You too can be a silent film director

When the Silent Film Director app for the iPhone was released a year or so ago, we noted it in passing and gave it no further thought. Just another gimmicky smartphone app – in this case one which converted your videos into faux silents with sepia tone, scratches and intertitles – and not likely to make much of an impact.

Well, a year or so on, and Silent Film Director has turned out to be a cult hit. More thought has gone into to development than you might have expected, with respected silent film musician Ben Model serving as consultant. News stories regularly come down the wires that indicate its growing popularity, demonstrated not least by the number of videos produced in the format which are to be found on YouTube. Most are pretty much what you would expect, inconsequential home movies with a dash of tomfoolery, but there is clearly something about the time travel effect that converting 2012 into 1922 at the push of a button that appeals, and which has played its part, we suspect, in the increased appreciation of silent film generally which we cannot help but notice.

Some day someone will be able to write a thesis on the connection between The Artist and Silent Film Director in relation to the rebirth of silent films, but meanwhile things have come to their logical conclusion and we have the first iPhone Silent Film Festival, put on by MacPhun, the developers of Silent Film Director. Budding Hazanaviciuses have until May 28th to submit a video of up to three minutes in length, using the app. The rules are simple, and supplied in suitable style:

You don’t have to shoot your film with your iPhone, just use the app to edit and upload the results. The competition is open to anyone worldwide. Winners will be announced on June 1st, and there are weekly winners as well, with prizes including tickets to see Napoleon in San Francisco, which is commendably imaginative of them. You can view the videos on the Silent Film Director YouTube channel, from which we have picked the video at the top of this post because (a) it’s the first silent film we’ve seen with Barack Obama; (b) by who knows what design there happens to be a poster for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari in the background; (c) the footage is taken from 24-hour channel Russia Today, of all sources; and (d) it’s quite fun (the music is from that regular source for silent film music online, Incompetech.com).

(Apologies for the reduced activity from The Bioscope of late. We are busy with other matters, though we try to keep the news service active. Plus we’re working on one of those long posts which require far too much research.)

The time machine

Demonstration video for the Manchester Time Machine

Now here’s a really enterprising initiative, and a sign of where things will be going for archive film. The North West Film Archive in Manchester has just issued what is probably the first iPhone app using archive film. The Manchester Time Machine marries archive film of the city with GPS data, so that wherever you are in Manchester you can check your phone and see film of that place from decades past.

It doesn’t quite operate at street level – there are eighty video clips ranging from the 1910s to the 1970s, so you have to be in the right place, but it’s a natural way of connecting people today with a place’s moving image heritage. There isn’t a list of all the films used (unless you download the app of course), but the silent films include a Whit Walk in Market Street in 1911, and policemen marching in front of the Town Hall in 1914. The films are grouped by decade from the 1910s, or you can select a location from an interactive Manchester map, or just use your GPS to locate whichever archive film is near you. the clips come with background information and a ‘virtual compass’ so you can orient yourself to be facing in the same direction as the film was shot.

The app, which is free, can be downloaded from the iTunes app store, and versions for Android and iPad are to follow soon. Obviously it can only be used effectively by people in Manchester, but I’m pretty sure it’s an idea that is going to be emulated, in the UK and elsewhere. Just imagine how it might be used for silent film locations…

While we’re on the subject of the North West Film Archive, they also have a DVD out March 13th, Preston and its Guild 1902 to 1992. This is a history of the Lancashire town of Preston through its rich legacy of archive film. That there were so many local newsreel made of Preston in the early years was down to the superabundant energy of local filmmaker and impresario Will Onda, who is the subject of a research project by Emma Heslewood, who keeps up an engaging blog on her discoveries.

The North West Film Archive is one a of number of regional film archives in the UK whose great enterprise and whose important collections we have highlighted on these pages before now. Such archives have always had to think quickly on their feet, and the various ways in which they are grasping the opportunities of new media platforms is truly heartening to see.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 19

http://gawker.com

The Bioscope Newsreel failed to hit your screens last Friday, as the entire editorial team was in Spain. But we have returned, with items curious and diverting for your delectation and instruction.

100 Years of YouTube
In case you missed it, one of Google’s contribution to April Fools’ Day was to add a “1911” button to YouTube that allowed users to convert videos into faux silent films, complete with sepia tone, scratches (naturally) and tinkly piano (of course). Unfortunately the joke fell somewhat flat for some, as many videos of serious note (9/11, the Japanese tsunami etc.) hardly lended themselves to facetious treatment. Read more.

