The Talking Newspaper (Aug, 1930)

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The Talking Newspaper

By MICHEL MOK

This vivid account of how sound and action reels are made lays bare for you the secrets of a new industry. Big trucks or planes rush camera to scene of news.

SIX o’clock of a stormy spring evening. Fire breaks out in the Ohio State Penitentiary at Columbus. Five thousand men fight for their lives behind melting prison bars. Three hundred and seventeen are killed in their cells by flames and suffocation.

Three o’clock the next afternoon. Carefree crowds fill the moving picture houses along Broadway, New York City. There, 600 miles from the scene of the holocaust, only twenty-one hours after the first alarm, Pathe News pictures of the disaster are thrown on the screens.

The theater patrons not only see the harrowing sights; they also hear the shrieking of the prison siren, the hissing as water hits flames, the howling of desperate prisoners, the crackling of burning logs, the thud of falling beams, the commands of Army officers and jail officials. More than that, they hear a brief talkie lecture by an expert on prison conditions, explaining the causes of the tragedy and suggesting means of preventing its recurrence.

With this remarkable achievement, considered a world’s record in the speedy gathering and presentation of audible photographic news, the sound newsreel some weeks ago came definitely into its own as a “talking newspaper.” As a matter of fact, with the exception of a few “shots,” transmitted by special wire, the pictorial story was in the theaters before the New York dailies had their pictures in print. Sound news, a by-product of the talkies, is only a little over three years old. The first audible picture report of a news event was made on May 20, 1927, when Fox Movietone News recorded Lindbergh’s historic take-off for Paris. A couple of days later, New York movie audiences—sound equipment was still confined to New York theaters in those days—heard the roar of the motors of the Spirit of St. Louis as they watched the silver monoplane and its famous pilot rise above Roosevelt Field.

That same week a sound film of a West Point drill delighted thousands with the martial band music and the clicking of hundreds of heels that accompanied the rhythmic marching of the cadets. A fascinating touch of realism thus had been added to the “news.”

These pictures were made by way of experiment. The first all-sound news-reel, also produced by Fox, was shown at the Roxy Theater, New York, in October, 1927. It included the Army-Yale football game in the Yale Bowl, rodeo performers, some other news events, and a few thundering shots of Niagara Falls for good measure.

Now the three-year-old has grown into an all-seeing, all-hearing giant that sprawls over the entire earth, catching any sight and sound that may interest, thrill, or amuse you, from Admiral Byrd’s arrival, amid cheers, at New Zealand from Antarctica, and buzzing Army airplanes laying a smoke screen in a sham air battle over California to the Prince of Wales’s latest big-game hunt in Africa and the cooing prize-winner in a baby show at Wildwood, N. J.

A new United States Ambassador leaves for Turkey and tells what he means to do there. Aimee Semple McPherson, evangelist, returns from Paris and gives her impressions of that city. The baseball season opens in Washington, D.C., with President Hoover tossing out the first ball. Rin-Tin-Tin, barking lustily, performs for the children in a Buffalo, N. Y., orphanage. The Kentucky Derby is run at Churchill Downs; outboard motor boats race on the Hudson River. Mussolini decorates the air heroes of the Italian army.

These and a thousand and one other things, occurring in as many places, you may both see and hear at your favorite movie house around the corner. International events, national politics, the Army, Navy, aviation, and sports; the fields of exploration, science, and invention; the world of fashion and society are “covered” by the sound-news men. Interviews with celebrities, “human interest stories,” and humorous features are thrown in to vary and lighten the news menu. Here, then, is a complete animated and talking newspaper.

Nowadays sound newsreels are issued regularly twice weekly by three companies— Fox, Pathe, and Paramount, and shown in about 12,000 theaters throughout the country. In New York, in the heart of the amusement district, sound news has a home of its own, the Newsreel Theater. Here nothing but sound news is presented in hourly shows from ten o’clock in the morning until midnight. While the basic program is changed only once a week, “spot news” is shown as it develops. In other words, the latest sound-news flashes, rushed to New York from all parts of the country and sometimes from the ends of the earth, are inserted constantly into the films. Since it opened last November, the theater has been crowded at every performance.

One of the reasons for the success of this undertaking, and of sound newsreels wherever they are shown, is the speed with which the pictures are screened after the events occur. Sound news, of course, must be hot off the griddle. A stale news film is just about as interesting as the newspaper of Thursday before last.

To insure the swiftest possible service, the three news movie companies have built up elaborate organizations. In every important city in the United States, and at strategic points in virtually every foreign country, they have their representatives— trained men with a keen sense of news and a thorough understanding of what interests the American public. Every fast means of transportation—the swiftest steamers, express trains, airplanes, and high-powered automobiles—is brought into play to rush the films to the home plants in and near New York City, where all negatives are developed, and later to distribute the finished product to the theaters.

The foundations for their world-wide organizations were laid by the companies in the old “silent” days. But the advent of sound has revolutionized the business. Until three years ago, gathering pictorial news was a solo job. All that was necessary to. make news movies was one experienced man, a camera, a tripod, and a loaded film magazine. The camera man’s equipment in those days never weighed more than a hundred pounds.

Sound recording, however, involves the use of a good deal of elaborate machinery. A miniature talkie studio has to be taken to the spot where the news “breaks,” and it must be taken there quickly. The solution of this problem is the sound truck which, in effect, is a small, outdoor sound studio on wheels. When you see and hear a sound news picture, no matter where it was taken, you may be sure, in nine cases out of ten, that a sound truck was near.

