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What is a Vitaphone?

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  • Last Modified Date: 05 September 2014
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Vitaphone technology was a process designed to bring sound into the world of film. It consisted of a disc which was meant to be played as a projector displayed a film, adding sound to the experience. Vitaphone was the last method of sound on disc used in Hollywood, as printing sound directly onto film turned out to be a far more effective and efficient method of creating films with sound. Thanks to the efforts of preservationists, it is possible to see a number of Vitaphone films, and sometimes even to watch these films projected over a Vitaphone system.

The Vitaphone system consisted of a film projector rigged up to a record player. When the projectionist mounted the film, he or she carefully synced the film to a spot on the record sent with the film, so that when the projector was turned on, it would cause the record player to turn, thereby in theory producing a picture synced with the accompanying sound.

This system was widely regarded to be a major advancement, because it was quite effective when properly synced, and the use of amplification made the sound audible throughout the theater. This was a vast improvement over earlier systems in which the projector and record player were entirely separate, or the sound was poorly amplified, if at all, making it hard for the audience to hear. Using Vitaphone technology allowed Warner Brothers, the studio which owned it, to create memorable sound pictures like The Jazz Singer.

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The technology was developed in Bell Laboratories before being acquired by Warner Brothers, which made a few adjustments before selling Vitaphone equipment en masse to theater owners. When the rise of sound on film occurred, many theaters were extremely frustrated, as they had already invested in expensive Vitaphone equipment, which was now worthless. The demand for talkies ensured that theater operators would have to upgrade if they wanted to keep their clientele happy, and the trend of constantly sound systems persists to this day.

Vitaphone systems failed because they had a number of drawbacks. For one thing, it was quite difficult to distribute Vitaphone films, because distributors had to make sure that each film was sent out with a disc, and projectionists had to be skilled at syncing. In addition, it was extremely hard to edit Vitaphone pictures, in contrast with sound on film, meaning that editors and directors vastly preferred sound on film technology.

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MissDaphne
Post 2

@jennythelib - The school I teach at still has one functional laserdisc player to play the laserdiscs they short-sightedly invested in (before my day). When that breaks down, I think they'll just abandon all the discs.

It's funny how some technologies stick around. I still have an overhead projector in my classroom that I use several times a week!

An uncle of mine is actually really into to the Vitaphone movies. He's part of the Vitaphone Project, which is just hobbyists who are trying to restore old Vitaphone movies and copy them to 35 milimeter with sound on film. He says that the old sound discs are actually quite well preserved and often have better sound than sound-on-film movies from around the same time period.

Apparently, that jerkiness we associate with old movies is just because the prints degrade over time. When audiences saw those movies for the first time, they would have been clear and smooth and not at all jerky.

jennythelib
Post 1

I had no idea that The Jazz Singer wasn't sound on film! I guess it makes sense that there were intermediate stages between silent film and the final development of full sound pictures. And I've heard that only a small portion of the movie The Jazz Singer actually has sound.

I guess Vitaphone was just one of those mis-fired technologies, kind of like laserdisc players. Early adopters jumped on those because they were so much better than what came before, but they didn't realize that something so much easier to use was right around the corner. My school had a bunch of them, and I have an aunt and uncle who are opera buffs and acquired quite a collection of them. It's been years since I saw one of those - I wonder if they're still around.

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