W.K.L. Dickson’s experiment

Walter Murch writes:

I just finished synching something up for the Library of Congress. An Edison film from 1895 of William Kennedy Laurie Dickson (the real inventor of motion pictures at Edison’s lab) playing a violin into a big megaphone, with two of Edison’s guys dancing. The soundtrack which had lain in a bin of broken Edison cylinders until it was finally put together recently and somebody made the connection with this this 17 second fragment of film. (the cylinder is a couple of minutes long)

Problem was the film was shot at 40fps, not 24, and the sound was running wild on a cracked 1890’s cylinder. Plus intergovernment agency red tape (the film is in the hands of the Library of Congress, the sound is at the National Park Service). So they sent it to me (neutral mediator) to put in synch, which was easy enough given the time-stretching and – compressing powers of the Avid.

Sean Cullen, my assistant, digitally crunched the film to 30fps (video) and I then found various possible synch points and adjusted the length of the track accordingly. Before the film begins you hear someone say “The rest of you fellows ready? Go ahead!” (the first “speed” and “action” captured on wax).

I guess it is now officially the oldest synchronous film in existence, beating the previous recordholders by 25 years or so.

It was very moving, when the sound finally fell into synch: the scratchiness of the image and the sound dissolved away and you felt the immediate presence of these young men playing around with a fast-emerging technology.

As far as we can tell from Dickson’s writing and the circumstantial evidence about the Kinetophone machines that were manufactured, there was not what we today would call sync. The sound and picture did move at the same time, but whether there was actual mechanical linkage at the time of recording or reproducing is a question yet to be resolved.

 

 

 

 

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