Capturing sound for film remains an ongoing challenge. Last night I watched TCM’s airing of Singin’ in the Rain, the 1952 lighthearted story of filmdom’s transition from silent pictures to talkies.
In the unlikely event you’re not familiar with it, the movie, with Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor, tells the story of a fictional movie company scrambling to produce its first talking movie after the industry saw the enormous popularity of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer.
About 46 minutes into the movie, the ditzy silent-era character Lina Lamont (played by Jean Hagen) acts for the first time with a microphone. Dressed in a billowing French Revolution-era gown, a classic wig on top of her head, she looks the perfect screen image.
The scene starts with a microphone about the size of a flying saucer being hidden in a plant in front of the seated Lina. Each time she turns her head, the sound booth loses audio. So they put the mike (still flying saucer-size) in a large flower corsage on Lina’s dress.
Then the booth picks up Lina’s thumping heart beat! And each time she turns, audio still drops.
When the production company first screens the film, the test audience thinks it’s a comedy. Every non-essential sound is picked up, voices drop out, and then the sound goes out of sync with the visual.
That was the 1920’s. Ninety years later, here we are with the same challenges. We use miniature body mikes, sensitive shotgun mikes, wireless technology, graphite boom poles. Yet we still have a need to pull actors into ADR to re-record their dialogue.
We watch television programs at home on hi-def sets, but all too often our cable company’s transmission hiccups and sound runs out of sync with visual until some program engineer catches the error. Funny how the commercials never go out of sync!
And 90 years from now?