A good number of inventions noted that a sequence of individual immobile pictures set into movement created the delusion of motion. This concept came to be known as the persistence of vision. A British physician named Peter Mark Roget in the early years of the 1800s first noted the phenomenon1.
It was the revolutionary step in the growth of the cinema. Before this, many innovations related to motion and vision had been developed. These were the precursors to the origin of the motion picture industry. This essay outlines the history of the film industry through the centuries. A lot of emphasis will be paid to the era when sound was incorporated in the film industry. The impact of the introduction of sound to the film industry will also be discussed with specific reference to two Hollywood classic movies.
As mentioned above, the infancy of the film industry was preceded by a number of technologies. One of them was the magic lantern. Athanisius Kircher in Rome invented this device in the 17th century. It could project images using a simple light source. In 1824, the Thaumatrope was invented.
It was the most basic adaptation of an optical illusion toy that used the notion of persistence of vision. An English doctor called John Ayrton Paris invented the device2. In 1831, Michael Faraday, a British scientist, discovered the law of electromagnetic induction. This principle was deployed in the generation of electricity to power motors and other equipment including film machines.
In the following year, Joseph Blaeau, a Belgian, invented the Fantascope, also referred to as the Phenakistiscope or, simply put, the spindle viewer. The device was used to reproduce sound. A succession of distinct depicting pictures stages of an action was set around the peripheries of a slotted disk. The spectator would view the pictures through slots3.
Two years after this discovery, another stroboscopic device called the Daedalum or Zoetrope (as it came to be named in 1967) was invented. This was courtesy of a British inventor called William George Horner. The device was a hollow, rotating cylinder or drum. It had a crank with a strip having a series of pictures, drawings and paintings in progression.
The images were in the interior surface. A spectator would view the pictures in ‘motion’ through slim slits. Five years following this discovery saw of yet another milestone invention in the film industry. This was the invention of still photography4.
This was followed by the development of the pioneering commercially viable daguerreotype. The latter was a way of capturing pictures on silvered, copper-metal plates. As the name suggests, the invention was courtesy of Frenchman Louis –Jacqueds-Mande Daguerre. This innovation was followed by that of the British inventor William Henry Fox Talbot.
The latter was calotype, a process by which negative photographs would be printed on high-quality paper. In 1861, Philadelphian Coleman Sellers invented the Kinematoscope. This was an enhanced rotating needle paddle machine. It was used for viewing a sequence of stereoscopic immobile pictures on glass plates. After this invention, the film industry experience six years of silence in terms of new inventions and innovations5.
However, John Wesley Hyatt broke this silence in 1869 when he developed the celluloid. This provided a basis for photographic film. In the following year, Henry Renno Heyll, a Philadelphian came up with the first exhibition of the Phansmotrope. The device was used to show a quick series of immobile or posed photographs of dancers, giving the chimera of movement.
Seven years later, Frenchman Charles Emile Reynaud invented the Praxinoscope. This projector equipment had a mirrored drum, which created the delusion of motion with picture strips hence serving as an improved edition of the Zoetrope. By the onset of the1890s, Reynaud’s Parisian Theatre Optique was making public shows with screenings of 15-minute ’movies’. This precursor era also saw the invention of the incandescent light bulb that was used for film projectors. This occurred in 1879 courtesy of Thomas Alva Edison6.
As the 19th century ended, Eadweard Muybridge, a pioneering British photographer and inventor became renowned for his photographic locomotion studies. This is because, in 1870, he had experimented with recordings of a galloping horse at a Californian racetrack. In 1878, he conducted a chronophotography experiment by use of many cameras recording horse’s gallops.
This ascertained that all the horse’s feet are off the ground at the same time. In 1879, Muybridge invented the Zoopraxiscope, also referred to as the wheel of life. This was a primitive motion picture projector machine, which also created the delusion of motion by projecting images onto a screen from photos on a revolving glass disc7. All the developments discussed above only succeeded in providing eye-fooling animations.
Genuine motion pictures were a phenomenon only possible with the development of the film. This supple and clear celluloid could record pictures at a very high speed. The pioneer in this field was a Parisian innovator and psychologist called Etienne-Jules Marey in the 1880s. This Parisian came up with a camera capable of taking many photographs at a go. Contrary to Muybridge’s device, this new equipment could many images on the same camera plate. His experiment is also associated with the coined terminology of ‘shooting a video’8.
The experiments of Muybridge and Marie laid the base for the development of the motion picture cameras, projectors and transparent celluloid film hence the cinema was born. In the last years of the 1880s, American inventor Thomas Alva Edison and his British assistant William Kennedy Laurie Dickson endeavored to create a device that could record movement on film and another for watching the film.
