THE BOOTLEG FILES: “DICKSON EXPERIMENTAL SOUND FILM”

BOOTLEG FILES 207: “Dickson Experimental Sound Film” (an 1894 attempt to synchronize sound and motion pictures).

LAST SEEN: The film is widely available across the Internet.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It’s been featured in many home videos.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A public domain film that contains one of the weirdest images in movie history.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: It is already featured on several DVD releases – hey, it only runs 17 seconds!

Contrary to popular belief, the pioneers in the development of motion picture technology never intended the medium to be silent. However, there was a singular problem that kept sound out of movies during its earliest years: no one could figure out how to successfully synchronize the moving image with words and/or music.

For Thomas Edison, the answer seemed to lie in uniting two different technologies into a single presentation – one for film and one for the soundtrack. The notion of putting sound directly on film didn’t resonate with Edison.

The earliest known attempt at creating a sound film was made in the autumn of 1894. The film did not have a title, although it is widely known as the “Dickson Experimental Sound Film.” Dickson was William K.L. Dickson, one of the members of Edison’s team of engineers and inventors, and the film is named in his honored because he is the only identifiable person on-screen.

The “Dickson Experimental Sound Film” only runs 17 seconds, but it is 17 of the weirdest seconds ever filmed. The film was shot with a stationary camera, but the lack of camera movement was more than compensated by the on-screen action. Dickson is on the left side of the screen, standing before a huge funnel attached to an off-screen audio recording device. Dickson is playing a violin into the funnel with animated style, and he is obviously creating the musical track originally intended for the film.

On the right side of the screen are two unidentified men engaged in what may be considered a waltz. It is not a pretty sight: both men seem to be struggling to take the role of dance lead as they twirl in a clumsy circular motion. For no reason, a fourth man abruptly walks on screen behind the funnel and stops right before Dickson. The film suddenly ends at this point.

One may have imagined that the first sound film might have been a tad more sophisticated. But Edison and his crew weren’t showmen – they were engineers who were more interested in making the technology work than putting on a grand performance. Edison obviously had no women in his employment, hence the two men dancing together.

Unfortunately, the “Dickson Experimental Sound Film” was a failed experiment. Edison did not intend the film to be projected on a screen, but instead it was supposed to be shown through a machine called the Kinetophone. That device was a large cabinet in which a person viewed a film loop through a window while listening to a soundtrack with an earpiece. The soundtrack was a musical arrangement playing on a wax cylinder within the cabinet (recording discs were not yet invented).

However, the sound-and-film linkage never worked for Edison because he was unable to synchronize his wax cylinders with the projected film. This should not have been a surprise: his earliest films were unusually fast (“Dickson Experimental Sound Film” was shot at 40 fps – today’s motion pictures run at 24 fps) and his wax cylinder recordings were slower than the discs that later became the phonographic standard for most of the 20th century.

It is not certain whether “Dickson Experimental Sound Film” was ever publicly shown in a Kinetophone; there is no evidence it was ever projected on a screen for an audience. The Kinetophone was a flop for Edison – only 45 were sold – and this early film and its wax cylinder soundtrack were quickly forgotten as Edison drove the early film industry forward as a sound-free medium.

Fast-forward to 1942. New York’s Museum of Modern Art acquired the early experimental films from the Edison National Historic Site in Menlo Park, N.J. The museum transferred all of the prints from their original nitrate film to the more stable safety film. This was the first time that people outside of Edison’s laboratory saw this odd footage – its existence was unknown up to that point. However, the wax cylinder soundtrack did not come with the film. Thus, the sound film experiment could only be seen without the reason for its existence.

Without the soundtrack, the film was merely an exercise in surrealism and mystery – why are these men dancing together and what is the violinist playing? (No one seemed to question why the fourth man showed up in the final seconds.) Over the years, the shock value of the footage ensured its inclusion in several documentaries about the history of movies. But without its soundtrack, it was merely a bizarre curio.

The wax cylinder of Dickson’s violin performance was discovered in 1960 at the Edison Laboratory in New Jersey. The cylinder was labeled “Violin by WKL Dickson with Kineto” – but it was broken (the wax cylinders were fairly fragile). Incredibly, it remained in pieces until 1998 when Patrick Loughney, curator of Film and Television at the Library of Congress, arranged for the cylinder to be repaired and re-recorded at the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound at New York’s Lincoln Center. At that time, the song Dickson played was finally identified as the French folk tune “”Les cloches de Corneville.”

But putting the film and its soundtrack together proved more difficult than expected. Oscar-winning film editor Walter Murch was recruited by the Library of Congress to secure the soundtrack and to achieve what Edison failed to accomplish back in 1894.

Needless to say, it wasn’t the easiest task for Murch. The restored soundtrack ran three minutes, so finding the proper synchronization with the film was rough. Using technology provided by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic, and Skywalker Sound, Murch was able to match Dickson and his dancing men with the jaunty violin tune played by Dickson.

Just a word about the dancing men: this film was used in “The Celluloid Closet” (1995), Vito Russo’s documentary on the depiction of gay men in films. There is nothing homosexual about the brief dance in “Dickson Experimental Sound Film” – if anything, the men are clearly not at ease with the task they are performing.

“Dickson Experimental Sound Film” was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2000, following its restoration. It has since turned up on a few DVDs relating to silent film history, and enthusiastic cinephiles have duplicated it repeatedly across the Internet. Being a public domain film, anyone who wants to dupe and bootleg the restored version is welcome to do so.

More than a century since its creation, “Dickson Experimental Sound Film” continues to offer a strange but charming glimpse at the baby steps of what became the most significant cultural development of the modern age. If you’ve never seen it, click about the Net and watch the film – you’ll be amazed that the film industry began under such curious circumstances!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on November 16, 2007 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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