- Variable AreasThe Transition to Sound and the Birth of the Robot Voice
Significant shifts in technology such as the transition to sound in cinema often produce clusters of bizarre and interesting responses in the fields of art, technology, and commerce. As we progress through our own era of media transition with the development of digital media, it is interesting to see how people in the 1920s and 1930s reacted to the possibilities offered by the changes of their times, whether it be pushing the technology forwards, or combining arts and scientific disciplines in new and different ways.
The transition to sound cinema from 1927 to 1932 produced some fascinating technological red herrings, experiments that had a limited life at the time, though one or two re-emerged in later decades or sparked developments in fields other than cinema. This article is a partial survey of some of the experiments I find most fascinating from this era. This is not based on any original research on my part, just on reading around the subject and using my own background as a moving image archivist. Archivists are essentially experts in format change; each change brings its own preservation challenges, so we need to understand as much as possible about each development in technology in order to plan the long-term survival of films made under that technology. In terms of explaining curatorially the aesthetics of historical film to new generations, we also need to understand the technological, commercial, and artistic factors that may have affected previous film production, so all changes and big transitional moments such as the coming of sound are particularly interesting.
We have just lived through a major technological shift in cinema–it is possible it is not over yet–with the replacement of analogue by digital 'prints', projection, distribution, and so on. It was the same in the transition to sound in the 1920s, with a chaotic phase of refitting of equipment, finding engineering solutions to deliver new products, technical workarounds, and periods of adjustment for filmmakers, exhibitors, musicians, publicists, and audiences. Many of these aspects of the transition are discussed in this volume. And around this activity [End Page 259] were anxieties (the 1920s equivalent of today's 'technostress'), and these curious experiments that illustrate the drive to innovate, deconstruct, and reconstruct that characterise the film history of this era. The invention of sound-on-film, and the variable area soundtrack in particular, inspired a series of creative developments. To see sound expressed as a waveform was a revelation, clearly visible and understandable, unlike the grooves of the phonograph and gramophone.1 There is a fair amount written about all this but rarely by film academics.
Let us start with my personal favourite, an example from the British commercial film world that Thomas Levin uses to introduce his study of Pfenninger (2003, pp.33–34). In February 1931, a young technical supervisor called Eric Allan Humphriss (often mistakenly credited as Humphries), a new recruit to the Producers' Distributing Company, the British distributors of RKO Pathé, eagerly showed off his latest invention to selected members of the press. It involved graphically 'drawing' sound to supplement or replace the speaking or singing sounds of voices conventionally recorded on a soundtrack. Working on the basis that the variable area soundtrack was a straight graphical representation of sound, he concluded that all he needed to do was to identify the soundtrack's corresponding peaks and troughs with consonants and vowels and 'draw in' those wave-like forms to create an artificial substitute, initially inscribed on a long roll of cardboard, then photographed onto a reel of celluloid film. The sample showed to the press, he claimed, took him 'about a hundred hours' (Anon., 1931a). Like the bee that does not know that it is technically impossible for it to fly but flies anyway, Humphriss, equally not knowing that it was impossible, had kept at it until he succeeded.
Or did he? We now know that this correspondence between the notation of sound and its graphic representation in a soundtrack is by no means exact, and in the commercial film world few people have tried this since. Yet...