Movietone sound system

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
A 1929 Fox Movietone poster boasts an "all singing, dancing, talking revue."

The Movietone sound system is an optical sound-on-film method of recording sound for motion pictures that guarantees synchronization between sound and picture. It achieves this by recording the sound as a variable-density optical track on the same strip of film that records the pictures. Although sound films today use variable-area tracks, any modern motion picture theater (excluding those that have transitioned to digital cinema) can play a Movietone film without modification to the projector. Movietone was one of four motion picture sound systems under development in the U.S. during the 1920s, the others being DeForest Phonofilm, Warner Brothers' Vitaphone, and RCA Photophone, though Phonofilm was primarily an early version of Movietone.

History[edit]

As a student Theodore Case became interested in the use of modulated light to carry speech, and in 1914 set up a laboratory to study the photo-electric properties of materials. He developed the Thalofide cell, a sensitive photocell, which was used as part of an infra-red communication system by the U.S. Navy during, and for some years after, WW1.

In 1922 Case and his assistant Earl I. Sponable turned their attention to "talking pictures". In that same year Case was approached by Lee de Forest who had been attempting since 1919 to create an optical soundtrack for motion picture film in a system he called Phonofilm. De Forest was having little success and turned to Case for help, so from 1922 until 1925 Case and de Forest collaborated in the development of the Phonofilm system. Amongst other Case inventions Case contributed the Thalofide photocell and also the Aeo-light, a light source that could be readily modulated by audio signals and was used to expose the soundtrack in sound cameras.

In 1925, however, Case ended his relationship with de Forest due in the main to de Forest's tendency to claim the entire credit for the Phonofilm system for himself despite the fact that most of the critical inventions had come from Case. Documents supporting this, including a signed letter by De Forest that states that Phonofilms are only possible because of the inventions of Case Research Lab, are located at the Case Research Lab Museum in Auburn, New York.[1] In 1925, therefore, Case and Sponable continued the development of their own system, now called Movietone.

From 1924 onwards Sponable had turned his attention to the design of single-system cameras, in which the sound and picture are recorded on the same negative. He asked Bell & Howell to modify one of their cameras to his design, but the results were unsatisfactory. Consequently the Wall machine shop in Syracuse, New York was asked to rebuild this camera and the results were much improved.

Subsequently most single-system cameras were produced by Wall Camera Corporation, which much later produced the three-film Cinerama cameras. Wall initially converted some Bell & Howell Design 2709 cameras to single-system, but most were Wall designed and produced. Single-system cameras were also produced by Mitchell Camera Corporation during World War II for the U.S. Army Signal Corps, although these cameras were quite rare.

Subsequent to the split with de Forest Case adopted a revised position for the projector soundhead, which was now placed below the picture head, with a sound-picture offset of 14 ½ inches (368 mm) (which is close to the present day standard), rather than being placed above the picture head as had been the phonofilm practice. Case also adopted the 24 frames/sec speed for Movietone, bringing it in line with the speed already chosen for the Western Electric Vitaphone sound-on-disc system, and thus establishing 24 frame/sec as the standard speed for all sound films, whether sound-on-disc or sound-on-film. With a few exceptions this has remained the standard speed for professional sound films ever since.[2][3]

Commercial use by William Fox[edit]

Movietone entered commercial use when William Fox of the Fox Film Corporation bought the entire system including the patents in July 1926. Although Fox owned the Case patents, the work of Freeman Harrison Owens, and the American rights to the German Tri-Ergon patents, the Movietone sound film system uses only the inventions of Case Research Lab.

William Fox hired Earl I. Sponable (1895–1977) from Case Research Lab in 1926, when he purchased the sound-on-film patents from Case. The first feature film released using the Fox Movietone system was Sunrise (1927) directed by F. W. Murnau. It was the first professionally produced feature film with an optical sound track. Sound in the film included only music, sound effects, and a very few unsynchronized words.

Less than two years after purchasing the system from Case, Fox bought out all of Case's interests in the Fox-Case company. All of Fox's sound feature films were made using the Movietone system until 1931, when it was superseded by a Western Electric recording system using the light-valve invented by Edward C. Wente in 1923. However Fox Movietone News used the system until 1939, because of the ease of transporting this single-system's sound film equipment.

