Movietone sound system

Movietone sound system

The Movietone sound system is a sound-on-film method of recording sound for motion pictures that guarantees synchronization between sound and picture. It achieves this by recording the sound as a variable-density optical track on the same strip of film that records the pictures. Although sound films today use variable-area tracks, any modern motion picture theater (excluding those that have transitioned to digital cinema) can play a Movietone film without modification to the projector. Movietone was one of four motion picture sound systems under development in the U.S. during the 1920s, the others being DeForest Phonofilm, Warner Brothers' Vitaphone, and RCA Photophone, though Phonofilm was primarily an early version of Movietone.



Movietone was perfected by Theodore Case and his assistant, Earl I. Sponable, in 1925 at the Case Research Lab in Auburn, New York, with their creation of what became the Movietone camera, built for the laboratory by the Wall machine shop in Syracuse, New York from a Bell & Howell camera.

Most single-system cameras were produced by Wall Camera Corporation, which much later produced the three-film Cinerama cameras. Wall initially converted some Bell & Howell Design 2709 cameras to single-system, but most were Wall designed and produced. Single-system cameras were also produced by Mitchell Camera Corporation during World War II for the U.S. Army Signal Corps, although these cameras were quite rare.

All single-system cameras share the same fault: the "sound translation point" is on the camera's main drive sprocket itself, and this contributes to significant 96 Hz flutter.

Double-system recorders, specifically those of the Davis Loop type, isolate the "sound translation point" from the drive sprocket(s), completely eliminating 96 Hz flutter, although a slight wow is still present at start-up. It is for this reason that the sound recordist announces "speed" a the beginning of a "take". The recordist observes the two compliance arms of the Davis Loop Drive and, indeed, which form the Davis Loop itself (sometimes referred to as a "Davis Tight Loop") and when the compliance arms become stationary the sound film is running true at 90 feet/minute (45 feet/minute for 17.5mm sound film and 36 feet/minute for 16mm sound film) and there is no wow or flutter. It is at this point that an assistant operator "slates" the "take". Of course, by this time the film camera(s) has (have) already come up to sound speed and these components will all remain in synchronism throughout the remainder of the "take".

Although single-system remained popular for news gathering, production sound quickly converted to the far superior double-system method.

Today's digital sound reproduction systems for motion pictures are generally dependent upon the presence of a Davis Loop Drive (example: Dolby Cat. 701 digital sound head; and one of the very few times on record that Dolby Labs has acknowledged another inventor's device).

Commercial use by William Fox

Movietone entered commercial use when William Fox of the Fox Film Corporation bought the entire system including the patents in July 1926. Although Fox owned the Case patents, the work of Freeman Harrison Owens, and the American rights to the German Tri-Ergon patents, the Movietone sound film system uses only the inventions of Case Research Lab. Following the commercial production of sound films by the newly formed Fox-Case Movietone company, Wall dedicated his interests to manufacturing cameras, building them from scratch.

Many histories of sound film incorrectly claim that the Phonofilm system of sound-on-film used technology invented by Lee De Forest. DeForest had made an effort to create a system of sound-on-film, but was unsuccessful. He turned to Case Research Lab for help in 1921 and after Theodore Case visited DeForest's studios in New York City, Case agreed to work on some developments. De Forest then used Case Research Lab's Thallofide cell for reading recorded sound.

However, noticing that DeForest's system had little to no quality sound worth reproducing, Case developed the AEO Light, which proved practical for exposing amplified sound to film. With the AEO Light, DeForest was finally able to produce films with audible sound. Following that, Case Research Lab decided to build their own camera, because DeForest continued pursuing unworkable solutions toward perfecting sound film. With their new camera, Case and Sponable filmed President Calvin Coolidge on 11 August 1924, allowing DeForest to have the film developed in New York City. When DeForest showed the film — as well as an earlier presentation of 18 short sound films at the Rivoli Theater in New York City on 15 April 1923 — DeForest claimed full credit for Case's invention that made it possible.

Shortly after, Case tired of DeForest's continuing false claims about Case Research Lab inventions and ended his relationship with DeForest, and dedicated his lab to perfecting the system they had provided DeForest, whose own attempts at recording sound were all failures. Documents supporting this, including a signed letter by De Forest that states that Phonofilms are only possible because of the inventions of Case Research Lab, are located at the Case Research Lab Museum in Auburn, New York.[1]

William Fox hired Earl I. Sponable (1895-1977) from Case Research Lab in 1926, when he purchased the sound-on-film patents from Case. Although Fox had also purchased other sound patents, such as the German Tri-Ergon patents, the Movietone system was solely based on Case Research Lab's inventions. The first feature film released using the Fox Movietone system was Sunrise (1927) directed by F. W. Murnau. It was the first professionally produced feature film with an actual sound track. Sound in the film included only music, sound effects, and a very few unsynchronized words.

