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The Evolution of Film Sound Technology: Q&A with 'A Century of Sound' Co-Creator Robert Gitt

Hal Roach Vitaphone EquipmentHal Roach looks on as technicians install Vitaphone equipment in his studio screening room, ca. 1928. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)

'A Century of Sound': Q&A with former UCLA Preservation Officer Robert Gitt about the evolution of film sound technology

Long before multi-track Dolby stereo and digital sound technology, there were the Kinetophone and the Vitaphone systems – not to mention organ and piano players at movie houses. Much of that is discussed in A Century of Sound, which chronicles the evolution of film sound from the late 19th century to the mid-1970s.

A Century of Sound has been split into two parts, with a third installment currently in the planning stages. They are:

  • Vol. 1, “The Beginning, 1876-1932,” which came out on DVD in 2007.
  • Vol. 2, “The Sound of Movies: 1933-1975,” which came out on Blu-ray in 2015.

The third installment will bring the presentation into the 21st century.

Former UCLA Preservation Officer and A Century of Sound co-creator Robert Gitt, who restored countless movies in the last several decades, kindly agreed to answer a few questions about A Century of Sound and the evolution of film sound technology. Please scroll down a bit for the Q&A.

Douglas Shearer

Note: In the Q&A, you'll find the mention of a few names connected with the evolution of film sound technology. Of these, I'd like to single out Montreal-born Douglas Shearer (1899–1971), brother of Norma Shearer (Romeo and Juliet, The Women) – a Best Actress Academy Award winner (The Divorcee, 1929-30) and the Queen of MGM in the 1930s.

For decades, Douglas Shearer worked at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's sound department, receiving credit in more than 900 productions from the dawn of the sound era (The Broadway Melody, The Trial of Mary Dugan) to the mid-1950s (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Student Prince). During that time, he was shortlisted for 21 Academy Awards in both the Best Sound Recording and Best Special Effects categories (in those days, the latter category included both visual and sound effects), winning seven competitive Oscar statuettes.[1]

Additionally, Shearer took home five Technical Achievement/Scientific and Engineering Awards (sometimes shared with others) for his technical enhancements and inventions.

Note Part ii: Inquiries about the availability of A Century of Sound should be sent to CenturyofSound@cinema.ucla.edu.

A Century of Sound Robert Gitt Robert Heiber'A Century of Sound' co-creators Robert Gitt and Robert Heiber.

Q&A with Robert Gitt

  • First of all, how did you become involved in the making of A Century of Sound?

Back in the 1970s, as Preservation Officer at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, I restored some of the earliest optical sound-on-film talking pictures made in Hollywood back in the late 1920s and early 1930s. A large number of Warner Bros'. early productions in the Archive were recorded and released using the Vitaphone sound-on disc process, and several thousand large 16” 33 1/3 rpm records containing these long thought-to-be-lost soundtracks had been turned over to UCLA. I decided to restore many of these early talkies, syncing the discs with the surviving picture elements and converting the audio to modern formats.

Because of my interest and experience with pioneering motion picture sound processes, in 1992 I was asked by The Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) to present an evening-long, 3 1/2 hour presentation on “The History of Sound in Motion Pictures, from Edison Cylinders to Dolby Stereo,” for their San Francisco meeting.

The evening, consisting of photos, drawings, and film excerpts, was well received, and in subsequent years I presented a more polished version of the show at UCLA's Festival of Preservation in L.A., the Museum of Modern Art, the London Film Festival, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In the early 2000s, it was suggested by Robert Heiber, President of the well-known audio restoration facility Chace Audio, that a more detailed version should be made available on video for distribution to a wider circle of interested viewers.

  • What is the key purpose of the project?

A key purpose of the entire Century of Sound project is to acquaint archivists, researchers, students, and audio engineers with the inventions and techniques, developed over many decades, that made good quality sync sound for motion pictures possible. The project chronologically explores how these developments came about, explains in detail how they worked, and shines light on the often unsung scientists, inventors, technicians, and filmmakers who made vital improvements that eventually led to the high quality audio we hear in films today.

