Trivia

Hard

What Early Cinema Technology Was The First To Perfectly Synchronize Sound?

Vitaphone
Kinetoscope
Photokinema
Phonofilm
A photo of Lee de Forest, published in the February 1904 issue of The Electrical Age.
Thbusch/Neutrality/Wikimedia

Answer: Phonofilm

The closest that modern consumers come 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 cinemas ensure that the video and audio stay neatly synced.

Although we’ve simply come to expect such quality, movies weren’t always such a wonder of taken-for-granted synchronicity. Early innovators in the field of 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 at closely synchronizing the two together. Thomas Edison and William Dickson experimented with a system they called the Kinetoscope, starting with small single-viewing machines and scaling it up to cinema houses. The cinema house system relied on an elaborate but inefficient mechanical system of pulleys and other apparatuses to maintain the synchronization between the film and the audio. It failed more than it worked, and it was never fine-tuned enough to allow for consistent in-sync dialog.

The process of 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 of Finnish inventor Eric Tigerstedt and German inventors Josef Engl, Hans Vogt, and Joseph Massole, built a commercially viable camera system that recorded the sound directly onto 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 was poor overall compared to stand-alone film cameras and recording devices. Even with improvements, de Forest had trouble breaking into Hollywood with the device since studios were strongly resistant to changing the way they were doing things and bearing the expense of retrofitting cinemas for the new film technology. While no full-length film was ever shot using the technology, de Forest and his associates filmed dozens of Vaudeville acts, early Jazz artists, and even Franklin D. Roosevelt. Entertainment historians treasure de Forest’s recordings as they capture many historically significant players in the Vaudeville and Jazz scene that would have 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.

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