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10th Orphan Film Symposium (April 6-9, 2016): Early Film Sound

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OrphansXThe Packard Campus is excited to host to the tenth edition of the Orphan Film Symposium, April 6-9, 2016; the theme is “Sound,” both with and without moving images. “Orphans X” is presented in conjunction with New York University Cinema Studies and its Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program.

You can register for Orphans X here.

Cinema had barely been invented when the first attempts to add sound were made. Take, for example, the Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1896), where Thomas Edison Company engineer W.K.L. Dickson filmed himself recording a violin tune on a wax cylinder as two of his colleagues danced for the camera. The intent was to synchronize the sound cylinder with the film for some form of public exhibition, but the engineering challenges proved too great and the work was abandoned.

November 1908 advertisement for Tonbilder films inlcuding two titles showing at Orphans X


I tend to associate the Dickson Experimental Sound Film with the 1998 Domitor conference held in Washington, D.C., and which was devoted to “The Sounds of Early Cinema.” The Library had only recently acquired a cassette recording of the original wax cylinder from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound of The New York Public Library via the Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey; we had already preserved the film on 35mm. On the last day of the conference, one of my colleagues stood in the back of the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium playing the recording on a boom box as the film was projected over and over again. It was the crudest possible way to attempt synchronization and didn’t work too well, but it was nonetheless a valiant attempt. Cylinder and film were finally synced by a team led by legendary editor Walter Murch; you can read more about that work here and see the finished product here.



Orphans X features several presentations about early attempts to marry sound with image, including

  • Anke Mebold of the Deutsches Filminstitut in Wiesbaden, Germany, on Tonbilder (“sound pictures”), which synchronized film with shellac discs between 1908-1909,
  • UK scholar Stephen Bottomore on the Selsior System dance films (1912-1917), which placed a conductor in a bottom corner of the frame so that a live orchestra could use his image to keep time, and
  • my colleague George Willeman and Jerry Fabris from the Edison National Historical Park on their work to preserve Edison Kinetophones (1913), a successor to the 1896 experiment that yielded better results in syncing film to cylinders, albeit still not well enough to achieve commercial viability.

It wasn’t until the advent of Warner Bros.’ Vitaphone system in 1926-1927—another film-and-disc variation—that sound films achieved widespread success. Another early sound technology was Lee DeForest’s Phonofilm, a system for recording synchronized sound directly onto film stock. The Phonofilm was used almost exclusively to record short stage performances such as vaudeville numbers, speeches, and musical acts rather than to compete with silent film features. But it too was a commercial failure, primarily because DeForest never found a Hollywood studio to adopt it.

The Library has almost 50 Phonofilms in our Maurice Zouary Collection, and one of the best is jazz pianist Eubie Blake performing his “Fantasy on Swanee River” in 1922.

We hope to see you at Orphans X!

Eubie Blake Plays His Fantasy on Swanee River (DeForest Phonofilm, 1922)

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