The State of the Art – 1928 - Part 1
Motion Picture Sound Recording In Its Infancy
by Edward Bernds
It was 1928 and the panic was on. Warner Brothers had just released the ground breaking film "The Jazz Singer" and it soon became apparent to many in Hollywood: sound was not a fad. Only Warners had sound men, however, and they had all signed contracts. Studio executives began scouring the country for anyone familiar with sound. They approached radio engineers to fill the gap. Enter Ed Bernds.
He was lured to Hollywood and became a pioneer of production sound recording, working with legendary Hollywood figures from Douglas Fairbanks to D.W. Griffith. He recorded the sound on virtually all of Frank Capra's films, then went on to a successful career as a director. Last February, he was honored by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures for his achievements.
What Bernds witnessed and actively helped shape was the birth of motion picture sound. Few people are fortunate enough to have had the vantage point of Ed Bernds, let alone the presence of mind to have documented what he observed. What follows are excerpts from his upcoming book, "Mr. B. Goes to Hollywood," courtesy of Scarecrow Publishing.
In the beginning, there were sound and photographic tests of actors and actresses, talking prologues for otherwise silent films, and talking-picture segments for those abominable hybrids, part-talking films. I worked on several of these fragments. When I came to United Artists, I needed only a few days to realize that what we were doing was of importance to the movie industry, to the people who went to movie theaters, and, incidentally, to me. I began to keep a day-by-day journal, not a "dear diary" affair of secret thoughts and weighty opinions, but a bare-bones account of what we did and how we did it, day by day.
In 1928, a year of sudden change, events moved rapidly. I received a phone call -- a most unlikely phone call -- from Howard Campbell. He informed me that he was the Chief Engineer of the brand-new sound department at the United Artists movie studio and he offered me a job in Hollywood. I agreed quickly. I was entering a challenging and glamorous new field and a future full of uncertainties.
My first encounters were with bureaucracy, not glamour, however. After a long trip from Chicago to Los Angeles, I crossed Formosa Avenue and entered the UA main gate. I was directed to the office of Sam Hill, studio superintendent, who gave me a studio pass identifying me as a sound technician. Next, to the payroll office, where I was told that I would be on the payroll as of that day. I was grateful for the twelve dollars and fifty cents I earned so easily.
I phoned Campbell’s office. His secretary informed me that Campbell would not be available that day. I was free to do as I pleased.
The streets and walkways of the UA lot were crowded with actors and extras dressed in the costumes of the French monarchy. Douglas Fairbanks was making a film, "The Iron Mask," a sequel to his classic "The Three Musketeers." Here, at last, was glamour. When the actors and extras were needed, an assistant director ordered them back to work, and soldiers, priests, swashbucklers and even Cardinal Richelieu obeyed his command.
I was confronted by a sign: "Positively No Visitors Allowed." I was not a visitor, I told myself, I was a sound technician; my studio pass said so. I entered and no one challenged me.
What I saw was stunning -- a huge set, a street of old Paris filled with people, lighted by hundreds of arc-lights. The big ones were called sun-arcs, but the light they produced seemed whiter and bluer than sunlight.
It was a noisy, crowded set; there seemed to be a dozen things happening at the same time. I tried to discern if there was some sort of order in this chaos. My attention was drawn to a man who seemed to be in charge. He shouted orders in a strong, commanding voice, and men obeyed him; but I learned that he was the boss electrician, called appropriately enough, the gaffer. Then I saw that another man exerted a great deal of authority; but he was Lucky Humberstone, the assistant director. Finally I discovered that the gentleman sitting quietly in a canvas chair was the director, Allan Dwan.
I found myself wondering how we, the sound people, could fit into that turbulent new world, and what changes we would bring. For one thing, the sun-arcs would have to go. The heart of each arc-light was an intense, white-hot electrical fire. The flames were fed by carbon rods; these had to be rotated - driven by electric motors to ensure even-burning. The stage was filled with the grinding noise of the motors and the high-pitched whine of the flames.
I found our new sound building. It was not quite complete -- workmen were putting finishing touches on the structure, and inside the building workers were opening crates of sound equipment. In what would become the recording rooms there were large cement pedestals; I was told that the recording machines were to be mounted on them. It seemed to me that we were many weeks from being able to go to work as sound men.
Days later I was summoned to meet Campbell. There were no friendly preliminaries, no "Did you have a good trip?" or "Welcome to Hollywood!" Instead, he complained about the pampered, entrenched movie people, the producers, directors and cameramen. "They don’t like us," Campbell said. "They don’t like sound; they wish we’d go away, but we’re not going away." His theme was that if you gave those motion picture autocrats an inch they’d take a mile. His response was that we would not give them that inch. I was troubled by Campbell’s intransigence. I felt that it would make the transition from silent to sound films more difficult and certainly more abrasive.
I saw redoubled activity in the sound building -- more men opening more crates and more electricians pulling more wires through conduits. A man in a business suit was also watching. He shook his head and turned away as though what he saw pained him. "Lots going on in there." I said. "There certainly is," the man replied. "On overtime."
