The art of timing

http://www.cinemetrics.lv

Measurement is fundamental to film. In the early days of the medium, films were priced by the foot, with the content of little consequence unless it was coloured or featured a subject of particular importance, in which case the price per foot went up. The business was measured in how many feet of film were sold, competition was fiercest where cuts were made by one company in the price per foot of film, and as films grew longer they would still be measured in so many reels. Quantity overrode quality. Hold up a strip of film and you could use it as a tape measure – equidistant frames arranged in a straight line.

Films may be all digital now (or virtually so), but that has only increased their propensity towards measurement. There is duration, frame speed, file size, bit rate, and still that succession of frames that are fundamental to the nature of the time-based medium.

Then things get more complicated, because films comprise multiple shots. This was a puzzle for the earliest film producers, who started off believing that a different shot became a different film, to be catalogued, priced and sold separately. But art and the market started to demand that these shots be brought together. Films might now be measured in reels, but within those reels a complexity emerged, as the number of shots, and their length, started to vary according to the type of film or producer. This was not an issue as such for the producers of the period, but decades later it has become a matter of great interest to film scholars who would like to assess the art of film not just qualitatively but quantitively. Which is where cinemetrics comes in.

Cinemetrics graph for Battleship Potemkin, produced by Yuri Tsivian

Cinemetrics is the creation of Professor Yuri Tsivian of the University of Chicago. A renowned historian of early cinema (if his Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception isn’t on your bookshelf as yet, it should be), probably best known for introducing film scholarship to the marvels of pre-revolutionary Russian dramatic film, notably the work of Yevgenii Bauer. It was when Tsivian started doing an average shot analysis on the films of Bauer and his pupil Lev Kuleshov that Tsivian found evidence to show that “between 1917 and 1918 the cutting tempo of Russian films had jumped from the slowest to the fastest in the world”. What might previously have been intuited could, with patience, be demonstrated empiricially.

With patience, and some software, that is. Because Tsivian then did two extraordinary things. The first was (with computer scientist Gunars Civjans) in 2005 to build a software programme for measuring films; the second was to invite anyone in the world to take part and submit their data to a website – a model example of crowdsourcing in action.

Timing I think was my key thing. I was able to figure out the timing to close the gap between my opponent and myself and move back, and that was I think the key.

It is symptomatic of the imagination, as well as the playfulness, of Tsivian, that he should provide this quote from Chuck Norris on how he won six karate world titles. As Tsivian says, “much like martial arts, or like poetry and music, cinema is the art of timing”. Other scholars, notably David Bordwell and Barry Salt, has shown interest in average shot lengths as a means to measure film style, and Tsivian’s endeavour has demonstrated many scholars worldwide are similarly interested, and sufficiently dedicated to the cause to view and measure films (from any era, and of any kind) and submit the data online for all to study and share.

The Cinemetrics tool can be downloaded onto your PC or used online. The idea is that you then run your video and mark each change in shot with the click of a mouse on by hitting a keyboard button. This will then give you your data on the film’s length, number of shots and average shot length. You then upload the data to the Cinemetrics database, which produces graphs and publishes the data online for all to see. It’s that simple (an advanced option invites you to identify types of shot, such as close-up or medium shot). A more sophisticated tool, the Frame Accurate Cinemetrics Tool has recently been made available, for which you must rip a copy of the film you wish to analyse onto your hard drive (a tad contentious under some copyright regimes).

Video explaining how to use the new Frame Accurate Cinemetrics Tool (FACT)

Many have taken part, and there are many silent films that have been analyses. The database currently contains just over 10,000 titles, which can be sorted by date, country, director, submitter, average shot length (unsurprisingly the single shot Russian Ark comes out top), media shot length, and so forth. Many silent films are along them.

The Cinemetrics site hosts the database, software programme, articles (check out in particular Tsivian’s classic analysis of Intolerance), examples of Cinemetrics studies, a discussion board, and a lab section for comparing data. Most recently (and the reason for posting this now), a ‘conversations’ section has been added on film and statistics in which film scholars and statistical scientists come together to discuss their shared field arranged around particular themes.

The language of statistics is not one that appeals to most film viewers, and some of the debate may seem wilfully recherché. Talk of medians, means, datasets and outliers may seem to have little to do with the appreciation of film, reducing an art into a quantifiable commodity, just as those early film producers who only saw their product in terms of feet and reels.

But we cannot judge films by emotions alone, no matter how acutely attuned to artistic worth we may feel them to be. Data can quanitify what the eye may only sense or the heart feel. Of course there is more to film art than shot lengths, and new kinds of film analysis tools are starting to emerge which analyse action within and beyond the frame or shot (see, for example, the Gestus Project, which employs vector analysis; or Tim J. Smith’s acclaimed work on visual cognition, which maps where our eyes actually rove over the screen as opposed to where you think they might be looking). The important things in any sort of data analysis are relevance, consistency and range. The work of the cinemetricists is firmly relevant to how films are constructed, it is rigorously consistent in application, and the range of scholars worldwide who have conributed to this remarkable work enriches the data with every new contribution. Even if statistics leaves you cold, the ingenuity and dedication merit your admiration.

