Sound plays an important role in films, it is often the first thing we experience from a film. Oftentimes music and sound are the ones that move us and make a movie memorable. Then, how did the sound come about in movies?

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The beginning of cinema: the invention of the film

Cinematography started with the Kinetoscope in 1891, the machine and forerunner of the motion-picture film projector invented by Thomas A. Edison and William Dickson. The kinetoscope created the illusion of movement by the recording and subsequent rapid projection of many still photographic pictures on a screen. In 1891 the prototype of the kinetoscope allowed one person to view moving pictures. After its first public demonstration in 1893, the kinetoscope was a commercial success around the world.

The Lumière Brothers saw an opportunity and were the first ones to present projected moving pictures to a paying audience in 1895 in Paris. They used a device called the cinématographe which was a camera, a projector, and a film printer all in one.

Most movies were recorded and played without sound and relied on intertitle text to explain key points between scenes. There were also live pianists or orchestras that provided sound in the theatre while the film was being projected.

The sound was still missing at this point, but the early film industry kept up with the research and investment to bring magic to our ears as well.

The beginnings of sound: Recording and Talkies

In 1913, Western Electric was only a manufacturing division of AT&T, they were the first to acquire the rights to de Forest audion, a type of triode vacuum tube. This device was further developed and permitted electronic amplification for the first time. Their research kept expanding and working intensively on recording technology for both sound-on-disc and sound-on-film.

This is when talkies or 'talking pictures' started being used in the late 1920s, they get their name from the recorded dialogue that played in synchronization with the images on the screen. One of the first feature films presented as a talkie was The Jazz Singer in 1927.

Warner Brothers were one of the first emerging studios in Hollywood to take interest and risk in sound technology after a demonstration of the Western Electric sound-on-disc system also called the Vitaphone. The sound-on-disc is a phonograph that records or plays back sound in synchronization with a motion picture. This system uses a mechanical interlock with the film projector to keep the synchronization accurate.

recording in film
In the beginning of the 20th century, sound was recorded through two possible technology options, the sound-on-disc or sound-on-film. Source Unsplash

The first film to feature image and sound using the Vitaphone was Don Juan in 1926, even if the film did not have dialogues it included musical shorts and a recorded speech from Will Hays. It took two more years for Warner Brothers to release the first all-talking full-length film, Lights in New York. Its commercial success put Hollywood on a path that saw an end to Silent cinema and made way for movies as we know them today.

Talkies revolutionized how stories were told on screen and opened a window of opportunities and creativity to Hollywood. This changed the way films were produced and distributed and even affected the theatres, which did not have the equipment needed to play sound films, singers and orchestras were not necessary anymore and had to be replaced by new equipment.

The addition of sound in the film also impacted the way it was recorded and acted, before sound and specially talkies. Dancing and movement were a priority in movies, now actors had to remain close to the microphone to record properly and be heard at all times. This impacted and changed the way directors filmed, using multi-camera setups to compensate for the lack of movement and at least provide a variety of angles.

This major advancement in sound places the United States and Hollywood as one of the world's most powerful and influential in matters of culture and commercial. In Europe, people were more suspicious of the use of sound in cinema because of the effects it might provoke in the aesthetics and virtues of soundless cinema.

However, the Vitaphone and sound-on-disc only allowed a channel of sound, making it difficult for background actors or external noises to be cut off. Even cameras were noisy, and a soundproofed cabinet or a studio was used in the earliest talkies to isolate the loud equipment from the actors.

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Advanced technology in sound

While filmmakers were mastering the craft of filming with one channel sound and different angles, technology was still pushing its limits to deliver an even more ambitious vision of storytelling on screen.

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Digital technology has brought cinema several sound options to deliver the best sound possible. Source Unsplash

At the forefront of this technological advance in the 19702 was the famous George Lucas. Mono sound channel was not going to be enough to produce and deliver its sci-fi opera called Star. George Lucas teamed up with Dolby Stereo, in their collaboration, sound effects were emitted from four channels instead of one! It was a big revolution for the cinema industry altogether.

From there, Dolby Stereo claimed itself as the innovator in cinema sound and released the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound in 1991 in Batman Returns. This innovation featured the sound coming from different angles: left, right, centre, front and again right and left. This delivered a unique experience in theatres for the audience and also involved a lot of creatives behind the scenes.

Dolby Stereo impacted the history of cinema and sound and American productions were each time more ambitious.

Dolby Atmos

The appearance of digital in the production of sound brought another stage of development and improvement. Working with pieces of magnetic tape and dubbers to digital was a huge difference in production and quality.

The main goal was to make sound more directional and enveloping for the audience, the solution, and creation was Dolby Surround 7.1. This situated speakers in the back of the theatres as well. Short after Dolby Atmos was developed and this meant that sound was not only going through channels but sound also became an 'object'. This means that sound was choreographed around space, this is why aeroplane or spaceships sounds feel so real, making us even feel the speed while watching a film!

A great example of Dolby Atmos sound in a recent movie is Gravity, where sound also plays a role just as a character in the film, giving you chills and creating a submerging sound experience.

Several directors and producers use sound as an object and all its variables to produce films such as Inside Out. Where the director and producer have even discussed the challenges of locating voices in the head of a character and articulating that to an audience with the use of the current technology.

The role of sound in cinema

When we look back at sound and colour in the history of cinema, the improvement that has been made in a little more than a century is incredible. It is incredible to see how technology and the creativity of the people involved in the seventh art never gave up and have always made an effort to deliver us the experience that is closer to sound in real life.

If we look back to the period of 'silent cinema' or when live music was used during a film, it did not last very long. The ambition of western cinema, like Warner Bros, Fox and Dolby in Hollywood and the people behind the technology, never gave up and was able to deliver impressive results and improvements in a few years or decades.

Even after all the technological improvements made in sound film and cinema, several movies remain classics of cinema history, precisely because they represent a historical time in cinema.

Every person involved in the cinema industry is always looking to deliver the best image, sound, acting, effects, production, direction, and even more. This is why every movie can be recognized for its use of technology and creativity.

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Cloé

Franco-Mexican freelance writer. I love writing about philosophy, poetry and social justice. Hope you enjoy my articles!