The Fox Film Company began producing silent newsreels in 1919, and in 1927 they became the first newsreel company to introduce sound. Within just a few years. Fox Movietone Newsreels were an integral element of the program in movie houses across America and around the world. By 1932, there were over fifty teams of newsreel men stationed around the globe, sending back to New York headquarters about 100,000 feet of film every week. All this footage was scrutinized by the editors and producers at 460 West 54th Street who pared it all down to create the eight-to-ten minute reels that were sent out to theaters twice a week.

When the Movietone sound newsreel teams hit the streets of New York to capture the sights and sounds of the city circa 1930, they used cameras that shot onto 35 mm nitrocellulose film. Connected to the camera via a thin cable was the sound recording equipment. A condenser microphone picked up the sound and transformed its energy into a weak electrical signal which was immediately sent to an amplifier to boost its strength. The microphone and amplifier are visible in some of the newsreels shown on this website: the microphone is a round object with a series of smaller circles around its protective screen; the amplifier is the rectangular box at the base of the microphone. It is likely that the Movietone crews used sound equipment manufactured by Western Electric.

This amplified signal was then transmitted to the camera - via the cable - where it generated a variable-density optical sound track that was exposed directly onto the film, simultaneous with the shooting of the image. The soundtrack consisted of a narrow grey band running alongside the images on the left edge of the film, showing varying shades of lightness and darkness that represented the sound signal from the microphone.

Movietone's newsreel setup was unusual. Optical sound recording was more typically (for example in film studio work) photographed onto a separate, "sound-only" piece of film. Sound and image would then only later be combined onto a single positive print in post-production. With the Movietone single film system, sound and image were linked physically together from the very start. Archivists and historians can thus be very confident that the sounds heard on these early sound newsreels are indeed those of the objects seen, and not the product of post-production manipulations.

By the later 1930s, Movietone and other newsreel companies would adopt a new production model that emphasized the personalities of voice-over announcers like Lowell Thomas, and much less of the "natural" sound of the footage was incorporated into the published reels. But this was not the case circa 1930, when the footage seen on this website was shot. Indeed, most of the film presented here consists of out-takes, or footage never actually edited into newsreels that were released to theaters. The sounds and images here are thus in their unedited or "natural" state, looking and sounding much as when they originally emerged from the cameras over eighty years ago. Deterioration is visible and audible in some cases, but this just serves to remind us of the many intervening decades that have passed, adding a visual and sonic patina that only makes the films more beautiful.

In 1930, a sound newsreel crew typically consisted of a cameraman and a sound man, and sometimes also a contact man who handled arrangements on the spot to enable his colleagues to capture their recordings as effectively as possible. They traveled in specially outfitted Movietone trucks, and often shot footage from the roofs of these trucks. The men were characterized in a 1934 New Yorker profile as "a rugged lot... intrepid and footloose and fanatically in love with their jobs."1 Cameramen were paid approximately one hundred dollars per week, and the sound men probably received somewhat less than this. Some of the men whose work is presented on this website - a few making fleeting appearances on screen - include cameramen John Painter, Alfred Brick, Len Hammond, William Murray, William Storz, Emile Montemurro, and Rudy Green; and sound men (given names not known) MacKenzie, Tice, Fernandez, Rickman, Gleason, Duffy, and Neems.

Around 1980, the Board of Directors of the Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation donated a significant portion of Fox newsreel footage to the University of South Carolina. The donation included film from 1919 through 1934, as well as 1942-1944, and encompassed both silent and sound footage, out-takes and published reels. The collection is now housed in the Moving Image Research Collections (MIRC) at the University's Library. It has been fully indexed for content, and it was through the MIRC catalogue/database that the film clips included here were identified, clips documenting the particular sounds and noises that New Yorkers both complained of and celebrated circa 1930. The footage is used here with the permission of the University of South Carolina.

The MIRC archivists created the video files for this website from the original camera negatives. They used a Bosch FDL-60 standard definition telecine to transform these negative motion picture images into a positive electrical audio-video signal. The resulting signal (with luminance and chrominance information recorded separately) was recorded onto Betacam SP tapes. 8-bit, uncompressed digital Quicktime files were generated from these tapes using an AJA I/O board and Emily Thompson created the excerpted clips seen here by editing these files with Quicktime and IMovie software. Clearly, not just decades of time, but many layers of media technology are situated between ourselves and the people that we see and hear on screen in this old newsreel footage. Still, when those men, women, and children face the camera and address us directly, the years and the technologies that separate us simply melt away as we look into their eyes and listen to what they have to say, all courtesy of the Movietone newsreel crews.

  1. New Yorker (22 September 1934): 98.