How Talkies Changed the Film Industry

JUNE 29, 2020
Greta Garbo and director looking up at a microphone.
Greta Garbo on the set of her first talkie Anna Christie (IMDb)

Since the invention of cameras and the creation of motion pictures, the entertainment industry has continued to innovate how art and technology are used to bring stories to the big screen. As Hollywood began to ramp up production in the 1920s, advancements to cameras, film editing, and sound became defining points in the evolution of cinema. One of the most influential developments that changed everything from how films were shot to how Background Actors were used, was the introduction of talkies.

What are talkies?

Talkies get their name from the recorded dialogue that played in sync with the images on screen. Movies from the Silent Film Era (1894-1929), were largely recorded and played without sound. Most of these films relied on intertitle text to explain key plot points and live pianists, organists, and orchestras to provide score and sound in the theater. As technology advanced, recorded dialogue made its way into film and “talking pictures” were born.

Warner Brothers, an emerging studio at the time, was one of the first Hollywood companies to take interest in sound technology and heavily invested in the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system. In 1926, they released Don Juan, the first full-length movie to feature synchronized score and sound effects using this method. Though the film itself did not have recorded dialogue, musical shorts and a recorded speech from Will Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America and founder of Central Casting, accompanied the feature. In his speech, Hays said, “My friends, no story ever written for the screen is as dramatic as the story of the screen itself.”

In 1927, The Jazz Singer, another Warner Brothers film, became the first feature with recorded dialogue, though the spoken lines were only heard in two scenes. A year later, Lights of New York became the first all-talking full length feature and due to its commercial success, set Hollywood on a path that saw an end to the Silent Era and made way for films as we know them today.

How talkies changed film

Beyond revolutionizing how stories were told on screen, talkies changed the way films were produced and distributed. Since most theaters in the 1920s used live orchestras and not projected sound, they didn’t have the equipment needed to play sound films. Due to the box office success of early talkies, theaters began the expensive process of wiring for sound and by 1930 around 10,000 of the estimated 15,000 cinemas in the United States had been retrofitted with the necessary technology.

As talkies became the industry standard, productions also had to change the way they filmed. Much of the equipment used on set was loud and had to be fitted with sound-dampening devices so the noise wouldn’t be picked up during filming. Since early microphones were stationary, actors had to limit the way they moved throughout a scene to ensure they were always close to the mic. For a time, filmmakers used a multi-camera setup so they could compensate for the lack of mobility and still get a variety of shots.

For Background Actors, then called extras, the introduction of sound recording on set changed the way they did their jobs. Background close to the microphone had to be silent and pantomiming became an important skillset in a Background Actor’s arsenal. Before advancements to sound and film editing, crowd scenes had to be carefully orchestrated depending on how much, if any, background noise wanted to be included in the scene. Now most crowd noise is recorded separately and added in post during the sound mixing phase. Central Casting casts these walla groups for all kinds of productions, even for animated shows like The Simpsons.

From the introduction of sound in film to the founding of Central Casting, innovation in the 1920s paved the way for films as we know them today. You can learn more about Hollywood history in our articles From Film Extras to Background Actors and Central Casting and the Golden Age of Hollywood.

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By Meghan Dubitsky

Article Category:

Hollywood History