The Dickson Experimental Sound Film
Broken wax cylinder containing the ‘first’ film soundtrack circa 1894-1895
In ‘broken’ month I wanted to find out a little more about what’s being done to fix (and preserve) some of the broken pieces of film history. The story of the Dickson Experimental Sound Film (link to view at the end of the article) seemed to be a good way into the subject and I am indebted to Ken Weissman, supervisor of the film preservation lab at the Library of Congress, Jerry Fabris, museum curator at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park and Paul Spehr, author and film historian, for their help putting this article together.
Before getting into the specifics of the Dickson film I wanted to find out a little more about the work done by the Library of Congress (LOC) and the Thomas Edison National Historical Park (TENHP).
DS: Can you give me an overview of the work you do in the film preservation lab at the LOC?
Ken Weissman: Our Film preservation laboratory preserves films within the LOC Collections, with a concentration on the films which are on cellulose nitrate film base. These represent for the most part the oldest films within the vast collections here at the Library. We have approximately 120,000,000 feet of nitrate film in our specialized nitrate storage vaults, with somewhere around 50 to 60% having been preserved onto more modern “safety film”: cellulose tri-acetate or polyester based film stocks. The oldest films within the nitrate collection date back to the 1890’s, with the newest are still some 64 years old or more, as the production of films with a nitrate base was discontinued in 1950 in the US.
DS: Can you give me an overview of the work you do at Thomas Edison National Historic Park in terms of the recordings/films that Edison and his team made?
Jerry Fabris: My title is Museum Curator. I am responsible for preservation and access for the TENHP Recorded Sound Archive. I am also the curator who works most with the historic phonograph collection. We have some recordings available online here.
DS: How did the LOC become involved in the preservation of the Edison films?
Jerry Fabris: The National Park Service acquired the Edison Laboratory in 1956 as a gift from the Thomas A. Edison, Incorporated company. Among the vast archives and museum collections inventoried in the Laboratory were 153 historic Edison motion pictures on cellulose nitrate film. By the early 1960s the film was in a state of deterioration. Aware of the risks at stake, TENHP Superintendent Melvin Weig wrote to L. Quincy Mumford, Librarian of Congress regarding the TENHP film collection:
We are vitally concerned that this invaluable historic record should not be lost. Of equal concern is the obvious safety hazard involved to both the film and the Site property. Present Site storage conditions, while generally good, are not of the highest caliber which nitrate film requires.(i)
Jerry Fabris: In 1965 the Library of Congress agreed to assist TENHP in the preservation of the collection. According to LC librarian Paul Spehr:
The Park Service agreed to pay the cost of the first printing copy (negative from positive, or positive from negative) and the Library agreed to pay for a projection print and to store the negatives and make them available at any time to the Park Service for future prints.(ii)
DS: A quick note on nitrate film; it is incredibly dangerous stuff, responsible for numerous projection booth fires (including the one in Cinema Paradiso)
DS: When did the LOC lab first come into contact with the Dickson Experimental Sound film? What condition was it in at that time?
Ken Weissman: Per our database, the film was donated to the Library in 1965 by the Edison National Historic site in West Orange, NJ. I can’t say specifically what condition the film was in back then, however our first database entry inspection notes indicate that no nitrate decomposition was present in 1990 – so that means that none would have been present in 1965 either. Our film laboratory nitrate inspection report from September of 1999 indicates that the film was very low in shrinkage – around 0.9%, and had a bit of positive curl, which is not unusual, as this means the film was curling towards the emulsion. If the curl had been negative – or away from the emulsion – then this might have meant that the film was a bit too damp, which can lead to a number of problematic issues. The report also indicated that the film perforations were in good condition, that there were not a lot of scratches on the emulsion (there are ALWAYS some), and the image itself was in good condition (no nitrate deterioration).
DS: How did you go about preserving the film? What format is it currently preserved in?
Ken Weissman: Working from the nitrate print in our collection, we made what is called a “reduced” aperture picture duplicate negative. The image on the print was what is referred to as full aperture (FA) or silent aperture. This means that the tops and bottoms of each frame image is directly in contact (or nearly so) with the preceding and next frame respectively. Also, the image from left to right completely fills the space between the perforations. The aspect ratio (the ratio of the width of the frame relative to its height) of a standard FA frame was 1.37 to 1. Now this film was made before that standard was agreed upon, but it was very close to that ratio. We reduced the image to a standard academy aperture, which has virtually the same ratio (actually 1.33 to 1 or 4:3), but overall has a smaller image on the film, which allows for a sound track to be placed upon the film along with the picture. So our new preservation master negative has every frame contained on the source nitrate print, but in a slightly smaller form, so that the sound could be married with and placed on the film in the event a print was made using the negative.
