Saturday, November 26, 2011

Caligari’s Children

Between 1919 and 1924 the offspring of Caligari, the Schuerfilme (films of fantasy and terror), flourished in Germany.  You can see one of them, Der Golem(1920), in the previous post I did about Expressionism.   However, in actuality most horror films today as well as numerous science-fiction films derive from German Expressionism.

There were two notable artists to mention in regards to Expressionism.  The first is Fritz Lang,  one of the masters, he gave us films such as Der müde Tod(Destiny, 1921).  For some reason many of the hard to find silent films are only available online in Spanish, not sure why this is but dust off your español for this one.

der müde Tod 1/2 by desfilms
der müde Tod 2/2 by desfilms

Notice that the theme of this film is pure Expressionism, doom, gloom and Teutonic mythology.  What Lang added to cinema was the use of lighting to emphasize lighting and space. This was because Lang was a trained architect and it’s that skill that becomes so readily apparent in his other, more famous, Schuerfilme, Metropolis(1926)

An inspiration for many science fiction and other films to come, Metropolis is a story about a totalitarian future society, a dystopia,  brilliantly rendered through architecture and film process.  There’s a lot of different versions of this movie floating around.  Here’s one, it’s not a great print but I think is fairly authentic.

Lang managed the conversion to sound and directed several sound films, the most brilliant of which is M(1930)M seems to be more of an indictment of German culture at that time than the story of a man on the brink of collapse due to the guilt from his past deeds.  Either way, M is not Expressionism, it’s what followed Expressionism, Kammerspiel.  More on Kammerspiel later, first M.

The second notable artist to come out of German Expressionism is F.W. Murnau.  His film, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horrors, 1922) is considered the prime example of the Expressionism movement.   The most incredible thing about this film is that it was made with very limited resources.  The Expressionism comes from camera angles and lighting, rather than expensive studio sets.

So many directors were inspired by this film and the techniques used in it are continually copied.  For example, Orson Wells shot Kane from a low angle – which comes directly from this film, it’s how Nosferatu is shot to make him seem menacing.

And that brings us back to Kammerspiel (intimate, or instinct film).   A film that forgoes the dramatic and tries to bring forth a more realistic portrait of the oppressiveness of contemporary middle-class life.  Kammerspiel retains aspects of Expressionism, they have similar themes and they look similar, but Kammerspiel avoid theatrics.  Instinct films are constructed for their specific media.

Murnau’s next important film is the first truly in this genre.  It’s called Der letze Mann(The Last Man aka The Last Laugh, 1924) and it was written by the same writer as Caligari.    The Last Laugh was one of the first films to make use of camera tracking, the camera is a character in this film.  It was the first film to move its camera backward and forward, as well as up and down and from side to side, in scenes of substantial duration. 

Beyond that Murnau also liked to use subjective camera techniques whereby the camera shot represents the view of the scene from a character’s perspective.

Around 1924,  Hollywood, sensing a rival, started flooding the German market with films.  They also started stealing the German talent,  Murnau was one of the artists who moved to Hollywood.  But there were many and some went on to make important films.

Meanwhile, Germany was recovering from the war and returning to social normalcy. As a result, taste changed, away from the morbid psychological themes of Expressionism and Kammerspiel and  onto die neue Sacklichkeit (the new objectivity).   The new genre was realism, intended to show life as it is, “street” films. 

G.W. Pabst was unquestioningly the master of this new genre.  His film Die freudlose Gasse(The Joyless Street, 1925) was the German screen debut of Greta Garbo.  The film rejects the subjective camera of Murnau and strives to present the grim story of two girls forced into prostitution, all without sentimentality or symbolism.  I’m not certain of the authenticity of this print – it could be the censored version – the only other online choice was a Russian version that had an irritating narration.

G.W. Pabst was also one of the first western directors to be influenced by Sergei Eisenstein's theory of montage.  Which also happens to be the topic of the next blog entry.  


Previous article Scandalous Hollywood -Part 2

First article Before Film

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Scandalous Hollywood - Part 2

Besides being full of scandals due to the “new morality” during the 20s, Hollywood was also full of comedy.   It was the golden age of silent comedy with  Chaplin in front and a slew of other Keystone alumni alongside.

