Testing Sound Film

Testing Sound Film

Testing Sound Film

Testing Sound Film

Testing Sound Film

Testing Sound Film

How did a small laboratory in an Auburn backyard briefly dominate sound film? Through constant experimentation!

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The AEO light did not suddenly make synchronized sound film pop into existence. Like every scientific discovery, the technology needed regular testing to make the sound film process work smoothly. While Lee de Forest preferred to rely on promotion schemes and making Phonofilm as wide reaching as possible, his impatience and disinterest in further improving the system directly contrasted with Ted Case’s and Earl Sponable’s methodical, scientific approach to the technology. This frustration led to the Case Research Lab’s venture into testing out its own cameras and sound film system.

In 1924, the workers in the lab set up a temporary film testing studio in the basement of the Laboratory. As Case became more and more dissatisfied with de Forest, he constructed a more formal sound recording studio in his carriage house, with sound booths and a stage purpose built to aid in the Lab’s increasing independence as a competing sound film system. This approach to constant improvement led to a brief period in the mid-20’s when a former greenhouse in an Auburn backyard would possess the most advanced sound film system in the world. You can observe this transition through the assortment of test films shared below!

First Sound Film Tests (1924)

While the Case Lab would first dip its toes into testing sound film in 1922, they would not fully focus on testing their own films outside of Phonofilm until 1924. In some of the earliest test films, Case himself would sit in front of the camera, performing multiple tests of audio quality by simply reading recognizable speeches such as the Gettysburg address or simply whistling. Take a look through some of these early tests, and take note of the sound quality.

Does it sound like Case’s voice is really high pitched? When you watch early sound films, does it seem like everyone is talking fast or has a high pitched voice? Well that’s not how people talked in the 1920’s, it was actually a side effect of the sound film recording process, which was exactly why Case was interested in fine tuning the process to more accurately capture sounds.

The Voices of Vaudeville (1925)

By the mid 1920’s, the Case Research Lab was actively inviting musical acts and traveling performers to exhibit their craft in front of the camera. At the time, the theater form known as “vaudeville” reached the peak of its popularity. The series of stage-based sketch comedies were especially popular in the United States, and the performances often incorporated blatantly racist acts and musical numbers while simultaneously providing some of the earliest entertainment exposure for Black, Jewish, disabled, and many other actors from communities viewed as outcasts in society. Ted Case appears to have been a particular fan of vaudeville, as many of the independent tests created by the Case Lab featured a multitude of vaudeville acts.

As of today, one of the best known acts filmed by the Case Lab during this period was the brief performance titled “Gus Visser and His Singing Duck.” Little is known about Visser other than his Dutch origins, but his act featuring a duck quacking in perfect timing to the song “Ma (He’s Making Eyes at Me)” is a quintessential example of the circus-like comedy acts featured in vaudeville performances. Filmed in one of the sound booths in what is today the Carriage House Theater, the film features the ways in which the Case Lab was still working on the sound quality, but had found perfect synchronization between the image and sound produced (in contrast to competing sound film systems at the time). By this period, the Case Lab had introduced the “24 frame standard” for perfectly synchronizing sound, a standard that is still in use in all sound film today!

The Brief Life of Zoephone (1926)

For a very brief period of time, Case’s system went under the name “Zoephone” and the Zoephone Company was created in May as an independent arm of the Case Research Lab to specifically maintain the sound film operations separated from the general research focus of the Lab. In this brief test film, Case first introduces the name Zoephone to the public, with the clear intention of making the trademark a known name. Case not being a natural showman, these technical tests did not prove to be interesting enough to give Zoephone a life of its own, although a series of tests including a singing canary did impress William Fox enough that he purchased the system, and in July of 1926 Fox-Case Corporation was born (later to be known as Fox-Case Movietone.

Constant Improvement

With the workforce of a much more established film corporation, and more license to use sound film more effectively, Case’s Movietone system evolved in conjunction with the popularity of newsreels, creating the first sensation in sound film in 1927. Within these later years, the mechanical noise of the camera and quality of sound had vastly improved, with the Movietone system in some cases sounding almost comparable to the later magnetic and digital sound systems that would surpass it. It is unclear exactly when this test film was created, but notice that you can distinctly tell how much Case’s voice was distorted by early versions of the technology. We might suggest that if you can feel Case blowing at you, though, there might be a draft in your home. Case was many things, but he had not quite figured out how to make a 4D experience.

Thanks for Reading!

Crediting for Content on this Page

Header: Bell and Howell camera scientific diagram

Image: Test film strip c. 1924

Image: Interior image of the sound studio within the carriage house

Image & Video: Ted Case reads Gettysburg Address/Cheese Crisps and whistling, c. 1924

Image & Video: Gus Visser & His Singing Duck, c. 1925

Image & Video: Ted Case introduces Zoephone, c. 1926

Image & Video: Ted Case tests quartz covered slit