Sound and Music: Activity 1
The Origins of Sound Film
Filmmakers have always understood the power that sound and music have to enhance storytelling. Although silent films did not have dialogue or soundtracks as we know them, organists, pianists or full orchestras supplied live musical accompaniment in theaters, and often sound effects were created on the spot by sound-effects specialists.
Short sound films were being made as early as 1900. In 1926,Warner Bros. produced Don Juan, a 10-reel silent film, which was distributed with a Vitaphone disk recording of sound effects and orchestral music. Many of the world’s top filmmakers and executives believed that this would be sound technology’s ultimate usage, as silent film pantomime had created a “universal” language.
October 6, 1927, saw the debut of Warner Bros.’ The Jazz Singer, a 90-minute film with a sound recording that featured a few synchronized songs and lines of dialogue, including Al Jolson’s famous declaration “You ain’t heard nothing yet!” Although Jolson was not the first person to speak or sing on film, audiences raved. The film won a special Academy Award as “a pioneer outstanding talking picture, which has revolutionized the industry.” In 1928, Warner Bros. released the first all-talking feature film, Lights of New York, and Blackmail, the first British “talkie,” was in theaters by 1929. That same year, U.S. film studios released over 300 sound films. By 1931, the last silent feature-length films had been released. Sound films drew viewers, but the new technology created new problems for filmmakers. Previously mobile cameras were confined to soundproof boxes, and actors were forced to stay close to microphones concealed on the set. As a result, filmmakers emphasized the novelty of speech more than camera moves. Comedies, for example, depended less on visual slapstick for laughs and more on witty dialogue.Thick accents or unpleasant voices ended the careers of many popular silent film stars.The visual pantomime used by silent film actors seemed overstated when sound brought an added layer of realism to the performance, and soon younger, Broadway-trained stars brought new faces to the screen.This era is affectionately parodied in the 1952 musical Singin’ in the Rain.
Before long, devices such as the “blimp,” a sound-proof camera covering that muffled noisy cameras, brought action back to movies. Now, instead of speaking into a hidden microphone, actors moved about the set followed by an operator with a “boom,” a microphone on a long pole, held above the camera frame line.
Early sound films continued to use sound-on-disk systems like Vitaphone. In theaters, it was often difficult to keep the sound and film reels going at the same speed, which meant that sometimes viewers heard a man’s voice when a woman spoke or other comical misalignments. Movietone sound-on-film was developed during the same period by Fox Films, allowing for transferring sound directly onto the film print.This process ensured that sound and image were synchronized before movies reached the theaters, and by 1931, it had become the industry standard.
Have your students watch a short scene without the sound and note what information in the scene is conveyed just by the visuals. Then do the opposite: have them listen to another scene without looking at it and write down what they think is happening in the scene. Amelie and The Black Stallion are both good films to listen to without
pictures. Other suggestions are the airplane crash scene in Cast Away, the scene in In the Heat of the Night where the police chief interrogates Tibbs or the opening shipboard scene in Master and Commander:The Far Side of the World. Ask your students to consider what is known about the age, gender and personalities of the characters, the tone, time of day, historical period and setting of the scene from the sound alone. Then have your students watch and listen to the scene and discuss the way sound adds to the experience. Ask them to look for instances where the picture and the soundtrack are giving different, or perhaps even conflicting, information simultaneously.
Play an old radio drama (available on tape or on disks) for your students and have them discuss how sounds were used to suggest visuals in the mind of the listener.