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"The Sound & The Theory"





Posted October 9, 2005


Robert Gitt's "A Century Of Sound" Presentation


Rick Mitchell

Recently retired UCLA Preservation Officer Robert Gitt's presentations on film history and technology are legends, and his presentation of two-thirds of his "A Century of Sound" on Sept. 15, 2005 is a perfect illustration of why. Given as part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science's Science and Technology Council's "Sound In Motion Pictures" program, it was the ultimate example of the Council's approach of doing programs that are insightful for those in the know but easily accessible and enjoyable for the general public.

Gitt had originally put this program together for AIMA about a decade ago and originally it did literally cover a Century of Sound. However, as the latter half of the Twentieth Century's advances in the use of magnetic, stereo and digital sound was covered in the opening program last June by Don Hall and Ioan Allen, Gitt restricted his program to a "prequel" to those later developments.

As an archivist with the UCLA Film and Television Archives, Gitt has been involved in the preservation and restoration of a lot of rare material, some of which was included in the program. Most notably he has been involved in tracking down and preserving elements of early sound films done on Vitaphone and early disc systems whose picture or discs are currently missing but hopefully will be found someday. Thus, the program opened with the sound only of a promotional short made by Warner Bros. in 1928 to be shown as the first night presentation for theaters just wired for Vitaphone. It was hosted by Al Jolson and featured speeches from Conrad Nagel, Monte Blue, and Dolores Costello among others, all apparently reading somewhat nervously from cue cards, especially Blue, an actor with no theatrical training. Jolson also seemed to have had trouble reading from the cards, but typically kept going off script with ad-libs. Interestingly, some early accounts of those pioneering days have described Miss Costello's voice as recording badly, but she sounded fine here.

Host Robert Gitt

Gitt then presents a history of phonographic recording beginning with Edison, and including some examples restored from Edison's cylinder recordings, and of attempts by Edison and others to combine this technology with the later-developed motion pictures. (W.K.L. Dickson did an experimental sound film in the Black Maria of two Edison workers dancing while he fiddled, the picture portion of which was included in Gitt's presentation. The sound for this was found after his presentation was put together and synced to the picture by Walter Murch; this clip opened the Science and Technology Committee's first June presentation.) The presentation included clips from two turn-of-the-Twentieth Century French productions, one of which was a scene from "Cyrano De Bergerac," a 1913 drawing room comedy from Edison's second attempt at adding sound to film, which he called the Kinetophone, and excerpts from work done in a system devised by an Orlando Kellum that included a portion of "The Merchant Of Venice" and D.W. Griffith's introduction to his "Dream Street" (1921). (Does anyone know if Forties-Fifties sound man Terry Kellum was related to this person?) All of these involved phonographs behind the screen connected to the projector in the booth by various complicated Rube Goldberg techniques, which were illustrated. The picture portions had been optically printed to keep sync with the track which had been recorded for playback at 90 fps; unfortunately, the speed of original photography wasn't given.

All of these early efforts were recorded and played back acoustically, that is, horns like those seen on old phonographs were used both to gather the sound for recording as well as present the results to the audience. In the mid-teens, two developments were to make possible the revolution that was to occur in the next decade: the invention of microphones that allowed for higher quality and more discrete recording, and Lee De Forest's invention of tubes that would allow higher amplification of sound in the theater.

In the Twenties, Bell Laboratories became interested in using phonograph discs to add sound to motion pictures via a shaft connected to the projector motor and developed what would be named Vitaphone when licensed by Warner Bros. in 1926. Although Gitt uses the montage from Warners' 1946 commemorative short "O.K. For Sound" to cover the 1926 Vitaphone opening night program (all but one or two of the "demo" pieces have been restored), the other clips used are either rarities or extended or different segments from pioneering films than are usually shown, such as the extended sequence from "Don Juan" that follows the Vitaphone demo clips and looks like it's off the original negative. He then has a comedy sequence from Warners' second film released with a Vitaphone music track, "The Better Ole," which also includes a whispered word, "Coffee," which, surprisingly he makes no comment about. (The third such Vitaphone release, "The First Auto" (1927) actually has a couple of words spoken loudly, something discovered only when the film was restored in the late Nineties.) "The Jazz Singer" is represented by that film's first sound sequence, the cabaret scene in which Jolson says "You ain't heard nothin' yet."

