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Retrotechtacular: Lighting the Way for Talkie Pictures with Optical Sound Recording

This week’s Retrotechtacular is a 1943 Encyclopædia Britannica film focusing on optical sound reproduction for motion pictures. Both the sound and the images are recorded on film, which is only affected by light. Therefore, the sound waves must be converted to changes in light.

This is done the way you might expect: the sound waves hit a microphone and the changes in current are amplified and used to control the intensity of light falling on the film. Three types of soundtracks are described and wonderfully demonstrated at the end of the film.

All three types are made from a series of thin bars of light, and the corresponding current value is represented by changes in either their length or their width. In the Unilateral Variable Area recording, the bars extend from the right side of the sound track. Bilateral Variable Area recorded bars emanate uniformly toward the edges from the center. In Variable Density recording, all of the bars extend from the left to right extremes, but their thickness varies.

Variable Density recording is done with a light valve, which contains a pair of delicate metallic ribbons in a magnetic field that move like shutters when the sound current flows through them. The light coming through to the film is varied by the slot created in the space between the ribbons. The light patterns are changed back to sound through a photoelectric cell, which converts the variations in light back to changing current. These changes are amplified and run through a loudspeaker. Be sure to watch to the end to catch a demonstration of the recording methods, set to what we’re pretty sure is Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre.

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