Acknowledgments to Nick Redfern of the Research into Film blog, a Cinemetrics contributor and film empiricist, whose blog alerted me to the new ‘conversations’ feature.

(Unfortunately the name ‘Cinemetrics’ has recently been adopted by graphic designer Frederic Brodbeck to create visualisations of films derived from their data. The results look beautiful, but do not quantify or analyse in the same way, and have no connection with Tsivian and Civjans’ Cinemetrics.)

So, how has the digital revolution been for you?

Domitor conference taking place at the University of Brighton

I’m taking part in a panel at the Domitor conference (Domitor being the international body for the study of early cinema, whose biennial conference is taking place in Brighton). The theme is ‘Digital Technologies and Early Cinema’ and four speakers have been asked to address the subject of the digital revolution’s impact on the study of early cinema. Each of us has been asked to kick things off by speaking for ten minutes on “how the digital revolution has changed your practice”. For me, it seems appropriate to write my response in the form of a blog post. So here it is.


Hello. I was intrigued to see in the conference programme that the affiliation given with my name was not my institution but my website. My day job is curator for moving images at the British Library, where I am mostly concerned with television, news programmes and born digital media; so, the moving images of today. My hobby is early cinema, with its chief expression being a website, The Bioscope, which I maintain as an information source on those areas of early and silent cinema that interest me – and presumably others, since it enjoys a reasonably good readership for what is – let’s face it – quite an obscure subject, even within film studies.

I have been writing The Bioscope for just over five years, during which time I have produced 1,364 posts (that is, individual pieces of writing), amounting to some 600,000 words. That’s seven or eight books’ worth, had I been so inclined to write books instead, but why put the measure in books? As I often say to people when talking about the site, more people read the Bioscope in a single day than probably have read any of the articles or books that I have written or co-edited have received in years. I’m not tied down by a need to achieve a quota of academic publication for any research assessment exercise. I simply like communicating things to people. And it gets read.

The Bioscope allows me to choose whatever subject interests me, to write in a light yet informative style which suits the online medium and certainly suits me as a writer, and it gives me responses to what I am doing. Posts receives comments, the blog’s software tells me how many people have visited each piece of writing, individual posts get cited in any online (and offline) writings, and I am in contact with people from around the world, both early film scholars and those merely curious. The Bioscope is in a constant state of communication. Write poorly, or infrequently, and the viewing figures start to fall. The price paid for the attention is constant vigiliance.

I’m not interested in reviewing films, nor in giving opinions as such. The aim of the Bioscope is to communicate information, encouraging others to explore the growing range of online research opportunities for themselves. So the site has come to specialise in information on digitised journals, newspaper sources, assessments of databases and other resources, as well as promoting conferences, festivals, publications and so on, broadly relating to early and silent cinema around the world. The emphasis is on early cinema in its different contexts – film as art holds little interest for me – and on the relevance of early cinema today. If it were purely an exercise in revisiting the past, it would be pointless. Early cinema must be of interest because it is relevant, because through its study we can learn more of the world. This, for me, is what the digital revolution is doing, showing how early cinema connects with the worlds that surround it.

So, I’m particularly interested in early cinema in its various contexts – that is, the ways in which it connects with other forms of social, political, economic or cultural activity. This has been, of course, a major feature of early cinema studies in recent years, and something which Domitor itself has helped encourage through conferences such as these, with their impressive diversity of speakers and perspectives. It also connects my hobby with my work, because at the British Library I am chiefly concerned with the moving image medium as it supports other subjects, and how the digital world is providing opportunities not simply to increase access, but to facilitate the integration of diverse resources and to encourage new forms of discovery. I want researchers to pursue a particular theme and find the book, the newspaper article, the image, the sound recording and the film on that theme all in the one place, and to make exciting discoveries through these associations. And that’s what we must want for early cinema too.

Having said all this enthusiastic stuff, there are aspects to this sort of writing that bother me. Firstly, that constant vigiliance can be wearing. One feels the need always to be finding new material, to be publishing with some degree of frequency, to stay fresh, to keep up those readership figures. These maybe entirely self-imposed pressures, but they exist all the same.

Secondly, and more importantly, there is the possible impermanance of some many of these web resources on which we increasingly depend. I wrote a recent post about websites on early and silent cinema that have disappeared recently. They included such important sites as the Ariel Cinematographica Register and The Silent Cinema Bookshelf. Most websites, even after they have been taken down, can be found archived on the Internet Archive, and national libraries are increasingly moving into web archiving – the British Library hopes soon to start archiving the UK web space, for example.

But web archives take only occasional snapshots of a site – perhaps four a year – and often they do not include associated media such as video files, while databases and other such complex underlying systems are beyond web archiving. Databases cost money to support, and more money to keep them up to date (a static database is a dead database), and we can’t depend on them to remain online forever. I have worked on a number of research databases, happily all still going, but each at the whim of uncertain funding, or change in the host institution’s priorities. Crucially, links to files and pages change when sites are changed, making citation hazardous. Fundamentally the web does not stand still, for as much as it adds such huge amounts, it also loses vast amounts, as old information is overlaid by the new.

