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Syncing the only piece of sound film from the 19th century


Thomas Edison and the Kinetophones
Walter Murch Film-maker
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In the middle of working on Apocalypse Redux, I received a plain white envelope from the US government, and my heart did a little momentary flip, thinking, 'What's this?' And it turned out to be a VHS tape and an audio cassette tape, both very low... the kind of things you might buy in a supermarket. And it was a transfer of a film made in 1894, of William Kennedy Dickson playing the violin. And what was on the audio tape was a transfer from a cylinder recorded in 1894 of somebody playing a violin in a rather chaotic situation. If you listen to the three minutes of the cylinder, there's a lot of stopping and starting, and people talking in the background, and extraneous noises. But buried within that sound, you could very faintly hear somebody say, 'Are the rest of you ready? Go ahead.' And this cylinder had been discovered just a few years earlier. Somebody going through Thomas Edison's backlog of damaged goods at his site, Menlo Park in New Jersey, had come up with this cylinder, which was in fact, broken. It had broken in half, and therefore nobody knew what was on it. And so it was sent to the Rodgers and Hammerstein Centre for Recorded Sound at Lincoln Centre in New York, and they fitted it back together very carefully without damaging it, and not using superglue or anything, but real restoration, and played it. And the sound that they heard on it was this sound, and somebody – it turned out to be Patrick Loughney, who was the head librarian of media at the National Library in Washington, DC – said, 'I wonder if this is the soundtrack to this piece of film of William Dickson playing the violin.'

When you look at this piece of film, which has never been lost from public view, it's part of Edison's... What he left to the nation when he died. William Dickson, who was one of Edison's key inventors, is playing the violin, and there's a big acoustic horn off to the left of him. So it's clear that that sound was being recorded. Is it possible? Yes, it is possible that this is the experiment where they were trying to do recorded sound on film for the very first time. But it was a failure at the time, for reasons I'll get into in a second. And eventually the cylinder was tossed aside, and eventually it broke and history moved on. But this was an attempt to make a device they called 'the Kinetophone' that would run in synchronisation with an image. So that you could see somebody standing there and talking, like we have in film today. They never solved the synchronisation problem. In fact, this was the first time human beings ever confronted the fact that synchronisation is difficult, that life is in sync, or it seems to be in sync. Therefore, if we have a photograph and a sound, we should just record them and something... It'll work. Well, it doesn't just work, because you have to have an agreed upon start, where do these things start, and that's what the clapstick, the famous clapstick in film is for. And then you have to guarantee that both systems run at the same rate. Because even if you start together, it doesn't do you any good if one of them goes slightly faster than the other, then you lose synchronisation. And so they made a few... What they called Kinetophones, but they were kind of music videos. You would put your eyes up to the machine in 1895-6, or whenever it was, and you would see a photograph of Niagara Falls today, for instance. Then you would hear a band, John Philip Sousa's band playing The Niagara Falls March, or something. So you know... But it wasn't synchronised, it was just however it happened to wind up.

Born in 1943 in New York City, Murch graduated from the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television. His career stretches back to 1969 and includes work on Apocalypse Now, The Godfather I, II, and III, American Graffiti, The Conversation, and The English Patient. He has been referred to as 'the most respected film editor and sound designer in modern cinema.' In a career that spans over 40 years, Murch is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Francis Ford Coppola, beginning in 1969 with The Rain People. After working with George Lucas on THX 1138 (1971), which he co-wrote, and American Graffiti (1973), Murch returned to Coppola in 1974 for The Conversation, resulting in his first Academy Award nomination. Murch's pioneering achievements were acknowledged by Coppola in his follow-up film, the 1979 Palme d'Or winner Apocalypse Now, for which Murch was granted, in what is seen as a film-history first, the screen credit 'Sound Designer.' Murch has been nominated for nine Academy Awards and has won three, for best sound on Apocalypse Now (for which he and his collaborators devised the now-standard 5.1 sound format), and achieving an unprecedented double when he won both Best Film Editing and Best Sound for his work on The English Patient. Murch’s contributions to film reconstruction include 2001's Apocalypse Now: Redux and the 1998 re-edit of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil. He is also the director and co-writer of Return to Oz (1985). In 1995, Murch published a book on film editing, In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing, in which he urges editors to prioritise emotion.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: 1894, Rodgers and Hammerstein Centre for Recorded Sound, William Kennedy Dickson, Thomas Edison, Patrick Lockney

Duration: 5 minutes, 5 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 29 March 2017