Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Future of Sound Motion Pictures

It wouldn't seem right to leave Harold B Franklin's book behind before looking at a couple of his predictions for cinema and the entertainment industry in general.

The first of these concerns the potential evolution of technology which was, in real terms, very much in its infancy:

   Eventually science will certainly develop telephony and television beyond our present imaginative expectations. When they are fully developed a person sitting at home may be "present" at any event, regardless of distance, at will. Stereoscopic television in full natural colours, and perfected wireless telephony, will enable him to see and hear any event that is broadcast as effectively as if he stood beside the transmitting apparatus.

Here Franklin is clearly describing what we would recognise today as 3D, HD television. In many ways an impressive and accurate prediction, but one wonders whether or not he would have been surprised at just how long it took for this technology to become a reality?

If accurate, the second of the author's speculations offers a curious insight as to the mentality of early cinema-goers:  

The dialogue motion picture is also likely to have an interesting effect on the theatregoing habits of its public. While it has meant nothing, until now, to drop in on a picture after it started and then pick up the threads of the story as it progressed, in the case of the talking picture it becomes more important for the audience to be present from the beginning.

It's hard to imagine, for example, anyone coming in late to one of the films mentioned in the previous blog, Sherlock Jnr., and being able to 'pick up the threads'. It would be really interesting to know whether this attitude to late-coming (an absolute pet hate of mine!) was as prevalent as Franklin suggests and if/how the coming of sound affected it. Certainly the noise created by the tardy could potentially cause more disruption and even affect understanding of the plot, even for those who had seen it from the beginning, but as for sound making it more difficult to catch up with the story I'm not so sure. Interesting talking point though.

The next prediction, regarding 3D cinema, is quite lengthy but worth the effort:

Dr. Herbert E. Ives of the Bell Telephone Laboratories has evolved a plan wherein a spectator at one side of the theatre sees a different side of a certain object than is viewed by another spectator on the opposite side of the room. Thus he gives the illusion of solid objects in space instead of flat images on a flat surface. The apparatus necessary to attain the desired effect, however, is both cumbersome and costly. To obtain the result, projection is placed behind the screen, which is transparent; and the spectator is seated on the opposite side of the scree. Both sides are blanketed with grids of opaque lines and open spaces that pass the light in narrow parallel bands. The projectors behind the screen are arranged in a semicircle. All of them render, simultaneously, views of the same scene taken at one time by a battery of cameras arranged to focus on their objective from different angles. Using the present motion picture camera, it is necessary to take sixty images each from a slightly different angle; the procedure requires fifteen cameras with four moving lenses, each photographing about eighty pictures a second- more than four times the ordinary rate of speed. The sixty images taken are then all condensed upon a single film.

Both the potential effect of this, as well as the logistics involved, are just mind-blowing! 

Stereoscopic imagery was, even in 1929, nothing new. Indeed the stitching together of stereoscopic photographic images was an integral part of the evolution of cinema, given that both techniques had been perfected by Eadweard Muybridge in the late 19th century. Indeed Muybridge's influence is also apparent here with the description of the various cameras at different points sounding very much like his early attempts to capture motion. 

The use of sequential imagery from synchronised still cameras was later used to create the 'bullet time' effects of The Matrix (1999)  but what Franklin was describing here would have produced something more akin to a 3D-looking hologram. If incorporating sound had presented studios with challenges just imagine how difficult it would have been to make films which had to be shot a several different angles simultaneously. The lighting alone would have given any cinematographer nightmares and filming fast moving cars on location would have been nearly impossible! And that's not taking into account the expense of upgrading all the theatres.... Still, it is interesting to think that way back in 1929, at the very beginnings of sound motion pictures, someone was looking to make cinema an even more involving and 'real' experience.

Dr. Ives' is perhaps best known for his work on television and telephony but his main area of expertise was optics and you can learn more about his plans for stereoscopic cinema here

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Harold B Franklin's Sound and Motion Pictures

Following on from the previous blog in our series on Harold B Franklin's 1929 book Sound Motion Pictures this post will take a closer look at what made the author so well placed to write about the motion picture industry.
Harold B Franklin

His IMDb page states that Franklin was a booking agent and then theatre manager prior to becoming involved with Famous Players-Lasky, Fox and, later in his career, Columbia. This was, by anyone's standards, an impressive CV. The chronology suggested here also places Franklin at Famous Players-Lasky (later named Paramount) at another pivotal point in motion picture history as the firm began its policy of vertical integration and block blocking, which ultimately came undone in the courts in and around the time he must have started on his book.