The British Library

There are significant shifts in information power relations which may affect what we can access, and from whom. At the moment, we identify most research collections with the institutions that hold the physical originals. This makes the research web very much a reflection of the physical research environment. The website and associated resources of a body such as the British Library become an extension of its physical reality.

But what happens when everything becomes digital? Who are the owners then, when anyone might manage, host or otherwise point to digital resources if they have the means to do so? What is the purpose of a physical library in a digital world? Who will need libraries or archives at all, in the long run, if Google can do it all for us? And if the private sector largely takes over that which traditionally we have expected to be delivered by the public sector, what will the access be like, what will be the price we pay for it, what will we have lost?

Media History Digital Library

I don’t think our national libraries and archives are going to disappear, and I think access is only going to increase and to be fabulous, though we will have to pay more for it than has been the case up until now. I do think that new kinds of institutional-like sites will emerge, however, which could supplant the work of some of the traditional institutions. The Media History Digital Library, for example, a non-profit initiative which is digitising extensive numbers of classic media periodicals that are in the public domain; or even the humble Bioscope, if it wants to become a focal point for the discovery of early film research resources. But how long will the Media History Digital Library last? Will I get bored of The Bioscope tomorrow and go off and do something else instead? The web world feels so impermanent, like it has been built on a whim. The web world feels so impermanent, like it has been built on a whim. The web is not going to disappear. It is where we now discover, interpret, re-use and share our researches. It is where early cinema belongs. But we’ll never be able to be completely confident that what we find online today will still be there tomorrow. And it is hard to build scholarship on such uncertainty.

I said that the value for me in early cinema is its connection with other subjects. This is what has been so good about the digital revolution, showing how early film fits in, not only with the world that created it, but with our world today. Indeed, at times I’m surprised we still have early cinema studies and it hasn’t evolved into something else, giving the associations and connections the digital environment provides. It’s why I so enjoyed Josh Yumibe‘s paper yesterday, which talked of the use of colour in our field, but threaded together an argument that brought in Hunger Games, Harry Smith, Loie Fuller, Scriabin, Kandinsky and D.W. Griffith, making early film concerns timeless and relevant.

As an expression of this, and as sort of tribute to Yumibe’s paper, I’ll finish off with a video which I posted on The Bioscope last Christmas, when not many people saw it, so here’s a chance to do so again. It brings together our world and their world in a witty and thought-provoking fashion, and demonstrates for me that the digital revolution has been, more than anything else, such fun.

Lost sites

The Wayback Machine page for The Silent Film Bookshelf

We’ve been having a bit of a spring clean at New Bioscope Towers. We know that one of the features of the site that people seems to value is the lengthy lists of links in handy categories which are provided down the right-hand side (unless you are consulting the mobile version, in which case the links are at the bottom of your screen after much scrolling downwards). The problem with so many links is that a fair number change or in some cases disappear entirely, and they have to be updated every now and then (the links in the Bioscope posts themselves seldom get updated – they have to remain what they were at the time of publication, though changes are sometimes noted in the comments).

So what of the websites that have vanished? So, such as some minor blogs and discussion forums, we simply wave farewell to, and leave it at that. Others contained important information, and should not be allowed to disappear any more than we would let a book or a film disappear from an archive. Web archiving is becoming all the more important to libraries around the world, and of course we have the pioneering and now vast resource that is the Internet Archive‘s Wayback Machine. And so, four years after we last conducted a survey of lost websites, here are some of the sites formerly listed by the Bioscope but still discoverable in some form via the Internet Archive. All links are to the Internet Archive version rather than the original site, and you will need to use the IA’s calendar to selected those days on which a snapshot archive record of the site was made.

  • Ariel Cinematographica Register
    Pete Ariel’s huge German-language listing (no illustrations) of makes of cinematographic equipment, including many early models (also available in a book version).
  • Arthur Dulay
    Site dedicated to Arthur Oswald Dulay, British silent film accompanist of another age, with photos, sound files and film clips. In its latter days the site turned into a discussion forum (with no discusions) so check its record from 2009 and before to find the full site.
  • BuechereiWiki Film Search
    This superb set of links created by a German librarian on where to buy films and videos on DVD worldwide still exists, but is now hidden with password access only. Happily, earlier versions (2011 and before) can be found on the IA. A first-rate reference source.
  • Dark Screens
    Ironically, this website on lost cinemas of South London is now lost itself. It lists many cinemas from the area, with mini-histories, map references and general links on cinema history. Best checked on the IA from 2010 and before.
  • Gorgeous George O’Brien
    The star of Sunrise and other Fox dramas was the subject of this fan site, which has useful biographical information even if its many images are no longer traceable.
  • The Georges Melies Database
    There are no websites that really do George Méliès justice, but this Geocities site did at least have a useful filmography and basic background information.
  • Ruan Lingyu
    Another Geocities site, this time dedicated to the great Chinese silent film actress Ruan Lingyu, who committed suicide at the height of her fame. A bit limited in construction, but with some handy biographical information and photos including her funeral.
  • The Silent Cinema Bookshelf
    Though it had not been updated since 1999, David Pierce’s curated selection of original documents on the silent film era was one of the outstanding websites in our field. It has gone now, apparently because the host site cinemaweb.com no longer exists, but the texts can all be found on the IA (including Gene Gauntier’s memoirs, figures on top-grossing silents, articles on silent film music, D.W. Griffith, the making of The Covered Wagon, and film financing, and documentation on silent film speeds including Kevin Brownlow’s much-cited ‘What Was the Right Speed?’). There’s a Bioscope guide to the site here.
  • ThedaBara.net
    The domain name is still active (amusingly under offer as The Dabara.net) but until a year or so ago this was a tribute site devoted to actress Theda Bara, with biography, filmography and photo gallery.