We have an app for that
More on faux silents, as we now have Silent Film Director, a new app made by MacPhun for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad and available on the iTunes App Store. It allows you to convert your videos into “classic silent movies”. There are six themed filters: an “old and grainy 20s-era movie filter”, 60s home video, 70s-era home video, standard black-and-white, sepia-toned, and “Vintage Sepia” with extra graininess and signs of wear and tear. There are soundtracks you can add, then upload your video to YouTube, share it on Facebook, or enter the developers’ “International Silent Film” content. Read more.

Silent Naruse
Eclipse has issued a three-disc set that brings together the five surviving silent films of Japanese master Mikio Naruse, pre-eminent in studies of women’s lives. They are the short film Flunky, Work Hard (1931), No Blood Relation (1932), Apart From You (1933), Every-Night Dreams (1933) and Street Without End (1934). The films are presented silent, with optional soundtracks, and come with English subtitles. Read more.

The Garbo note
Greta Garbo is going to be on a banknote. She is one of six prominent Swedes (including Ingmar Bergman) whose faces have been selected to appear on Swedish bills scheduled to come into circulation around 2014-15. Is she the first film person (and of course she was a silent film person) to be so honoured? Read more.

Fascinating Chomón
One of the items we brought with us from Spain was the English version of Joan M. Minguet Batllori’s Segundo de Chomón: The Cinema of Fascination. It’s a pleasing critical biography of the leading Spanish of the early cinema period, someone whose reputation as a master of the fantastical continues to grow. See for instance Chris Edwards’ detailed appreciation of Sculpteur moderne (1908) over at the fine Silent Volume blog. Read more.

Footage on demand

http://www.criticalpast.com

There are many archive footage websites which are offering their wares to the commercial footage researcher, but whose holdings are going to be of interest to the academic enthusiast. We’ve previously covered such resources as British Pathe and British Movietone, and will return to other such sites in due course. One that has come to my attention that is just a little bit different is CriticalPast. It’s certainly worth some investigation.

CriticalPast is designed to make films and still images easily available to professionals and non-professionals alike. It currently holds over 57,000 videos and 7 million still images, all royalty-free, much of it content from US government agencies, plus such familiar collections as the Ford and Universal Newsreels collections. While many footage allow visitors to view preview clips, CriticalPast lets users download footage or images immediately (upon payment, of course, and after assenting to a licence agreement), with different image resolution and prices according to usage. The cheapest rate is $3.97 (for iPhone, iPad, PowerPoint etc); the commercial rate for say an HD MPEG2 1080-25p depends on file size e.g. a 5 minute video of at 1.3GB would cost $145.

What makes CriticalPast stand out, apart from the user-friendly ordering, is the quality of the searching experience and the sheer quantity and quality of what is on offer. It is almost all non-fiction film material, ranging from 1891 (genuinely so – it’s an early Edison test) to 1996 (a few rogue fiction films have slipped in, like Chaplin’s The Bond, D.W. Griffith’s The New York Hat and clips from The Birth of a Nation). The largest amount of material comes from the 1940s. As well as the simple front-page search there is an advance search option which allows to to search by specific dates, date range, colour, silent or sound, edited or unedited, language, and location. There is a very helpful timeline dividing clips up by decade, then year and thereafter by location. Once you have searched for any subject there is the option to refine your search further by decade/year, location and format. The cataloguing information is generally good, with concise, informative description and US Government Archive ID numbers. For any item you choose you can tweet about it, send to Facebook, Stumble Upon etc., email the information to a friend – and, yes, you can even view it. The images are all frame stills from the videos (British Pathe is another footage library which has created a subsidiary image archive by capturing frames as regular intervals as part of the video digitising process).

Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance in The Bond (1918), available in its 1942 Canadian reissue form under the title Some Bonds I Have Known

If we concentrate on the silent film era (which is our wont) there are some 7,200 clips available. You can find Edison films from the 1890s, then news-based material from around the world (it certainly isn’t just restricted to the USA, and interestingly there are quite a few British Gaumont Graphic newsreels), with strong World War I material (there isn’t that much in the archive before 1915), travel, exploration and industrial films, and much surprisingly material for the curious browser. I have found oil exploration in Persia in 1908, British food aid being received by Russian villagers in 1917, US black troops on horseback and bicycle in 1918, Hungarian newsreels of its brief Soviet republic of 1919, footage of Ernest Shackleton’s final Antarctic expedition in 1922, and the production of nitrate film stock in Rochester, NY in 1929.

It’s a fascinating site, compulsively browsable, and really useful whether you are looking to use clips yourself or not. Go explore.

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