DS: Can you tell us a little more about the wax soundtrack cylinder?
Jerry Fabris: The wax cylinder was first cataloged in August 1960, found in the Music Room of the Edison Laboratory in a metal canister with a paper label: “Dixon — Violin by W.K.L. Dixon with Kineto.” At that time, the cylinder had one straight crack in it running the full length of the object, end to end. The cylinder was then moved to a TENHP archival storage vault.
In 1964, TENHP curator Harold Anderson examined the object and noted that a large piece had broken off of the cylinder along the crack line. Mr. Anderson removed the cylinder from its metal canister and packed it with wadding in a cardboard box. His notes indicate that he believed there was a strong likelihood the cylinder was the soundtrack to the Dickson 1894 experimental sound film.
Jerry Fabris: It is unknown when the cylinder was first cracked, or how was broken into two pieces in 1964. It is possible that the damage was caused by mishandling, or it may been caused by environmental conditions. Wax cylinders are fragile and can crack when exposed to sudden climate changes.
DS: What was the process of restoring the broken wax cylinder?
Jerry Fabris: In 1998, the Library of Congress hosted an international conference of the Domitor organization. The focus of the 1998 Domitor conference was on the use of sound with motion pictures in the pre-1910 era. Prior to the conference, contacted by LOC film curator Pat Loughney, TENHP archivist George Tselos agreed to repair the broken cylinder and transfer the audio recording to a modern format.
On June 3, 1998 the cylinder was temporarily pieced together and re-recorded by cylinder specialist Peter Dilg, with audio engineer Adrian Cosentini, and myself at the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Dilg assembled the cylinder on the mandrel of his modified cylinder studio lathe, securing the two parts of the cylinder with thin tape around its outer edges. He played the cylinder electrically at 120 rpm, using a 2-minute Edison “ball” stylus, mounted onto a Pickering V15 cartridge, mounted onto the cylinder studio lathe. They recorded a few passes of the cylinder onto R-DAT digital audio tape and BASF Studio Master 911 analog reel tape.
DS: At this stage some outside help was required to finally marry the picture and sound elements together. In stepped Rick Schmidlin and Walter Murch, who had just finished work on the re-edited version of Orson Welles Touch of Evil. With financial backing from George Lucas and the Skywalker facility Murch set about synching the sound and film.
Ken Weissman: As it turned out, the film was not originally filmed at what has become the standard for sound on film play back – 24 frames per second. Tests have indicated that it was likely filmed at somewhere between 40 and 42 frames per second. The current sound standard of 24 frames per second is clearly too slow on playback for the picture image. As the sound was recorded on a separate cylinder that actually wasn’t directly synced with the picture taking camera, achieving a solid synchronized playback of the 2 separate elements is difficult, if not impossible. The work that ILM & Skywalker sound did coupled the two pretty well, but if you analyze the images on a frame by frame basis, there appear to be areas where the sync is not 100% correct. They also had to convert the film from its native playback speed to 24 fps playback, so some of the sync issues might be related to that conversion.
DS: So is this the first example of a film with a soundtrack?
Film Historian Paul Spehr: Dickson claimed — insisted — that he had synchronized phonographs with film as early as 1888, though his most persistent claim was that he showed Edison a synchronized film when he returned from the Paris Exposition in October, 1889. But, there’s very serious doubt about Mr. Dickson’s claims. He was known to stretch a point or two. The fact that Edison did not have a synchronized system tying his films to his phonograph until 1912 casts more than a little doubt of the success of Dickson’s experiments. On the other hand, what would be unacceptable synchronization today might be more acceptable in 1894-95, and even more-so in 1889.
DS: What is not in dispute however is Dickson’s immense contribution to film and film sound. Patrick Loughney, former head of the moving image section of the Library of Congress, called him “the first director in the history of film.” He is responsible for the 35mm film standard, the use of sprocket wheels and 4 perf film and indeed celluloid itself. It is perhaps fitting that the restored 17 second film should feature Dickson himself on violin. Enjoy.
(i) Draft of letter from M.J. Weig to L. Quincy Mumford, Librarian of Congress.
(ii) Article by Paul Spehr titled “Motion Pictures”, from The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, Vol. 23, No. 1, Jan. 1966.
The Three Fathers of Cinema with Walter Murch – Interview with From Script to DVD
A moment from the past recovers it’s sound – New York Times article