What Early Cinema Technology Was The First To Perfectly Synchronize Sound?
The closest the modern medium consumer comes to horribly out-of-sync audio and video these days is a poorly buffering video stream. Outside of streaming video, however, it’s a rare occurrence–digital television and digital projection systems at the cinema ensure that the video and audio stay neatly synced.
Although we’ve simply come to expect such quality, movies weren’t always a wonder of taken-for-granted synchronicity. Early innovators in the field cinematography struggled for decades to bring synchronized sound to the big screen. The earliest movies with any sort of audio track simply played music to accompany the film with no attempt to closely synchronize the two together. Thomas Edison experimented with a system he called the Kinetoscope, starting with small single-viewing machines and scaling it to cinema houses. The system relied on elaborate but inefficient mechanical systems of pulleys and other apparatus to maintain the sync between the film and the audio. It failed more than it worked and it was never fine tuned enough to allow for consistently in-sync dialog.
Innovation continued, but for the most part inventors were relying on attempts to synchronize a stand alone recording with a stand alone film. While the two may have been created at the same time, syncing them consistently after the fact proved to be nearly impossible to recreate with any sort of consistency.
All that changed when American inventor Lee De Forest, building on the research for Finnish inventor Eric Tigerstedt, built a commercially viable camera system that recorded the sound directly to the film as the film itself was shot. For the first time in history, you could record both the visual and the auditory components and maintain them in perfect synchronicity.
The quality of the recordings were poor, compared to stand alone film cameras and recording devices. Even with improvements, De Forest had trouble breaking into Hollywood with the device as studios were strongly resistant to changing the way they were doing things and bearing the expense of retrofitting cinemas for the new film. While no full-length film was ever shot using the technology, De Forest and associates filmed dozens of Vaudeville acts, early Jazz artists, and even President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Historians treasure De Forest’s recordings as they capture many historically significant players in the Vaudeville and Jazz scene that would otherwise never been recorded in such a fashion.
Although Phonofilm never became a standard, it heavily influenced the industry and variations of the sound-on-film system dominated the movie industry until the advent of digital projection.