Other sites I have been unable to trace on the Internet Archive. The really handy Paimann’s Filmlisten, a listing of from an Austrian film review journal 1916-1956, which gave all film releases in Austria, has its front page on the IA but no actual list. Does anyone know what has happened to its online version?

Other sites have had names changed, or have been absorbed within other sites. These changes are now reflected in the Bioscope’s links. Do let me know of any dead links that you find.

Elephant’s graveyard

http://www.hathitrust.org

I’m not sure why the Bioscope hasn’t written anything on the Hathi Trust before now. It is one of the largest repositories of digitised written content available, and with huge amounts of content relevant to silent film studies. Maybe it’s because the legality of the enterprise isn’t clear (the Author’s Guild and others have filed a lawsuit against it for copyright violation), yet much of the content is also available via the Internet Archive or Google Books, and it has an impressive list of American universities behind it.

The Hathi Trust (named after the Hindi word for elephant, hence the punning title to this post) is a catalogue and digital repository of digitised content from over sixty research libraries in the USA. It currently boasts 10,263,901 titles, including 5,422,520 books and 269,186 serials, 29% of which they say are in the public domain (in the USA). In other kinds of numbers, thats 3,592,365,350 pages, or 460 terabytes of digital files, or 121 miles of shelving, or 8,339 tons in weight (helpfully they provide a note explaning how this was calulated, basing it on “an average book having 350 pages, being 3/4 of an inch wide, containing 47 MB of information, and weighing 26 ounces”).

It’s a very clear, business-like and practical website. You can search in three ways – by catalogue record (seaching across titles, authors, publisher, year of publication etc.), by full text search (i.e. words within the texts themselves) or via ‘collections’ curated by users. Although every title listed on the database exists in digital form, copyright restrictions similar to those which constrain Google Books mean that though you can search by word across all of the text, only a proportion of the texts can be viewed as full text (presumably 29%). It is possible to narrow searches to only full text results.

As said, there is a subject search option, and if you type in ‘motion pictures’ you get 15,516 records, of which 455 are viewable in full text form. However, some spot-checking using other search terms shows that many relevant titles aren’t classified under ‘motion pictures’, so you are better off using the full-text search option.

So, using our regular test term of ‘kinetocope’, what do we get? A mightily impressive 8,619 results (i.e. books or serials that mention ‘kinetoscope’ somewhere), of which 3,512 are fully viewable. These include W.K-L. Dickson and Antonia Dickson’s History of the kinetograph, kinetoscope, & kinetophonograph (1895), Edwin George Lutz’s Animated cartoons; how they are made, their origin and development (1920), Maxwell Hite’s Lessons in how to become a successful moving picture machine operator (1908) and C. Francis Jenkins’ Animated pictures; an exposition of the historical development of chromophotography (1898).

Each full-text record is present in a ‘classic’ view which shows one page on the screen and allows you to scroll through page by page using arrow buttons, as well as zooming in or out and rotation tools. Other views on offer are scrolling, flipbook, thumbnails (handy for image-rich publications) and plain text. You can search for any word within the text, the results for which are given highlighted in a line or two of text, as in the example below taken from the unexpected source of Indian massacres and tales of the red skins: an authentic history of the American Indian from 1492 to the present time (1895). Clicking on the page number then takes you to the relevant page in the text.

Mention of the word ‘kinetoscope’ in Indian Massacres and Tales of the Red Skins (1895)

This is extraordinary stuff. On relatively quick inspection, I’ve found several key texts not available on the Internet Archive, for example Mrs D.W. Griffith’s (Linda Arvidson) When the Movies Were Young (1925) and Martin Quigley’s Magic shadows; the story of the origin of motion pictures (1948). There are many titles whose public domain status seems dubious (Ernest Lindgren’s The Art of the Film, for example, published in 1963 – though maybe the copyright wasn’t renewed in the USA), but then there are quite modern titles there presumably with the blessing of the publisher: Gregory A. Waller’s Main Street amusements: movies and commercial entertainment in a Southern city, 1896-1930 (1995), for example.

