Monday, January 4, 2010

The Talking Picture

The year 1913 saw renewed attempts to commercialize synchronized sound film, which had mostly disappeared from the American market at least after the failure of the Cameraphone Company around 1910. (For a PDF of contemporaneous article that gives an overview of the earlier period, see . Harvey Middleton, "Pictures That Speak," Technical World Magazine (March 1909).) In the article below, Hugh Hoffman reviews three systems that were available for talking pictures in 1913: Edison's recently introduced Kinetophone (pictured right); the Vivaphone; and Gaumont's latest version of the Chronophone, which had originally been introduced in 1902.

Even in 1908-1910, the primary challenge to sound film had not been synchronization, which could be managed through a reasonably competent projectionist. In this article Hoffman addresses three main issues: the difficulty of damaged film, the lack of good subjects, and the "hollow" sound of the phonograph. According to Hoffman, the Kinetophone and Vivaphone could manage slightly damaged film with only a little difficulty, but the Gaumont system required replacing any damaged film with the equivalent length of blank leader. Of course, this made the Gaumont system somewhat less flexible—though it should be remembered that the Vitaphone system, which would prove successful, had exactly the same requirement. The lack of good subjects was a hard one to remedy because the economic situation in 1913 was not yet favorable. Most top-flight artists were still reluctant to go before the camera (not to mention the sound camera), and the industry did not yet have the money to convince them otherwise. Most problematic, I think, was the sound of the phonograph, or more precisely, the lack of a system of electrical amplification. Regular phonographs were inadequate for any but the most modest theaters, and the means of mechanical amplification (especially compressed air) tended to make the sound "tinny." Larger theaters of the time also were not designed for reproduced sound and the high degree of reflected sound in those theaters tended to make recorded sound in particular muddy and indistinct, which had the effect of making dialogue in particular difficult to follow.

The Talking Picture.

A Review of Some of the Synchronizing Systems Now on the Market. The Edison, Vivaphone, and Gaumont Systems.
By Hugh Hoffman.

The talking picture, meaning particularly the combined and simultaneous action of the phonograph and motion picture, is having a revival. The idea is not new, but new methods have been introduced and advertised to an extent that warrants some attention to the subject. When the Cameraphone Company failed, some four years ago, the incident was considered to be the finish of the talking picture as a practical commercial proposition. There was no great objection to the synchronizing results of the Cameraphone; they were all that could be expected, but the big missing link was the inability to make a phonograph keep time with a patched reel. It cannot be unqualifiedly stated that this condition has been eliminated in any of the new devices now on the market, but it has been provided for in ways that render it a less momentous question than before.

So far as actual synchronized action is concerned, satisfactory results have been obtained by the manufacturers mentioned herein, each in his own way, which is radically different than that of the others. With this fact established, the exhibitor will no doubt wish to know just what can be expected in the way of screen results. We can truthfully say that there is much that can be expected, provided certain other simple faults are corrected. The first failure of the talking picture was not due to any failure to synchronize the phonograph and motion picture. The main cause of the failure was the poor choice of subject. And that very cause will bring about the failure of these new devices if not observed by their promoters. The remedy lies in providing better stuff for an audience to look at and listen to. The public are willing to admit that the talking picture is a great invention, but they refuse to pay their money to witness it and then have their intelligence insulted by the reproduction of a lot of stereotyped, small-time vaudeville acts, and puerile subjects of various kinds.

Mechanically the talking picture is a success. Now it is up to the promoters to make it an artistic success. If the talking picture fails against we will know that it is because its sponsors have overlooked the ends in their attention to the means. Poor choice of subject is the one big drawback, and the remedy is so simple that it will be a great pity if the idea fails again.

Among the mechanisms treated herein there are prices to suit all purses, according to the elaborateness or simplicity of the device, and according to the results that can be obtained therefrom. One of them is complicated, another is simple, and the other is half way between. Each does its work well, but the one is that provided with the right kind of pictures is the one that is going to win out in the long run.

The Edison Kinetophone.

The Edison people do not claim to be the inventors of the talking picture. They do claim, however, that Mr. Edison has taken the original idea as a foundation, and, after having made a study of synchronization in all its phases, has produced an apparatus, embodying original ideas of his own, that is commercially practical. The Edison outfit consists of giant phonograph, an Edison projector, and a synchronizing mechanism. The phonograph is operated by a small motor, for reasons which will appear presently. A large wax cylinder record is used, measuring about four inches in diameter. Some of the phonographs are equipped for disk records. An ordinary phonograph horn is used. The phonograph is located just behind the curtain, and in vaudeville theaters is set below the level of the stage. For operation, the trap door is opened, the phonograph operator sets his horn, starts his motor, waits for his cue, which is in the picture itself, and then throws in a clutch or switch which starts the phonograph. The trap door arrangement is probably used to save the time that would be required to set the phonograph properly, thus avoiding a stage-wait.

