The State of the Art - 1928 - Part 2
Motion Picture Sound Recording In Its Infancy
by Edward Bernds, C.A.S.
Ed Bernds was a pioneer of production sound recording in the first days of the "talkies." He worked 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. This is the second in a series of excerpts from his upcoming book, "Mr. B. Goes to Hollywood," courtesy of Scarecrow Publishing.
When the stampede to sound picked up speed in the summer of 1928, the Hollywood studios had millions of dollars worth of silent films on their hands. As more and more theaters installed sound equipment, the studios, including United Artists, attempted to salvage what value they could by providing recorded scores for silent films, calling them "Sound Pictures."
People would pay money to see and hear sound sequences inserted into silent films. The part-talking films were misbegotten hybrids mercifully short-lived. The film came on, silent, with a recorded musical score, the photography beautiful, the music reasonably good. Then suddenly, with a jolt, the talking sequences came on -- the photography flat (those damned camera booths) and the sound raucous, scratchy, and much too loud.
I could understand why the old-line producers and directors hated us, with our obnoxious microphones and two-ton camera booths and camera motors that ran backwards. We were interlopers, a bunch of young upstarts who were destroying the beautiful art form they had spent years perfecting.
UA had a half-dozen of such silents. Three of them were scored in New York by a formidable composer-conductor, Dr. Hugo Reisenfeld. When the UA sound equipment was ready, we prepared to record music for our Hollywood productions. The doctor insisted that he would place the microphones, arrange the orchestra, and instruct the man in the monitor booth how to handle the mix of three microphones.
Another doctor appeared, one J.P. Maxfield, a Ph.D. in architecture, his specialty: acoustics. He had been hired by the UA partners to assist Reisenfeld in obtaining the best music recording quality.
Maxfield went to work immediately -- in what seemed to us to be a weird routine. He went to the center of the empty scoring stage, clapped his hands, then quickly cupped his ear to listen for reverberations. He repeated the process from all points of the stage. We sound men, with not a single Ph.D. among us, wondered if this was a sober, scientific procedure or a gigantic practical joke.
Finally we were informed that the doctor had found the best places for our microphones: he called them "nodes." Reisenfeld expressed his approval of Maxfield's microphone placement, and the UA partners thanked Maxfield for his contribution to better UA music.
Maxfield should have quit when he was ahead. Roland West, director of "Alibi," was an interested observer of Dr. Maxfield's tests. The men talked. Maxfield asked about the on-the-set recording techniques, and was appalled when West told him that the sound men positioned their microphones over the actor's heads, as close as the camera-line would permit. That was wrong, Maxfield said. The ears of the audience were not above the actors. Their ears -- the microphones -- should be where their eyes -- the cameras -- were.
Roland West welcomed that idea. He told Maxfield that he stood beside the cameras and was able to hear every word spoken by his actors. Maxfield was triumphant, his theory was vindicated. He was so enthusiastic that the UA studio heads asked him to make a test, and one was arranged, with hired actors and a full camera crew. Maxfield set up his two microphones --"two ears" he said -- and placed them close to the camera booth. To complete his setup, he fastened them to a medicine ball, to simulate a man's head.
Maxfield's idea ignored one important fact. The cameras -- his "eyes" -- might not move, but the lenses could be changed. With a 75mm lens, a camera, from a distance of about twelve feet, could get an excellent closeup of an actor's teeth, if he smiled -- and if he had teeth. With a 50mm lens, the actor would be seen in a nicely-composed medium closeup. With an 18mm lens he would be a distant figure.
The camera people didn't mention the lens-change problem. They probably wished so fervently for relief from the obnoxious overhead mikes that they hoped, somehow, that Maxfield's theories could be implemented.
When the test was run the next day, it was a disaster. Even when the actors faced the camera their voices were weak and indistinct. When they turned away, their voices had a distant, voice-in-a-rainbarrel quality. The embarrassing test film was quietly taken out of circulation and Dr. Maxfield was seen no more.
Another series of tests brought equally distresssing results. Mary Pickford had bought the successful play "Coquette," and chosen it to debut in her first talking-film role. She made tests -- first silent, with an open camera -- then with sound, the camera in one of the hated camera booths. Mary, a dedicated, hard-working film-maker, was aware that the camera booth was a formidable handicap; it robbed the camera of its mobility. Worse, it caused inferior photography -- shooting through a pane of plate glass caused superb lenses to become mediocre ones. A young camera assistant told me "you shoot out of one of those damn booths, and what you get is flatter than a platter of pea soup." I think he said pea soup.
Two talking films had been made at UA before "Coquette" -- "Alibi" and "Bulldog Drummond." "Alibi" was a crime melodrama. There was an unfortunate breakdown in communication between camera and sound, director and film laboratory. Nobody told the camera crew that they had to give up part of their film area to make room for the sound track. In silent filming, the cameraman could use the entire 35mm width of his film with the traditional aspect ratio of three to two. Sound on film, however, required that the soundtrack be printed beside the picture, and the that the 4mm width of the soundtrack had to be taken away from the cameraman. He lost not only the left edge of his negative, he also lost his 3 x 2 aspect ratio. The remedy was to use a new, smaller aperture in the camera that maintained the classic 3 x 2 ratio, and of course, ceded the left edge to the sound track. But no one informed Ray June, the cameraman, or Roland West, the director. The cause of the communication breakdown may have been that many studio people were thinking of Vitaphone -- of sound on disc, in which optical soundtrack would be re-recorded on disc for theater release. That technique had been abandoned by most of the Western Electric-equipped studios, but no one told anyone.