This involvement with three of the 'big six' motion picture companies saw Franklin well placed to observe the practices and progress of what was still at that stage a fledgling industry. Although he may have recorded some of his own activities, the Harold B. Franklin collection certainly sounds interesting but sadly does not appear to contain anything especially revealing about the author or his work. Which is a shame as Sound Motion Pictures certainly suggests that his insights into the industry were not confined to theatre management or business practices:

Voice problems were given serious consideration, and after much experimentation and many tests by qualified university men  it was found that the greatest success was attained by players who read their lines with perfect naturalness. It was also demonstrated that, though the legitimate drama had to take into consideration the fact that the voice must carry in a theatre, this issue was not of importance in the making of motion pictures, since the microphone used in the recording of dialogue for the latter was able to pick up even the slightest whisper. If actors of the speaking stage are thus finding a new field for their talent, actors of the silent screen equally are showing amazing versatility. They are finding their voices, so to speak, and are discovering in talking pictures a new form of expression that lends greater scope and variety to their art.

So, away from the money-making aspect of the movies it seems Franklin also understood the artistic potential for actors to express themselves as well as the benefits of natural performances in contrast to the 'pantomime' of silent cinema. Despite this it wasn't until much later in his career that he got involved with the creative side of the business.

Given his interest in sound, both of Franklin's own forays into movie production are particularly interesting; the lead actor of Gambling (1934), George M.Cohan, was a songwriter whose credits also included The Jazz Singer whereas The Villain Still Pursued Her (1940) featured one of silent cinema's biggest stars- Buster Keaton.  Directed by long-time Keaton collaborator, Edward F Cline, and written by an Elbert Franklin (surely a relative of the producer) The Villain Still Pursued Her  is an odd yet interesting film. A metafictional parody of melodrama (it's practically a filmed pantomime), the characters ham it up in ways that are the antithesis of the 'naturalness' its producer had stated was required for talkies. The large amount of physical comedy and use of inter-titles though suggests that the satire here was aimed just as much as silent film as melodrama. Although nowhere near as inventive or sophisticated as Sherlock Jnr. (1924) Keaton in particular shines, and the film's playful and creative use of sound (diegetic applause and hissing from the audience) hints that Franklin's interest in the subject was something which ran deeper than just its academic study. 

Inter-title from The Villain Still Pursued Her

Good, old-fashioned slapstick 

Buster Keaton in The Villain Still Pursued Her

Friday, 23 August 2013

The History of Sound Motion Pictures

Before looking more closely at Harold B Franklin's book I thought it might be a good time to learn a little more about the author himself.

Franklin's IMDb page carries the following biographical information:

New York native Harold B. Franklin entered show business as a booking agent for vaudeville acts in 1910, becoming a theater manager four years later. He joined Famous Players-Lasky as director of its theater operations, but left several years later to head Fox-West Coast Theaters. He worked for various companies in movie theater operations until 1933, when he and playwright Edgar Selwyn joined in a venture to produce stage plays. Two years later he went to work for Columbia Pictures as a production executive. Although he did produce two films, his main focus was in the exhibition end of the business. While on a business trip to Mexico to survey their theaters, he died suddenly in Mexico City.

From this it would seem that it was Franklin's background in movie theatre operations which best qualified him to write about the early sound systems employed in cinemas. Certainly his background as a booking agent would have been unlikely to furnish him with the sort of in-depth knowledge on sound evidenced in the book. 

Sound Motion Pictures Acoustics Sound Absorption Cinema History Talkies

This sort of information is more likely to have come from those he thanked at the end of his introduction: 'the enginners of The Bell Telephone Laboratories, the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, and the technical departments of the Fox West Coast Theatres'. This stuff, although a bit over my head, is certainly an eye-opener and shows the level of detail cinema technicians had to consider when installing the new sound equipment. Absorption rates of seating materials in theatres is not something I'd ever considered with regards to the history of cinema, but it stands to reason that if the studios were investing heavily in the technology for production (which would of course have similar issues to contend with) that they'd want to reap the maximum benefit at the presentation stage.  

With regards to the processes which came prior to this, it has to be said that, at first glance, Franklin's narrative of sound in the movies seems a little too American-centric. In particular there's a definite bias towards the achievements of Thomas A Edison. Although maybe that shouldn't be a huge surprise. One thing that I've learned about researching anything communications related is just how ubiqutous Edison is in this field. He was, undoubtedly, a remarkable man but Franklin's assertion, in his opening chapter, that 'In 1894 Edison invented the cinematograph' did set some alarm bells ringing and left me wondering whether the writer had perhaps fallen under the spell of the 'Wizard of Menlo Park'.

The history of cinema's early days is complex and contentious with much debate about who invented what, and when. There isn't the space to cover much of that here but one thing of which we can be reasonably certain is that Edison did NOT invent the cinematagraph. That device (whose own genesis is subject to much debate) was essentially European in origin with the Lumiere brothers being among those credited with its invention. Edison, and his team, did however have the Kinetescope, Kinetograph and Vitascope to their...or rather his name. Perhaps this entry was an oversight or a generalisation, and perhaps it isn't worth dwelling on, but it did rankle a little that Franklin failed to acknowledge the contributions of so many others who played their part in the invention of cinema.

