Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Edison Talking Machine

Louis Reeves Harrison, one of the contributing editors of The Moving Picture World, visited the Edison sound stage where the Kinetophone films were shot and recorded. He seemed particularly struck by the constraints the talking picture placed on the director. Harrison remains fairly optimistic about the Kinetophone even as he implicitly recognized that its pictures were not yet close to the level of quality available for the silent screen.
The Edison Talking Machine

Before this innovation was shown in public I visited the Edison studio and saw the action of a little farce photographed by Lewis Physioc while he controlled the mechanism of a phonograph so that the latter instrument registered in delicate and exact concurrence with the camera. During the time he was engaged in the simultaneous reproduction and recording of images and sounds so that the vocalization characters in the photoplay could be made to nicely correspond to the labial movement and facial expression of a screen presentation, Allan Ramsay was under high tension as a mute director.

Imagine a voiceless director indicating by signs—if he said anything it would be faithfully reproduced by the phonograph—not only what was to be done but what was to be said or sung! Ramsay has invented a sign language that is all his own, and it is quite as effective as the conversational or megaphonic employed by directors in conducting a performance for the pictural part alone. I stood amazed, not only at the ingenious combination of camera and phonograph, but at the intelligent operations of Physioc, Ramsay and the company of talking, singing and acting performers, because the strain of the situation required mental concentration on the part of every participant. The chances of failure from accident are more than doubled—they are in some swifter progression—because of a multiplied concurrence in all the factors of action and reproduction.

I could not help thinking as I watched this marvelous unity of movement among mechanisms and men that the science of material forces and that of the mind were approaching a new and intimate relation, that physics and psychics were getting closer together than ever before. I am not referring to the invention nor to the theatrical presentation, but to the complicated act of production as it impressed me in the studio. It was profoundly interesting to me as a man who admires the act of another in breaking the way of human progress.

I shall suspend critical judgment on the presentations until they have been under way long enough to be ripened and refined in quality—their first attraction will be that of novelty—but I must instantly accord the inventor and the producers as well great credit. All difficulties seem to have been foreseen and provided for in one device which I did not study, and possibly could not understand, the sensitive instrument which adjusts the movement of swiftly flying films to the rolling cylinder in the phonograph. One thing was made certain—they work in harmony so far as the production is concerned. The presentation is another matter.

Who shall foretell results at this stage of the game, when the full meaning of moving pictures is so imperfectly understood that nearly all engaged in making them have gone only far enough to congratulate themselves on the profitable returns from present development, not grasping the idea that they promise to be one of the factors destined to dispose of our slow evolution by making wondrous transformations in human character as well as in our present political and social forms. The result may be as favorable to the silent drama as the latter has been to the regular stage. The talking picture may be but a new and attractive form of the only art born in the Christian era.
Source: Louis Reeves Harrison, “The Edison Talking Machine,” Moving Picture World 1 March 1913, 890.