Movietone sound system  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Movietone sound system is a sound-on-film method of recording sound for motion pictures which guarantees synchronisation between the sound and the picture. It achieves this by recording the sound as a variable-density optical track on the same strip of film used to record the pictures. Although sound films today use variable-area tracks, any modern motion picture theater can play a Movietone film without modification to the projector. Movietone was one of four motion picture sound systems under development in the U. S. during the 1920s, the others being DeForest Phonofilm, Warner Brothers' Vitaphone, and RCA Photophone, though Phonofilm was primarily an early version of Movietone.

Movietone was perfected by Theodore Case and Earl I. Sponable in 1925 at the Case Research Labs in Auburn, New York, with their creation of what would become the Movietone camera, built for the lab by the Wall machine shop in Syracuse, New York from a Bell & Howell camera.

Single-system cameras were also produced by Mitchell Camera Corporation, although these are quite rare.

Most single-system cameras were produced by Wall Camera Corporation, which also produced the three-film Cinerama cameras. Wall converted some Bell & Howell Design 2709 cameras to single-system, but most were Wall designed and produced.

All single-system cameras share the same fault: the "sound translation point" is on the camera's main drive sprocket itself, and this contributes to significant 96 Hz flutter.

Double-system recorders, particularly those of the Davis Loop type, isolate the "sound translation point" from the drive sprockets, completely eliminating 96 Hz flutter.

Although single-system remained popular for news gathering, production sound quickly converted to the far superior double-system method.

It entered commercial use when William Fox of the Fox Film Corporation bought the entire system including the patents in July 1926. Although Fox owned the Case patents, the work of Freeman Harrison Owens, and the American rights to the German Tri-Ergon patents, the Movietone sound film system uses only the inventions of the Case Lab. Following the commercial production of sound films by the newly formed Fox-Case Movietone company, Wall dedicated his interests to manufacturing cameras, building them from scratch.

It is improperly recorded in many histories of sound film that the Phonofilm system of sound-on-film used technology invented by Lee De Forest. DeForest had made an effort to create a system of sound-on-film but was unsuccessful. He turned to the Case Research Labs for help in 1921 and after Theodore Case visited DeForest's studios in New York City, Case agreed to work on some developments. De Forest then used the Case Labs' Thallofide (thallium oxysulfide) cell for reading recorded sound.

However, noticing that DeForest's system had little to no quality sound worth reproducing, Case developed the AEO Light, which proved practical for exposing amplified sound to film. With the AEO Light, DeForest was finally able to produce films with audible sound. Following that, Case Labs decided to build their own camera because DeForest continued pursuing unworkable solutions toward perfecting sound film. With their new camera, Case and Sponable filmed President Calvin Coolidge on 11 August 1924, allowing DeForest to have the film developed in New York City. When DeForest showed the film -- as well as an earlier presentation of 18 short sound films at the Rivoli Theater in New York City on 15 April 1923 -- he claimed full credit for Case's invention that made it possible.

Shortly later, Case tired of DeForest's continuing false claims about the Case Lab. inventions and ended his relationship with DeForest, and dedicated his lab to perfecting the system they had provided DeForest, whose own attempts at recording sound were all failures. Documents supporting this, including a signed letter by De Forest that states that Phonofilms are only possible because of the inventions of the Case Research Labs, are located at the Case Research Laboratory Museum in Auburn, New York.[1]

William Fox hired Earl I. Sponable (1895-1977) from the Case Research Labs in 1926, when he purchased the sound-on-film patents from Case. Although Fox had also purchased other sound patents, such as the German Tri-Ergon patents, the Movietone system was solely based on the Case Lab.´s inventions. The first feature film released using the Fox Movietone system was Sunrise (1927) directed by F. W. Murnau. It was the first professionally produced feature film with an actual sound track. Sound in the film included only music, sound effects, and a very few unsynchronized words.

Less than two years after purchasing the system from Case, Fox bought out all of Case's interests in the Fox-Case company. All of Fox's sound feature films were made using the Movietone system until 1931, while Fox Movietone News used the system until 1939, because of the ease of transporting this single-system's sound film equipment.

The Case Research sound system set many industry standards still used to this day, such as location of the sound 21 frames before the image it accompanies, originally done partly to ensure that no Phonofilms could again be played in theaters, its system being out-of synch to the Case Labs specifications, and to ease the modification of projectors already widely in use.

Sponable worked at the Fox Film Corporation studios (later 20th Century Fox) on 54th Street and 10th Avenue in New York City until he retired in the 1960s, eventually winning an Academy Award for his technical work on the development of CinemaScope. Sponable had many contributions to film technology during his career, including the invention of the perforated motion-picture screen that allowed placing the speakers behind it to enhance the illusion of the sound emanating directly from the film action. During his years at Fox, Sponable also served for a time as an officer of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. In the 1940s he published a concise history of sound film in the SMPTE Journal (then the SMPE Journal).

The history of the Case Research Labs has long been unheralded for numerous reasons. Theodore Case died in 1944, after donating his home and lab to be preserved as a museum to the inventions of the Case Research Labs. The museum's first director, who oversaw the museum for 50 years, put the labs contents into storage and converted the building into an art studio. The Case Labs sound studio was located in the second floor of the estate's carriage house and that was rented to the local train club until the early 1990s.

Fox lost his company in 1930 after his loans were called in, and he lost his suit in the Supreme Court against the film industry for violating the Tri-Ergon patents he owned, pushing him into obscurity. Sponable did little to establish the record of the Case Labs inventions, other than his article in the SMPE journal.

For its first 50 years, 20th-Century Fox chose to leave its history behind to distance itself from William Fox. Lee DeForest, maybe a failed inventor but definitely a master promoter, spent his life convincing people he´d invented sound film, reaching his greatest glory with an Academy Award for his lifetime achievement and contributions to the creation of sound film.

Recently, the Case Research Labs, the adjoining carriage house, and Case's home have been restored and research is ongoing with the collections of the lab that include all receipts, notebooks, correspondence, and much of the laboratory's original equipment, including the first recording device created to test the AEO light. In the collections are also letters from Thomas Edison, an original copy of the Tri-Ergon patents, and an internal document from Fox Films written in the 1930s. This latter document says that once it became public knowledge that Sponable perfected the variable-area system of sound-on-film at the Fox Studios, the system that would become the standard and replace the inventions of Case Labs.

A number of films owned by the Case Research Labs and Museum and restored by George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, are in the collections of both of those institutions. The Case Research Labs and Museum has additional sound-film footage of Theodore Case, and recently discovered copies of the same films at the Eastman House, but in a much higher state of preservation. Movietone News films are in the collections of 20th-Century Fox and the University of South Carolina at Columbia, including the only known footage of Earl I. Sponable talking. Sponable can also be seen in footage of the premiere of the film The Robe. Phonofilms that were produced using the Case Labs inventions are in the collections of the Library of Congress and the British Film Institute, though their dates of origin are incorrectly recorded, making it appear as though the films were made a half dozen years before they actually were. This has been established in films such as Ben Bernie and All the Lads (1924) by the performers who appear in the films and what music can be heard.

See also

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