Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked

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Edison studio with battery of lights and electrically-driven camera, from Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked

There has been a rush of newly-available e-books on the Internet Archive following expansion of digitisation activity on Google Books, and we’ll be pointing out some of the key titles in coming weeks and placing them in the Bioscope Library. First up is one of the classic early texts on film, a reference work still cited today, F.A. Talbot’s Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked.

Frederick A. Talbot was a British writer of popular works on science and engineering subjects, but had a special interest in motion pictures, producing both Moving Pictures (1912) and Practical Cinematography and its Applications (previously written about here) in 1913. Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked was originally published in Britain in 1912, in a revised edition in America in Britain in 1914, and a second, completely re-written edition in 1923. The copy in the Internet Archive is the 1914 revision, though it seems to be largely the same as the 1912 original.

Talbot’s task was to explain the phenomenon of the new age. “A vast industry has been established”, he writes, “of which the great majority of picture-palace patrons have no idea, and he moment appears timely to describe the many branches of the art”. Talbot’s focus is on technology and industry, rather than art or entertainment, and his chief interest is in the motion picture as a medium of discovery. But unlike the many dry works from this period which explain the mechanics of motion picture production and exhibition for the benefit of the technician, Talbot’s book bubbles over with enthusiasm. Some of his judgements need to be challenged, but his keen eye and thorough research (including contact with many of the leading figures in the industry) have kept the book fresh and valuable to this day. It is easy to read, and a easy source for good quotations.

He begins by explaining how we are able to see “animated photography”, and it is this section that has probably had the most influence, as Talbot’s somewhat muddled explanation of the “persistence of vision” has been taken as lightly read by many writers. We now know that the persistence of vision is not the reason why we are able to perceive motion (whether motion pictures or any other kind of motion, which is the real matter in hand – see an earlier post on this for an attempt at an explanation). Michael Chanan’s The Dream that Kicks is recommended for its sympathetic analysis of what Talbot got wrong yet how he struggled for the right answer at a time when science (optics etc.) had not properly supplied the information needed.

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Talbot find more solid ground when he traces the history of the medium, through experiments in sequence photography of Marey and Muybridge, the discovery of celluloid, the construction of the Edison Kinetoscope and other machines, before moving on to perforations, celluloid manufacture, the taking, developing and printing of films, and their exhibition. He covers the staging of fiction films, though his interest is more in the mechanics than the aesthetics, while his real passion is revealed to be the trick film. Talbot devotes a remarkable six chapters to the trick film, revealing an almost childish enthusiasm for the simple transposition, substitution and distortion effects which characterised early trick films (and which were mostly well out-of-date by the time he wrote the book). The photograph comes from The Automobile Accident (man is driven over by a car, severing his legs, which are then repaired by a passing doctor) which he illustrates and explains in minute detail.

Talbot’s other great enthusiasm is for the motion picture as a medium of education and science. There is some fascinating, well-observed material on microcinematography, electric cinematography and chronophotography, with information (and fine illustrations) gleaned from experimenters such as Percy Smith, Jean Comandon, E.J. Marey and Lucien Bull. Finally, Talbot speculates most interestingly on the possibility of the motion picture as a news medium (“the animated newspaper”, or newsreel, was in its infancy), films in colour (he is an observant Kinemacolor sceptic) and motion pictures in the home.

Though care needs to be taken over some of the evidence and its presentation, Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked still stands up as a fine illustration of what possibilities lay before a young medium whose rules had not yet been firmly established. In the 1923 edition Talbot expresses some disappointment that progress in the fields of education and science “has been less spectacular than in that devoted to pure entertainment”. In 1912 motion pictures might yet do anything.

Moving Pictures is available from the Internet Archive in Flip Book (25MB), PDF (6.9MB), full text (702KB) and DjVu (8MB) formats). Note that the PDF link takes you to a Google page which seem only to have sections of the book available – the full PDF version can be found by clicking on the Internet Archive’s “All files: http” link.

Down to the sea in ships

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The latest DVD offering from the creative and painstaking people at Flicker Alley is a rather surprising package, Under Full Sail. Following on from the imaginative packaging of silent film on the immigrant experience as Perils of the New Land, this latest offering brings together a selection of silent films on the theme of sailing ships. The centrepiece is The Yankee Clipper (1927), directed by Rupert Julian and produced by Cecil B. De Mille, a drama of the China tea trade, filmed aboard an 1856 wooden square-rigger, starring William Boyd, Elinor Fair and Frank ‘Junior’ Coghlan. The additional titles are Around the Horn in a Square Rigger (1933), Alan Villiers’ account of the voyage of the barque Parma from Australia to England in the 1933 Grain Race; The Square Rigger (1932), a sound short showing life aboard the schoolship Dar Pomorza; Ship Ahoy (1928), a record of a schooner employed in the North American lumber trade; and a ten-minute sequence from Down to the Sea in Ships (1922), which records a whale hunt on board the 1878 wooden ship Wanderer out of New Bedford, Massachusetts.