The projector used is the regular Edison Kinteograph which is too well known to need description, except that on the take-up pulley there is bolted a gear wheel that is connected to the synchronizer by a chain belt. The main trick is in the synchronizer, one of the most beautiful little pieces of mechanism that ever was made. A mere glance at it is sufficient to convince one that it is an example of the highest type of the machinist’s art. It bulks to about the size of a small cigar box, and the mechanism is encased in a metal envelope. The synchronizer is bolted to the off side of the machine table and is propelled by two different forces; on one side by the moving picture machine, which is turned by hand, and on the other by a belt from the phonograph motor. The synchronizer is all gears, and if these gears are not all traveling at the same rate, they will bind and stop the projector. There is a warning brake that tells the operator to slow down or hurry up, as the case may be. It operates by centrifugal action, like a governor. In addition to this there is a traveling bevel gear, or differential, between the two sets of gears, which is operated by turning a knob. This arrangement enables the operator to catch up or drop behind if there is the slightest variation between the phonograph and the lips of the actor. The operator must keep his eyes on the picture all the time. He also has a telephone receiver on his head which is connected by wire to the phonograph, and this enables him to hear it at any distance.

The same motor that propels the phonograph also drives the phonograph side of the synchronizer. This is done by a belt that travels from it to the operating room and back again. The belt is a strong, black, waxed, silk cord about the size of a heavy fish line. In theaters it passes up through the ceiling, across the dome roof, or inner dome roof, over to and through the proscenium wall, and by various angles it reaches the phonograph from underneath the stage. At every corner, this belt passes around pulleys that are encased in metal, making them dust and water proof. Two belts are usually installed, so that in the case one breaks the other is handy. In the case of small picture theaters, this belt would probably be rigged close to the ceiling. It is not necessary, with the Kinetophone, for an operator to be a mechanical or electrical expert, but he must not be a “greenhorn” by any means. Its operation requires a reasonable amount of common sense and during the time of operation it requires that the operator shall concentrate all of his faculties upon the work.

In case of a patched reel, if the cut-out is not more than a few inches it is easy for the machine operator to drop back enough for the phonograph to catch up. In case of serious or long breaks, the Kinetophone Company provides an extra subject for substitution and the broken reel is taken out of commission until the broken scene is replaced with a new one. One of the principal claims of the Edison Company is that their field of reproduction is practically unlimited, because their records and films are made at the same time and by the same machinery.

The Vivaphone.

The Vivaphone is a device that has been in use for the past couple of years in Great Britain. Its mechanism is extremely simple. The synchronizing device is located in the operating room. It is a sheet metal box that stands on edge. It is about two inches thick, fifteen inches long and a foot high. There is an electric light inside this box that shows a red bulls eye, when lighted, to the phonograph operator, who is located on or near the stage. On the machine operator’s side of this box is an upright slit through which the light shows in its ordinary color. Outside the box, on the machine operator’s side, is an upright pointer about the width and length of a lead pencil, which in its normal upright position always covers the slit in the box and stops off the light. Attached to this pointer are two miniature windows about the sixe of a postage stamp; one on each side of the pointer. These little flag windows or window flags are on a level with the light slit in the box. One window is colored red and the other green. These window flags indicate whether or not the machine and phonograph are in time with each other. When machine and phonograph are in time, the pointer covers up the slit and there is no light. If they get out of time the pointer moves to one side or the other, according to whether the machine is running too fast or too slow. When the pointer moves to the right it brings the little red window across the light slit and produces a red light, which means the machine is running too slow, if the machine is going to fast the pointer goes the other way and brings the green window across the light slit, thus producing the green signal, meaning too fast.

There is a particular spot on the film that must be threaded in the machine directly over the aperture for a starting point. Likewise there is a marked starting point on the phonograph disk. The machine operator signals the phonograph man that he is ready, by turning on the light in his synchronizing box, and that shows the red bulls-eye to the stage. The moment the phonograph starts, the synchronizing box begins to tick slowly, like a clock. A special handle is required for turning the machine. This handle is electrically connected, by wire, to the synchroniz- [1348] ing box, in a way that affects the pointer and its little colored windows. It is the operator’s business to see that the pointer stays perpendicular, which means that he is in time with the phonograph.

The only connection between the phonograph and the synchronizer is an ordinary double bell wire. This wire is attached to a skeleton casting, bearing a magneto. One end of the casting rests upon the solid part of the phonograph, and the other end fits over the pin in the center of the disk record. The revolutions of the disk establish a make-and-break circuit that travels through the magneto back to the synchronizer and causes it to tick. The handle of the machine also establishes a make-and-break circuit with the synchronizer at the same time. The phonograph travels at the same speed always. If the machine goes too fast the extra magnetic force generated by the speed pulls the pointer to one side. If the machine goes too slow the phonograph magneto, by its greater excitement, pulls the pointer the other way. On reasonably short film patches the operator can slow down until the phonograph catches up. On bad breaks a new subject should be used.