Buster Keaton had a very similar upbringing to Chaplin and he was an equal to Chaplin as an actor but a superior director.  His specialty, mise en scène, or just basically his films looked better than Chaplin’s.  Keaton was a firm believer that all comedy stemmed from a strong dramatic through-line.  Story was important to him, most of his gags were trajectory gags that propelled us through the story.  

In his first film at Keystone he played a Keystone Cop.  But after appearing in a number of shorts as comic characters he soon became as famous as Chaplin.

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a friend and  huge star, quit Keystone in 1916 to start his own production company with Joseph M. Schenck.  We’ll hear more about Arbuckle later but right now what’s important is he hired Keaton to work with him at Arbuckle’s Comicque Studios.  The first of the fourteen two-reel shorts they made was The Butcher Boy (1917).

In 1919 Schenck formed Buster Keaton Productions to produce two-reels starring Keaton.  The home of this studio was the former Chaplin studios.  Schenck gave Keaton complete creative freedom and the shorts that he produced from 1920-1923 alongside Chaplin’s are the high point of American slapstick comedy, such as The Balloonatic (1923).

In 1923 Keaton’s first feature was a parody of Griffith’s Intolerance, called The Three Ages(1923).  Notice the dramatic story is intact and the humour works to further the story.

One of Keaton’s most extraordinary features is Sherlock Jr (1924).  In this metafictional film a projectionist becomes part of a film within the film.  Certainly a bit on the surreal side of the fence. 

Keaton’s masterpiece is considered to be a film called The General(1927) which along with Chaplin’s The Gold Rush(1925) is considered to be one of the great silent comedy epics in cinema.

Keaton’s studio was acquired by MGM in the late 20s and made one last great film The Cameraman(1928) before being cast in a series of witless talkies (which he had no hand in writing) that did so badly profit-wise he was promptly fired by Louis B. Mayer.  His life fell apart and so did his career.

When Hal Roach, the major rival or Keystone’s Sennett, established his production company – he hired Harold Lloyd for three dollars a week.  Lloyd’s specialty, comedy of thrills, in which the hero placed himself in real physical danger in order to get that laugh.  His most famous film is Safety Last(1923).  Here’s his iconic clock  scene from the film.

From the above clip, you’ve probably notice how this scene probably influenced many modern action films.  It seems to masterfully up the stakes.

Laurel and Hardy were also Hal Roach comedians, minor compared to the greats mentioned above but significant because they were film’s first comedy team.  Their first film together was Putting the Pants on Philip(1927).

They went on to star in twenty-seven shorts for Roach.  Probably one of the best of this series was The Two Tars(1928).

Laurel and Hardy were one of the few silent stars to make a smooth transition to talkies (because of their background in theatre).  They went on to have a long career in the movies.

Another minor comedian to mention here is Harry Langdon who worked for Keystone.  He rose briefly to stardom with his charmingly naive character, different though similar to Chaplin’s.  Watch this clip Tramp, Tramp, Tramp(1926) – but don’t be angry with me at the end because it’s all I could find. 

The last comedian to mention here is Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle who also worked for Keystone until he started his own production company in 1917.  His popularity was second only to Chaplin – until one of Hollywood’s biggest scandals struck and the course of movie history was changed forever.

In 1921 he was charged with the rape and murder of a young starlet named Virginia Rappe.  The world watched and waited for the verdict…

But before we announce the verdict – let’s take a look at how film was advancing in other parts of the world.  

Next article Caligari's Children

Previous article Scandalous Hollywood – Part 1

First article Before Film

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Scandalous Hollywood - Part 1

Early filmmakers flocked to Hollywood and it wasn’t just because it never rains in Southern California.  It was because it was close to the Mexican border,  early filmmakers made dodgy deals to get their films made and sometimes they found it necessary to take a sudden vacation.  Hollywood was a recipe for scandal.  

Besides that, arrive in Southern California they did.  The first Hollywood-type studio, however, was called Inceville, built by a producer named Thomas Ince.  Ince started with at American Biograph where he met D.W.Griffith.   They became partners, with another man we’ll discuss later, in a venture called Triangle Film corporation.  When that failed three years later, Ince built Inceville.   Here’s a silent documentary tour of Inceville.

