Thursday, March 17, 2011

Early Film: Beginnings through the Silent Era

Before we had film, we had plays and dances. These were ways of telling a story and entertaining groups of people. They involved many of the same things that go into telling a story on film. Scripts, sets, directors, actors, actresses, storyboards, and costume were all integral parts of stage productions, and made their way into being used in film.

In the 1860s, mechanisms for producing two-dimensional drawings in motion were demonstrated with devices such as the zeotrope, mutoscope and praxinscope. These machines were outgrowths of simple optical devices and would display sequences of still pictures at sufficient speed for the images on the pictures to appear to be moving, a phenomenon called persistence of vision. Naturally the images needed to be carefully designed to achieve the desired effect, and the underlying principle became the basis for the development of film animation.

The development of celluloid film for still photography made it possible to capture live motion. An 1878 experiment by English photographer Eadweard Muybridge in the United States using 24 cameras produced a series of stereoscopic images of a galloping horse, is arguably the first "motion picture," though it was not called by this name.

This technology required a person to look into a viewing machine to see the pictures which were separate paper prints attached to a drum turned by a handcrank. The pictures were shown at a variable speed of about 5 to 10 pictures per second, depending on how rapidly the crank was turned. Commercial versions of these machines were coin operated.

By the 1880's, the motion picture camera was invented and allowed the individual images to be captured and stored on a single reel. This made way for the motion picture projector, which shone light through the individual pictures, so they could be projected onto a screen. Thus the movie theater was born.

(The picture is a still frame from Roundhay Garden Scene, the world's first production shot using a
motion picture camera, 1888.)

The productions were often short, with no sound and little editing. Nevertheless, audiences were captivated by these "motion pictures" and wanted to see more. Around the turn of the 20th century, films began developing a narrative structure by stringing scenes together to tell narratives. The scenes were later broken up into multiple shots of varying sizes and angles. Other techniques such as camera movement were realized as effective ways to portray a story on film. Rather than leave the audience with noise of early cinema projectors, theater owners would hire a piano player or organist or a full orchestra to play music that would cover noises of projector. Eventually, musicians would start to fit the mood of the film at any given moment. By the early 1920s, most films came with a prepared list of sheet music for this purpose, with complete film scores being composed for major productions. If you haven't seen a silent movie before, please do. Though it is usually only a piano or organ playing, it does make the movie more enjoyable and establishes a mood. One of my favorite silent films is Nosferatu. The organ music is perfect for the movie, and it's fun to see what productions were like in the early 20th century.

Other famous Silent films are A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune), Ben-Hur, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Charlie Chaplin's famous silent film, The Kid. The silent film era basically spanned the late 1800's to the late 1920's. Vaudeville was a very popular act used in silent films, as a way of getting laughs from visual humor, pratfalls, and exaggerated movements. Vaudeville would be a continued inspiration for many films through the early 20th century.

Hollywood was born at the eve of World War I and churned out productions like D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. The Birth of a Nation began filming in 1914 and pioneered such camera techniques as deep focus, jump-cut, cut-cross and facial close-up, which are now considered integral to the industry. The film was a technical wonder at the time and was extremely successful at the box office when it came out in 1915. With a budget of $110,000, it returned $10 million. Though it is considered a staple in the study of film and film production, it is an extremely controversial film, being all about the KKK and portraying them in a good light. D.W. Griffith got so much heat from the film that he decided to make another movie the next year called Intolerance. The movie showcased four separate times in history where intolerance led to terrible things such as Christ's crucifixion. Unfortunately though, the damage had been done and The Birth of a Nation caused a new found interest in the KKK and the second era of the hate group began.

Several actors and actresses had their heydays in the silent era of film. Charlie Chaplin is probably the most recognizable, mostly playing his lovable character, the Tramp. Harold Lloyd was another well known actor during the silent era, starring in Safety Last! and Grandma's Boy usually playing his "Glasses character." Though Lloyd is not as well known, he made more money than Chaplin in the end and had his fair share of successes. If you're wondering if you have seen him somewhere, it's probably from the image of the man hanging from the clock tower hand. Buster Keaton is also bunched in with Lloyd and Chaplin for greatest silent film actors. He always played a very serious and stoic man which earned him the name, "The Great Stone Face." His most famous movie, The General, was considered by most to be one of the greatest silent films of all time and also the best on the Civil War. The movie was a comedy though and was also directed by Keaton himself. Keaton, like Chaplin was an accomplished actor and director.

The name most associated with great silent film actress is Lillian Gish. Her career spanned from the early 1910's to the late 80's, but her most prominent roles came during the silent era. She had a starring role in The Birth of a Nation and Broken Blossoms (left), which was a film done in sepia instead of the traditional black and white. But, like most silent film actors, she didn't have much work after "talkies" came around in 1927.

The beginning of film was a wonder of innovation and design and though it may seem simple to us now, it was awe-inspiring then. Seeing moving pictures is one thing we take for granted these days, but was a real treat for people living in the late 1800's.

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