Rick Altman Former Senior Fellow

Rick Altman
October 2012 - March 2013


Rick Altman is Professor of Cinema and Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa. Having studied French at the Duke University, Altman received his Ph.D. in French at the Yale University in 1971. During the 70s, he predominantly lectured on French language and comparative literature at the Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. In 1977 he became Associate Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa, where he stayed until now. From the 1980s on, he gave courses on film theory, which would become his prevailing field of research. Professor Altman was a visiting lecturer at the Université de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, the Middlebury College and the University of Paris III and X. From 1993 to 2010, he hold the office as the Director of Film Studies at the University of Iowa, during which he completed long term projects such as Silent Film Sound in 2004, which was voted one of the five most important film studies book published during the past ten years by Screening the Past, and A Theory of Narrative in 2008, in which Altman launches a close study of narrative’s nature and the method through which it makes meaning. Furthermore he gives performances entitled The Living Nickelodeon, that reconstitute early film exhibition practice through a live multimedia compilation of short films, illustrated songs and audience sing-alongs. Professor Altman is an Editorial Board member of the British book series Cultural Histories of Cinema and The Soundtrack as well as the American book series Music and the Moving Image. He is currently working on a project that traces Hollywood’s exposure to synchronized sound.

Dated from 2013

Fields of research

Film theory; Film sound (Development of Hollywood sound) and TV sound; Hollywood genres (the Musical); Narrative Theory.

IKMM Research Project

I am currently working on a project presenting a new approach to Hollywood’s conversion to synchronized sound. In the past, work on the coming of sound in Hollywood has been heavily slanted toward technological questions: the development of sound-on-disc technology and its replacement by sound-on-film technology, the deployment of a series of different types of microphone, the application of manifold new inventions to film production and exhibition, and so on. While my project takes these technological considerations into account, it is more concerned with the technical decisions made by those responsible for producing the soundtracks of films made in the late twenties and early thirties.

How was sound itself (as well as sound technology) understood by the first practitioners of Vitaphone and other sound systems? How was sound used when Hollywood studios first began to shoot and distribute films with synchronized sound? What happened when diverse uses of sound conflicted? Who decided, and on what basis, just which sounds should be heard by audiences? Which initial practices were rapidly abandoned? Why, and in what circumstances? Which practices were retained and used regularly? Why did these practices become the rule, while others were left by the wayside? Is it possible to describe a standard sound practice that would dominate Hollywood production for years to come? What is involved in this standard practice, and how did it become established as the Hollywood standard? How long did it last? Which parts endured and which were scrapped? Why did some practices last while others were eliminated?

In short, rather than recapping the story of Hollywood’s (and the sound industry’s) technological advances, I want to describe the delicate negotiation process whereby sounds were actually deployed in the context of sound cinema. In the past, I (and others) have attended to the extraordinary work of the Bell Laboratories team that developed the Orthophonic Victrola and the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system (especially the work of Joseph P. Maxfield and E. C. Wente), the sound-on-film inventions of Lee De Forest (Phonofilm), Earl I. Sponable and Theodore Case (Fox Movietone), and others. Work has been done on the development of a long string of innovative microphones (culminating in the work of University of Iowa graduate Harry F. Olson, developer of RCA’s directional microphone). Attention has even been paid to advances in the design of loud speakers, projectors, screens, and virtually everything involved with sound cinema. But none of this attention to technology tells us much about the way the new technology was actually deployed.

Over the past few years I have completed sound analyses of several hundred Hollywood films produced between 1926 and 1939. Some of this work has been turned into lectures and articles, but much of it still requires additional analysis. During my stay in Weimar, I hope to turn my viewing (and listening) notes, building on the texts I have already composed, into a completed draft of a book that will for the first time reveal how classical Hollywood sound was developed. In addition, while working on this project I have formulated a new approach to presenting sound analyses. Using graphing techniques usually associated more with the social and hard sciences than with the humanities and liberal arts, I have developed a method of representing film scenes in all their sonic complexity. This new system allows greater communication with readers and listeners, typically not accustomed to carrying out or reading about close analysis of film sound. With the help of a research assistant, I hope to produce additional film sound graphs that will substantially enhance the book that I foresee.



A Theory of Narrative. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
Silent Film Sound. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
Film/Genre. London: British Film Institute & Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Edited Books

Richard Abel/ and Rick Altman (eds.): The Sounds of Early Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
Sound Theory/Sound Practice. New York: Routledge/American Film Institute, 1992.


"Two or Three Things We Thought We Knew About Silent Film Sound". In: Roy Grundmann, Cindy Lucia and Art Simon (eds.): Blackwell’s History of American Film. New York: Blackwell, 2011.
"Visual Representation of Sound as Analytical Tool". In: David Neumeyer (ed.): Handbook of Music in Film and Visual Media. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2012.
"Form Homosocial to Hetereosexual: The Musical’s Two Projects". In: Steven Cohan (ed.): The Sound of Musicals. London: British Film Institute/ Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, p. 19-29.
"Early Film Themes: Roxy, Adorno, and the Problem of Cultural Capital". In: Daniel Goldmark, Larry Kramer and Richard Leppert (eds.): Beyond the Soundtrack: Representing Music in Cinema. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007, p. 205-224.
"From Lecturer’s Prop to Industrail Product: The Early History of Travel Films". In: Jeffrey Ruoff (ed.): The Time Machine: Cinema and Travel. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006, p. 61-76.
"Synchronized Sound Systems", "Musical Scores", "Musical Accompaniment", "The Kinetophone", "Cue Sheets". In: Richard Abel (ed.): Encyclopedia of Early Cinema. New york: Routledge, 2004.
"The Living Nickelodeon". In: Richard Abel and Rick Altman (eds.): The Sounds of Early Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001, p. 232-240.
"Television/Sound". In: Tania Modleski (ed.): Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986, p. 39-54.