He made a number of films there before he died in 1924. Here’s a brief clip from one his films.  No sound so turn up those tunes.

The third member of Triangle Film Corporation was Mack Sennett.  Sennett was an actor in many of Griffith’s films.  He started directing for American Biograph but he wasn’t given enough creative freedom.   In 1912 he started Keystone Studios  with the financial backing of two bookies, are you ready for that border crossing Mack?

Luckily, Sennett decided to produce comedies, lots and lots of one- and two-reelers and they were popular world-wide.  He liked slapstick and sight-gags.  The hallmark of the studio was the Keystone Cops.

But he also produced and directed several parodies – of Griffith films.   He didn’t direct much after the first two years at Keystone.  Instead, he sat back and discovered an amazing list of comedy actors and directors:  Charlie Chaplin, Harry Langdon, Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Ben Turpin, Gloria Swanson, Carole Lombard, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, W.C. Fields, Malcolm St. Clair, George Stevens, Roy Del Ruth and Frank Capra.

Keystone went bankrupt in 1935.

Charile Chaplin was Sennett’s most important protégé.  Charlie’s most endearing and enduring screen character was the tramp, which he introduced in Kid Auto Races at Venice(1914).

He made a thirty-four shorts and one feature for Sennett but he found the humour expected by Keystone not subtle enough for his tastes.  In 1915 he accepted a contract with Essanay to make fourteen two-reelers.  He continued the Tramp character through those films, the character was extremely popular.  In 1917 Chaplin had enough star power to sign a deal with First National – his most known film there being The Kid(1921).

Charlie’s star power and his irrepressible sexual appetite made him an easy target for scandal as well.   It started during World War I when he continued to make films rather than fight the war with the British army.  He was labelled a coward in his own country.  Then in 1918, he had an affair and then married (perhaps forced to) the 16 year old child star Mildred Harris.  That ended in messy divorce in 1919 with a huge settlement and lots of press. 

It’s rumoured he had an affair with Marion Davies who was William Randolph Hearst’s squeeze.  That supposedly ended in the very mysterious fatal shooting of none other than Thomas Ince.  Hearst pulled the trigger and missed Charlie – or so it’s told.   Among other things I sure this didn’t help the press’ image of Charlie.

After First National Charlie was free to do his own thing once again and he release of number of his masterpieces though a company called United Artists.  He founded UA with Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks in 1923.  His first film with them being A Woman of Paris(1923) then a return to the screen by the tramp in The Gold Rush(1925).  His personal favourite was The Circus(1928).

Around this time Charlie started adding some additional social commentary to his films, having them say more than the story: City Lights(1931), Modern Times(1936) and his first talkie The Great Dictator(1940).    City Lights is often cited by screenwriting books as one of the finest examples of screenwriting during the silent era – people especially liked the end.

In 1943 actress Joan Barry filed a paternity suit against Charlie and even though a blood test proved it was not his child he was found guilty and forced to pay support. Then they tried to charge Charlie with the Mann Act in 1944, he was eventually acquitted of those charges but his reputation was tarnished forever. 

His last two films Monsieur Verdoux(1947) and Limelight(1952) were not received well publically.  Very soon after the release of Limelight Charlie left for a visit to England on the Queen Mary. The U.S. Government almost immediately revoked his permission to re-enter the country and he was not allowed to set foot in the US until 1972.

But there was more trouble brewing in Hollywood during the silent’s heyday – coming up next. 

Next article Scandalous Hollywood – Part 2

Previous article The Russian Revolution

First article Before Film

The Russian Revolution

Before the revolution films weren’t very popular in Russia so there wasn’t much of an industry.  The working class was too impoverished and the ruling class basically didn’t care. 

However, there were some films produced around Moscow.  A few of those are of note and the avant-garde seemed to be the norm.  

