, invented by a French woman, that burned a sound track along the edge of the film by means of a white-hot platinum wire. Various expedients were tried unsuccessfully to give the sound great enough volume to fill even a small theatre. All of that was before the invention of the audio amplifier, however, which today makes possible the enormous volume necessary to fill the largest theatres.
These early systems all failed in one respect: sound motion picture systems are necessarily based on perfect synchronism between the sound and the picture, and this they were unable to accomplish. The writer remembers well a demonstration of a talking picture that he heard many years ago. A large phonograph was used for the sound projecting unit. It could not be made to stay in synchronism with the film, the tone quality left very much to be desired, and only the people in the first few rows of the theatre were able to hear it, but nevertheless it worked. That was in those old days when between reels a slide rending "One Minute Intermission While the Operator Changes Reels" was flashed on the screen. The success of the present-day sound motion picture is due almost entirely to the development and perfection of a method of maintaining perfect synchronism between a number of motors, and of holding them indefinitely at a certain speed. The variation in speed of these motors must be, and is, less than one-tenth of one percent from a fixed value of twelve hundred revolutions per minute. It is this same method of speed control that carried much further may help to make television a thoroughly practicable reality within a few years.
Interior view of a sound-recording truck. In the exact center of the photograph is the film-recording machine in which the sound is recorded as a narrow band of light and dark lines on the edge of a strip of motion picture film. A regular motion picture camera is used for photographing the action. The amplifing equipment is contained in the metal boxes to the left of the recording machine.
The Vitaphone of Warner Bros., which was the first of the talkie systems actually to be put into commercial use, is merely the evolution of the old-style phonograph method of projecting sound pictures. Developments in the electrical recording of phonograph records, which were still further improved in the Vitaphone system, and the perfecting of the synchronous motor drive system made the Vitaphone possible. The records used in this system are much larger than ordinary phonograph records, they revolve much slower, and the needle travels from the center to the outside, instead of from the outside inward, as in the ordinary phonograph.
The future development of the talkies will undoubtedly be in connection with television. When television has been perfected, it can be combined with the sound motion picture to form an ideal means of entertainment. A play, an opera, or a drama can be recorded, and then simultaneously seen and heard in all parts of the country. The theatre will probably fall into disuse, more or less, for everything but first run productions; and well-to-do people will have equipment in their own homes to receive the broadcast sound pictures. Eventually, too, all motion pictures will be in natural colors, and will have perspective, which is to say, depth. By that time the recording and projecting systems for sound motion pictures will doubtless have been greatly reduced in size and complexity. When these developments have all come about, it probably will not be out of the ordinary for a person to sit before a screen in the comfort of his own home and see, for instance, the peaks of the Himalayn mountains from an airplane flying above them. Instead of appearing to be on the screen, as motion pictures at present do, it will seem that the screen is a window through which the person is actually viewing the tops of the mountains. This effect will be due to the depth of the picture.
There are two main methods of recording sound motion pictures: on discs, or special wax phonograph records, and on regular motion picture film. Some recording systems use both disc and film. Outside of the actual film and disc machines, the different recording and projecting systems are very much the same. The main weakness of these two methods of recording is that the sound is converted into electrical energy, amplified, and then changed either into light variations or into mechanical motion. Naturally, these two changes in the sound energy before it is recorded introduce chances for distortion. In projection, the mechanical motion or reproduced light variations have to be re-converted into electrical energy, amplified enormously again, and then re-translated into sound. There are too many steps in this process. The weakest parts of the chain are the devices that are used for converting the electrical energy into light or mechanical motion, and vice-versa. These instruments in particular are far from being perfect in operation. Eventually, a method of directly recording the electrical energy itself will have to be devised.