And it’s not just books. There are motion picture journals here, incuding titles not available on the Internet Archive. Bioscope reader Mirko Heinemann kindly brought the following editions of Moving Picture World to my attention, several of which are unique (digitally) to the Hathi Trust site:

These have all been added to the Bioscope’s list of silent film journals available online. There is a PDF download option provided, though in many cases it seems to be only a page at a time, unless the record specifies that the whole volume is available for download.

You can create your own collection to act as a research aide memoire or to assist others. For this you need to register with the University of Michigan, which is straightforward, select the texts under your theme, tag them, choose a title for your collection, and it gets added to the long list of collections previously created and browsable. There is already a list there for American silent film culture, listing sixty-one “Primary sources related to the history of American silent film”.

The Hathi Trust Digital Library is frankly a bit overwhelming. There’s so much there you hardly know where to start. On testing the site I felt like I need a more obscure subject to pursue (yes, there are some subjects out there more obscure than silent films) just so that I could have a manageable set of resources. I’m uncertain about its interpretation of fair use and public domain, but there are plenty of titles there for which you can search the full text but not view the full text, so legal proprietaries would seem to have been followed.

The Hathi Trust would appear to have created the optimum digital library, at least for text-based content. For advanced searching, it is ahead of the Internet Archive, with only its display tools not quite matching the IA’s excellent viewer. The limitations on downloading PDFs are a disappointment, but the ease of use, the relevance of results, and the sheer range of publications on offer (sometimes surprising, generally useful) make this essential for anyone engaged in silent film research. Moreover, as a coming together of the collections of a range of noteworthy collections, it represents what the digital library of the future means – not confined by the physical walls of any one insitution, but shared by many for the benefit of all, wherever they might be.

The Hays code

Will H. Hays c.1921, from the Library of Congress

Meet William Harrison Hays, chairman of the Republican National Committee, then U.S. Postmaster General, then president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) from 1922 to 1945, making him one of the most influential people in American film. The MPPDA (later the Motion Picture Association of America) was formed following the criticism made of the Hollywood following such scandals as the death of the drug-addicted Wallace Reid and the lurid Fatty Arbuckle case. The industry feared the imposition of federal censorship and created the MPPDA to demonstrate that it could govern itself.

The MPPDA was therefore a trade association whose chief interest was in maintaining good relations with government, church groups, and other bodies concerned at the influence – real or imagined – that motion pictures had, particularly on the young. Its best known output was the Production Code, popularly known as the Hays code, of 1930, which set down moral guidelines for the production of motion pictures, with these three guiding principles:

  • No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
  • Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  • Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

The Code as not mandatory at first, but became so in 1934 (hence the ‘Pre Code’ films of the era immediatelt before 1934) and would remain in force, though progressively infringed, until 1968, when it was replaced by the MPAA ratings system.

All of this makes the operations, decisions, personnel and associates of the MPPDA of huge relevance to the study of American motion pictures, in the silent era and beyond. And so the creation of the MPPDA Digital Archive is considerable importance to our field.

This is a database, with digitised documents, of the extant records of the General Correspondence files of the MPPDA, covering the period from 1922 to 1939. The MPPA microfilmed some of its archive of documents in 1965, then threw away the originals. Researcher Richard Maltby discovered the reels in 1984 and had copies made of twelve of them. Subsequently the original microfilms were donated to the Special Collections Department of the Centre for Motion Picture Study of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, by which point some had been mislaid (covering the 1920s). So some of the reels made by Maltby are the only surviving copies, and they can be found on the MPPDA Digital Archive.

There are some 35,000 pages available. Owing to the poor quality of the microfilms, the use of optical character recognition for converting the documents into word-searchable text wasn’t possible. Instead – and thanks to assorted research grants – Maltby as fellow researchers at Flinders University, Australia (notably Ruth Vasey) have transcribed, described or otherwise annotated huge numbers of the documents, as well as having them digitised and ordered in a form that respects their original arrangement and enables reliable citation for scholars. It is a model piece of database construction.

An advertisement for Daughters of Today (1924) which caused an uproar by mentioning Leopold and Loeb (see http://mppda.flinders.edu.au/records/137)

So what will you find? You will find the essential minutiae of an industry protecting its reputation through the subtle arts of public relations. As the website puts it:

The documents in the MPPDA’s General Correspondence files are an immensely rich source of information about the history of the motion picture industry. They describe the organization and operation of the industry’s trade association, and include extensive correspondence and other documentation relating to industry policy and public relations, distributor-exhibitor relations, censorship and self-regulation. The great majority of this material is unavailable from other sources.

You will find letters, telegrams, memos, press releases, speeches, official statements, newspaper cuttings, and much more. The search apparatus is extraordinary. As well as being able to search for any term, you can search by frame reference, year, record type, keyword, organisation, film, or person. In each case a drop-down menu is provided, with the number of records held under each term, so straight away you can see that there are, for example, 75 press releases available, 13 documents on audience research, 30 records relating to United Artists, 10 documents on Battleship Potemkin, and 986 document that reference Will H. Hays himself. Some of the classification employed (i.e. for the keywords) is idiosycratic or unevenly applied (only one record keyworded under ‘sex’?), but it makes the database compulsively browsable as well as useful.