Robert J. Heiber, President of Chace Productions

(Interesting historical aside: in the course of doing research for something else, I was shocked to discover that in its review of "The Jazz Singer," Film Daily not only did NOT mention the use of any dialog in the film, but also did not report the kind of ecstatic first night audience reaction described in other accounts. However, the dearth of Warner Bros. advertising in the publication at the time, in the few issues from the period that the Academy Library has, suggests there may have been something internecine going on.)

Gitt concludes his section on disc recording with an extensive portion of a trailer for the first "all-talkie," "The Lights Of New York" (1928), which suggests that film was not as primitive as we've been led to believe from the "take him for a ride" clip most commonly used, which is in the 1950 Columbia/AMPAS short "The Sound Man," with which the entire program concludes. He did get into the negatives of the disc system, that the needles could only be used once, the discs could be used only ten times, and illustrated a story told by Vitaphone pioneer Stanley Watkins of what could happen if the projectionist was not careful about keeping track of the reels and discs: how one night during the "Don Juan"/shorts run, Will Hays opened his mouth on the screen and guitarist Roy Smeck's voice came from the speakers! And if the heavy disc was broken.... Gitt concludes the Vitaphone section with the only surviving color clip from the two-color Technicolor feature "Sally" (1929), additionally interesting because it has been restored from a nitrate print with missing frames filled out by blowups from a 16mm black-and-white print.

Gitt then delves into optical sound recording, again going back to the earliest attempts, and here begins doing something very interesting: having the clips projected so that the sound track is visible. Essentially there were only two types of optical tracks: VARIABLE DENSITY, in which the sound waves are recorded as horizontal lines of varying thickness and density; and VARIABLE AREA, in which the sound is recorded as peaks of varying shape and size emanating from a static line. He includes graphic illustrations of the techniques used to do the various types of recordings.

(For the record, as far as features were concerned, initially all of the majors but RKO used variable density tracks, as would Warners when they abandoned discs. Except for Hal Roach, most of the independents used the RCA system, as would some 20th Century-Fox Bs and some lower-budgeted Columbia and Universal films. In the early Thirties, a couple of "off brand" re-recording systems, such as Powers Cinephone and Balsley and Phillips, were used by independents but I've not been able to confirm whether they used area or density tracks. One of the independents using the RCA system was Mascot, and when it was merged into Republic, that company continued to use RCA equipment, as would Disney after it signed a distribution deal with RKO. In 1937, RCA improved its system and Warner Bros. switched to it and would also continue to use it into the late Seventies; into the early Eighties 16mm prints of new Disney, Warner, and any films dubbed at the then Burbank Studios had RCA Duplex tracks. Columbia also switched to RCA tracks in the mid-Fifties. In the early Fifties, MGM adopted Western Electric's initial version of an area track, a dual unilateral one and in 1954 Western Electric officially switched to a dual bilateral area track that would be used by all but one of its clients in the future and which would later become a foundation for the Stereo Variable Area track. 20th Century-Fox continued to use density tracks on its optical only 35mm and 16mm prints, but apparently there were problems using these tracks on color print stocks and when it began making combined "mag-optical" prints in 1956, Fox switched to area tracks for 35mm but continued to use density tracks for 16mm until 1959.)

Tad Marburg, chair of public programs for the Science and Technology Council

Variable density was the first system to enter popular usage, beginning with Lee De Forest's Phonofilms, represented by a speech by "silent" Calvin Coolidge. When he was still experimenting, De Forest had exchanged ideas with Theodore W. Case and Earl I. Sponable, who were working along similar lines until there was a falling out between them. (In the early Forties, Sponable would write a long piece published in the SMPE Journal and elsewhere debunking with exchanges of correspondence and other documentation De Forest's claims to have been the inventor of modern sound technology.)

Case and Sponable would continue to work on their own and excerpts from tests they made in 1926 were then shown. These tests, shot at different speeds, would become a source of controversy among later technology clueless film historians after they were used in a 1956 CBS "Twentieth Century" episode entitled "The Movies Learn To Talk" because the narration claimed that the higher pitch of Case's voice was due to the tests having been shot "at the wrong speed for sound film." Of course, THERE WAS NO OFFICIAL SPEED FOR SOUND FILM IN 1926, or, in actual practice at the time, for silent film. In seeking to set a standard speed for their disc system, Western Electric had done a survey of the average speeds at which silent films were being photographed (between 18 and 22 fps) and projected (between 20 and 30 fps!) and settled on 24 fps/90 fpm (the latter for 35mm film) as an average. (Similar surveys were done in 1925 by both the SMPE and Douglas Fairbanks with the same results.) In their experiments De Forest, Case and Sponable, and later RCA had all used slower speeds, causing Case's voice to sound higher when played back at 24 fps. Actually, if the decision had been left up to the sound engineers and based on what was best for audio quality, an even higher speed, most likely 30 fps, would have been chosen; the Dickson/Edison Kinetoscope used 40 fps. Because Vitaphone got into the marketplace first, and also probably because the film companies had to lease amplification equipment from Western Electric regardless of what sound system they were using, 24 fps became the standard that exists to this day.