Though the contents are designed to be educational, we've tried to present them in an entertaining manner, whenever possible. Many of the topics covered are rather unusual and sometimes a bit amusing: “tomato cans,” “birdcages,” “shotguns,” and “skunks”; “blasting,” “the jumps” and “shutter-bumps”; “hush-hush” and “push-pull.” When viewing A Century of Sound, I hope people will enjoy learning more about these bizarre-sounding things.

  • A Century of Sound has been released on video in two volumes, both of which are currently available. How would you describe the scope of the project, and how do the two volumes differ?

The two volumes differ significantly in terms of the video format, running time and the amount of information conveyed. Volume One, A Century of Sound, The Beginning: 1876-1932 was released on a dual-layer DVD in 2007. The picture has an aspect ratio of 4:3, and the audio is single channel monophonic throughout.

Lasting about 3 1/2 hours, it describes early movie sound historical developments in roughly chronological order, beginning with the invention of the telephone and phonograph in the mid-1870s; continuing with primitive acoustical sound-on-cylinder and sound-on-disk talking picture experiments of the early 1900s; then zeroing in on the rivalry in the late 1920s between two greatly improved electrical methods of recording sound for movies: Bell Laboratories and Western Electric's Vitaphone sound-on-disc process and RCA Photophore's optical sound-on-film technique.

This first volume ends with the victory of optical sound-on-film at the start of the 1930s. Film examples appear throughout the presentation to illustrate key topics, and these are not only informative but also quite entertaining – including some that are unintentionally humorous.

Vitaphone DiscVitaphone disc from 1926.
  • What are the pertinent details about Volume Two?

The second volume, entitled A Century of Sound, The Sound of Movies: 1933-1975, has just been released. It consists of twenty individual chapters on four dual-layer Blu-ray discs, and runs approximately 12 hours. The picture format is 16:9 high definition, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio contains single channel monophonic as well as multi-channel stereophonic sound with surround and sub-woofer effects.

The presentation covers four decades of film audio developments, and contains rare photographs, scientific drawings, trade advertisements, and color posters of the period, as well as a comprehensive selection of film excerpts which illustrate, both aurally and visually, the problems plaguing early Western Electric variable-density and RCA variable-area optical soundtracks. These shortcomings included mechanical wow and flutter, excessive background noise, irritating distortion, muffled sound caused by limited frequency response, and loss of dramatic impact due to narrow dynamic range.

Over many years, these problems were systematically solved by a series of talented individuals: dedicated inventors like Theodore Case, Earl I. Sponable, Edward W. Kellogg, Stefan Kudelski and Ray Dolby; engineering managers such as John G. Frayne and John Hilliard; and studio soundmen like Nathan Levinson, Douglas Shearer, George Groves, and Loren Ryder, among others.

The Blu-ray discs also tell a lot about the decades-long evolution of microphones used for film production, the development of improved techniques for re-recording and mixing soundtracks, and vast improvements made to movie theatre loudspeakers by Western Electric, RCA, and Altec-Lansing.

Later chapters are devoted to magnetic, multi-channel and stereophonic sound, and the adoption of these techniques by the Hollywood film industry after World War II. These varied topics are visibly and audibly demonstrated in over 100 carefully chosen film excerpts.

Hollywood Studio Sound DepartmentHollywood studio sound department ca. 1930: Amplifiers and patch panels.
  • The second volume is so much longer and contains many more details than Volume One. Why did you make these changes for Volume Two?

When Bob Heiber and I began to work on Volume Two several years ago, we originally planned to make the content and running time about the same as previously. However, as research concerning the 1930s through the 1970s progressed, it became obvious that many more key developments occurred in this period than we anticipated, and that this would require a significantly longer running time for comprehensive coverage.

And there was another factor, too. As the years passed while we were working on the project, it increasingly became apparent that that motion pictures on 35mm celluloid would soon be obsolete and replaced by digital methods. This meant that key technical devices and procedures that were commonplace in 20th century filmmaking and exhibition were now in danger of being forgotten.