Still from Drama in Futurist Cabaret 13Drama in Futurist Cabaret 13 (Drama v futuristicheskom kabare 13, 1913) by futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (Portret Doriana Greya, 1915), The Storm (Groza, 1916) and The Strong Man (Silnyi chelovek, 1917)  by Vsevolod Meyerhold – a very famous Russian theatrical director.      The Picture of Dorian Gray

Unfortunately none of the movies  seem to exist online and perhaps may no longer exist in real life, they would have had to make it through a huge revolution.   These pictures will have to do.  

The last film of note before the revolution was a Yakov Protazanov production of  Lev Tolstoi’s Father Sergius (Otets Sergei, 1918).  I did manage to find a clip from this film but it’s subtitled in Spanish.  Well worth a look though, the film seems fairly intense. 

Cena de "Padre Sérgio" - Yakov Protazanov - 1919 from Luiz Santiago on Vimeo.

In 1917 a new government took over Russia and the Soviet Cinema was born.   The new government believed in the power of the cinema and wanted to exploit this new media.  They immediately abolished censorship and started producing anti-tsarist propaganda.  Only two of these films were produced, however.  After the revolution there were still battles being fought between the Red and the White Soviets – film stock was scarce. 

One person did get a bit of filmmaking in during this period, his name Dziga Vertov.  He was an editor for the newsreel footage shot during all that fighting.   By 1921 he had made three films from that newsreel footage. 

None of those films seem to exist online so I won’t name them. But in those films he experimented with subliminal cuts of one or two frames each and the dramatic reconstruction of documentary events. 

One, an important technique that views film as a subconscious manipulation tool and the other, a technique for propagandizing history or viewing film as a conscious manipulation tool.   

Then Vertov and his group of Kinoki (kino-oki, cinema-eyes)  went around Russia documenting everything – with a propagandistic slant, of course.  From 1922 to 1925 Vertov released a carefully crafted series of newsreels to test out his theories on manipulation.  This series was collectively called Kino-pravda.   This has no sound so turn up those tunes.

In 1924, Vertov released a film called Kino-glaz which used many different camera, lighting and editing techniques and tricks to achieve what one critic called “an epic vision of actuality.” 

What is essential about these films isn’t just their significance to Russian history but their significance to film history -- in that they are all about montages.  An aesthetic that would dominate Russian cinema for years to come.

Vertov’s silent work culminated in a film named The Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom, 1928).   Some people consider this one of the most important films of the silent era, it is certainly Vertov’s virtuoso masterpiece. This does not have sound so once again, crank up those tunes.

There’s still more experiments to come from the Soviet Cinema, but first I think a scandal may be brewing in Hollywood.

Next article Scandalous Hollywood – Part 1

Previous article Caligari’s Cabinet

First article Before Film

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Caligari’s Cabinet

Let’s take a dark journey, one that brings us to pre-war Germany, before the first World War.   The German’s have not taken to creating their own cinema – they would rather import it.

That is with the exception of Oskar Messter who produced a number actualités and other films from 1866 onwards. 

Oskar Messter and Carl Froelich

In 1909 he collaborated (which he often did) with Carl Froelich on Germany’s first feature, Andreas Hofer.  

Unfortunately I can’t find any of these films online.   I did find what is may be an earlier collaboration between the two but be warned there’s full-frontal nudity, male and female, in this “film”.

1903 - Akt-Skulpturen. by cityangelo

What was most important about this duo is that they were one of the first to use artificial lighting for their movies and they preferred it.   Also an number of film stars that would surface in later years, like Conrad Veidt, got their start at Messter’s studio. 

Also on the list of films I can’t find online is what happened in 1912.  Germany was inspired by France’s film d’art to make their own Autorenfilm (famous author’s film).   

These films were mostly direct adaptations of stageplays, like Der Andere(The Other One) by Max Mack, The Isle of the Dead by Max Reinhardt and Das Fremde Mädchen(The Strange Girl) by Hofmannsthal – the first German film to seriously express a supernatural theme.   Their importance is in establishing the German film industry.

The first film to hint at Expressionism was Der Student of Prague(The Student of Prague – 1913).   I couldn’t find an online copy of this version of the movie but I did find this trailer.

Expressionism is the film movement concerned with “deep and fearful concerns about oneself” that dominated the German cinema until the early thirties.  It’s a cinema of dark stories, lighting and moods.  We owe much of our modern horror to this film movement, just like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari owes much of itself to The Student of Prague.  