About half of "Alibi" was shot before the error was corrected. The result was that well-composed camera angles became poorly composed, and scenes in which there was action close to the left frame line lost that action. Some of the damage was replaced by close shots, retakes and inserts, but Ray June was disconsolate. Many of the scenes on which he spent time and effort were still mutilated.
After a series of sound tests, Mary was dissatisfied with the way she was photographed. Her future depended on how she looked as a very young woman. The looming menace of sound sound threatened her place in the hearts of millions of fans.
There were more tests, and then finally we began to work on film that would go into theaters. The filming of "Coquette" began in mid-December, 1928. It was a struggle against long odds, against cumbersome sound techniques and the inferior photgraphy that sound imposed on the cameramen. In the silent era, Mary Pickford had been in control -- film-wise, camera-wise and story wise. She no longer had that control. Scenes were shot with agonizing slowness. We in sound took much time setting our microphones. A grip would go high up to the stage catwalk and drop a rope to us. We would tie a microphone to it; it would then be raised to clear the top frame line of the widest-angle camera, and ropes from the light platforms would be used to pull the mike into position.
It was laborious and time-wasting, and if the staging of a scene or the camera setup was changed, our mikes had to be repositioned in the same cumbersome way.
The director of "Coquette" -- Sam Taylor -- used multi-camera setups; two, three and even four cameras. That multiplied the cameraman's problems and also hurt our sound. The clumsy, nondirectional CTA mikes had to be as close as possible to actors to get good closeup sound. In one of Sam Taylor's four-camera setups, the top-line for our mike was set by the camera with the widest angle lens, and our microphone might be seven or eight feet from the actors -- too far for good closeup quality.
This was particularly damaging in closeups of Mary. She had what Douglas Fairbanks Jr. called a "small, tight voice" -- a voice that needed to be caressed by a microphone close to her. Instead, she was required to strain that small voice to reach a too-distant mike. In an interview years later, Pickford described the filming as a painful experience. Restrictive sound and camera techniques and frequent equipment failures, Mary said, made it impossible to create good scenes.
As for Fairbanks, I saw him at his carefree, prankish best during the silent filming of "The Iron Mask." Then I saw what the coming of sound did to him when we filmed a talking prologue for the picture. A ten-foot-high blowup of a page of the Dumas novel, simulating ancient parchment was mounted in a frame. Doug slashed through the page with his sword, sprang into the foreground and delivered his prologue speech. We did the scene over and over -- I can still remember Doug's lines: "Out of the shadows of the past, as from a faded tapestry dim and vast, I bring you a tale of long ago."
Finally we got a complete take, and, as was the barbaric custom in those days, we played it back. Sound equipment was touchy and inefficient then. Sometimes speed would go out of control. When we made that playback for Doug, we had a "runaway" on the wax playback machine, just fast enough to give Doug a girlish falsetto. Mercifully somebody pulled the loudspeaker plug, but I think Doug never really recovered from the shock of hearing that gibbering runaway version.
There hadn't been much improvement in production efficiency in the year since those first few efforts. Camera booths were still used, and we, the sound people, were still hiding microphones in flower arrangements and hanging them from sound-stage catwalks. We heard rumors that sound booms were being used in other studios, but our chief engineer, Howard Campbell, was adamant: mikes were not to be swung around recklessly. They would be placed carefully and judiciously, and the actors would be instructed how to "play to them."
He had other anti-boom arguments; a heavy CTA at the end of a long boom-arm would be dangerously tip-prone, and the camera booths and the lights monopolized the front of the set. There was no room for a clumsy mike boom.
Some of us were not convinced. We felt that a boom could be counterweighted, and if we could demonstrate the need, room would be found for us in the front of the set. I was beginning to see things from the point of view of the film makers. There was a need for a microphone that could follow the actors and give the directors and actors the ability to stage scenes the way they, and not the sound men wanted them.
We sound men in those days used monitor booths -- glassed-in rooms suspended from the walls of the sound stages. The men who designed the early sound systems thought we needed a full set of theater-type speakers to monitor the sound quality properly. A far cry from the featherweight set of earphones the sound man uses today.
I was in one of those monitor booths during filming of "Bulldog Drummond," Samuel Goldywn's first all-talking picture. Goldwyn and his aide, Mike Levee, completely ignoring the presence of the sound men in the booth, argued violently about continuing to make sound pictures. Goldwyn disliked the way the filming was going. He said Ronald Colman's acting was ruined by sound, and that Joan Bennett, "such a beautiful girl, she don't look so good when they have to photograph her out of those goddamn doghouses."
Mike Levee argued that sound was here to stay, and that sound and picture quality would improve. Not a bad prediction.
Next -"Modern Boom techniques develop at Columbia"
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