We hope the extensive content covered in the new Blu-ray album helps to counter this gradual and ongoing loss of knowledge to some degree.

  • Many of the film excerpts in both Volumes seem to last for several minutes. Why is this?

Though it's often customary today to limit film clips to 15-second “sound bites,” we wanted to avoid this, to allow our listeners to really hear what movies sounded like in the various periods covered in the presentation.

Therefore, we've usually made the film examples two, three, four, or more minutes in length, providing plenty of opportunity for careful study and appreciation.

  • For many, many years, you restored films – both silents and sound films – at the UCLA archives. So you must be familiar with the techniques involved in the use of sound on film. Even so, A Century of Sound is a mammoth, and at times quite technically detailed, undertaking. What were the easiest and the most difficult areas for you to expound on in this project?

I was most comfortable talking about the early technologies of sound-on-disk and optical sound-on-film during the 1920s thru the 1940s, and also fairly at ease with magnetic and stereophonic techniques of the 1950s.

However, I felt less attuned to the 1960s and 1970s, when vacuum tube amplifiers were replaced by solid state devices and automation came to movie theaters, often causing a decline in presentation standards and lowering the quality of sound heard by movie audiences of the time.

I feared that Volume II was going to have an unhappy ending, with a general decline in motion picture sound quality. But fortunately, Dolby Laboratories came riding to the rescue in the nick of time with Dolby optical Stereo in 1975, and movie theater sound began to advance again.

RCA Optical Recording MachineRCA optical recording machine (left); Western Electric recorder and operator ca. 1940s.
  • Could you provide us with a few masterful examples of the use of sound on film – that are discussed in A Century of Sound? What about instances when the use – or rather, misuse – of sound was detrimental to a film's artistic success?

A Century of Sound is not so much about the aesthetics of movie sound as about the various technical inventions, techniques, and procedures used by Hollywood studio soundmen and American theater service technicians and projectionists. It's more of a technical history than an aesthetic one, though the art of sound mixing is covered to some degree, and Volume One does feature some glaring instances of dreadful sound in the earliest talkies, with the primitive equipment causing hissy, noisy sound recording, early microphones picking up unwanted noises and reverberations on Hollywood film sets, and terrible acoustics in movie houses that had been hastily converted from showing silent pictures to sound movies.

These technical problems greatly reduced the effectiveness of music, sound effects, and dialogue. In order to make their dialogue even remotely intelligible, actors in early talkies – even stage trained veterans – had to say their lines very slowly and woodenly, as demonstrated in Lights of New York in 1928.

Fortunately, improvements in equipment and techniques soon occurred which made more subtle filmmaking possible, as shown in Rouben Mamoulian's Applause (1929) and Mervyn LeRoy's I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) at the end of Volume I. Volume II showcases the marvelous results that began to be achievable in the mid-20th century, when quiet, distortion free, multiple-channel high fidelity sound finally became possible for films.

Film editor optical soundtracksFilm editor (left); sample variable area and variable density optical soundtracks ca. 1930s.
  • At one point in A Century of Sound, you show us a “black-and-white” sound track – the black areas representing the sound – getting all dirty after the print is shown a number of times. As someone who has restored countless films, what is more difficult to “make new again”: sound or film elements?

In the old all-analog days, when I did most of my work, it was much easier to remove hiss, rustling sounds, and dust particle pops and clicks from the sound than to clean up flickering, mottling, scratches, dirt particles, or unsteadiness in the picture.

Today, the wide adoption of digital restoration methods makes it practical to tackle all of these flaws in both the sound and the picture, and to improve things to a much greater degree than was ever possible in the past.

  • In A Century of Sound, did you try to cover all aspects of film sound history? For example, technical developments in other countries, sound techniques used for documentary filmmaking and newsreels, hand-drawn experimental soundtracks, and so on?

No. The video version of A Century of Sound is based upon the original talk given at AMIA back in 1992, and though some foreign developments and documentary film techniques are briefly referenced, the presentation is focused mainly upon American film studios, producers, and technicians, and the experiences of American movie exhibitors, equipment servicemen and projectionists during the time periods covered.