Other pre-Expressionism films were Der Golem(The Golem) co-directed by Galeen, the screenwriter, and Wegener, the star actor of The Student of Prague.  No surviving print here so this video is all that exists.

In 1920, after the war, the same team (Galeen and Wegener) remade this film – here is that version.

The other film was Homunculus(1916) by Otto Ripper.  This film was the most popular film in war time Germany.  It was episodic - released in six parts.  It also features a Golem-like creature, an intelligent artificial being that has no soul.  Unfortunately I can’t find an online version of this video so this picture will have to do you.  


The Student of Prague, The Golem and Homunculus laid all the necessary groundwork for Expressionism to flourish in German cinema. However…

In 1917 the German’s put the entire film industry under state control.  The organization was called the UFA (Universem Film Aktiengesellschaft) and yes that was an attempt to stem the tide of anti-German propaganda.  Not much to talk about here, really.

But after the war, in 1918, the German government resold their shares in the UFA to private organizations.  Expressionism was ready to blossom (what, you expect something cheery when their country just lost a war).

The first Expressionist film was Das Kabinett Des Dr. Caligari(The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari –1919) by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. It took a year for the film to get made because no producers wanted to make it.  Here is that film in its entirety.

Caligari has everything one needs for Expressionism - shadows, moods and madness (for a detailed explanation of the film techniques used see this blog).   

There’s a bit of a debate as to which of these films is the first true horror film.  Most people tend to say Caligari, however there’s a growing trend naming The Student of Prague as the first.  Plus no one can argue that The Golem is the first monster movie.  

But the first Golem hasn’t survived and neither has Student (based on my research). So that would make Caligari the first surviving example of both.  There, that answer should make both sides happy.

More Expressionism to come but first there’s going to be a Revolution in Russia.

Next article The Russian Revolution

Previous article The Birth of a Nation

First article Before Film

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation was not the first film to make an artistic statement nor was it the first epic film -- that second distinction belongs to Quo Vadis (1912), an Italian film by Enrico Guazzoni. 

It wasn’t even D.W. Griffiths first epic.  That distinction belongs to Judith of Bethulia (1914). 

The Birth of a Nation, however, was a masterpiece of cinema and it brought together much of the narrative technique that had been making its rounds among filmmakers.  This includes using some  techniques that weren’t being  used in the context of the story, they were being used as novelty (like close ups).

While The Birth of the Nation is an extremely racist and bigoted film, it was certainly popular when released.  More people saw The Birth of a Nation the year it was released than any film released before it. 

That doesn’t excuse the content of the film – but also the content doesn’t change the history it made.  D.W. Griffith was a racist pretentious filmmaker.  He was also a product of the old South and that’s why he held the views he did.   This film did caused a backlash but we’ll get back to that later.

Griffith chose literary vehicles for his films, most are adapted from books, poems or stage plays.   That was part of his innovation, Griffith believed all films should be based on a good story.   He thought of films as a visual story and he used narrative techniques to tell it.   He experimented with these techniques in over four hundred and fifty one- and two-reeler films he directed for American Biograph (Edison Studios’ competitor).

The narrative techniques Griffith experimented with were:

1. Cutting between different spatial shots.  Cutting from long to medium shots or close ups in order to make a narrative point.  It had been used before but not as frequently or as repetitiously as Griffith used it.   It is believe that the first close-up used for narrative purposes was used by Griffith.

3. Cutting between different temporal shots.  Cutting between scenes in different times and locations.  This experiment was frowned upon by the industry.  Today we can hardly find a film that doesn’t make use of it. 

2. Extreme long shots.   Griffith used them to make things epic.  He also liked to intersperse them with other spatial shots for dramatic effect.

3. Giving depth to the shot itself.  Have a different foreground and background action and using that difference to further the story.  Making the film feel like more than just a piece of film.  

4. Using lighting and camera angles to create visual metaphors.  Though this was touched on in his  earlier films, it really comes into play after The Birth of a Nation.

These narrative innovations are what make D.W. Griffith such an important figure in film history.  But what makes him an artist was his reaction to the negative criticism and censorship (perhaps justly deserved) of The Birth of a Nation.

