Under a new agreement, Flicker Films is going to be releasing DVDs produced
in cooperation with France's Lobster Films and David Shepard's Film Preservation
Associates. The first such disc is a pair of hour-long documentaries
made by Lobster Films in 2004; Discovering Cinema. The first
presentation, Learning to Talk, examines the myriad of methods that
were attempted to achieve synchronized sound, and Movies Dream in Color
looks at the difficult paths that were explored while attempting to create
realistic color movies. These are two excellent shows, but what's
more impressive are the copious bonus features that are included on each
to Talk: From the earliest days of motion pictures people
were trying to add sound to film. This documentary looks at some
of the methods used, how they worked (or more likely didn't work) and how
commercially successful they were.
There were really three main ways that people tried to add audio to
film. The least technologically challenging way was to just have
people playing music in the theaters. That of course was the most
common practice for decades. Some early experiments with live sound
included hiring singers to sing along with shorts created especially for
one song, having a conductor's baton on the screen so the orchestra or
pianist could keep time with the film, and even having a piano score scroll
along at the bottom of the screen. This last method worked well until
the first time the film broke and had to be spliced. Then sections
of the music were missing making it very hard to play.
Edison's invention of the phonograph, many inventors came up with elaborate
ways to coordinate the sound from records with the images from a film.
Unfortunately most of these were plagued by problems, almost the least
of which was coming up with an accurate method to synchronize the sound.
Recording was difficult and amplification was also a major hurdle.
These problems were eventually solved with the Vitaphone system that Warner
used to release the first 'talking' feature, The Jazz Singer.
The final method that was tried was creating a soundtrack on the actual
film itself. This would solve the problem of synchronization, but
it meant inventing a way to record a voice and music on optical film.
The story of how this came about is related along with Fox buying the rights
and dubbing the system Movietone.
Dream in Color: The other Holy Grail that people were
looking for was a way to add color to film. Similar to the sound
problem, there were three avenues that were investigated by many inventors
of a period of years. The most commercially successful way to add
color in the early days of film was to tint or tone the film itself.
This was good for suggesting mood or cueing the audience in to the fact
that the on-screen action was taking place at night, but it didn't create
a realistic color image. Another method of applying color was to
paint it on frame by frame. Later stencils were used to make the
process go faster, but it was never widely used.
Another method was using additive colors. There were several different
versions that used this property of light, but they all had the same concept:
the action was filmed on black and white stock and during both the filming
and projecting, the image was sent through a series of color lenses to
recreate a color image. Some of these were fairly complex and innovative.
One method involved filming alternating frames through red and green filters,
another placed dyed brewer's yeast under the black and white film emulsion
with the yeast acting as a filter. While some of these systems created
some impressive looking images, none of them were commercially successful
in the long run.
it was acknowledged that the color had to be on the film itself.
The show spends a good amount of time on the history of Technicolor, showing
their subtractive color process and discussing the early two-strip method
and their eventual invention of the three strip process that they are still
famous for today. At around the same time, Eastman-Kodak came up
with their Kodachrome process. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Both of these documentaries are excellent. The clearly show the development
of sound and color and also describe several processes for each that I
hadn't encountered before. The shows are narrated and mainly consist
of rare examples of the different technologies that were tried. The
sheer number of systems that were invented trying to solve both problems
is fairly amazing. There is some expert testimony included, but the
large majority of the time is taken up with vintage film clips showcasing
The stereo soundtrack (in English) on both of these shows is very good.
The narration is clean and clear and there aren't any audio defects to
mar the production. Some of the old sound tests are less than pristine
as far as the audio quality goes, but that's to be expected with experimental
tests that were recorded up to 100 years ago.
The video was actually better than I was expecting. Many of the
clips that make up these documentaries are in excellent shape which is
nothing less than astounding since many of them were from failed experiments.
The only problem is that this appears to be a PAL to NTSC conversion and
there are some minor ghosting effects due to mixed frames. Since
there isn't a lot of motion in any of the films is isn't as significant
as it could be.
Not only do these films tell the story of the evolution of sound and
color, but the bonus sections on each disc contain many examples of the
various technologies discussed. One of the highlights is the complete
short La Cucaracha, the first commercially released live action
movie shot with three-color Technicolor. There's also an early Technicolor
test that includes color footage of the Marx Brothers on the set of Animal
On the sound disc there's a trailer for The Jazz Singer, a ten
minute interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as an early sound
short that's a favorite among early film buffs; Guy Visser and his Singing
These films contain a wealth of information. The documentaries
do a great job of tracing the evolution of both sound and color and the
bonus items are worth the price of admission. A great set that is