Picture of the Week #72: Scopitone

This is actually several pictures. In January I spent a few days in Berlin, and was lucky enough to have access to the archive of the Filmmuseum. The main museum is in the Sony Centre on Potsdamer Platz, but I also visited the archive where the bulk of the items are stored. I was not allowed to photograph the miniatures, puppets and other objects I was examining in the collection (except to say that, at one point, I held in my hands the golden idol from the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark – it’s much heavier than a small bag of sand; several were produced for use in various shots), but I did get a tour of one of the back rooms where hundreds of cameras, projectors, lights, speakers, microphones and other cinematic apparatus are kept. It’s an incredible collection, and a shame there is no museum big enough to put it all on display. One of my discoveries, and by “discovery” I mean something that plenty of people have always known about but I’ve only just noticed, was the Scopitone, invented in France in the early 60s, originally assembled from surplus WWII aeroplane parts.

This was a beautiful jukebox machine that, instead of playing songs from discs, played 16mm short films from a rotating rack of reels (see images below).

You can, I’m sure, tell how it works. You insert your coins, select your film/song, and moments later, you see your film back-projected onto the screen at the top of the unit, and hear your song through the speakers below the screen. This shot of the inside of another Scopitone system at the Filmmuseum archive shows the internal mechanism. It’s a bit complicated for my technically-illiterate brain, but you can tell that it’s capable of feeding film from any reel on its two circuits of films. The screen is powerfully illuminated so that the films are visible even in the corner of a bar with strong electric lighting.

The Scopitone films were short (no more than three minutes) ‘pop videos’, and they still attract devoted historians and archivists. Many of the films are available on DVD, but for a sample, plenty are available on YouTube. Try, for example, Henri Salvador singing Le Martien:

Or maybe the delightful France Gall with La Cloche:

You’ll find many more Scopitone films at Scopitones.com, where you’ll also find detailed history and technical details on the machines. Try also the Scopitone Archive.


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