The Case-Sponable system would be purchased by William Fox, who patented it as the Fox-Case System but gave it the trade name Movietone. Like Warners, Fox first used the system to add musical scores and sound effects to existing silent films like "What Price Glory" (1926), and "Sunrise" and "7th Heaven" (both 1927), a clip from the latter being shown. But because the Movietone equipment was portable, unlike the Vitaphone equipment, Fox was able to start a sound newsreel, and a portion of the famous interview with George Bernard Shaw was shown. And using Movietone trucks, director Raoul Walsh started the first primarily outdoor film, "In Old Arizona" (1928); Walsh was injured during the shooting and Irving Cummings finished the film.

F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise"

RCA introduced the first VARIABLE AREA system which it called Photophone. Gitt showed a portion of an unintentionally hilarious institutional promotion film on this process featuring a scientist who is quite obviously uncomfortable at being in front of the camera and has trouble finding something to do with his hands. The program includes interesting and often hilarious portions of some other institutional films used to explain sound movies and the advances therein to the general public.

Although Warners reluctantly embraced sound on film for exhibition in 1930, it continued to do production recording on disc for another year or so, dubbing by a Rube Goldberg technique described in better detail by Scott Eyman in "The Speed Of Sound." Unfortunately this process was apparently never photographed in action unlike the optical sound dubbing process was in later years for "O.K. For Sound" and "The Sound Man." Part One of the presentation concludes with the ending of "I Was A Fugitive From A Chain Gang" (1932), one of the first Warner films to be recorded and dubbed with optical tracks.

Though a bit more technically oriented, the second half of the program, which deals with the efforts to improve sound quality between 1930 and 1950, was in some ways more interesting than the first. Both the density and area tracks had problems, as did the recording, dubbing, and playback systems. Gitt touched on the latter, which had been covered in depth in the Science and Technology Council's second presentation on microphones and speakers.

Gitt dealt more with the problems involved in getting acceptable sound release prints. Both optical systems have very specific processing and printing requirements that were illustrated with specially prepared comparative clips.

Even in the earliest days, both types of tracks were capable of recording a surprising range of frequencies at high and low volumes, but this could be problematic at the theaters end because of variations in their sound systems, acoustics, etc. In the late Thirties, an earlier incarnation of the Academy's Science and Technology Council approached this problem by doing a nationwide study and proposing an industry wide standard for dubbing in which both extreme high and low frequencies would be rolled off. Called the Academy Curve, it would be applied to magnetic-to-optical dubs when they became standard in the mid-Fifties and apparently is still applied to mono optical tracks. According to sound historians Larry Blake and Marvin Walowitz, the Curve was not applied to magnetic stereo dubs, and of course, not to Stereo Variable Area dubs; through the Sixties, additional frequencies were reportedly rolled off for 16mm track negatives on features, but not for TV shows. In 1939, a test film was prepared with sample scenes from films released by the eight major distributors for use by theater sound engineers in tweaking the systems of different theaters.

Another problem which plagued both disc and optical systems was surface noise from the playback medium. Various techniques developed in the early Thirties reduced this for both optical systems, which led to the dramatic use of variations in volume by the mid-Thirties. Rather than rely on projectionists to do this during the show, methods involving varying the amount of track information made available to the projector sound head were developed to build these changes into the actual prints, with notation in the leader that the sound fader was to be set 4 to 6 db higher than was standard for a given distributor to prevent the quieter moments from being played too low.

One of the Linwood Dunn displays on sound

With variable density tracks, this involved the SQUEEZE TRACK, using vertical shutters in the optical recorder, operated by a foot pedal under the dubbing panel, to reduce the width of the track negative. The full 100 mil. area would be used for big, loud moments like main titles, battles scenes, musical numbers, but could be reduced to as little as 40 percent for more intimate moments. The final scene of "Only Angels Have Wings" (1939) was used to illustrate this, with the accompanying track shown. (Personal note: Columbia may have been the only studio to use different variations of width as squeeze tracks I've seen on films from other studios have only used either 100 or 50 percent.)