Franklin was of course correct to further expand upon Edison's contributions to the advancement of sound in cinema, which began in 1887 with the inventor's statement of intent to create 'an instrument which would do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear, and that by the combination of the two all motion and sound could be recorded ad reproduced simultaneously'. All things considered, the author does later redeem himself by delving a bit more into the contributions of numerous inventors of various nationalities who developed early sound systems with such exotic sounding names as the Cameraphone (the first such use of the term?), Chronophone,  Chronophotophone and the Photocinematophone. At this point Franklin's chronology bounces about a bit but there were names (and inventions) listed here that I'd never heard of and probably worthy of some deeper digging. However, it isn't long before this is all brought back and neatly packaged as work which basically built on the foundations laid by a certain American inventor : 'it is apparent, from the foregoing, that the development of sound pictures is based on the earlier efforts of Mr. Edison'. Which of course may well be entirely true. 

Before leaving the history of sound in motion pictures to focus on the technological/theory side the book offers a fairly conscise run-down of some of the earliest sound films. Noting that:  'In December, 1926, the DeForest Phono-Film Company produced a one-act melodrama called Retribution... To my knowledge it was the first entirely talking picture ever made', Franklin's book reminds us that although the success of talkies depended much on the commercial triumph of The Jazz Singer, many others had blazed a trail before this and helped prepare cinema audiences for what was to come.

The link below is for an interesting and detailed documentary about this period of transition and well worth a look. The Dawn of Sound: How the Movies Learned to Talk (1hr 25 mins)

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Sound Motion Pictures

Having decided to highlight the MoC library in my blogs the next thing I had to do was start...somewhere. What you see here is just the tip of the iceberg- I'm going to have to measure the shelf space next time I'm down!

Museum of Communication Library Books

In the end though the choice was fairly easy as the first book I spotted on shelf 1/4 was this:
Harold B Franklin books
Inside cover of Sound Motion Pictures

Along with books my main passion is cinema (I studied English and Film) so this was a no-brainer. Published in 1929 Harold B Franklin's Sound Motion Pictures must have been one of, if not the first book on sound in cinema and it's a curious mix of film theory, cinema history, the science of acoustics and speculation on the future of 'talkies'.  In fact it's a little difficult to identify just who this book was aimed at, but here's the opening paragraph of the foreword:

"The aim of this book is to present a condensed record of the progress of "sound" in motion pictures. In attempting to write the history of the new device, the author of course realises fully that it is as yet too early to base judgement on a perspective that can come only with time and experience. Yet because an entire industry is adjusting itself overnight to a new condition, the very interest in the subject would appear to justify this text."

Obviously of interest to film scholars, and undoubtedly un-put-downable for budding sound engineers, but out-with these particular demographics it's hard to imagine this on anyone's coffee table.

Franklin though was well aware of that his "pioneer volume" had a broad scope yet a fairly specific readership as he acknowledged "these pages will serve almost every one interested in the subject at least to some degree. It is therefore only natural that some portion of the text, introduced with a special public in mind, will be of less interest to some other reader of a different need."

This then was clearly meant to be used more of a reference book and must surely have found a readership among film companies and cinemas alike: there are several detailed explanations and diagrams indicating the optimum positions for speakers in relation to audiences as well as some in-depth descriptions of the change in studio dynamics in order to accommodate sound recording.

museum of communication books motion pictures

museum of communication books sound


As well as the way in which this book flits between some very complex science then some very accessible film facts and figures it's the volume's own place in cinema history which makes it unique. Sound Motion Pictures was written as the biggest upheaval (both cultural and technological) in the history of motion pictures was unfolding. The adjustments actors, technical crew and audience alike had to make at this time have been well dramatised in films like Singin' in the Rain and The Artist but as they were made with the benefit of hindsight perhaps Sound Motion Pictures captures a more authentic sense of the excitement and uncertainty of the era.

The next blog will take a closer look at Franklin's take on the history of sound in the movies.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Shelf Life

"The Museum has a major collection — over 40 tonnes — of artefacts covering electrostatics, telegraphy, telephony, audio, radio, television and video and IT... as well as some early experimental radar, satellite, photographic and printing equipment plus a technical library of scientific literature and related documentation."

In a sense the above exert from our website's home page ( says so much, and yet so very little about our collection of printed material. That the bit about the library appears at the end of the paragraph infers that this aspect of the museum is perhaps not as prominent an attraction as the rest of the collection: which is true. However, the sheer range of the publications we have on our shelves goes well beyond that expected of a technical library.

Through this blog I aim to highlight a much under-used resource which contains books on advanced electronic engineering, beginner's guides to science, assorted 'how-to' guides, science fiction and GPO directories as well as back issues of QST, Practical Wireless, Electronics Today and many, many others stretching back over several decades.

Whether you have a professional, scholarly or personal interest in any of these topics, or the ones I hope to uncover here, you can arrange a visit to the museum by calling 01592 874836 or emailing

If you would like to donate any appropriate printed materials to the museum please contact