In 1890, Dickson cake up with a primitive, camera able to take photographs of moving in motion. The device was named a Kinetograph. It captured motion with a harmonized shutter and sprocket system able to wind the film through the camera with the aid of an electric motor. This innovation led to the birth of the US cinema. The world’s first film production studio, the Black Maria was also developed from this invention9.
Edison and Dickson innovations prompted a series of other inventions in the film industry. The most notably were from Charles Francis Jenkins. He endeavored to show pictures in motion to large groups of people. As such, he invented the first film projector called the Phantoscope10.
Concurrently in France, two brothers, the Lumieres, invented the cinematograph. This was a portable camera, printer and projector. One striking characteristic of the films produced during this period was that they were very short. They were usually under a minute long and showed only a single scene.
The scene was drawn from either authentic or staged representing every day life. Cinematique technique was less applied since there was even no editing11. Nevertheless, the progress was enough to catapult the industry to new heights for the century that followed.
Before discussing the introduction of sound in film production, it is important to note that the first years into the 20th century were a silent era for the film industry. Nevertheless, a number of innovations in Cinematique techniques were developed during this silent era.
These include animation, film continuity, crosscutting between parallel actions, and point of view shots. Others included reverse-angle cutting, intertitles and flashback12. Nevertheless, none of these developments could be paralleled to the impact that was brought in by the introduction of sound technology in the film industry.
Although there were experiments on sound technology in the silent era, it was difficult to overcome the challenges of accurate synchronization and amplification at that time. The year 1926 saw the introduction of the Vitaphone system in Hollywood studio by Warner Brothers.
This device added sound effects to film recordings. In the following year, Warner Bros released the first film, The Jazz Singer, having a synchronized dialogue and singing13. The Jazz Singer is one of the Hollywood classic films that will be used to show the impact brought about by the introduction of sound technology.
Despite been a pioneer in the field, the idea of incorporating sound in film was not a new phenomenon. This is because Charles Taze Russell had attempted it in 1914 in his long film, The Photo-Drama of Creation. The film showed pictures in motion harmonized with sound14.
Before embarking on the impact of sound technology, it would be paramount to note what had delayed the introduction of this much-needed innovation. The invention of the introduction of sound technology in film production was stalled by a number of factors. This led to motion pictures and sound recording parting ways for almost a generation.
As hinted earlier, one of the major problems that delayed the introduction of sound technology was the synchronization challenge15. This was occasioned by the fact that pictures and sound were recorded and played back by two distinct devices. This made it difficult to start and sustain in cycle.
Another challenge was the issue of adequate playback volume. This was stalled due to lack of amplification systems. The last barrier to the introduction of sound technology in the film industry was recording reliability. The primitive technologies produced low quality sound. This imposed boundaries on the kind of films that could be produced with live-recorded sound16.
To counter the above challenges, and especially the synchronization huddle, cinematic innovators tried a number of ways. The prime one was the introduction of the sound-on-film technology to replace the sound-on-disc one that existed. The former was superior to the later in several ways.
This is because sound-on-disc technology had a myriad of limitations. To begin with, due to the unreliability of their interlock system, sound would fall out of synch, a fact occasioned by disc skipping or small alterations in film speed. This, therefore, called for regular supervision and numerous manual adjustments.
Another limitation of the sound-on-disc technology was the fact that discs could not be directly edited. This greatly limited the ability to make changes in the complementary films after the original release cut17.
To add on, phonograph discs, increased expenses and complications in film production and, hence, were making the process dear and time consuming. Lastly, the discs needed replacement after a number of screenings due to tear and wear. Nevertheless, the first years of the introduction of sound technology in films saw the sound-on-disc technology have an edge over its counterpart18.
This was because it was relatively cheap to record music onto film. In addition, the central exhibition devices were easy to manufacture and acquire when compared to the sophisticated image-and-audio equipment, which was a prerequisite of the sound-on-film technology era.
After the introduction of the sound-on-disc and sound-on-film technology, the innovation that followed was the fidelity electronic recording and amplification19. This was a blend of the two technologies. It was pioneered by AT & T’S Western Electric manufacturing section. By 1925, the company rolled out a new sound system that had microphones and rubber-line recorders.
There is no doubt that the introduction of sound technology had far-reaching implications to the art and production of films as well as to the industry at large. The impact was both short term and long term. In the short term, it led an increase in earnings for the movie houses. For instance, The Jazz Singer, Warner Bros released, on 6 October 1927, their premier talkie earning a total of $2.65 million in the US and elsewhere20.
This was almost a million dollars higher than what the company had earned fro a preceding film in the silent era. Another film that shows that the sound technology brought good tidings to the industry was Lights of New York. The film, also produced by the same company, earned a gross of $ 1.2 million compared to a $23000 budget they spent in its production21. This kind of profits was occasioned by a surge in terms of sales as moviegoers.