Less than two years after purchasing the system from Case, Fox bought out all of Case's interests in the Fox-Case company. All of Fox's sound feature films were made using the Movietone system until 1931, while Fox Movietone News used the system until 1939, because of the ease of transporting this single-system's sound film equipment.

Later development

The Case Research Lab sound system influenced many industry standards, such as location of the optical sound 20 frames in advance of the image it accompanies.[2][3][4] The current SMPTE standard for 35 mm sound film is +21 frames for optical, but a 46-foot theatre reduces this to +20 frames;[5][6] this was originally done partly to ensure the film runs smoothly past the sound head, but also to insure that no Phonofilm could again be played in theaters — the Phonofilm system being incompatible with Case Research Lab specifications — and also to ease the modification of projectors already widely in use.

Sponable worked at the Fox Film Corporation studios (later 20th Century Fox) on 54th Street and 10th Avenue in New York City until he retired in the 1960s, eventually winning an Academy Award for his technical work on the development of CinemaScope. Sponable had many contributions to film technology during his career, including the invention of the perforated motion-picture screen that allowed placing the speakers behind it to enhance the illusion of the sound emanating directly from the film action. During his years at Fox, Sponable also served for a time as an officer of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. He published a concise history of sound film in the April 1947 issue of The SMPE Journal (The SMPTE Journal after 1950).[7]

The history of Case Research Lab has long been unheralded for numerous reasons. Theodore Case died in 1944, after donating his home and laboratory to be preserved as a museum to the inventions of Case Research Lab. The museum's first director, who oversaw the museum for 50 years, put the laboratory's contents into storage and converted the building into an art studio. The Case Research Lab sound studio was located in the second floor of the estate's carriage house and that was rented to the local model train club until the early 1990s.

Fox was seriously injured in a July 1929 car accident, lost his company in 1930 when his loans were called in, and lost the 1936 lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court against the film industry for violating the Tri-Ergon patents he owned. Sponable did little to establish the record of Case Research Lab inventions, other than his April 1947 article in The Journal of the SMPE.

Incredibly, it was also in 1947 that the Davis Loop Drive was first introduced to Western Electric licensees, including Twentieth Century-Fox (WECo RA-1231; and still made to this day by a successor company).

For its first 50 years, 20th-Century Fox chose to leave its history behind to distance itself from William Fox. DeForest, a failed inventor but a master promoter, spent his life convincing people he'd invented sound film, reaching his greatest glory with an Academy Award for his lifetime achievement and contributions to the creation of sound film.

Recently, Case Research Lab, the adjoining carriage house, and Case's home have been restored and research is ongoing with the collections of the lab that include all receipts, notebooks, correspondence, and much of the laboratory's original equipment, including the first recording device created to test the AEO light. In the collections are also letters from Thomas Edison, an original copy of the Tri-Ergon patents, and an internal document from Fox Films written in the 1930s. This latter document says that once it became public knowledge that Sponable perfected the variable-area system of sound-on-film at the Fox Studios, the system that became the standard and replaced the inventions of Case Research Lab.

A number of films owned by Case Research Lab and Museum and restored by George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, are in the collections of both of those institutions. The Case Research Lab and Museum has additional sound-film footage of Theodore Case, and recently discovered copies of the same films at the Eastman House, are in a much higher state of preservation. Movietone News films are in the collections of 20th-Century Fox and the University of South Carolina at Columbia, including the only known footage of Earl I. Sponable talking. Sponable can also be seen in footage of the premiere of the film The Robe.

Phonofilms that were produced using Case Research Lab inventions are in the collections of the Library of Congress and the British Film Institute.


  1. ^ Case Lab Museum website
  2. ^ Earl I. Sponable, "Historical Development of Sound Films", The Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (April 1947), Vol. 48, No. 4
  3. ^ Edward Kellogg, "History of Sound Motion in Pictures", The Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (June 1955), Vol. 64, p. 295
  4. ^ Leslie J. Wheeler, Principles of Cinematography (4th edition), Fountain Press (1969), p. 373
  5. ^ Kodak Film Notes Issue # H-50-03: Projection practices and techniques — see Manuals at
  6. ^ Ira Konigsberg, The Complete Film Dictionary (Second Edition), Bloomsbury (1997) — see Projector article.
  7. ^ Earl I. Sponable, "Historical Development of Sound Films", Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (April 1947), Vol. 48, No. 4

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