Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Motion Pictures Are Made To Talk

The surge in the talking pictures around 1908 seems to have rekindled Edison's interest in the problem of synchronizing phonograph and moving pictures, and by August 1910 he had a machine ready to demonstrate for reporters. The following is a report of this demonstration published in the New York Times. The Kinetophone would not, in fact, be commercially released until early 1913—though the lecture film described by the reporter seems very similar to the one that was shown when the device would be inaugurated at a theater.

It is important to recognize what Edison presented as the novel aspects of his machine: that the picture and sound recording would be taken simultaneously. Because at the time phonograph recording was done mechanically through a horn (rather than electrically through a microphone) and for best results a recording horn needed to be located fairly close to the sound source, talking pictures before the kinetograph were usually made by first recording the sound and then having actors synchronize to playback. Such filming to playback (or lipsynching) would in fact remain common in the sound era, particularly for musical numbers. Edison, however, devised a method of recording while being able to keep the recording apparatus out of the line of the camera.

Motion Pictures Are Made To Talk
Edison Invents a Machine that Combines the Kinetoscope and Phonograph.
Records Taken Together
When the Pictured Man Acts the Voice in the Box Speaks, and Illusion is Perfect.

Thomas A. Edison gave to an audience of not more than a dozen men last night the first exhibition of his talking pictures, the product of the new Edison kinetophone, which combines in one machine the wizardrly of the phonograph with that of the kinetoscope. The brief glimpse offered in the laboratory in West Orange was enough to show that Mr. Edison has achieved what he and a host of other inventors have long striven for—the perfect synchronization of sound and action for the moving picture screen.

Into the scene thrown upon the screen last night a man walked, and as his lips moved the sound of his voice issued from the concealed phonograph, effecting an illusion that was perfect. This was all that Mr. Edison would show, but he has more in preparation, and his plans for the future of his kinetoscope are boundless.

“We’ll be ready for the moving-picture shows in a couple of months,” he said, “but I am not satisfied with that. I want to give grand opera. I want to have people in far stranded towns able to hear and see John Drew. And,” he added in a birth of confidence, “I want to have ‘Teddy’ [Roosevelt] addressing a meeting.”

But these things are not yet. A year or more Mr. Edison allows for their achievement. Already he has an ambitious drama reproduced on a long film, but there are flaws in one or two places, and he is unwilling to show the play. The kinetophone as it now stands is the product of two years’ labor, which Mr. Edison has shared with his assistant, Mr. Hyams.

One Operator Does It All.

It is one machine, part phonograph, part kinetoscope, and it requires one operator. From the projecting machine behind the audience, wires run along the ceiling to the screen behind which stands the phonograph. The two parts are operated by the turning of the handle beside the kinetoscope portion.

In the newly perfected process the records and pictures are taken at the same time, a sufficiently sensitive record having been devised to catch and retain the slightest sound accompanying the portrayed action. Here has been the stumbling block in the effort to accomplish this result. Hitherto the pictures and records had to be taken separately, in the fact of the difficulty of receiving in the horn the voices of the actors, and at the same time, having them move freely and, as far as possible, dramatically around in an unobstructed range of the camera. The special recorder used for the kinetophone permits of the speaker being twenty feet away.

A little platform with a lecturer’s table and back screen was the picture last night. On the screen was flashed a fairly impressive man in a frock coat, who explained the points of the kinetoscope. There was o flaw in the illusion. He seemed to be talking. The sound of the working of the concealed phonograph could not be detected four feet away. To demonstrate its possibilities the gentleman on the screen bounded an iron ball on the floor. There was an accompanying noise. He carelessly dropped a plate with a resounding smash. He pounded with a mallet, and finally tooted an automobile horn with uncanny effect.

There is another feature of the combination which the inventor has been working as a side issue. He hopes soon to have the pictures reproduce the natural color of the originals.

In honor of his audience made up largely of newspaper men, the first picture shown last night, of the old and silent type, was entitled “The Big Scoop, a drama of a metropolitan newspaper.” It was all about a young and handsome reporter, who had been discharged, regaining his prestige by overhearing some prominent bank officials discussing highly important matters in a restaurant. The bank was going to close its doors in the morning, and the paper made an unpleasant point of it all over the front page. No one enjoyed it half so much as Mr. Edison himself. He fairly beamed as the handsome young reporter went home and told his wife about it.

The inventor takes immense satisfaction in watching moving pictures and never sees to tire of them.

Source: “Motion Pictures Are Made To Talk,” New York Times 27 August 1910, 8.