For variable area tracks, RCA came up with a variation of this. In 1937, to improve problems with projector sound head scanning of its unilateral track, they had developed a method of reducing and printing the track side by side with its mirror image to create what it called the DUPLEX track. However, by masking off half the track, a volume reduction would result and this was demonstrated by clips from "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame" (1939) and "Citizen Kane" (1941). Unlike the variable density squeeze track, these sections were apparently dubbed separately and spliced together (splices were visible in the track) and this led to the third method used, intercutting density and area tracks, as demonstrated by the ending of "Rebecca" (1940). (NOTE: RKO may have been the only studio to use this method as other sound historians who've interviewed mixers from the period have stated that Warners used a separate pedal to raise and lower the overall track volume as was done in recording variable density squeeze tracks.)

Beyond that was further reducing noise as well as compensating for losses in frequency response and dynamic range occur in the optical re-recording process. By the Fifties, the industry would turn to magnetic, in the early Seventies to Dolby and similar noise reduction techniques, and ultimately digital to maintain sonic purity from original recording to release print, but beginning in the late Thirties, they were doing it quite successfully with the PUSH-PULL TRACK. For this, two versions of the track would be recorded one in, one out of phase. Played normally it sounds awful, but played through the "decoder," only the basic sound modulations are heard, so not only are any noises and scratches not audible, but the track can be played back at higher volumes without overmodulating or lower volumes without picking up surface noise. This was illustrated by a surviving music track from "Gone With The Wind" (1939). Normally this was done with standard 100 mil. tracks, but even more dynamic range was achieved by using 200 mil. push-pull tracks as illustrated by a sound clip from "Portrait Of Jennie" (1948).

Push-pull tracks were used for dubbing, the original Fantasound roadshow version of "Fantasia" (1940) being the only known example of their usage in an exhibition situation; the sound run from a separate dubber interlocked with the projector.

(Illustrations of all the optical tracks described above can be found in the Sound Wing of

It should be noted that during the changeover to magnetic in the early Fifties, a fair amount of production dialog and even music was still being recorded on optical push-pull tracks, even for films that would be released in magnetic stereo. The "stereo" CD of the original score for "The Day The Earth Stood Still" (1951) was taken from 100 mil. optical push-pull tracks that had been recorded multichannel. Mono sound effects transferred from optical were still being used into the Eighties.

Another note: although Robert Gitt stated that the tracks he used had not been cleaned up in any way, improvements in the sound chain, especially in the as-close-to-state-of-the-art-as-possible Linwood Dunn Theater, revealed a surprising level of sonic quality in these tracks that would not have been heard even fifty years ago, a real tribute to the pioneering engineers.

Gitt has actually prepared this program totally on film reels, with silent material to allow for his narration, which makes for a smooth presentation. It struck me that recent presentations by others which combine clips and PowerPoint presentations were probably inspired by this, really the only way to present film technology, and even film history, to, especially, the general public.

Because I was not able to get on this immediately, I may have made some errors and significant omissions, for which I apologize, especially to Mr. Gitt. Hopefully, he will present this program, ideally in its entirety, again. If so, don't miss it.


ADDENDUM (courtesy of film restoration and preservation expert Scott MacQueen)

The Kellum pics may have run at 20 fps. The new printing negatives were optically "slewed" by Pete Commandini of YCM Laboratories to play at 24 fps.

Cinephone was Variable Area.

The earliest Mascot sound films were serviced by the Disney Sound Service using Cinephone portable equipment. This kept up in 1931 early 1932.

Disney went with RCA long before the RKO deal. They abandoned Cinephone by Fall of 1932. The first production released in the format was "The Night Before Christmas." It was also used for the "Parade Of The Award Nominees," the 35mm in-color cartoon made for the 1932 Academy Awards.

The author would like to thank the following for some of the additional information included in the above: Larry Blake, Herbert E. Farmer, Bud Hoffman, Scott MacQueen, Richard P. May, Edward R. Nassour, Phil Scott, Paul Rayton, Marvin Walowitz.

Rick Mitchell is a film editor, film director, and film historian.  He lives in Los Angeles.

2005 Rick Mitchell.  All rights reserved

IMAGES: Top: "Good News" (1930); "Sunrise" 20th Century Fox; Seminar photos are A.M.P.A.S.  All rights reserved




Copyright 2005 From Script To DVD.  All rights reserved.


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