Breaking the Silence: Crash Course Film History #10

Breaking the Silence: Crash Course Film History #10

Hey! Hello. Can anybody hear me? You can? Good! That’s because of something called synchronous
sound. It means that the words I’m saying right
now are being recorded, then matched with the video. So when you watch this, the sound of my voice
is in sync with the image of me talking. Talking. Talking. We take that for granted today, but for the
first few decades of film history, it wasn’t possible. Theaters had to supply music, sound effects,
and narration through phonographs or live performances. And when dialogue was absolutely necessary,
filmmakers had actors mouth the words, and then insert title cards – or inter-titles
– in the middle of scene so the audience could read the dialogue for themselves. It took years of guess-work, tinkering, and
experimentation to make cinema sound the way it does today. But when sound finally arrived, it changed
the way movies were made and watched, forever. WHAAAT? You can hear me say WHAAAT now, thanks to
that. [Intro Music] Nothing shook the foundations of the film
industry like the coming of sound. By the mid-1920s, the major studios were churning
out movie after movie, the star system was in full swing, and cinema had become an integral
part of popular culture. But in order to sync pre-recorded sound to
moving pictures, artists and engineers had to overcome a few major hurdles. The first – and most important – was synchronization. How do you get the image and sound to match
up? At the time, image and sound were recorded
and played back using different devices, so there was no easy way to link them. Second, microphone technology was fairly primitive. Sound quality wasn’t good, and the mics
themselves were too big to conceal. Third, the process of recording and playing
back sound typically required electricity. That meant production companies would need
more equipment, larger crews, and access to power. And finally, there was the problem of amplification. Speaker technology at the time simply wasn’t
loud enough to fill a big theater. And the search for solutions to these problems
went as far back as the 1880s. In 1889, Thomas Edison’s assistant, W.K.L. Dickson, achieved a kind of rough synchronization
between the phonograph and the kinetoscope. Eventually he came up with a device called
the kinetophone that used a system of pulleys to connect the two devices. Thing is, it was buggy – everything had
to be just right, or the whole system fell apart. Luckily, at the same time as Dickson, inventors
across Europe and the United States were working towards the goal of synchronous sound films. In fact, three separate synchronizing devices
were on display at the Paris World Exhibition in 1900. None of them solved the whole problem, though. The common thread in all these early attempts
was the phonograph. That’s what they used to play back the pre-recorded
sound to accompany the film. And the problem was, it was really hard to
keep things in sync, you guys. If the phonograph needle skipped, or the film
jammed in the projector – which happened all the time – it was nearly impossible
to re-sync the two without starting all over again. More importantly, the phonograph relied on
cylinders or discs that could only hold four or five minutes worth of sound. By 1905, virtually all films ran longer than
five minutes. Since the phonograph seemed like a dead end,
engineers started to look for ways to record sound photographically. WHAAAT? That’s right! They hoped to translate sound waves into patterns
of light that could be recorded directly onto a strip of film. They called this technology sound-on-film. Which is not creative naming, but it works. The first experiments with sound-on-film began
in 1910 when Eugène Augustin Lauste, who worked for Dickson in Edison’s lab, successfully
recorded sound right next to the image track on film. In 1919, a trio of German inventors came up
with something called the Tri-Ergon process. They used a photoelectric cell to translate
sound waves into electric impulses, which were then converted into light waves and recorded
photographically onto the film strip. Most notably, they innovated a flywheel into
the projector that would keep the film speed consistent. This mechanism was so superior to anything
else at the time – and its patent so airtight – that everyone had to pay royalties to
the Tri-Ergon creators to use it. At roughly the same time, an American inventor
named Lee de Forest developed his own sound-on-film system. It was very similar to the Tri-Ergon process,
but de Forest’s version solved the problem of amplification. In 1907, while working on radio broadcast
technology, de Forest patented the Audion 3-Electrode Amplifier Tube. My nickname in high school. This was a vacuum tube that amplified sound
and sent it into a speaker, sort of like the way a projector’s lens takes an image and
blows it up so you can see it on a large screen. In 1919 de Forest realized his technology
might help achieve synchronous sound, and by 1922 he’d developed the process enough
to test it commercially. He formed the De Forest Phonofilm Company
and set about making some of the very first sync-sound films. He called them phonofilms. Most were just musical performances, vaudeville
acts, and speeches simply meant to showcase the technology, but a few were narrative films. By the mid-1920s, a hundred exhibitors in
the Eastern United States, Britain, and Canada had wired their movie theaters for sound,
specifically to screen de Forest’s phonofilms. But Hollywood wasn’t ready for it yet because,
the American studios were very good at producing silent movies. And they weren’t convinced that it was worth
the expense to change the way they made and showed films just to accommodate sound. Studio heads thought that “talking pictures,”
or talkies, were just a novelty that would fade away. That began to change in 1926, when a subsidiary
of AT&T introduced the Vitaphone system. Instead of sound-on-film, the Vitaphone was
a sound-on-disc process that solved the duration problem by recording the sound on multiple
discs. Genius. At first, the studios all passed on the Vitaphone. They said, “No way. Punch.” Then along came Warner Brothers. At the time, they were just a small studio