Later development[edit]

The Case Research Lab sound system influenced many industry standards, such as location of the optical sound 20 frames in advance of the image it accompanies.[4][5][6] The current SMPTE standard for 35 mm sound film is +21 frames for optical, but a 46-foot theatre reduces this to +20 frames;[7][8] this was originally done partly to ensure the film runs smoothly past the sound head, but also to ensure that no Phonofilm could again be played in theaters — the Phonofilm system being incompatible with Case Research Lab specifications — and also to ease the modification of projectors already widely in use.

Sponable worked at the Fox Film Corporation studios (later 20th Century Fox) on 54th Street and 10th Avenue in New York City until he retired in the 1960s, eventually winning an Academy Award for his technical work on the development of CinemaScope. Sponable had many contributions to film technology during his career, including the invention of the perforated motion-picture screen that allowed placing the speakers behind it to enhance the illusion of the sound emanating directly from the film action. During his years at Fox, Sponable also served for a time as an officer of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. He published a concise history of sound film in the April 1947 issue of The SMPE Journal (The SMPTE Journal after 1950).[9]

The history of Case Research Lab has long been unheralded for numerous reasons. Theodore Case died in 1944, after donating his home and laboratory to be preserved as a museum to the inventions of Case Research Lab. The museum's first director, who oversaw the museum for 50 years, put the laboratory's contents into storage and converted the building into an art studio. The Case Research Lab sound studio was located in the second floor of the estate's carriage house and that was rented to the local model train club until the early 1990s.

Fox was seriously injured in a July 1929 car accident, lost his company in 1930 when his loans were called in, and lost the 1936 lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court against the film industry for violating the Tri-Ergon patents he owned. Sponable did little to establish the record of Case Research Lab inventions, other than his April 1947 article in The Journal of the SMPE.

Incredibly, it was also in 1947 that the Davis Loop Drive was first introduced to Western Electric licensees, including Twentieth Century-Fox (WECo RA-1231; and still made to this day by a successor company).

For its first 50 years, 20th Century Fox chose to leave its history behind to distance itself from William Fox. DeForest, a failed inventor but a master promoter, spent his life convincing people he'd invented sound film, reaching his greatest glory with an Academy Award for his lifetime achievement and contributions to the creation of sound film.

Recently, Case Research Lab, the adjoining carriage house, and Case's home have been restored and research is ongoing with the collections of the lab that include all receipts, notebooks, correspondence, and much of the laboratory's original equipment, including the first recording device created to test the AEO light. In the collections are also letters from Thomas Edison, an original copy of the Tri-Ergon patents, and an internal document from Fox Films written in the 1930s. This latter document says that once it became public knowledge that Sponable perfected the variable-area system of sound-on-film at the Fox Studios, the system that became the standard and replaced the inventions of Case Research Lab.

A number of films owned by Case Research Lab and Museum and restored by George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, are in the collections of both of those institutions. The Case Research Lab and Museum has additional sound-film footage of Theodore Case, and recently discovered copies of the same films at the Eastman House, are in a much higher state of preservation. Movietone News films are in the collections of 20th-Century Fox and the University of South Carolina at Columbia, including the only known footage of Earl I. Sponable talking. Sponable can also be seen in footage of the premiere of the film The Robe.

Phonofilms that were produced using Case Research Lab inventions are in the collections of the Library of Congress and the British Film Institute.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Case Lab Museum website
  2. ^ Earl I. Sponable, "Historical Development of Sound Films", The Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (April 1947), Vol. 48, No. 4
  3. ^ Edward Kellogg, "History of Sound Motion in Pictures", The Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (June 1955), Vol. 64, p. 295
  4. ^ Earl I. Sponable, "Historical Development of Sound Films", The Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (April 1947), Vol. 48, No. 4
  5. ^ Edward Kellogg, "History of Sound Motion in Pictures", The Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (June 1955), Vol. 64, p. 295
  6. ^ Leslie J. Wheeler, Principles of Cinematography (4th edition), Fountain Press (1969), p. 373
  7. ^ Kodak Film Notes Issue # H-50-03: Projection practices and techniques — see Manuals at http://www.film-tech.com/
  8. ^ Ira Konigsberg, The Complete Film Dictionary (Second Edition), Bloomsbury (1997) — see Projector article.
  9. ^ Earl I. Sponable, "Historical Development of Sound Films", Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (April 1947), Vol. 48, No. 4

See also[edit]

External links[edit]