Cool Retrotech Project

I recently saw the retrosilent film The Artist (which I thought was pretty good), and by chance, a couple of days later I picked up a magazine with an article on the history of early talking-picture technologies. This in turn led me to do some Internet searching. One of the early sound-movie technologies was something called Vitaphone. With this approach, the sound was recorded separately from the film, using a very large (16 inch diameter) phonograph record.

“How on earth did they ever keep the sound and the picture in sync?” you may well be asking. During recording, the camera and the record-cutting machine were both driven by AC synchronous motors powered by a common line; during exhibition, a direct mechanical connection between projector and record-player was employed. Lots of detail about the process, as well as a review of the pioneering talking movie Don Juan, in this 1926 NYT article.

Vitaphone was heavily used by Warner Brothers and its sister studio First National between 1926 and 1931–in addition to feature films, the technology was used for over 1000 short subjects. While the technology offered good fidelity by the standards of the times–electronic amplification was used–the separation of picture media and sound media made editing difficult, and during exhibition of a film it was necessary to change the records every 10 minutes or so.

When Vitaphone was displaced by the sound-on-film approach, circa 1931,some–but by no means all–of the Vitaphone movies were transferred to the new technology. The Vitaphone Project, which has been active since 1991, is dedicated to finding the old films and old disks and bringing them together in playable format again.

Related posts:

Old movies, newer than new

Czarist Russia, in color (the first link at this post doesn’t work anymore, but the rest of them do)