Archive Gallery: How Science Made Movies Awesome

PopSci covers "talkies," newsreel cinemas, drive-in theaters, and other breakthroughs in 20th-century filmmaking

When was the last time a film scene blew your mind? Plenty of people will cite Avatar's dizzying 3-D battle sequences. Others may name the rotating hotel hallway scene in this summer's Inception. Now ask your grandpa the same question. Chances are, he'll answer that Avatar in IMAX was cool, in a seizure-inducing way, but it doesn't compare to the first time he watched a movie in color.

Popular Science has been around for 138 years, which gives us a couple of decades on the first commercial motion pictures. After the use of narrative and orchestra music became integral to cinema, filmmakers devoted themselves to elevating movies from experimental form of entertainment into an art form. Not only were we there to break the news when movies finally played sound, but we were privileged enough to receive a couple of enlightening articles from Charles Francis Jenkins, who helped invent the television, and D.W. Griffith, who is credited for creating America's first feature film.

Although the debut of sound and color have gone down as the 20th century's biggest cinematic breakthroughs, there are other developments that are worth noting, even for nostalgia's sake. During the 1930's and 1940's, people flocked to newsreel theaters in awe that they could witness distant disasters and world events just hours after they unfolded. A decade later, the drive-in theater became a highlight of teen culture during the 1950's.

While movie fads came and went, the appetite for better films only intensified, which in turn inspired up-and-coming producers to get more creative with special effects and light techniques. Speaking of movie tricks, Griffith impressively claimed to have developed 3-D movies (glasses and all) in 1923, so click through our gallery to see how that, as well as other innovations in cinema, turned out (Spoiler: they turned out amazing, and now we can enjoy cool stuff like Tron: Legacy as a result.)

