A Vintage Guide to Writing Talking Pictures… in 1913

As some of you already know, there was something of a race for the talkies in the pre-WWI film industry with Gaumont and Edison as the most prominent players. Did they succeed? Yes. Did the talkies last? No. Technical difficulties and limits on length made the talkies more of a fad.

However, in 1913, the future of talking pictures seemed if not rosy at least somewhat optimistic. Optimistic enough for them to warrant a small chapter in the book Technique of the Photoplay by Epes Winthrop Sargent.

Here are some tidbits on how talking pictures were made and how to write for them. I have taken the liberty of highlighting some particularly interesting tidbits.

The Edison talkie short Nursery Favorites

THE TALKING PICTURES

How they are made, the limitations, timing the picture, range of subjects, their future.

The talking picture is no more than a sketch or play reproduced by means of motion pictures and the phonograph working in synchrony, that is, the phonograph says “Curse you, Jack Dalton” at the same moment that the pictures show the player enunciating these words. That, at least, is the theory, but in practice it frequently happens that the phonograph is ahead of the picture or vice versa.

At the time this chapter is written certain mechanical difficulties confront the maker of talking subjects. Perhaps the most important is the limited duration of the phonograph record, necessitating the breaking of scenes on the stoppage of one record and starting fresh on the next where the scene runs longer than the six minutes that the record runs. Various schemes are being tried, but with this we have nothing to do, our interest lying on the play and not the mechanical side.

For a time at least, the scenes of the talking picture must be held indoors, because of the weight of the apparatus and the attention it would attract on the street.

Some of the productions are confined to one scene and six minutes, and others run up to five hundred or one thousand feet. If the author desires to try his hand at the talking picture script he should first advise with the companies as to length.

Dialogue is no more than speech written down, the speech of every-day life. It is on this point that the average stage dramatist fails at the start. He seeks to produce dialogue that will read well rather than that which can be spoken naturally and convincingly. He ventures as closely as he may dare to the blank verse of Shakespeare. The real dramatist, to the contrary, strives to reproduce as closely as possible the speech of every day life. It is not necessary to use flowery phrases and rounded pauses. Say: “Please hand me that glass of water,” rather than : “I pray thee give me drink.”

Remember that dialogue on the stage is spoken a trifle more slowly because of the need of clear enunciation, nowhere more important than in the making of phonograph records, and allow for this in judging the length to which the dialogue will run. Make full allowance for the business and by-play and remember that even in a sustained conversation there will be a pause of a part of a second between speeches.

Few characters should be employed and no effort may yet be made to produce mob scenes. Have the character drawings clean cut and accurate, do not have all of your people talk in the same general way. Give personality to their speech as well as to their actions and apparent modes of thought.

It is not probable that talking pictures will seriously affect the photoplay proper, for the chief charm of the photoplay lies in its condensation of action. In the quickness of movement that permits a reasonably full story to be unfolded in twenty minutes of action.

It was this quality which gave it its advantage over the stage drama as much as the cheaper price of admission. One may witness three plays within an hour, though those same plays might require two or three hours for presentation were it necessary to speak all of the dialogue. A gesture may often replace a page speech and a situation show more than minutes of dialogue could tell. It is not probable that this condensation of action will be replaced by the talking picture, which has as its advantage over the drama of the stage only the fact that players of greater merit can be employed in the parts since the presentation has to be made but once.

Against this advantage there are so many disadvantages to be considered, that it is highly probable that the talking and silent pictures will have little, if anything in common.

The talking picture lacks the element of condensation, it cannot be used as universally as the photoplay, since it will appeal only to those who can understand the language spoken, and it will be a long time before the mechanical difficulties can be overcome.

Certain alarmists affect to see in the talking picture ‘the doom of the photoplay, but most experienced observers are agreed in the belief that the talking pictures can do the photoplay little or no harm either in the present or at some future time. Undoubtedly the talking pictures will be brought to a greater point of perfection as time passes and will become a regular form of theatrical amusement, either by themselves or in the vaudeville theaters, or both, but it is highly improbable that they will prevent or even appreciably retard the advance of the silent drama. It will be more interesting, perhaps, to both see and hear a Bernhardt in Camille, but many will prefer a Camille lasting perhaps three-quarters of an hour to a performance continuing for three hours.

Talking pictures may supplement, but they can never supplant the photoplay.


What’s interesting is that the author was correct: Edison’s talking pictures did not supplant the silent drama and were themselves dead in about a year. (Gaumont’s talkies lasted quite a bit longer.) The author is also correct about the condensed nature of silent films. Without spoken dialogue, a lot more story can be packed into the running time, which is why the best silent films can seem so rich and deep compared to talkies of similar length.

Gaumont’s talkies also had color via stencil.

However, the author failed to predict both feature films (which were just starting to take off in the United States in 1913) and the future talkie revolution. Many of the same arguments leveled against Edison’s talkies were used against the 1920s version but technology had improved considerably and the talkies did indeed kill silent films. It is easy, though, to see why many in the silent film industry would have doubted that silent films were doomed. After all, hadn’t they done this fourteen years before?

If you’re interested in seeing the Edison talkies for yourself, do check out Undercrank’s new release of all the surviving Kinetophone shorts in the Library of Congress’s collection.

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6 Replies to “A Vintage Guide to Writing Talking Pictures… in 1913”

  1. So glad for this MS post, and a fine one it is! Prompted me to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while: order several copies of The Kinetophone: A Fact! A Reality! as Yuletide gifts for friends.

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