He made a film in response to his critics.  That film is called Intolerance and it’s the first film known that is purely an artistic statement.

And that’s when the German’s began to express…

Next article Caligari’s Cabinet

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Friday, October 7, 2011

The Birth of an Art Form

While most studios were forced into one reels by the MPPC and believing film would never be more than churned out cheap entertainment,  some studios – especially those abroad - started to make longer films, feature films.

Defined by length, the first dramatic feature film was the Australian 70-minute film The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906).

The first European feature was the 90-minute film L'Enfant prodigue (France, 1907), although that was an unmodified record of a stage play; Europe's first feature adapted directly for the screen, Les Misérables, came from France in 1909.

The first Russian feature was Defence of Sevastopol in 1911.  This was also the first film shot with two cameras. No sound on this clip so crank up the tunes.

Watch more on Film Annex

The first UK features were the documentary With Our King and Queen Through India  and Oliver Twist (1912). The first Asian feature was Japan's The Life Story of Tasuke Shiobara (1912), the first Indian feature was Raja Harishchandra (1913),  the first South American feature was Brazil's O Crime dos Banhados (1913), and the first African feature was South Africa's Die Voortrekkers (1916). 1913 also saw China's first feature film, Zhang Shichuan's Nan Fu Nan Qi.

The first US features were imports.  The first import was from France it was the story of Queen Elizabeth staring Sarah Bernhardt a  French stage and early film actress. She has been referred to as "the most famous actress the world has ever known"

The first American produced features were a production of Oliver Twist (1912), From the Manger to the Cross (1912), and Richard III (1912), the latter starring actor Frederick Warde.

Manger to the Cross was renamed Jesus of Nazareth (1916) or so I believe.  Biblical stories were very popular in the US.


Despite some moral messages and some general thematic statements most films were still only meant as entertainment.  It took D.W. Griffith, his epic civil war film and his deep south upbringing to make film an artistic statement.  And, in the spirit of artists everywhere, he was going to piss a lot of people off doing it.

Next article The Birth of a Nation

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Friday, September 23, 2011

The Birth of an Industry

At first everyone thought films were a novelty.   Early distribution forced the theatre owners to buy the prints of films they were showing.  This didn’t work out well for the exhibitors.  As a result, it wasn’t a good business proposition to show a film. 

In 1903 the Miles brothers from San Francisco established the modern form of distribution by setting up the first film exchange.   They bought the prints and leased them to exhibitors at a much lower cost than buying the film outright. As a result film became an economical win for everyone involved.  This caught on rapidly. Nickelodeons sprang up all over the world and it was apparent film was here to stay.  

Exterior Nickelodeon Interior Nickelodeon

People became hungry for new films, regardless of quality, and studios churned them out.  As a result film didn’t change all that much. Between 1903 and 1912 there aren’t many noteworthy creative achievements or experiments – except for a few shorts by D.W.Griffith.  What did change was the amount of film which could be produced.

Early Film setOriginally all film had to be shot with sunlight. This meant that films could only be shot in good weather.  However, with the invention of the mercury vapour lamp several film companies were able to build indoor studios and thereby increase their production.   Still most studios shot outside, and all shot on very low budgets with no retakes of scenes.  Most filmmakers believed what they were doing was grinding out cheap entertainment, and they were.

But even if the filmmakers weren’t taking movies seriously, other groups were.  Once the Nickelodeons sprung up and organised religion and the political right realised movies weren’t going away, they mounted campaigns to suppress them. Between 1907 and 1909 it became commonplace for minsters, politicians and business to be against the movie industry.  Today it’s thought these campaigns were more economically than morally minded because people were frequenting  Nickelodeons and spending their money there rather than at churches, saloons, and vaudeville theatres.

Another issue facing the early industry was piracy. There were no copyright law for “living pictures”.  Exhibitors pirated copies of the films and showed them.  Worse, since the equipment was patented and a fee was expected by those who used it, production companies were pirating equipment.  Anything produced by that pirated equipment was considered the property of the production company that made it.   So even the laws that did govern the industry were difficult to enforce.