These motor trucks, varying in capacity from one half ton to five tons, contain various types of recording machinery and generating apparatus, depending upon the kind of sound equipment used by the particular company. They also carry the camera and microphone which, of course, are taken off the vehicle when the operators start work, and the cables that connect camera and “mike” with the truck. Usually they are manned by a crew of three—the camera man, the sound man, and the microphone man, one of whom, as a rule, is also the driver.

The average cost of a completely appointed sound truck is $25,000. An idea of the investment made by the news movie companies when sound reels became the fashion may be gained from the fact that the Fox-Hearst organization alone at present has forty sound trucks in operation in this and other countries.

IN PLACES that are inaccessible to the sound truck and on what newsreel men call “emergency assignments,” portable sound recording outfits are used. One cannot, for example, board a steamer with a truck. To connect a sound truck in the street by cable with, say, the twentieth floor of a building, where a celebrity to be “interviewed” may have an office, would be a cumbersome and difficult job. In such cases and at times when a distant point must be reached in a hurry and a train becomes the more desirable means of transportation, the “portable” is used.

Paramount’s portable outfits weigh about 380 pounds each; those of Fox and Pathe, between 200 and 250 pounds. Fox also has a “flying outfit” for airplanes, which weighs scarcely 200 pounds. A complete set of portable equipment, including sound recording apparatus, camera, and microphone, is contained in three or four small cases, each about twenty inches long, twenty inches high, and eighteen inches wide, that look like a traveling man’s sample grips and take up no more space. Three men can handle the outfit and it is transported easily in trains and taxicabs.

Portables, though already giving satisfactory results, are still in the experimental stage. Sound engineers are seeking constantly to improve them. Newsreel men predict that, when they have been perfected to a point where the quality of their output is on a par with that of the sound trucks, they will be used exclusively and the trucks will disappear from the field. At present, the trucks are indispensable in the preparation of the talking newspaper.

Take, for example, the Ohio Penitentiary fire, the greatest disaster in the history of sound newsreels, Pathe News “shots” of which New Yorkers saw and heard twenty-one hours after the outbreak of the conflagration. The “story”—newsreel men, like newspapermen, call their subjects “stories”—was told in 300 feet of film that took only two and one half minutes to be shown on the screen. But the sound truck men who “covered” it narrowly escaped death when their sound truck, or “camion,” as they call it, was struck by a high tension electric wire during a wild night drive through a storm to the scene of the disaster. Incidentally, that they were able to reach Columbus and record the fire before their competitors arrived was due entirely to the fact that they were in Cleveland, covering the opening of the American League baseball season when the prison fire broke out.

Such “scoops” are a rarity in these days of sound news. Encumbered by five-ton trucks, the camera men, as a rule, find it next to impossible to beat each other. A melancholy smile passed over the usually cheerful countenance of Harry Harde, the camera man who filmed the prison fire, as he compared present conditions with those of the past.

“In the old silent days,” he said, “it was a cinch to ‘steal’ pictures, as we call it. We did it with a small camera that you could conceal about your person. But try and hide a sound truck!”

My interest aroused by his Ohio experience, I accompanied Harry on his next assignment. I wanted to see how it was done. As it happened, it was another prison job, but a peaceful one this time—shooting sound pictures of the Prison Keepers’ School of the New York City Department of Correction at the Penitentiary on Welfare Island, in the East River, New York. Under the direction of a physical trainer, a group of rookie prison guards was exercising in the yard. The men boxed, wrestled, did jiu-jitsu.

The Pathe sound truck was parked on a walk traversing the field. It happened to be the same truck that had made the night ride to Columbus. Harry proudly showed me the nick above the driver’s seat where the live wire had hit. That dent, you may be sure, will never be taken out of that truck!

The camera was mounted on its tripod in the ordinary manner and then connected by cable with the truck. The microphone, connected in the same way, was placed so as to catch the commands of the trainer. Then Harry and the sound man, at his post inside the truck, attached their transmitters and headpieces, thus establishing telephone communication with each other. Everything was set.

“Are you ready?” Harry asked the sound man over the phone. Receiving a satisfactory answer, he nodded to the trainer to proceed. The rookie guards went through their exercises, the trainer shouting directions. Harry started the motor on his camera and the sound man set the recording machinery in motion.

Pathe uses the R. C. A. Photophone system, in which pictures and sound are recorded on separate films. What happened while the scene was being shot, the sound man afterward explained to me, was this: BOTH camera and sound recording apparatus are equipped with synchronous motors, operated from the same alternating current supply. Hence, they keep time and always pass the same footage of film. While the motion picture was being taken, the sound waves picked up by the condenser microphone were transformed into electrical impulses which were led back by cable into the truck, where they were fed into an amplifier and then into the recording machinery.

The sound recording equipment carried on a truck is essentially the same as that used in a talkie studio. The process, therefore, consists of the three usual steps: The microphone changes the sound waves into electrical impulses; the electrical impulses are translated into light vibrations; and these are exposed on film (P.S.M., Apr. ’29, p. 171).

Like the sound room in a studio, the truck is not only provided with an amplifier and a recording device, but also with a volume control apparatus. Besides, it is equipped with batteries for the production of direct current, rotary converters to change it into alternating current, and transformers to deliver the current at proper voltage. It is a complete and self-sustaining unit, ready at a moment’s notice, to gather sound news any where.

In the portable outfit, the camera and recorder are in one unit. This system is used also in the sound truck equipment of Fox and Paramount, which employ Movietone and Western Electric apparatus, respectively.

After a “story” has been shot, the film— or films in case of the double system—is rushed to the laboratory, where it is quickly developed, printed, and edited. Now the subject is ready for insertion in the sound newsreels, and when this is assembled the “talking newspaper” is shipped to the theaters.

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