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William Kennedy Dickson's optimistic vision of motion pictures


The turbulent birth of 35mm film
Walter Murch Film-maker
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Another wonderful thing about doing this experiment with the early soundtrack was that I was thereby introduced to William Dickson, who is really the man, the point man at Edison's laboratory who invented film. Edison was kind of reluctant to go in this direction. Dickson, however, who was... I think his mother was French, his father was English, and he had seen the Muybridge Experiments and became convinced that there is such a thing as motion pictures. And he emigrated to the United States and camped out on Edison's door, saying, 'There's only one person who can invent film and it's you, and I want to help you do it.' And Edison eventually hired him and put him to work doing some kind of smelting device that had to do with copper extraction, just to see what he was made of. And he passed the test and Edison decided, 'Okay, let's do it.'

Edison's original idea was to embed the photographs in the cylinder itself, the audio cylinder, so that the cylinder would be a double-spiral, a kind of DNA helix of sound and picture. But to see the picture, you would have to look through a microscope as you leaned over the cylinder. And the idea was you could see the person singing or playing the instrument on the music. Very problematic, very difficult technically. They tried it, and to get the focus correct was impossible, the granular structure of the film was not up to resolution at that... Anyway, it was clear to Dickson that this would not work. And he said, 'Why don't you call your friend [George] Eastman and get some of that new flexible film stuff that has just been invented?'

And sure enough, Eastman sent a roll of this new film, which was 2 ¾ inches wide, which is that. And they looked at it and said, 'Well, that's too wide, let's cut it in half.' So they sliced it in half and made it 1 3/8 inches wide, and then said, 'Well, we need sprockets, holes in it to keep it registered. And we'll dedicate the 3/8 inch, so we'll split left and right, so each of those is 3/16 inch, and then the middle we will make one inch wide and that'll be where the picture it.' It turns out that 1 3/8 inches is a whisker different than 35mm film. It's like 34.92mm. But they were working in inches, they didn't care about millimetres. And it was only when the film was eventually brought to Europe and accepted, this is what we're going to be working with. And they thought, 'Oh, the stupid Americans, they meant it to be 35mm and it's just shy.' So it was then officially made 35mm. And a curious result of this is that 35mm film, the way we looked at film in the 20th century, is the only industrial product that is a mixture of Imperial and Metric measurements. Because it's Metric in its width, it is exactly 35mm wide, but it's Imperial, which is to say, inches, in the horizontal dimension. There are exactly 16 frames in a foot. And there's no way to make the number of frames in metres come out exact. So it was a turbulent birth, and the turbulence lives on in the fact that film is this odd mixture of Metric and so-called Imperial measurements.

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: Thomas Edison, William Kennedy Dickson, George Eastman

Duration: 4 minutes, 45 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 29 March 2017