3-D Movies are Here: January 1923
Although Avatar heralded a new, oft-debated era of 3-D movies in late 2009, James Cameron's technology was actually predicated by that of DW Griffith, who previously created The Birth of a Nation, America's first blockbuster. In 1923, movies still lacked color and sound, but Griffith claimed to have developed stereoscopic movies that "would drive startled spectators from their seats." Here's how it'd work: a stereoscoping movie camera would exposes red and green, left and right films simultaneously while filming. Audiences would watch movies using an alternating shutter device, which would filter double-image pictures so that the viewer sees the "right" picture with his right eye, and then the reverse an instant later. How's that for a predecessor to 3-D glasses? Read the full story in "Thrills 'Leap from Screen' in Stereoscoping Movies"
Future Movie Theater: April 1923
The 1920's saw a revolution in movie theater design. Before, people watched movies in five-cent nickelodeon theaters, but once full-length feature films became the norm, studios began building theater chains and movie palaces, which were renowned for their luxuriously large screens and spacious interiors. Samuel Lionel "Roxy" Rothafel, who went on to open New York's Radio City Music Hall in 1932, predicted that movie houses of the future would supplement screens would color-light paintings on curved walls. He envisioned auditoriums holding 5000 persons. While the movie played, hidden projectors would "paint" the walls with moving scenery, giving viewers the illusion that they were actually in the movie. Meanwhile, a hidden orchestra would provide music and sound effects. Although Rothafel's ideas ended up being more compatible with Broadway shows than with film, he is credited for the idea of synchronizing orchestral music with movie scenes. Read the full story in "Famous Manager Predicts Egg-Shaped Playhouses"
Hooray, Live Sports Parties: May 1923
Earlier this year, millions of people around the globe gathered outdoors to watch live broadcasts of the FIFA World Cup. viewing parties are so ingrained in sports culture nowadays that it's difficult to imagine depending on newspapers or word-of-mouth to find out who won a big game. In 1923, Charles Francis Jenkins, who helped invent the television, announced plans to broadcast motion pictures of world events and sporting games over radio airwaves. Although commercial radio had just begun airing live sports broadcasts, Jenkins was eager to take the technology further with an apparatus that could transmit one photograph every four minutes.His machine worked by using rapdily rotating circular prisms to cast lights and shadows onto a selenium cell in an electric circuit, which would convert the light into wireless waves. Admittedly, his invention needed work, but Jenkins was confident that with a little work, he would be able to broadcast live news events to far-off places. Since skeptics (okay, Popular Science) asked how the sun's glare would let them see outdoor broadcasts of baseball games, Norman Furber, a New York City inventor invented a special screen that could reflect images clearly as long as the sun didn't shine directly on it. Read the full story in "To Broadcast Baseball by Radio Movies"
D.W. Griffith Explains Cinematic Technique: June 1926
Prior to The Birth of a Nation most films were merely recordings of subjects moving about: there were no close-ups, no experimental angles, and no use of shadows. Despite his controversial legacy as the creator of a highly racist film, D.W. Griffith is widely credited with pioneering the use of light and camera angles as a cinematic technique. In an article written specially for our publication, Griffith elaborated on how he manipulated light to heighten mood and tension. For instance, he used mirrors to replicate the effect of sunlight streaming through the trees. He also developed the reverse light technique, which placed light in front of the object in focus instead behind it, as was customary at the time. Much to the suprise of his colleagues, Griffiths' technique actually made subjects look much more natural. Moreover, he introduced the soft focus, or the gentle blurry effect achieved by photographing an image through multiple lenses. Of course, there were plenty of light-related issues that continued to stump Griffith. Blonde hair and blue eyes did not register well in front of the camera, and actors struggled to film "ardent scenes" under the temperature of glaring lights. "I hope that cold light will soon replace the super-hot ones," Griffith said. "It will make action more effective." Read the full story in "Light--First Aid to the Movies"
How Talking Movies Work: November 1926
A year before The Jazz Singer premiered, audiences at a theater in New York watched in awe as images of a violinist, a vocalist, and an actor talked and played music from the movie screen. Engineers achieved this effect using the vitaphone, a new invention hailed as the long-awaited breakthrough in talking movies. As the diagram pictured left shows, the machine worked by recording sound on a master disk, while two electrically interlocked motors synchronized images with the sound. While filming, the camera would record images while a microphone on the ceiling would record sound and convert it to electrical impulses, which traveled through a vacuum tube to an amplifier. The impulses would then form groove formations on the sound disk. In the theater, an image projector and the sound disk operated from different ends of a motor. While the images played, a needle would translate the disk's impressions into electrical surges, thus creating amplified sound. As you can see in the artist's diagram, one horn-shaped projector would transmit sounds recorded on the film, like the dialogue, while two other horns would transmit the orchestra accompaniment. Not long afterward, The Jazz Singer would use this very technology to become the first feature-length film with synchronized dialogue. Read the full story in "How Shadows Talk from the Screen"
Behind the Scenes at a Talkie Studios: April 1929
The rise of talkies not only revolutionized the movie-going experience, but it completely upended the acting industry. Actors with thick accents or weak vocal deliveries, like It Girl Mary Pickford, fell from stardom. Norman Foster, a former Broadway Stage actor who had transitioned to talking movies, contributed an article describing how producers recorded dialogue in the new "talking movie studios." He recalled how strict Paramount was was about noise level -- evidently, the soundproof technology weren't too effective, as producers were tasked with both refining sound and keeping out superfluous noises. To ensure the crispness of recordings, studios were built with terra cotta tile walls and double doors. Felt carpets and curtains made of monk's cloth deadened footsteps and echoes. To record sound, studio engineers would hang stage microphones on set. The sound would travel through a wire to the monitor room, where the operator would make the sound more natural by tweaking the volume of transmissions. From the monitor room, the transmission would travel to the sound room, where it would be recorded and played back for the director after shooting finished. Read the full story in "Sh!--They're Filming 'Talkies'"
The Advent of Newsreel Cinemas: August 1930
Back in the day, newsreels were a hallmark of the movie-going experience--since we hadn't quite reached the era of personal televisions yet, people watched the news in newsreel cinemas, which often aired entertainment programs in addition to actual news. At the time this article was written, newsreels were hailed as "talking newspapers" because people were in awe at how stories could appear in theaters before going to print. Moreover, being able to hear and see disasters -- buildings consumed by flame, soldiers dying on the battlefield -- made world events all the more harrowing. Viewers could barely get enough of it. Three companies, Fox, Paramount, and Pathe, distributed sound newsreels to 12,000 special news cinemas all of the country. The heart of the newsreel culture, was of course, in New York, where its Newsreel Theater presented hourly newsreels from 10 AM until midnight. Thanks to the advent of newsreel cinemas, journalism changed practically overnight. Previously, gathering pictorial news required only a guy with a camera; now, companies needed a sound truck, cameras, microphones, and other expensive equipment to keep up. Read the full story in "Talking Newspapers'"
How to Create Special Effects: March 1933
Much like today, up-and-coming independent filmmakers worked steadily in the shadows of their big-budget Hollywood counterparts. Curious to see how amateur filmmakers created special effects with limited equipment and finances, we paid a trip to the set of The Lunar Expedition, which was located in the garage of two Los Angeles filmmakers. While there, we were struck by the ingenuity of their meticulously constructed scale models and special effects. The illustration at left shows how they filmed a scene where the rocket flies through a storm. First, they built small model rocket out of metal and illuminated its insides with a tiny bulb. Cotton was used for the clouds, while water dripping down a glass panel served as the rain. Lamplight filtered through a cut-up photo of clouds blinked on and off to simulate lightning. Read the full story in "Amateur Movie Makers Use Professional Tricks"
The First Drive-In Theater: August 1933
Nowadays, drive-in theaters seem like a cute relic of the past, but in the early 1930's, they were slated to be the next big trend in movie-going. For the next two decades, they entertained teenagers on dates and distressed parents who grew concerned about what their kids were doing in those filthy "passion pits." Back to the 1930's though--the drive-in debuted in Camden, N.J., where families were free to watch movies without worrying about their children's noisiness. A month after the theater opened, we reported that a new system of directional sound projection allowed audiences to hear dialogue as clearly in the back row as they could in the front. The pit could also occupy 400 cars, which were parked on levels inclined in a way so that vehicles didn't obstruct anyone's view. Read the full story in "Movie Theater Lets cars Drive Right In"
Mobile Theater: April 1937
In 1937, New Jersey struck again: a local inventor unveiled a truck that doubled as a mobile movie theater. A projector mounted in the rear of the truck transmitted the film through an inclined mirrors and onto a translucent screen. The truck came equipped with twelve loudspeakers, six on each side, and a gasoline engine within the truck body for generating electricity. We predicted that politicians would one day use mobile theaters for campaigns. Read the full story in "Truck is Mobile Theater for Outdoor Sound Movies"