Today, sound is such an important aspect of the film industry that it’s hard to imagine what movies were like before the introduction of synchronized sound. Because of the internet, and the marvels of technology in preserving them, many classic silent films can be viewed on YouTube today. [You can read more about the end of silent films here.]
While the introduction of sound was of great benefit to the motion picture industry, talking pictures proved disastrous for vaudeville. Vaudeville could not compete with the technology and many of its actors were unable to adapt to the format of sound motion pictures. Talking films also hurt the careers of the many orchestra musicians who provided the live score for many of the silent movies. The speech and voices of certain actors also proved to be a difficult hurdle for many studios to overcome, and it particularly plagued foreign actors whose accents were thought to disrupt the American idiom. Some actors simply didn’t sound as good as they had looked in silent films.
Audiences, too, had to change and adapt to sound movies. During the silent film era, it was acceptable to talk while the movies played. However, with talking pictures, movie patrons had to sit quietly in order to be able to hear the voices of the actors on screen. People who were deaf or hard of hearing now struggled to understand the stories. Sound movies had much less movement and action than silent movies, and since they were mainly filled with scenes of actors talking, people began to call the new movies “talkies.”
In the early 1920s, Western Electric created a “sound-on-disc” system that came to be known as the Vitaphone. Warner Bros. used the Vitaphone system on a series of short films they produced in 1926. When these shorts were successful, Warner Bros. produced the first feature-length film, The Jazz Singer (1927). Although it is considered to be the first “talkie”, it was actually a hybrid of silent film and talkie. When the film’s phenomenal success suggested sound might provide more than a cheap way of reproducing stage acts and music, they made more ‘part-talkies’, until they released the first ‘all-talkie,’ The Lights of New York, in 1928.
One of the major problems with the introduction of sound was that silent movie theaters had to be wired for sound. By the mid-1930s, many theaters that had not bought sound systems went out of business. Additionally, sound cinema created a problem when it came to translating foreign language films. Prior to talkies, it was easy to translate foreign films because all the filmmakers had to do was switch out the title cards to fit whatever language was required. For a brief period, the studios kept extra sets of actors on hand to film the same scenes in a foreign language, but that proved to be impractical and costly. Technology had advanced enough by 1931 to allow accurate and realistic-looking dubbing in different languages. By 1932, dubbing and subtitles enabled talkies to cross language barriers.
The introduction of sound also proved to be a difficult journey for filmmakers, actors and crew members. Most early talkies were composed of static shots laden with dialogue that required actors to keep within range of both a static microphone and a static camera. The musical, a new genre made possible by the new technology, offered boundless opportunities for resourceful uses of sound. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s film Singin’ in the Rain is an in-depth example of the concept. A tribute to the first talkie (The Jazz Singer), the film is about a silent film actor who stars in his first talkie, and accurately portrays many of the issues filmmakers and performers encountered during the transition from silent films to talkies.
The introduction of sound to film caused many other problems. Microphones were omni-directional and picked up any noise on the set. Because cameras whirred as they filmed, they had to be placed in soundproof booths. Initially, all the sounds for a single scene had to be recorded at once. The microphone’s placement limited the action and the director’s creative choices were limited by the soundproof camera booths. The booths had wheels, but they were too loud to use during filming which kept the camera from moving in a tracking motion. These limitations resulted in the use of a technique known as “multi-camera shooting.” This technique involved using multiple cameras to shoot one scene because the scene had to be shot in one take due to the sound limitations. Due to the sensitivity of the microphones, studios began requiring their actors to take diction lessons and speak at a slow and clear pace.
Necessity is the mother of invention, however. Solutions to many of these problems began to be found. Studios built padded metal “blimps” that silenced the camera and were less awkward to use than the booths. The boom pole was invented, allowing an operator to easily move the microphone from actor to actor to better record audio. It became increasingly possible to record more than one track of sound for a scene and mix them into a single final track, allowing the addition of background music or sound effects in post-production. Because of these advancements, there was no longer a need for multi-camera shooting. Filmmakers began shooting their films without sound and adding it all later in post-production, which gave them the freedom to do whatever they wanted on set regarding camera movement, etc.