The Scopitones

By Rossella Catanese, PhD, Sapienza University of Rome

The music video’s forerunners were the short musical films screened on the Cinebox and the Scopitone.

Both Scopitone and Cinebox were a form of visual jukebox, equipped with a screen showing 16mm films with magnetic soundtracks (COMMAG, or Combined Sound and Picture-Magnetic Sound Record). The terms Cinebox or Scopitone refer both to the films and to the devices, emphasizing the influence of these machines on the aesthetics they shaped.

Scopitone_RC

Scopitone was presented one year after its Italian brother Cinebox, at the Paris Fair on 14 April 1960. It was designed by Frédric Mathieu, general director of the Compagnie d’Application Mécaniques à l’electronique au Cinema et à l’Atomistique (CAMECA). The name Scopitone is a combination of the Greek words “scopein” (watch) and “tonos” (musical note), promoting the idea of a device that could meld moving images and popular music. The young Parisian filmmaker Andrée Davis-Boyer started to produce these films, later involving other directors, such as Claude Lelouch. Among the many artists who performed in these music clips were Serge Gainsbourg, Dalida, Sylvie Vartan, Alice and Ellen Kessler, and Françoise Hardy.

Lichtspiel_362734_S1022_QueenOfTheHouse_Scopitone_BF_IMG_0211_single

Queen of the House (USA 1965). Credit: Lichtspiel Kinemathek Bern. Photograph of the 16mm Technicolor print by Barbara Flueckiger.

According to Michele Bovi (2014), although Cinebox officially predates Scopitone, it was not copied by Frédric Mathieu, since both Cinebox and Scopitone were inspired by the same pre-existing machines, which had been in use in military intelligence during World War II and applied to spy work. In fact CAMECA, the manufacturer of Scopitone, had an active research section in the military field, specializing in optical instruments for navigation and aerial photography that used stereoscopic images in order to create topographic maps.

Scopitone became hugely popular in France. The owners of cafés and ballrooms wanted this visual jukebox that displayed the steps of popular dances and featured vividly-coloured costumes and settings in its films, while spreading the melodies of the trendiest songs of the time.

In 1964, four years after the Scopitone patent, its manufacturers reached Hollywood through an agreement with Harman-ee Productions, owned by Debbie Reynolds. The American movies used Technicolor, more sophisticated scenery and brilliant choreography for American stars such as Bobby Vee, Neil Sedaka and Nancy Sinatra.

In the USA the Scopitone quickly became successful. Directors like Robert Altman were commissioned to make these music films in Hollywood, and Francis Ford Coppola invested his own money as a producer. But soon Scopitone’s fortunes faded – and Coppola lost his investment. At the end of the 1960s, Scopitone’s distributors in the USA were mentioned in a federal investigation into organized crime, sparking a scandal which compromised the business. Its success collapsed as demand for its services declined – including machines, films and copyright fees. This decline was also due to its expensive maintenance, because of the frequent breakdowns caused by the fragility of the films and soundtracks, as well as the complex mechanisms and cogs inside.

Lichtspiel_334285_S1057_WebOfLove_Scopitone_BF_IMG_0184_single

Web of Love (USA 1966). Credit: Lichtspiel Kinemathek Bern. Photographs of the Scopitone 16mm dye transfer print by Barbara Flueckiger.

Beside the negative public visibility generated by the Mafia links, and the technical troubles that plagued its maintenance, the Scopitone’s decrease in popularity was also due to changes in the imagery associated with popular musical forms. Bt the end of the 1960s, rock ’n’ roll and beat music developed toward genres like freakbeat, psychedelia and hard rock, which included more performative elements and completely different visual styles. The new visual landscape was related to the psychedelic imagery of concerts and festivals inspired by hippie culture – such as the effects of the liquid light shows made with projectors and color wheels or liquid overhead. This immersive aesthetics was too far from the choreographies and the short shows typical of the Scopitone era of music films.

Links

YouTube video of Scopitone set-up

Technicolor Scopitones on the Timeline of Historical Film Colors (Mother Nature Father Time (USA 1965) and Web of Love (USA 1966), both from the collection of Lichtspiel / Kinemathek Bern were scanned in the framework of the research project ERC Advanced Grant FilmColors).

References

  • Almind, Gert J. (2002): 16mm Scoop-a-tunes for Audio/visual Jukeboxes. Copenhagen: Filmkopi.
  • Bovi, Michele (2014): Cinebox vs. Scopitone. Songs to See. Arcana, Rome.
  • Scagnetti, Jean-Charles (2010): L’aventure Scopitone, 1957-1983. Histoire des précurseurs du vidéoclip. Paris: Editions Autrement.
  • Serlin, David (2001), The Clean Room / Love Machines. Unwinding the Technology of the Scopitone. «Cabinet», n. 2, Internet resource, http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/2/cleanroom.php (last accessed 01/01/2017) .
  • Stevenson, Jack (1999): The Jukebox That Ate the Cocktail Lounge. The Story of the Scopitone, Internet resource, http://hjem.get2net.dk/kack_stevenson/scopi.htm reprinted in Jack Stevenson: Land of a Thousand Balconies. Discoveries and Confessions of a B-Movie Archaeologist. Critical Vision, London 2003, pp. 31-46.
  • Wübbena, Thorsten; Keazor, Henry (2014): Video Thrills the Radio Star. Bielefeld : Transcript.

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