This entire device is very compact. It can all be packed in half the space of a dress suit case, and weighs only eight pounds. It can be attached to any standard projector without previous preparation, and can be made ready for operation within twenty minutes, with temporary wiring. The electrical power is furnished by an ordinary bell battery and the wire is common bell wire or extension lamp cord. There are three pairs of binding posts on the synchronizer. One pair for the machine handle; one pair for the phonograph and one pair for the battery. Any ordinary Victrola talking machine, such as are sold for home use, can be used with this outfit. The machine operator who gave the demonstration learned to handle the apparatus in half a day. Anyone who can operate a Victrola at home can operate one with this device. Mr. Albert Blinkhorn, formerly of London, has the American and Canadian rights.

The Gaumont System.

The Gaumont system of talking pictures has been in vogue for several years. The present device is an amplification of the Gaumont Chronophone which made a brief American appearance in 1910. Since that time Mr. Leon Gaumont has been experimenting continuously with synchronizing machinery. The recent revival of talking pictures prompted him to bring his device to America, principally as a matter of pride and to remind the American public that for more than two years he has been giving such exhibitions in Paris. He recently leased the Paris Hippodrome for that purpose. The new Gaumont talking pictures were given their first American showing in New York, at the 39th Street Theater, on June 10. Mr. Gaumont is not certain at this time when and how he will market his apparatus, or whether he will market it at all.

The Gaumont system can properly be called a scientific instrument. In its working it has been brought right down to the ultimate of scientific perfection. It has been before the French Academy, and the learned scientists there have marveled at its infinite precision points. From this viewpoint it is entirely praiseworthy, but at the same time it is complicated and it is doubtful whether very many operators could be found who have the necessary mechanical knowledge to successfully manipulate it. Exceptions may be taken to the last statement because the Gaumont mechanism is almost entirely automatic. After the film and the phonograph disk have been placed in position there is nothing for the operator to do except turn on the electricity, and the machine does all the work itself. Still there must be some one around to keep it in working condition, and, unless the operator is a pretty thorough many, there is likelihood that he would do more harm than good.

The entire apparatus operates and is controlled by electricity. There is a wonderful electrical affinity between the phonograph and the projector. With this system the phonograph man is the engineer, instead of the man in the operating room. He sits on the stage behind the screen directly under the projection surface. Before him is a low aluminum machine foundation resembling a lathe. At each end of this base is a round solid metal plate for the support of a disk record. These are revolved by a motor which keeps exact time with the motor that operates the projector. Between the two disks is an upright electric switchboard, with many contacts. This apparatus controls itself and the synchronism automatically. It is delicate and complicated and contains presumably many relays, magnets, inductors, circuit breakers, etc. Connected to each one of these is a wire, and there are many wires; enough to make one large cable when all bound together.

When the exhibition begins the phonograph operator switches in his record. The instant the record starts there is a clutch thrown in at the projection machine propeller and the film starts at full speed, getting its momentum from its own motor, previously started. Then the wonderful switchboard begins to work. It resembles accordeon keys playing themselves. There is no chance for the film and the record to get out of time, except by a bare chance that the pin should jump ahead or behind on the record. In that case the mechanism will adjust itself. In the matter of patched film, whatever is cut out must be replaced by an equivalent length of film, whether it be blank film or a duplicate. The exact relation of the picture to its corresponding dialogue or music must be maintained. To insure absolute precision, the phonograph operator has a dial board beside him on which are two instruments resembling ammeters or voltmeters. These tell him to a hair’s breadth how his film and phonograph are traveling. The machine operator uses a head telephone receiver connected to the phonograph. The double phonograph idea is for alternating purposes on long pictures. The change from one to the other is also made automatically.

In concluding the subject it cannot be said that any of these devices has succeeded in evading the hollow sound of the phonograph. Perhaps it is asking too much to expect absolute perfection in that direction. If no improvements are forthcoming it behooves everybody to make the best of what is available. Phonographs are enjoyed in the home; why not in the theater? It is quite probable that any audience would not object to a phonograph if the subject were interesting enough to hold their attention, but it is asking rather a good deal of them to sit and look at a musical act, or a synchronized song and dance, with the feet cut off, when they may have seen the same thing in real life on the same bill thirty minutes before. The fault of the talking picture lies in the lack of variety. To hold its own it must offer something that is not common to a vaudeville bill. Something worthy of it. We are not prepared to say what this should be, but is quite probable that tabloid grand opera would be a good beginning. The grand opera records seem to be the most satisfactory so far, and the great majority of picture or vaudeville devotees have little opportunity to attend grand opera. Addresses by prominent men; solos and monologues by famous artists; scenes from classic dramas; all would be well received. The people are willing, even eager, to admit that synchronism is possible, but they want to see something worth looking at. Why not give it to them?

Source: Hugh Hoffman, “The Talking Picture,” Moving Picture World 28 June 1913, 1347-48.
Image Source (1913 Kinetophone): Edison National Historic Site.