As a visual effects specialist hard at work on a visually fulfilling film project of my own, I sometimes forget that there was a time when sound was at the forefront of film special effects. It may be hard for modern entertainment enthusiasts to imagine watching a movie without sound effects, or even talking, but it is well understood that early films had neither. This was not, however, due to a lack of effort on the part of sound engineers and inventors. The story is a fascinating one, intuitively enmeshed in the very history of Europe and America through the involvement of notables such as Thomas Edison.
Edison sets the stage
The device, which was not put to market for another three years, was dubbed the kinetophone and required viewers to look into an eyepiece to see the picture. Sound was delivered through rubber tubes – the first earphones.
At first a raging novelty, the kinetophone proved commercially ineffective and the notoriously profit hungry Edison shelved the project after only a few years of production. Only 45 units were ever sold.
Rush to the big screen
Additionally, large theater audiences were unable to properly hear a simple phonograph recording and no functioning amplification technology existed. When a technique was finally developed, synchronization became even more difficult due to the addition of a third layer in the process. As a result, audiences were unwilling to sit through the films as the sound was more annoying than entertaining.
Technology comes of age
Arguments even began to crop up suggesting that adding sound, especially talking parts, to films would actually make the movies less popular. Concerns about language limitations and the difficulty of translation were the norm with studios that were used to an open and easy international market for their films.
Enter The Jazz Singer. However despite the new commercial success of sound in film, a number of technical hurdles remained, some of which were not sorted out for many years. In particular, the flow and motion of early talking movies were severely limited by static recording technology – no one thought of using a boom microphone until much later; but more on that in another article.