The topics mentioned in the question are certainly important, however, and it is possible that some of these may be included in the third volume of the series, currently being planned, which will continue telling the history of movie sound from the 1970s up to the present.

  • How can people obtain the DVD of A Century of Sound 1876-1932, the Blu-ray of A Century of Sound 1933-1975, or both?

Both volume I (DVD format only) and volume II (Blu-ray format only) are currently available as a not-for-profit resource to educational, archival, and research institutions and to educators, researchers, and scholars, as well as individuals who have an interest in the history of motion picture sound.

Those desiring information on how to order, should send an email to CenturyofSound@cinema.ucla.edu.

Douglas Shearer Norma ShearerDouglas Shearer and sister Norma Shearer in 1929.

Douglas Shearer Oscars

[1] Below is the list of movies for which Douglas Shearer won Academy Awards (in the Best Sound category, unless otherwise noted).

  • The Big House (1930). For the period 1929-30.
    Dir.: George W. Hill.
    Cast: Chester Morris. Wallace Beery. Robert Montgomery. Leila Hyams. Lewis Stone.
  • Naughty Marietta (1935).
    Dir.: W.S. Van Dyke.
    Cast: Jeanette MacDonald. Nelson Eddy. Elsa Lanchester. Douglas Dumbrille. Frank Morgan.
  • San Francisco (1936).
    Dir.: W.S. Van Dyke.
    Cast: Clark Gable. Jeanette MacDonald. Spencer Tracy.
  • Strike Up the Band (1940).
    Dir.: Busby Berkeley.
    Cast: Mickey Rooney. Judy Garland. Paul Whiteman. June Preisser.
  • Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944). Best Special Effects, with: (photographic) A. Arnold Gillespie, Donald Jahraus, and Warren Newcombe.
    Dir.: Mervyn LeRoy.
    Cast: Van Johnson. Spencer Tracy. Robert Walker. Phyllis Thaxter. Robert Mitchum.
  • Green Dolphin Street (1948). Best Special Effects, with: (visual) A. Arnold Gillespie and Warren Newcombe; (audible) Michael Steinore.
    Dir.: George Hill.
    Cast: Lana Turner. Van Heflin. Donna Reed. Richard Hart. Frank Morgan. Edmund Gwenn. Dame May Whitty. Reginald Owen. Gladys Cooper. Linda Christian.
  • The Great Caruso (1951).
    Dir.: Richard Thorpe.
    Cast: Mario Lanza. Ann Blyth. Dorothy Kirsten.

Among Douglas Shearer's other 14 Oscar nominations, in the Best Sound category unless otherwise noted, were those for:

  • Viva Villa! (1934).
  • Maytime (1937).
  • Balalaika (1939).
  • The Wizard of Oz (1939; Best Special Effects).
  • Mrs. Miniver (1942; Best Sound and Best Special Effects categories).
  • Kismet (1944).
  • They Were Expendable (1945).
  • Green Dolphin Street (1948; in the Best Sound category).

Curiously, Shearer was never shortlisted for a movie starring his sister.

 

Hal Roach and other images: Courtesy of Robert Gitt.

Douglas Shearer and Norma Shearer image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Douglas Shearer movies' info via the IMDb.

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3 Comments to The Evolution of Film Sound Technology: Q&A with 'A Century of Sound' Co-Creator Robert Gitt

  1. Geraldo Ribeiro

    After several days mining I was unable to find pictures/information of the gap from Optical to 1/4 inch tape.
    I saw, several years ago a picture showing a truck with some Magnatech magnetic 35mm recording location sound.
    Could you help me with my research?

    Thanks a lot

    Geraldo

  2. Andre

    @Marty,

    Thanks. I used “The Big House” as the template for that section and I forgot to change the dates for those two.

  3. Marty

    Just a quick point out of typos you may want to fix:

    Both “San Francisco” and “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” are incorrectly dated as 1930. They should be changed to 1936 and 1944.