In 1909, Edison and a group of patent holders created the MPPC (The Motion Pictures Patent Company) – a trust (a polite word for monopoly) that would try to control the film industry.  Joining the trust was Eastman Kodak, the largest producer of film stock.  The MPPC controlled who got equipment, who got film stock and who got distributed – at least in the United States.

What held film back, at least in the US, was that the MPPC believed film audiences had a short attention span.  Therefore they would only supply one reel of film per week to member companies and they would only distribute films of that length.  So because of the MPPC,  audiences in the US were watching epic plays like King Lear or novels like Frankenstein boiled down to under 15 minutes.

However, the feature film was about to be born. In the US filmmakers like D.W. Griffith tried to distribute two reel films, one reel each week - which didn't work because of continuity issues.  But, in other parts of the world filmmakers started making longer films and despite what Edison might have thought, the longer films captured the audience's attention.

Next article The Birth of an Art Form

Previous article A Shot in the Narrative

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Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Shot in the Narrative

The shot is more than just a close-up.  It is an integral part of what film is today.  A film is a series of shots put together through editing to fictionalize an event - to tell the tale of it. 

Méliès had discovered that two different pieces of film can be put together to create the illusion of something which couldn’t possibly happen.  Now it was time to use that knowledge to create the illusion that something was happening.  Something real.  

The two discoveries that were made which made narrative film possible were the close-up and parallel editing.  

The close-up was cut into  Méliès tableaus in order to bring the viewer closer to a specific action.  To show them detail  of the action happening while it happens. 

Parallel editing was editing two different simultaneous lines of action together into one line of action.

Firemen spray the exterior of a building.  Inside a baby cries as flames near its crib. Outside a fireman climbs a creaky ladder.   Inside a mother tries to cross a line of fire to reach her baby. 

Around the same time that Méliès was active in France a couple of English gentlemen from Brighton were experimenting with both of these concept -- George Albert Smith and James Williamson.

James Williamson was supposedly the discoverer of parallel editing.  I say supposedly because the films I’ve found don’t seem to match up with the history I’ve read.  Plus the history even says many of these early films don’t exist in their original shape.  Take for example this film:

It’s supposed to contain examples of parallel editing but I just don’t see them.  If you happen to find a copy of this film or  Stop Thief or Attack on a China Mission that contain good examples of parallel editing or if you happen to see it in this film then please let me know.

Funnily enough  while searching through the web, I discovered Williamson’s most popular films today seem to be the following.

The second film, The Big Swallow, claims to be the first close-up.  

However, historically the discoverer of the close-up is considered to be George Albert Smith (our other English gentleman).  And the first example of a close-up I can find from him is in this film from 1900.  So it seems that maybe he actually is.

Other films from G. A. Smith that are of interest are the first Christmas film from 1898. You can see the Méliès influence in this one.

And also this tragically funny film from 1903 called Mary Jane’s Mishap.  That’s Smith’s wife in the lead.

And last but not least I made an error in the Méliès post and attributed this film to him.  It’s actually Smith’s film. Méliès made a film of the same name a year earlier – proof of the competition that early filmmakers faced and that they had good knowledge of their competitors. 

Then in steps Edwin Porter a projectionist for the Edison company until he became a director in his own right.  He started out directing a few actualitiés then, after picking up on the narrative advances of Méliès, Smith and Williamson, directed the first true narrative film, The Life of an American Fireman. 

I found this copy of the film which has subtitled information on the important narrative structure (Thanks to Ashley Hughes). This film has no sound so crank up your tunes.

Life of an American Fireman Narrative Structure from Ashley Hughes on Vimeo.

However, there is some controversy about this being the first narrative film because two copies exist.  One with parallel editing and one without.  No one is certain which came first and the second may have come much later than the first.

So the first indisputable narrative film is the Great Train Robbery. 

However, even that film has it’s controversy.  Many believe it was “borrowed” from this earlier British film.

Either way the shot and narrative film were out of the bottle and there was no putting them back.  The way was paved, the structure in place, for the upcoming great silent directors like D.W. Griffith.

Next article The Birth of an Industry

Previous article The First Narrative Films

First article Before Film

Friday, September 9, 2011

The first narrative films

Up until around 1896 all films were recordings of real time events.  Some may have told limited stories but ultimately they were the equivalent of sketches or stage acts.