The database is open to all, but the document appear in low resolution form unless you are registered with the site (which is free). The higher resolution images come with a helpful zoom option for examining documents in closer detail. There is much background information on the MPDDA, its archives and the construction of the database, with quick links to featured records, people and organisations available on the front page for these needing a flavour of what the site contains (so, for example, the entry on Harry Warner gives you a short biography, links to organisations and links to all association records where he is mentioned). Although the archive is advertised as covering 1922-1939, there are a few documents going back to 1912.

Richard Maltby, Ruth Vasey and the Screen and Media Department of Flinders University, Australia continue to work on the database, adding new transcriptions and supporting descriptive information. It is an extraordinary achievement and a huge boon to moving image research, for the silent era and beyond.

Go explore.

Pathé and time

http://www.britishpathe.com (showing timeline option)

We return from our antipodean adventures with a number of developments in the silent film world to tell you about, the first of which is British Pathé’s new website. The company that now bears the name British Pathé has little connection with the original Pathé firm – the Pathé newsreel library in Britain was purchased by some venture capitalists a few years ago, but they have worked hard to raise the profile of the collection. This has included a high profile for Pathé clips on BBC television following a special footage deal, and the recent BBC4 television series on the history of the Pathé library.

British Pathé has also made energetic use of social media, blogging and tweeting with the best of them in a commendable effort to engage an online audience with archive film. This has now led to a re-designed website in which blog, Twitter feed and Facebook presence (6,634 people like them) are prominent on the front page alongside thematic selections of newsreel and cinemagazine footage. The British Pathé library amounts to some 3,500 hours (90,000 clips) ranging from the 1890s to the 1970s, and following a Lottery-funded grant in the early 2000s the whole collection was digitised and has been made freely available (in low resolution) to all ever since.

We have written about the non-fiction and (surprisingly enough) fiction films to be found on the Pathé site before now. What is new about ths site which is of particular interest to us is a timeline feature, which enables the researcher to select any time period, from one year to another by the use of a simple slider tool, making it easy to identify film from whichever part of the silent era interests us. The timeline tool doesn’t appear on the front page, but if you put in any search term, or simply click on ‘Search’ without having entered any term at all, you are taken to the search results page and the timeline appears. Use this to select the period 1890-1930, and you’ll find 16,875 relevant clips waiting for you. Alternatively, search for everything, then go to the Advanced Filters option on the right-hand side and select Videos with No Sound (there are 41,092 of them).

A warning or two is required when using the British Pathé site. The newsreel collection is reasonably well documented from 1918 onwards, but before then the collection is a mishmash of Pathé newsreels, bought-in footage, fiction films, unidentified material and all maner of oddities. A lot of it is not Pathé-produced (there are Lumière, Méliès, Hepworth, Eclair, Eclipse and other productions to be found). Many of these early items have only approximate dates and made-up titles, and often the catalogue records are more enthusiastic than historically informed. This can make Pathé an annoying site to browse, since they seem to know so little about such a significant corner of their collection, but it also provides the potential for some interesting discoveries for the knowledgeable researcher, because there is a lot there that is crying out for proper identification and appreciation.

Here are some of the unidentified fiction films that you might like to try and identify:

It can be difficult finding some of the undated films, since they won’t turn up by using timeline searches, but if you can find just the one fiction film and then search on its keywords, such as comedy or melodrama, then you’ll uncover more of these hidden fiction films.

For non-fiction and standard newsreels of the silent era, the British Pathé site is a joy. There is every personality, incident, location, fad, issue, fashion, talking point, invention and innovation you could wish for, from 1896-1930. With the timeline, categories and keywords, the British Pathé site has become all the more compulsively browsable, even if one could wish for a little less in the way of vague speculation among some of the catalogue records.

Go explore.

The British Newspaper Archive

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

As regular readers will know, we like to keep an eye on digitised newspapers of a general nature, as well as digitised film journals. Newspapers are where cinema was reported to a general public, and for the medium’s earliest years it is through newspapers that we can trace not only names and events but an idea of presence, of the progressive encroachment of moving pictures upon the public consciousness. An increasing number of silent film scholars, notably Richard Abel, are making extensive use of online newspaper archives and helping change our understanding of early film history in the process.

We have reported on the many newspaper digitisation projects to be found across the web, bringing together information on the key resources into a single Bioscope post. Today a new digitised newspaper collection was announced, with considerable palaver, and rightly so. The British Newspaper Archive is extraordinary. It is the first expression of a ten-year project between the British Library (my estemmed employers) and brightsolid, a family history business, which will eventually see 40 million newspaper pages published online. Version one offers a mere 3,079,053 pages (as of today – 8,000 new pages will be added each day), from the whole of the 19th century (content which is comfortably out of copyright) plus some of the 20th (where a few licences have been agreed). Though most of the newspapers covered date 1800-1900, some go back to 1700, and the most recent year covered is 1949.

