The Wisconsin Bioscope

Urban Bioscope

Urban Bioscope Model D, from

The Wisconsin Bioscope is, as its own proud boast has it, “the leading silent film production company in the Midwestern United States, if not the world, today”. It is the brainchild of Dan Fuller, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison department of communication arts, who every year takes a group of students on a seminar, “Making the Early Silent Film”, with the result being a genuine silent film production.

The company takes its name from an Urban Bioscope Model D of 1907, with which their first two films, Plan B (1999) and Winner Takes All (2000) were filmed. Since then they have used a more accommodating Universal newsreel camera, circa 1923. The films are made in imitation of silent films of the 1907-1912 period, with loving attention paid to sets, performance, titles, developing, printing and music. The Wisconsin Bioscope website (recently revised), goes into fascinating detail about the technology employed, and the whole exercise is a delightful mixture of authentic investigation and tongue-in-cheek pastiche, as these introductory words from the website’s front page indicate:

All our productions are photographed with a hand-cranked motion picture camera on black & white 35 millimeter film, almost always at the rate of 16 frames per second. To crank faster is simply wasteful.

All our productions are developed, printed, toned, and edited by ourselves, following the motto:

If you want it done right, do it yourself.

Whenever possible, we film using daylight. Why pay for something that the sun freely provides?

We understand that other companies have experimented with motion pictures that, to some extent, duplicate color and sound.

This is a grave error.

If the public were to want color, it would visit a picture gallery or, better still, a botanical garden in the full bloom of spring!

If it were to want sound, it would attend the theatre or concert hall!

Although it may be temporarily seduced by kinemacolor, talking pictures, or even tele-vision, we know the great mass of the public has a deep desire for high-quality motion pictures produced and exhibited in the tried-and-true manner:

Pantomime accompanied by Live Music.

When false attractions grow tiresome, as they always do, the public will again demand the product pioneered by Mr. Edison and the frères Lumiére.

The Wisconsin Bioscope stands ready for that day!

Well, it’s hard to argue with any of that, but are the films any good? You bet they are – remarkably so. Technically excellent, but also wittily and sympathetically constructed. They’ve been good enough to feature regularly at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, where three new titles will be showing next week. The revised website now has QuickTime examples of several of them: A Expedição Brasileira de 1916 (2006), Cosmo’s Magical Melt-A-Ways (2006), Rent Party (2006), A Day’s Work (2006), The Rivals (2005), Daddy Don’t (2005), The Dancer (2004), The Starving Artist (2004), The Sick Child (2004), Cadtastrophe (2003), The Magic Tree (2003) and Winner Takes All (2000). All of them are worth a peek. Or else take a look on YouTube at A Visit with Grandmother (2005), with piano by David Drazin.

The website is rich in information, including production stills. All in all, a project done in absolutely the right spirit. and named after just the right piece of equipment, of course.

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