The introduction of sound technology in film production also affected other factors and in particular, labor. Those artists that did not have stage voices were dismissed as susceptible to the reception of the film. The contrary was also true. The latter case can be used to explain the success of The Jazz Trailer.
Although the film was not sound synchronized, the few instances where Al Jason, who was already famous as one of the America’s biggest music stars, starred made the film a hit. As such, sound technology meant doom for those actors whose stage experience was not up to the Hollywood standards. This was the case to a number of stars like Norma Talmadge, Emil Jannings and John Gilbert22.
In conclusion, though the introduction of sound technology may have seemed inevitable, it was not received warmheartedly from all corners. The innovation was perceived as a destruction of the initial purpose of art. In addition, the technology imposed a limitation to the deaf who felt separated fro the rest of the audience.
Despite this criticism, there is more than meets the eye in the film industry today that has its origin in the silent era and the talkie’s era as well. If the number, of movie houses sprouting in every corner of the world is anything to go by, there is no doubt that the world owes much to the cinema innovators and especially those who came up with the incorporation of sound technology than blunt criticism.
Altman, R, Silent Film Sound, Columbia University Press, New York, 2005.
Bordwell, D “The Introduction of Sound,” chap. in Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin T, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960, Columbia University Press, New York, 1985, pp.298-308.
Braun, M, Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904) University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992.
Chapman, J, Cinemas of the World: Film and Society from 1895 to the Present. Reaktion Book, London, 2003.
Cousins, M, The Story of Film: A Worldwide History, Thunder’s Mouth press, New York, 2006.
Crafton, D, The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926–1931. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1997.
Dirks, T. Filmsite. The history of Film. https://www.filmsite.org/pre20sintro.html.
Eyman, S The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926–1930, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1997.
Finler, JW, The Hollywood Story, (3d ed) Wallflower, London and New York, 2003.
Geduld, HM, The Birth of the Talkies: From Edison to Jolson. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1975.
Gomery, D “The Coming of Sound: Technological Change in the American Film Industry”, in Technology and Culture—The Film Reader (2005), ed. Andrew Utterson, pp. 53–67.: Routledge/Taylor & Francis, Oxford and New York, 1985.
Hirschhorn, C, The Warner Bros. Story. Crown, New York, 1979.
King, G, New Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction, Columbia University Press, New York, 2002.
Morton, D, Sound Recording, The Life Story of a Technology, Baltimore, 2006.
Robertson, Film Facts, Billboard Books, New York, 2001.
Robinson, D, From Peepshow to Palace: The Birth of American Film. Columbia University Press, New York, 1997.
Sponable, EI “Historical Development of Sound Films,” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, vol. 48, nos. 4–5, April/May, 1947.
1 P Robertson, 2001. Film Facts. (New York: Billboard Books).p.6.
2 T Dirks, Filmsite. The history of Film.
3 J Chapman, 2003, Cinemas of the World: Film and Society from 1895 to the Present. (London: Reaktion Book). p. 12.
4 Dicks, p.1
5 HM, Geduld, 1975, The Birth of the Talkies: From Edison to Jolson. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) pp. 12-17
6 Geduld, p. 7
7 D, Bordwell, 1985, “The Introduction of Sound,” chap. in Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960, (Columbia University Press: New York) pp. 298-308
8 M, Braun (1992). Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. 7
9 R, David ,1997, From Peepshow to Palace: The Birth of American Film.(New York: Columbia University Press) p. 23
10 David, p. 27
12 R, Altman, 2005, Silent Film Sound, (New York: Columbia University Press) p.45
13 C, Hirschhorn, 1979, The Warner Bros. Story. (New York: Crown) p. 12
1414. EI, Sponable ,1947, “Historical Development of Sound Films,” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, vol. 48, nos.4–5, April/May
15 D, Morton, 2006, Sound Recording: The Life Story of a Technology. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press) pp. 32-35
16 D, Gomery, Douglas,1985, “The Coming of Sound: Technological Change in the American Film Industry”, in Technology and Culture—The Film Reader (2005), ed. Andrew Utterson, pp. 53–67.( Oxford and New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis) pp. 53-67
17 S, Eyman, 1997,The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926–1930.( New York: Simon & Schuster) p. 67
19 D, Bordwel,1985, “The Introduction of Sound,” chap. in Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960, ( New York: Columbia University Press) pp. 298-308
20 G, King, 2002, New Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction. (New York: Columbia University Press) p. 29
21 D, Crafton, 1997, The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926–1931. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons) p. 56
22 JW, Finler,2003, The Hollywood Story, 3d ed.(London and New York: Wallflower) p. 12