The British Library already has its British Newspapers 1800-1900 site, which offers some two million pages from 49 local and national UK newspapers, available by subscription or for free if you belong to a subscribing UK university. The British Newspaper Archive widens the amount of regional newspaper content hugely (while incorporating the earlier resource’s content), drawn from 175 journals – ranging from The Aberdeen Journal to the Yorkshire Gazette. It doesn’t come free, however. The deal is that the content is avaiable under subscription models online, and free onsite at the British Library. Searching online is free, but viewing the documents comes at a price. If you get a 12-month subscription, at £79.95, you get unlimited access. 30-day (£29.95) or 2-day (£6.95) subscriptions are available, giving you 3,000 or 500 credits respectively, with views per page ranging from 5 to 15 credits per page. It’s an idea to search first to make sure that what you are looking for is really there.

Some of the search results for ‘cinematograph’

Once you have paid, the resource available is outstanding. Searching, advanced search options, browsing, filtering, viewing, presentation, analysis, annotation, OCR, tagging, bookmarking – everything has been thought of and presented in a state-of-the-art fashion. Just seeing the newspapers reproduced in colour rather than greyscale is such a pleasure. The British Newspaper Archive is aimed at the genealogy market first and foremost, but there is so much here for the film scholar as well. Inevitably, given the emphasis on the 19th century, it is mostly the very early years of film that can be explored. Our regular test search term demonstrates what lies in store. Typing in ‘kinetoscope’ gets 902 hits, 725 from 1894-1899, 11 from 1900-1944. The earliest reference comes from the Exeter Flying Post on 10 March 1894. Typing in ‘cinematograph’ brings up 9,032 hits; ‘bioscope’ scores 1,634; ‘movie’ gets 13,132. Having the musical hall and varety journal The Era (for the period 1838-1900) is of particular importance, because it reported so extensively on motion pictures for the early years.

This is going to be the major resource for discovering newspapers from the national collection from now on. It doesn’t include the leading titles, such as The Times and The Guardian, which have been made available separately by the newspapers in question. But it will be so extensive, and comes with such useful search and discovery tools, that it seems bound to lead the way. Eventually it must move into the 20th century (as it has a little already), if licences for use can be agreed with the copyright owners.

It is, I think, the second-best online newspaper archive now available. The best? That’s New Zealand’s Papers Past. Which is not only the best as the complete research resource (see the Bioscope’s 2008 review), but its two million pages come free to all. Sigh.

Save up, then go explore.

New York, New York

A rare photograph showing the interior of a film business preview theatre, at the offices of American Cinephone Co., 124 East 25th Street, NYC, in 1910, from the MCNY Collections Portal

Now here’s an excellent resource for you. In 2010 the Museum of the City of New York launched its Collections Portal, opening up nearly 100,000 archival images of New York City to the web world. The collection is being added to all the time – a substantial collection of digitised postcards has just been added – and needless to say it offers plenty for the researcher interested in silent films.

The site is simple to use. The front page offers a striking browse option, where you can scroll laterally through images on the themes of Bridges, People, Waterfront, Skylines or Prints for Sale; or else by Borough (Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan etc.), or featured photographer. There is a simple search option, with the advanced search giving you the options of keyword, artist/maker, subject term, excluded subject term, or accession number. There is a lightbox facility for registered users. Each image has a title, description, original dimensions given, date, and is subject indexed under a variety of terms, encouraging further browsing as each term is hyperlinked to further search results (though note that, for example, ‘motion pictures’ as a linked term gets 81 hits, but ‘motion pictures’ simply typed into the search box gets 257 hits. Classification is helpful, but always selective). There is powerful zoom function, though paradoxically you have to squint to find it (look out for the mini magnifying glass bottom left of any image).

Interior of the Automatic Vaudeville theatre, 48 East 14th Street, NYC, c.1904. Mutoscope viewers can be seen on the right-hand side

There is plenty on film-related subjects, and a lot of them from the silent period. It is best to keep search terms simple, and using the terms ‘movie’, ‘film’ or ‘motion picture’ yield the best results (our traditional test term, ‘kinetoscope’, brings up four images). The emphasis is not so much on production as on the distribution, sales and exhibition side of things. So there are are some fascinating interiors of New York film businesses, including American Cinephone, Mutual, Empire Film Co., Pathescope and others, plus exteriors of cinemas and other venues – among the earliest film-related images is a set showing an amusement arcade from c.1904, the Automatic Vaudeville, which includes a line-up of peepshow Mutoscopes among its visitor attractions – a handy reminder that not all films of the period were experienced in cinemas. All in all one gets a picture of the early film business somewhat stripped of its glamour, but very much a part of the ebb and flow of the business life of a great city.

What should be especially interesting for researchers is to seek out film-related subjects which the MCNY people have not identified. Among the many street views and postcard images of early 20th century New York City, there are going to be those which show cinemas, nickelodeons, variety theatres which showed film, and so on, which may not be the main subject of the image. It’s an activity worth undertaking, as I know from having searched not unprofitably for similar images of early London film venues in postcards.