The man credited with discovering the potential of film as a narrative device (and also it’s potential for trickery) was Georges Méliès.  The story goes that  Méliès  while filming an actualitié, he was filming a bus coming out of a tunnel and the film jammed.  When he got the film started again the bus had been replaced by a hearse.  When the film was projected it seemed like the bus had transformed into a hearse.  Nothing like having the first epiphany about the power of film editing.

As the father of special effects George Méliès made use of what he had learned.

He was the first to put editing to narrative use though, because he thought of his films in terms of theatre, as a series of tableaus which he edited together.

He also made extensive use of tinting. He had a shop full of ladies that hand tinted his films. He is probably best remembered for his masterpiece Le Voyage Dans La Lune (Voyage to the Moon).  The first sci-fi film.

You can watch the complete film here.  Méliès went on to make many other films until he was put out of business by Pathé Frères in 1923. Hand tinting was expensive.

Unfortunately Méliès never quite went beyond the use of his discovery for trickery or scene changes. To discover a “shot” it would take a light bulb moment from a projectionist named Edwin S Porter who worked for Edison Corporation in New York.

Next article A Shot in the Narrative

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First article Before Film

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Earliest Films

The earliest films were non-narrative documents of mundane events or entertainment acts.  The competing companies where those that had projectors.  In the US, Edison Company had the Kinetoscope.  In France, the Lumière Brothers had the Cinematograph.  And in England, Charles Jenkins had the Phantoscope (which was the first machine to project a motion picture).

Cinematograph detail_12_clip_image023[1]

There earliest known surviving celluloid film was shot by by Louis Le Prince on October 14, 1888 in Roundhay, Leeds, West Yorkshire, England.

Edison Company produced many short films using the Kinetograph, the most famous of which (for some reason or other) was Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894).  This was considered a documentary.

However, the sneeze wasn’t the earliest.  The earliest by Edison that I could find was Dickson’s Greeting (1891).  Dickson invented the Kinetograph technology for Edison.

Other Edison films were entertainment acts.  Edison Co were trying to make money after all and the best way to do that was to entertain.  Here’s a compilation of some early Edison films for your enjoyment.

The Lumière Brothers were also interested in cashing in on this new medium with their actualités.  Here’s a compilation of their films for your enjoyment.

But most of these short films were for the Nickelodeon arcade traffic.  Soon, films would become longer and they would start to tell stories. 

Next article The First Narrative Films

Previous article Before Film

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Before Film

Before screenwriting was even in the picture, we needed the picture – a moving one at that.  The first “motion pictures”  came to us in the form of mechanical devices.  One was called the Phenakistoscope which was invented by Joseph Plateau.

Muybridge - Phenakistoscope disk Muybridge - Phenakistoscope disk animated

Plateau was credited with the invention even though the idea had been around since Euclid.  The Phenakistoscope disk above was done by Eadweard Muybridge.  More on Eadweard later. 

The other invention was the Zoetrope.  Invented by Ding Huan in China in 180 AD but modernly credited to William George Horner.  It became popular in the 1860s.


Eadweard Muybridge, mentioned above, is considered the first person to make a motion picture – capture live images.  Eadweard captured the images of a horse using 24 trip wired cameras to settle a bet made about  whether a running horse ever had all four legs lifted off the ground at once. 

Muybridge - Sallie Gardner Muybridge - Sallie Gardner animated

After Muybridge the first motion picture camera was invented by William Friese-Greene.  But his ‘chronophotographic’ camera only ran at 10 frames a second which was far too slow for practical use.

Chronophotographic camera  Muybridge - Woman walking down stairs

The example chronophotography is another by Eadweard Muybridge, Woman walking down stairs.

In 1891, K. L. Dickson working for Thomas Edison invented the Kinetograph (aka Kinetoscope)  which took a series of instantaneous photographs on standard Eastman Kodak photographic emulsion coated on to a transparent celluloid strip 35 mm wide. 


And though it might have looked a bit different than today’s cameras, the age of motion pictures had begun.

Next article The Earliest Films