In the early years after introduction of sound, sound films were called "talkies", from "talking picture" on the model of "movie" from "moving picture".
The idea of combining motion pictures with recorded sound is nearly as old as the motion picture itself; some of the early experimental films at the Thomas Edison laboratory in 1889 were combined with sound recorded on wax Phonograph cylinder. However two major problems soon arose that led to motion pictures and sound recording largely taking separate paths for a generation:
- Synchronization problems - The pictures and sound were recorded and played back by separate devices, which were difficult to start and maintain in synchronization.
- Audio volume & fidelity problems - While motion picture projectors soon allowed film to be shown to large theater audiences, audio technology before the development of electric amplification could not adequately play sound to fill large spaces.
Various elaborate devices were attempted to get around these problems, and some films with synchronized soundtracks on oversized amberol cylinders or "Cameraphone" systems were marketed to small audiences in large cities with moderate success before the 1910s, but these were a very small fraction of the motion picture business. The technology was imperfect, and the film industry was unequipped to make or exploit sound films. Most studio heads did not see the benefit, or even the possibility, of producing sound films, and they were relegated, along with color photography to novelty acts.
The production of The Jazz Singer did much to change the industry's perception of talking pictures. The technology had advanced little in the past five years, but the production was first feature length talking picture to feature a star singer and actor, Al Jolson, speaking and singing on screen. The film, though made with the phonograph-based Vitaphone system, featured synchronized score and source music, sound effects, and was edited with cutaways during the synchronized musical sequences (this had not previously been attempted). Vitaphone was systematically flawed, but Warner Brothers committed themselves to selling sound features and shorts, and found a partner in Western Electric to develop and market the technology to exhibitors.
The demand for The Jazz Singer was immense, almost unprecedented, and other studios immediately began to produce sound films of their own to capitalize on what at the time they saw as a fad. Silent films that were awaiting release, such as F.W. Murnau's Sunrise, were given a synchronized music track and sound effects. As audiences saw more sound films, expectations quickly changed, and the "fad" of 1927 had become standard procedure by 1929. The transition from silent to sound films can be seen as one of the first examples of technological network effect.
Two technological developments triumphed over the earlier problems in the 1920s:
- Sound on film - In 1926 Lee De Forest, William Fox, and Theodore W. Case produced the first "Movietone Phono-films", where the sound track was photographically recorded and printed on to the side of the strip of motion picture film, making it almost impossible for the sound and picture to go out of synchronization.
- Fidelity electronic recording - In 1925 the Western Electric company introduced a greatly improved system of electronic audio, including sensitive electronic microphones and electronic amplification of sound which allowed recordings to be played back over loudspeakers at any desired volume.
Initially, the introduction of synchronized sound caused immense difficulties in production: cameras were noisy, so a soundproofed camera booth was used to isolate the loud equipment from the actors, at the expense of a drastic reduction in the ability to move the camera. The necessity to place microphones just so meant that actors often had to limit their movements unnaturally; and of course, some silent-era actors simply did not have attractive voices. These kinds of problems are spoofed in the 1956 film Singin' in the Rain.
These problems were solved with cameras made with modified casings to suppress their noise, the invention of boom microphones which were essentially microphones on long poles to be held just above the photographed scene but out of the frame and could be moved at will by the sound personnel and post synchronization sound recording techniques.
The phenomenon of the "talkies", coupled with the rapid evolution of silent to sound in the movies, had an adverse effect on many motion pictures of the time. A great number of silent movies made between 1926 and 1929 were abandoned and discarded by the studios and lost forever, including London After Midnight, one of Lon Chaney's famous roles.