A motion picture industry employees’ ball, New York, c.1910. Among the companies whose pennants can be seen are Moving Picture World, Nicholas Power Co., Hog Reisinger, Thanhouser, Great Northern, Lux, Lumiere, Imp, Buffalo and Rex

If you do find anything new, you should tell the people at MCNY. Their website invites interested users to submit new information or corrections, and I can confirm that they reply promptly, and make amendments quickly.

Finally, although the site is partly aimed as the commercial market, with the lightbox and information on rights and reproduction fees, they also say that any image can be reproduced for non-commercial purposes on personal blogs, for research or other academic study. Good for them, and thank you.

Go explore.

Archive fever

http://beta.worldcat.org/archivegrid

Time for another research resource, and this looks like a major one. ArchiveGrid, still in beta form, aims to be a gateway to the world’s archives. It has been created by OCLC, the library organisation behind WorldCat (“the world’s largest library catalog”). Much as WorldCat turns the catalogues of the world’s libraries into one giant catalogue, so ArchiveGrid wants to become the single place from which the researcher may discover anything held in an archive, anywhere.

OK, so it’s some way off such an ambition just yet, being largely composed of American archives, and they are collection descriptions rather than individual items (I think we’re going to have a long wait for that to happen). Each record gives you the name of the contributing institution, the title of the particular collection (each institution may have several collections, of course), the collection description, contact details (a link to the institution’s website), and catalogue record (including unique OCLC identifier) or finding aid. Searches can be narrowed by institution or location, there is a selection of topics to guide you through the collections. And by typing in your postal code you can see on a Google map which participating archives are in your area.

So, what can we find on silent films? The answer is plenty. Our standard test term, ‘kinetoscope’, brings up the Raff and Gammon papers at Harvard University – Baker Library, a typescript study of Thomas Edison by Rose Lombard in Harvard University – Theodore Roosevelt Collection, and the Library of Congress’ Inventing Entertainment website, which Pennsylvania State University Libraries has cited as a resource. ‘Cinematograph’ produces 38 hits, from the Paul Rotha papers at UCLA to the United Artists Corporation Records at Wisconsin Historical Society Library and Archives. ‘Silent film’ brings up 260 records: examples include the silent film music collection at the University of Colorado, Boulder; Lillian Gish papers at Bowling Green State University – Center for Archival Collections; and the Cecil B. DeMille Archives at Brigham Young University – L. Tom Perry Special Collections.

Much of this sort of information has been available in printed directories, but not, I think, in so extensive and freely available an online resource as this (ArchiveGrid has had an earlier existence as a subscription service, which didn’t get enough subscribers). Clearly it is a huge boon for research of every kind. It is mostly written archives, but not exclusively so; while some of the archival objects might be more naturally classified as books, so that you wonder how WorldCat and ArchiveGrid might be brought together in some way, at some glorious future point.

There are other directories of archives out there. UK researchers should be familiar with the National Archives’ National Register of Archives and the Access 2 Archives search resource, but perhaps not all know the university archives service Archives Hub, or AIM25 for archives in the London area. We have previously higlighted the Canadian Discovery Portal, and sung the praises of Australia’s Trove portal. Regrettably the UNESCO Archives Portal for archives worldwide is no longer accessible online.

New to me is Archives Portal Europe, a pilot service for opening up European archives, which doesn’t appear to have a great deal on film, and what can be found seems eccentric or marginal, though its multilingual nature is likely to hiding more than I realise (try the search terms ‘cinema’ or ‘kino’ for an idea of the range of content).

Directories of film archives are another matter, and should be the subject of another post. Meanwhile ArchiveGrid is a particularly exciting development, and likely to spark off plenty of new research projects. Go explore.

World Day for Audiovisual Heritage

http://www.girona.cat/sgdap/cat/patrimoni_audiovisual

October 27th is designated World Day for Audiovisual Heritage by UNESCO. Had we enterprise enough and time, the Bioscope would have produced its own celebration of this event, but instead (and what is much better) let us point you to an exceptional resource produced for this day by the Museu del Cinema in Girona and Girona City Council through the Centre for Image Research and Diffusion (CRDI), with the collaboration of the International Council on Archives.

It is an online, interactive ‘poster’, entitled Audiovisual Heritage that provides a chronology of the historical development of the audio-visual media of cinema, photography, television, video and sound recording. Arranged by horizontally by decades and vertically by theme, it is a well-researched, well-illustrated, and compulsively browsable resource. Click on any box and a potted history pops up, with further illustrations, including some video demonstrations (also available through the Museu del Cinema’s YouTube channel). You can then explore that theme further by clicking through page arrows, or else return to the main arrow. The poster is available in Spanish, Catalan, English and French.

For a list of World Day for Audiovisual Heritage events taking place worldwide, visit www.pia.gov.ph/wdavh2011. For the Bioscope’s own account of the Museu del Cinema from earlier this year, click here.

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