looking to elbow their way into the big leagues. And they decided to take a chance and be the
first film studio to make and show sync-sound films on a large scale. They leased the rights to the Vitaphone system
– as well as the right to sublease it to other studios – and set about converting
their theaters to handle sound films. Now, originally, they didn’t intend to incorporate
dialogue into the sound. Their idea was simply to use it for music
and sound effects. Their first effort was the 1926 film Don Juan,
a sumptuous costume drama starring John Barrymore. Before the film, they played an hour of sync-sound
short films, including musical performances and a brief spoken message from Will Hays,
president of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America, welcoming the
world to the era of sound. This is part of what he had to say: “My friends, no story ever written for the
screen is as dramatic as the story of the screen itself.” People were blown away. They were like, “Whaaat? That guy’s talking!” Don Juan broke box office records in city
after city. Film critics lavished praise on the Vitaphone
system. And a Columbia University physicist said of
the Hays speech: “No closer approach to resurrection has ever been made by science.” Now, this doesn’t mean that the coming of
sound worked out for everybody. Until now, screen actors up had been trained
to act through gestures. Suddenly, dialogue – not to mention your
voice and your enunciation – had real consequences. And not every silent film star was able to
make the transition. Buster Keaton, for instance, was known as
the Great Stoneface for the stoic expression he wore, no matter how things were falling
apart around his character. But then sound came along, and the charm of
Keaton’s deadpan silence was lost, when he started to speak. Kinda like when I start to speak. Sound films also threatened the musicians
that played live music at movie theaters. And, of course, it was still going to cost
a boatload of money to convert production studios and movie theaters to sound. Nevertheless, by 1927, the writing was on
the wall. Sound was coming, and the major studios couldn’t
stall any longer. That year, the “big three” studios – MGM,
Famous Players, and First National – adopted the Vitaphone process and set about converting
their theaters. Meanwhile, Warner Brothers had already finished
building a sound studio on their lot, and producing their next film, The Jazz Singer. The plan was to make a film with music, not
dialogue; but when star Al Jolson improvised a few lines, the studio agreed to leave them
in. Unlike most lines I improvise for this. Jolson: Now, Mama. Mama, stop now. You’re gettin’ kittenish. Jolson: Mama. Listen, now I’m gonna sing this like I will if I go on the stage. Jolson: You know with the show. I’m gonna sing it Jazzy. Jolson: Now, get this. Jolson: [singing] Blue skies, smilin’ at me. Me, me, me! Jolson: [singing] Nothin’ but, little blue skies, do I see. Doh, doh, doh doh doh! And that – this incidental spoken dialogue
– really sent audiences over the top. Think about it – they’d always heard music
in some form while watching a film, either from live musicians or a phonograph. And they’d been spoken to, in speeches and
performances like the Hays speech or the de Forest phonofilms. But they’d never heard informal dialogue
spoken to other characters within the world of the film! Suddenly, audiences were listening in on the
story. And overhearing the dialogue made the story
seem more real. In some ways, sync-sound completed the “illusion
of reality” that began three decades earlier with the very first motion pictures. Soon, new genres emerged. Musicals and dance movies were suddenly possible. Disney led the way in feature film animation,
incorporating dialogue and songs into their shorts and features. Gangster movies and monster films became more
popular, as sound effects and music allowed them to ratchet up tension. Also, newspaper movies became fashionable,
as films like The Front Page and Platinum Blonde had reporters trading witty banter
as they chased down stories. These films eventually led to classics like
Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday and even the great Citizen Kane. Never heard of it. Old genres got a facelift too. Comedies in particular found new ways to make
us laugh through dialogue, instead of relying on physical humor alone. On the technical side, the arrival of sound
changed career opportunities for women in film as well. And not for the better. Prior to sound, women edited more Hollywood
films than men did. That’s because, at the time, editing was
thought of as menial labor, the grunt work of painstakingly splicing together bits of
film. Then sound came along, and the technological
requirements of the job multiplied. And almost overnight, film editors were responsible
for assembling not just images, but the sound effects, music, and dialogue as well. Just like that, the reign of women in the
cutting room was over. They saw themselves replaced by men, who were
seen as more technically minded. But women editors in Hollywood did make a
comeback – from Thelma Schoonmaker, who cut every Martin Scorsese film from Raging
Bull to The Wolf of Wall Street, to Lisa Lassek, who edited Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies. Today we talked about the engineering hurdles
and breakthroughs that led to the arrival of reliable synchronous sound to cinema. We learned how the Hollywood studios resisted
the arrival of sound films as long as they could, until audience demand forced them to
give in. And we considered how sound film changed the
studios, the films themselves, and the lives of those who made them. Which sets us up perfectly for what came next:
the official Golden Age of Hollywood. I’ll see you then! In the pictures! Crash Course Film History is produced in association
with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check
out a playlist of their latest amazing shows, like Gross Science, Artrageous with Nate,
and Full Time Kid. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in
the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of these nice flywheels, and
our amazing graphics team is Thought Cafe.