What seems to be the most practicable method thus far suggested is to record the electrical variations as changes in magnetism. If it could be perfected, some apparatus such as the electromagnetic recorder, known as the Telegraphone, invented years ago by the scientist Poulsen, could be used. In this instrument, a soft iron wire is run at a constant, even speed past an electromagnet that is connected to a microphone and battery. Variations in the strength of the electromagnet, which are produced by speaking into the microphone, change the molecular structure of the wire and so are recorded in it. To reproduce the voice, the iron wire is run past another similar electromagnet that is connected to a telephone receiver. The molecular differences in the wire cause a varying current in the pick-up electromagnet which produces sounds in the receiver that correspond to the original voice. If this method were applied to the recording of sound pictures, it would mean that the sound would be converted into electricity, amplified, and then recorded directly as changes in magnetism, and, in projection, that the magnetic variations would be converted directly into sound after being suitably amplified again.
Complete absence of outside noise is absolutely necessary during the shooting of sound pictures. "Silent stages" have been constructed at all of the motion picture studios as quickly as large crews of men could build them, The silent stages differ from the ordinary motion picture "stages" in that they are built on special heavy foundations, and have extremely thick walls and roof of patented soundproof materials. It is almost impossible to make them perfectly impervious to sound, and so the best silent stages are designed to be about eighty-five per cent sound proof. For all practical purposes, that is near enough. "Silent zones" are formed around the stages to help prevent interference from extraneous noises. The operation of machinery, and all other noises, are forbidden in these zones during the shooting of a picture. The stages are hung with special sound absorbing material on the inside to prevent too much reverberation, as that, too, would interfere with the perfect recording of sound.
Making outdoor shots for the talking movies has its obstacles, not the least of which is the crowd which assembles at the scene of action, even in Hollywood.
Portable sound recording outfit's mounted on trucks are available for use "on location." These "portables" are small duplicates of the regular studio sound recording equipment. The portable apparatus is much more simple and more compact, of course, as it is necessary for a portable outfit to go to all sorts of locations. One day it will be high up in the mountains, in the desert the next day, and then maybe on a boat at sea a few days later. These portable sound trucks make possible the taking of sound pictures that otherwise would not be available.
Even the desert holds no terrors for the sound-recording crew. The camera is enclosed in the sound-proof "bungalow" on wheels. The sound-recording truck is in the background, with extension cables reaching to microphones at the scene of action.
In the making of sound motion pictures, smaller "sets" are used as a general rule at present. This is because all of the actors must be close to the microphones. The shooting of a talking picture resembles more the acting of a stage play with the camera taking the place of the audience, than it does the taking of an old time silent motion picture.
Especially noticeable is the utter silence in the stage except for the voices of the actors when a "shot" is being made. The excited director shouting through his megaphone is no more. Fewer sets are used, too, in the making of a talking picture because of the extra time taken up by the dialogue. Music and singing are added to pictures now, and that also helps to stretch out the scenes and make a smaller number of sets necessary.
The studios that are equipped for the making of sound pictures use the apparatus mainly for the recording of their own productions; although there are a few studios that also rent out the sound equipment and staffs to "rental" companies. This is much the same practice as is followed by radio broadcast stations. The studios also rent out the necessary sets and lighting equipment.
electricians, carpenters, and property men are available to the rental company at a definite rate per day. Incidentally, these men are called, respectively, "juicers," "grips" and "prop men" in the parlance of the studios.
The projecting of talking pictures has become a very large and specialized industry, and all of the movie world of Hollywood is naturally intensely interested in it. Schools of voice culture have been springing up almost over night and legitimate actors are flocking to Hollywood in thousands. The movie people have accepted the talkies as something that is here to stay; and they expect talking pictures to attain to a popularity that will be far greater than anything the old silent pictures ever reached. Not only is the talking motion picture creating a demand for experienced technicians and "monitor" men, but it is also calling for actors who have trained stage voices. It is surprising how many of the present movie actors have voices that record excellently. This happens because a great many of them have had stage experience. Some, however, as might be expected, have very poor recording voices.
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