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

Vitaphone was a sound film process used on features and nearly 2,000 short subjects produced by Warner Brothers and its sister studio First National from 1926 to 1930. Vitaphone was the last, but most successful, of the so-called sound-on-disc processes. The soundtrack was not printed on the actual film, but was issued separately on 16-inch phonograph records. The discs would be played while the film was being projected. Many early talkies, such as The Jazz Singer (1927), used the Vitaphone process. (The name "Vitaphone" derives from the Latin and Greek words, respectively, for "living" and "sound.")

The business was established in the Vitagraph Studios in Brooklyn, New York, and acquired by Warners Bros. in 1925. Warner Bros. introduced Vitaphone on August 6, 1926, with the release of the silent feature Don Juan starring John Barrymore with music score and sound effects only (no dialogue), accompanied by several talkie short subjects featuring comedians and singers, and a greeting from motion picture industry spokesman Will Hays.

A Vitaphone-equipped theater used special projectors, an amplifier, and speakers. The projectors operated as normal motorized silent projectors would, but also provided a mechanical interlock with an attached phonograph turntable. When the projector was threaded, the projectionist would align a start mark on the film with the picture gate, and would at the same time place a phonograph record on the turntable, being careful to align the phonograph needle with an arrow scribed on the record's label.

When the projector rolled, the phonograph turned at a fixed rate, and (theoretically) played sound in sync with the film passing the picture gate simultaneously. Unlike the prevailing speed of 78 revolutions per minute for phonograph discs, Vitaphone discs were played at 33-1/3 r.p.m. to increase the playing time to match the 11-minute running time of a reel of film. Also unlike most phonograph discs, the needle on Vitaphone records moved from the inside of the disc to the outside.

The Vitaphone process made several improvements over previous systems:

  • Amplification - The Vitaphone system was one of the first to use electronic amplification, using Lee De Forest's Audion tube. This allowed the sound of the phonograph to be played to a large audience at a comfortable volume.
  • Fidelity - In the early days, Vitaphone had superior fidelity to sound-on-film processes, particularly at low frequencies. Phonographs also had superior dynamic range, on the first few playings.

These innovations notwithstanding, the Vitaphone process lost the early format war with sound-on-film processes for many reasons:

  • Distribution - Vitaphone records had to be distributed along with film prints, and shipping the records required a whole infrastructure apart from the already-existing film distribution system. Additionally, the records would wear out after an estimated 20 screenings (a checkbox system on the record indicated the number of plays), and had to be replaced. This consumed even more distribution overhead. Damage and breakage were also inherent dangers.
  • Synchronization - Vitaphone had severe and notorious synchronization problems. If a record skipped, it would fall out of sync with the picture, and the projectionist would have to manually restore sync. Additionally, if the film print became damaged and was not precisely repaired, the length relationship between the record and the print could be lost, also causing a loss of sync. The Vitaphone projectors had special levers and linkages to advance and retard sync, but it required the continual attention of the operator, and this was impractical. The system for aligning start marks on film and start marks on records was far from exact.
  • Editing - A phonograph record cannot be physically edited, and this significantly limited the creative potential of Vitaphone films. Warner Brothers went to great expense to develop a highly complex phonograph-based dubbing system, using synchronization phonographs and Strowger switch-triggered playback phonographs (working very much like a modern sampler.)
  • Fidelity versus Sound-on-Film - The fidelity of sound-on-film processes improved considerably after the early work by Lee DeForest on his Phonofilm process, and the introduction by the Fox Film Corporation of Fox Movietone in 1927. The DeForest and Fox systems were variable-density, but were superseded by RCA's variable-area sound-on-film process RCA Photophone, introduced in 1928.

With improvements in competing sound-on-film processes, Vitaphone's technical imperfections led to its retirement early in the sound era. Around March 1930, Warner Bros. and First National stopped recording directly to disc, and switched to sound-on-film recording. To make new film titles backward-compatible with Vitaphone equipped theaters, films produced with sound-on-film processes were released by Warner Bros. and the other Hollywood studios simultaneously in Vitaphone-disc versions as late as 1937.

Warner Bros. kept the "Vitaphone" name alive as the name of its short subjects division, The Vitaphone Corporation, most famous for releasing Leon Schlesinger's Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, later produced by Warners in-house from 1944 on.

Today there is a group of hobbyists known as "The Vitaphone Project," whose mission is to restore long-unseen Vitaphone productions. The members track down mute picture elements and their corresponding Vitaphone discs, and produce new, synchronized 35mm versions using the latest motion picture and sound technology. (Today's technicians have found that the original Vitaphone discs have superior sound fidelity, and are often preferable to the identical tracks in archival, sound-on-film copies.) To date the Project has restored several dozen Vitaphone shorts from the dawn of sound, featuring many stars of 1920s vaudeville, radio, and the concert stage.

Though operating on principles so different as to make it unrecognizable to a Vitaphone engineer, Digital Theater Sound is a sound-on-disc system, the first to gain wide adoption since the abandonment of Vitaphone.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Vitaphone" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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