100 thoughts on “Breaking the Silence: Crash Course Film History #10”

  • Women being forced out of Hollywood happened in almost all areas of the industry as studios moved to sound. There's a reason for this, and it's not perceived technical skills…$$$$$$$
    Sound cost way more so studios had to get outside finance. Wall Street and East Coast money finally got involved in a big way, and investors are some of the most conservative folks going. Not to mention, more money equals more jobs equals more guys getting jobs for other guys.

  • If you want to learn more in a very entertaining way, watch Singing in the Rain. A movie explaining the consequences of Hollywood having to adapt to sound. Brilliant.

  • Really nice series. I love cinema and I think the episodes of this new series have a very good format. Of course, the subject is so rich that many more things could be told for each episode but I think it's a already a very comprehensive introduction and I strongly encourage people captivated by these episodes to watch silent films by themselves and dig more into this era. You will find that the golden age of silent movies (the late 1920s, especially 1927-1928) was an amazing period for cinema and movies shot by the best at that time remain, even today, extremely enjoyable. And you can never get enough Buster Keaton!

  • Krombopulos Michael says:

    I watched the Jazz Singer with my family recently (which is about 90% silent) and I thought it was pretty fun how you could talk about the movie as it was happening and not actually miss anything. I wonder did that used to be part of the experience in the silent era where seeing movies was a more social experience.

  • Singin' in the Rain is a musical from the 50's about the introduction of "talkies". I don't put much trust into the accuracy of the storytelling, but it's a great movie. One of the best musicals ever!

  • Andrea Márquez Sánchez says:

    I would love to see a Crash Course: History of Comedy. see who they would get to host, how the would tackle the subject; Comedy in theatre, movies, history of stand up, and all of that.

  • isabela soares-bastos says:

    The spoken message from Will Hays sounds like it was straight up recorded from David Lynch's Black Lodge

  • Oreo Cakester says:

    One of my earbuds is broken and I spent this entire video about sound in video trying to get the sound to work right for this video

  • I am saddened that you didn't mention Fleischer Studios when you mentioned the animated stuff from back then.

  • There's also Margaret Sixel, who edited Mad Max Fury Road, and is largely responsible for how unique it is among the action genre

  • Love the channel! Biology videos are very helpful for my A level – may I suggest doing a criminology series? Not much on youtube about the subject yet

  • NOOO!! Why'd you punch the eagle again? You didn't do it last week, I thought we were finally done with that gag. I am begging you, please stop with that unfunny gag. I celebrated its absence last week, I mourn its absence this week. Please, you have already beaten that joke into the ground, put it to rest.

  • Randall Pennington says:

    speaking of women editors what about Sally menke who has edited nearly all of Quentin Tarrintino's films!!

  • I feel bad for Buster. Thank god us Beery's made the transition. We are tremendously loud & obnoxious people at times. Uncle Wally was a bit wasted without his booming voice in the mix. Though I do love "The Lost World" and "3 Ages"…ahh…"The 3 Ages", starring the great champ; Buster "Frikkin' Steals All Your Girlfriends With His Awesomeness" Keaton. Love that guy.

  • If we're talking about female editors, don't forget about Sally Menke, who edited every Tarantino film from Reservoir Dogs to Inglourious Basterds

  • Mustapha Kammoun says:

    This guy is awesome , I like the way he's talking with
    thank you Crashcourse for making me realize the importance of my mind.