His name was Dent, and he was a member of the UA accounting department. His responsibility was cost control, and he was not happy about skyrocketing costs. It was the fault, he said, of the UA partners, who wrangled and complained and failed to agree on a plan of action. Joseph Schenck, the executive the stars had taken in as a partner, had given an interview in which he said that sound pictures were a mediocre novelty and predicted that they would not last more than three or four months. Dent credited Mary Pickford, whom he regarded highly, with forcing her partners to stop bickering and come to a decision. She was convinced, Mary told them, that sound was not going to fade away; and, much as she disliked doing so, she would vote to convert to sound. Her partners agreed, reluctantly, but their indecisiveness had caused the loss of three or four valuable weeks. "Now we’re trying to catch up," Dent said.
At last the sound building was finished. The swarm of workmen departed, and Western Electric engineers began to test the recording equipment. That equipment and the way it was used had a significant effect on the quality of the early sound films. In 1928, there were four such sound systems in use:
Vitaphone was the Warner Brothers' system. They lit the firecrackers that caused the film industry to stampede to sound; and they did it with a system -- disc recording -- that was impractical for motion picture production. Disc recordings could not be edited. It was one thing to put a recorded song on a disc, with an adlib by Al Jolson at the end of it; it was quite another to edit a fast-moving melodrama, in which there might be a dozen short scenes - "cuts" - in one minute of film. And using disc sound in the theater was trouble-prone. A projectionist had to possess keen eyesight and a steady hand to place the stylus on the correct start-point. If he missed by only one groove the movie was grotesquely out of sync, which generally caused the audience to laugh or to yell angrily and throw things. The Warner Brothers saw the light and changed quickly to sound-on-film.
The Fox sound system was Movietone. First used in newsreel cameras as a "single system," sound and picture were recorded on one negative in the camera. The heart of this system was a gas-filled tube, called an AEO light which, when activated by an audio input, responded by producing sound-modulated light that could be photographed. When the AEO light was used in a separate recorder, the film could be edited, but the quality was poor, and the Fox-Case system soon went the way of Vitaphone and the carrier pigeon.
The RCA system, Photophone, was also an optical sound system. It employed a galvanometer-type device in which a tiny mirror twisted and turned in response to sound waves and photographed those sound waves on film. This produced a negative, white-on-black, in which the profile of the sound resembled a mountain range with many peaks and valleys. Printed, the mountain range became black; the background white. Photophone could be edited and development and printing of the film was not critical.
We at the United Artists studio used the Western Electric variable density sound system. The sound image was recorded not as a black and white mountain range, but as a series of black, white and gray bars of infinite complexity and accuracy. The heart of the system was a brilliant invention called a light valve. A pair of ultralight metallic ribbons provided a slit through which a strong source of light was focused on the film as it passed through the recording machine and photographed the sound. The Western Electric light valve had one significant advantage over the RCA mirror galvanometer: the light-valve were so light that they had no measurable inertia. The RCA mirror, although it was made as light as possible, had an appreciable degree of inertia, so that it resisted modulation by faint sounds, and tended to overmodulate loud sounds, a flaw generally called "volume expansion." It was not a serious problem; RCA variable area sound and Western Electric variable density sound served well until magnetic sound -- tape recording -- replaced them in film production.
The man who invented the light-valve may have been a genius, but the engineers who designed the other Western Electric equipment were decidedly not. Everything they provided for us was oversized and overweight. They must have come straight from designing battleship hardware because they made liberal use of bronze, which resists salt-water corrosion but is, of course, heavy. Salt-water corrosion is not a serious problem in Hollywood.
Their masterpiece was a portable mixing panel. It was not made of bronze, but of steel, and it was portable, after a fashion; it had a pair of handles, and two strong men, chancing the peril of hernia, could carry it.
The cables and cable connectors were also grossly overweight. We called the bronze connectors "pineapple connectors," because they were roughly the size and shape of large pineapples. I have a personal grudge against them -- a pineapple connector broke my nose. We carried coils of cables on the roof of our sound truck. I stood on a ladder to take down one of the cables. When I lifted it, a connector, not properly secured, swung free and smashed my nose. I dropped the cable and nearly fell off of the ladder. Had I fallen, I might well have broken my neck, my head, or both. A studio driver took me to a doctor, who stuffed my nose with cotton, told me to use an ice pack, and assured me that my nose would heal straight. A prize-fighter’s bend might have made my unremarkable nose more interesting.
It was inevitable that the microphone Western Electric provided for us would also be heavy. Officially, it was called a condenser-transmitter-amplifier, CTA for short. The nature of a CTA required that an amplifier be a part of the device; this added to bulk and weight, so that the CTA weighed about eight pounds; and naturally, it was encased in bronze. The result was that this electronic heavyweight, which should have been light, agile and capable of quick movement, proved difficult to move. It was even, because of its size, difficult to conceal in the benighted days when we concealed microphones in flower arrangements and behind curtains.
The size and weight of the equipment may have added to the difficulty of making the first sound films, but it was the manner in which we used that equipment that affected, for better or for worse, our first productions. Too frequently, our methods were not helpful. Western Electric people finished their tests and turned the equipment over to us.
We began testing, but our tests were essentially useless; there was no consideration of the way the system would ultimately be used. Several of the infamous camera booths had been built; we could have requested a camera crew and actors for a full-fledged camera and sound test, but we did not. In short, we were given no training in actual picture-making. The time came -- inevitably -- when we had to begin the work we were being paid for.
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