Cinematic Firsts: The First Film With Sound - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Cinematic Firsts: The First Film With Sound

Grab your partner and do-si-do...

In 1894, as we recently discussed, the first commercial motion picture house opened in New York. That same year in neighbouring New Jersey, the first known film with live-recorded sound was produced by William Dickson.

William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson (3 August 1860 – 28 September 1935) was a Scottish inventor who devised an early motion picture camera called the Kinetoscope (which we looked at here) whilst working under the employment of Thomas Edison.

To add to his motion picture camera, Dickson also developed the Kinetophone to produce a proto-sound-film system.

The Kinetophone, consisting of a Kinetoscope accompanied by a cylinder-playing phonograph, was not a true sound-film system, for there was no attempt to synchronize picture and sound throughout playback.

The first known use of the Kinetoscope and Kinetophone together came in the form of (the catchy titled) The Dickson Experimental Sound Film...

The film features Dickson playing a violin into a recording horn for an off-camera wax cylinder. The melody is from a barcarolle, "Song of the Cabin Boy", from Les Cloches de Corneville (literally The Bells of Corneville; presented in English-speaking countries as The Chimes of Normandy), a light opera composed by Robert Planquette in 1877. In front of Dickson, two men dance to the music. In the final seconds, a fourth man briefly crosses from left to right behind the horn.

As you can see above, the running time of film is seventeen seconds, but the accompanying cylinder contains approximately two minutes of sound, including twenty-three seconds of violin music. There is no evidence that the two were ever displayed together or exhibited in the intended format. That would come over a Century later...

In 1956, Thomas A. Edison, Incorporated donated the Edison Laboratory to the U.S. National Park Service. The soundtrack was inventoried at the Edison National Historic Site in the early 1960s when a wax cylinder in a metal canister labeled "Dickson—Violin by W.K.L. Dixon with Kineto" was found in the music room of the Edison laboratory. In 1964, researchers opened the canister only to find that the cylinder was broken in two; that year, as well, all nitrate film materials remaining at the facility were removed to the Library of Congress for conservation. Among the filmstrips was a print that the Library of Congress catalogued as Dickson Violin. According to Patrick Loughney, the library's film and TV curator, this print is...
"thirty-nine feet and fourteen frames [two frames short of 40 feet]."
The connection between film and cylinder was not made until 1998 when Loughney and Edison NHS sound recordings curator Jerry Fabris arranged for the cylinder to be repaired and its contents recovered at the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound in New York. A new reel-to-reel master was created, allowing for fidelity reproduction onto digital audio tape. By digitally converting the film and editing the media together the visual and audio elements were finally synchronised.

On the cylinder, before the camera starts rolling, a man's voice can be heard to say, "Are the rest of you ready? Go ahead!"

This extra sound is included on the version of the film above. However, since filming had not yet begun when the words were uttered, this cannot be claimed as the first incidence of the spoken word on film. Something we will get to in a future Cinematic Firsts article.

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