  • Why can't you confront the racism of film history, Crash Course? It's kind of unbelievable that you can talk about sync sound and The Jazz Singer and not even mention what that film is about – how Blackface helps a Jewish man assimilate into whiteness. If you have never head of The Jazz Singer or Al Jolson, which is likely considering this is an educational series, you would have no idea that Jolson was a Blackface performer, or that The Jazz Singer's narrative hinges on Blackface performance unless you paused this video for a few seconds at 6:39.
    Honestly, this is irresponsible. You can talk about film history and technology and racism – these things construct each other!
    You can't responsibly talk about film history in the U.S. without a deep discussion of the racism that was foundational to it! Do better Crash Course!

  • Joseph Mancinelli says:

    I literally love this series. I hope they will go on with the next episodes and cover up all Film History til our days!! Waiting for them!

  • Rave Biscuits says:

    I think it's a little bit unlikely that women were only given the job of editing because it was menial, and men given it later when it stopped being so, as was implied. I imagine it was more due to the fact that women did part time work that required little training in that era, and when it became a complex task with associated salaries capable of supporting a family then obviously trained people who were doing the job full-time, which in this period would obviously be professional men, would be hired. I just mean to say that I don't think it was an issue of women only being allowed menial jobs.

  • Guys, did you seriously spent 6 episodes from 1890-1920 but just 3 episodes from 1930-2000? What the hell Crash Course?!!

  • I am addicted to this series. Before discovering it, I only watch science videos (e.g., Space Time). Thanks for expanding my horizons.

  • You forgot to mention that time when that famous silent film star tried to make a talkie but it went hilariously wrong because they couldn't get the sync part right and the female lead had a real funny voice so instead they made a musical about rain and songs and stuff.

  • don't forget Martha Lucas who edited every George Lucas movie, regardless of him not giving her any credit for that, and how much his work declined upon not having someone to counter his decisions

  • No, no, NO! I teach Film History and it absolutely aggravates me every time the history of sound-on-film is neglectful. First off, THANK YOU for mentioning Tri-Ergon — our German trio was the first successful system (1919). Everyone else ignores them. (There was also a Finnish inventor who did something similar.) Very good. However, due to concerns that their invention was affected by 'Bolshevist' ideas, it was rejected in Germany and they sold their patents to Fox. Lee De Forest — yes, the Father of Radio — was a pirate and a liar. His idea was strangely similar, yet he DID NOT HAVE the amplification necessary with his audion tube. It was American inventor THEODORE CASE who shared his VERY successful sound-on-film design with De Forest via CASE'S far better vacuum tube, BUT, De Forest presented his Phonofilm process WITHOUT CREDITING CASE whatsoever, yet all the equipment shown in the film showed Case's laboratory markings. CASE was furious and withdrew his collaboration from De Forest and went elsewhere. De Forest went broke trying to prove it was all his idea. He spent the rest of his days declaring Sound-On-Film as his invention. In 1959, the Academy mistakenly gave him a special Award for being the inventor of sound pictures. BAH! When Fox went into bankruptcy in the late 1920s, the patents of Tri-Ergon were given back to its inventors by the UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT. By then, the German populace had gotten over the stupid 'Bolshevist' fears and Tri-Ergon enjoyed exclusivity in its home country for more than 10 years. As with any successful invention, there are always handfuls of claimants for the glory — the U.S. Patent Office mentions how amazing it can be to have four separate inventors walk in with the same thing. Henry Ford DID NOT INVENT the automobile — 'twas another German, by the way — but Ford is who most people mistakenly believe. Henry Ford DID INVENT the assembly line that made building motorcars better. Your lesson shown here is excellent EXCEPT for the omission of Theodore Case. Please, if you can, make corrections.

  • It is sad that this video gives Lee DeForrest credit for sound on film. It was yet another instance of DeForrest stealing other people's ideas. The guy he was wokring with figured out that DeForrest was ripping him off and he left and went to FOX.

  • Curious InKilleen says:

    Even though I knew before you said it that you weren't a real person in my room talking to me, with a real mouth out of which real sounds were emanating, as soon as you said it, the whole illusion just fell apart for me. The truth that I was watching bits of light being shined on me while my speakers were vibrating the air around me struck me, and I was unable to even focus on what you were teaching me for the rest of the video. My whole life is a lie! I feel so utterly alone. How do I forget? How can I make myself forget??

  • Tom Smeehuijzen says:

    I'm having some trouble with this part.
    In 1910, Eugène A. Lauste was succesfully able to record sound on film.
    In 1919, three german inventors did apparently the same thing through the tri ergon process.
    In 1922, Lee De Forest built apparently the same system, but now with a tube amp to amplify the sound. Seems like the system for synchronizing sound wasn't an invention of his at all, just what happens to it after it comes out the other end. How can De Forest be claimed as an innovator in this process? Wouldn't he have had to pay the guys who actually invented it?

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