All of which looks like an interesting attempt to beef up The Yankee Clipper, which is not that well-known a title, with films which would otherwise have been unlikely to find their way onto DVD, producing a package that ought to reach beyond silent film specialists to a wider market intersted in sailing history. Films don’t just tell stories, they tell histories, so let’s hope the release is a success and that Flicker Alley can provide us with more such socio-historically informed DVDs. For the silent film music buffs, the release is also notable for being (surprisingly) the solo DVD premiere of renowned organist Dennis James, who accompanies The Yankee Clipper on an original-installation 1928 Wurlitzer pipe organ, recorded at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre.

Silent strumming

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Gary Lucas playing to Entr’acte, from http://www.garylucas.com

This being my blog and no one else’s, I can go off at a tangent if I feel like it, and every now and then I like to throw in my interest in modern (veering on the experimental side) guitar music. Happily, a number of guitarists on the cutting edge of things have dabbled with accompanying silent films, admittedly with some mixed results.

The leading exponent is Gary Lucas, and it is upcoming activity in the field that is the reason for this post. Lucas is best known in rock music circles for playing for Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band in its latter years (the Ice Cream for Crow years) and for his close association with Jeff Buckley. The extent of his musical activity is almost as bewildering as his quick-fingered skills, and this has included two forays into accompanying silent film, with which he has toured extensively. Sounds of the Surreal combines René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924), Fernand Léger’s Ballet mécanique (1924) and Ladislaw Starewicz’s The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912). His splendid score to The Golem has been showcased widely – though not, surprisingly, at any silent film festival, so far as I am aware.

There’s a YouTube extract from his score (which might change a few expectations of what a guitar score can sound like) to the film, and four parts of a 1998 Slovenian documentary (with Lucas interviewed in English) on the film and his interpretation if it, here, here, here and here.

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Gary Lucas accompanying Der Golem at the Valladolid Film Festival in 2008, from http://www.garylucas.com

And now there is news of two new silent film scores, accompanied live by Lucas, happening this year. In mid-April his score for the Lon Chaney classic The Unholy Three, commissioned by The Film Society of Lincoln Center, will have its premiere at the Walter Reade Theater in New York City in mid-April. Then the Holland Festival has commissioned a new live solo guitar score by Lucas in collaboration with Dutch-Iranian composer Reza Namavar and ensemble for Abel Gance’s J’Accuse which will have its premiere live mid June in the Amsterdam Stadtsshouwburg.

How well does the guitar (and it’s usually the electric guitar) go with the silent film? The jury’s out on this, as those guitarists who have taken on the task have varied in the degree to which they have accompanied the film or the film has accompanied them. At its best, the electric guitar can bring colours and expressions that illuminate the films without dominating them (with a tendency towards ambient sounds). At its worst you get music inspired by the film that doesn’t connect with the film in a live content in any meaningful way at all, and which sounds too thin to take on the weighty task of accompanying a film drama at its fullest.

Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, the best-known among these exponents, has taken a haunting, almost doom-laden approach to his scores for the films of Buster Keaton, which can be found on his CDs Go West and The High Sign/One Week. I haven’t seen them played to the films themselves, so I can’t judge their effectiveness. Fred Frith, doyen of the avant garde guitar, and Marc Ribot (known for work with Tom Waits especially) appeared at the 2007 Strade del Cinema festival in Aosta, Italy, playing to Giovanni Pastrone’s Il Fuoco (1916). Henry Kaiser (probably best known for scoring Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man) accompanied Kinugasa Teinosuke’s A Page of Madness (1926) and guitarist Alex de Grassi took on Yasujiro Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) at the 2006 New York Guitar Festival. And there have been others. Here’s American ambient guitarist Rob Byrd, playing to The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927) in an intriguing twin-screening setting:

Only last month Scottish acoustic guitarist David Allison played to Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) at the Glasgow Film Festival (see interview with him here). Let me know of other examples, if you can.

Finally, I don’t know if the guitar was ever used to accompany silent films originally (it seems unlikely), but it is a little known fact Max Schreck was a guitarist of considerable ability, shown here in this recently-discovered archive clip, during a break in filming Nosferatu. Well, I believe it anyway…