From the deep

From the Deep: The Great Experiment 1898-1918 is being billed as the biggest ever programme of early films in Germany (i.e. early films overall, not just those made in Germany). It’s been put together by curators Mariann Lewinsky and Eric de Kuyper as part of the 56th International Short Film Festival at Oberhausen, Germany, 29 April-4 May 2010. This is how the festival website describes the theme:

This programme invites audiences to discover and experience early cinema as a forgotten but very topical production and presentation practice and a real alternative to today’s cinema and museum. Out of the depths of the days before 1918, a wild short film continent is pulled up to the surface of the present day. Early cinema developed participatory and hybrid forms of presentation that seem eerily modern. With no access restrictions at all in its first years, cinema up to 1910 was a public space shared by all age groups and classes, and created the first worldwide web: for the first time in history, people in far-flung regions of the world were able to watch identical shows.

The individual programmes illustrate the versatility of these experiments, which run the gamut from applied colour processes that may involve pure experimentation with coloured light or the illuminated fountains at Versailles, to the discovery of the possibilities of space and movement, all the way to the eager dismantling of authority in the countless films featuring rebellious servants or bad girls and boys who go unpunished. Tribute is paid to both the innovation productions by the era’s world-market leader, Pathé-frères, as well as to works by its rivals Gaumont, Lux and Star-Film, or the Italian competition with its comic series like “Cretinetti”.

The festival will bring together more than one hundred films, as well as discussions and other related events. As festival director Lars Henrik Gass puts it:

These are productions from an age when all films were short films, when movie theatres were the first public space shared by all age groups and classes, the first worldwide web in a way: for the first time in history, people in far flung regions of the world were able to watch the same shows. It was an exhibition practice which for us is also a continuation of our research into an imaginary Kinomuseum, where museum is re-invented by cinema.

Accreditation for this particular contribution to the imaginary Kinomuseum is open until April 6th, and further details (though no list of films as yet) can be found on the festival website (in English and German).

All of which leaves us with one small question. If all of the films of this period were short, were they really short at all?


‘An odd type of theatre front’: illustration from Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting

One of the indications of the speculative, exploratory nature of early cinema is the uncertainty felt at the time over what it or its products were to be called. Living pictures? Animated photography? Cinema? Kinema? Kinematography? Motion pictures? Moving pictures? Photoplays? Bioscope? It’s worth bearing in mind such terms when searching for early cinema subjects in digitised book and newspaper sources (alongside such other handy terms as kinetoscope, biograph, electric theatre etc.). One term you might not think to use is ‘motography’. I’m not sure how long the lifespan was of this word, but for a short period it was used by some seeking for a distinctive, all-encompassing term for the new art – indeed it was the title of an American film journal of this period (it ran 1909-1918 and was originally called The Nickelodeon).

The term was certainly favoured by John B. Rathbun, author of Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting: A comprehensive volume treating the principles of motography; the making of motion pictures; the scenario; the motion picture theater; the projector; the conduct of film exhibiting; methods of coloring films; talking pictures, etc. (1914), the latest volume to go into the Bioscope Library.

John B. Rathbun was a technical writer (and an associate editor of Motography, which helps explains his attachment to the term). His book is yet another of those all-purpose guides to the new industry of motion pictures, a blend of potted history, social history, technical explanation and marvelment at the rise of this extraordinary business and the huge sums that it was starting to earn. As indicated by its subtitle, Rathbun’s book takes us through the principles, production processes and exhibition of motion pictures up to 1914. It is addressed to a reader with a general interest in the phenomenon, though it sometimes forgets this.

The book starts with the familiar pre-history of the medium, from Zoetropes to Muybridge to Edison to motion picture projection. The principles of the taking and projecting of films are covered, with practical information on film stock itself, including development, printing and colour tinting. Film production follows, covering both studio and non-fiction work, then the almost obligatory chapter on the mysteries of scenario writing with suggestions on how to sell your scenario to the studios. If the lay reader did not fancy his or her chances as a scriptwriter, then they might consider opening a motion picture theatre as the best way to make money out of this new business, and advice follows on setting up a cinema, putting together the programme (with handy advice on dealing with different ages of film reels), advertising the show, an interesting discussion on whether to include vaudeville acts or not, and operating profitable sidelines.

The filming of an ‘industrial’, with Cooper-Hewitt mercury vapour lamps on the right, from Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting

A long chapter on the technicalities of projection seems to belong to another book, and might have been enough to scare off one or two would-be speculators. Rathbun follows this with guidelines on local censorship laws and regulations, then rounds off matters with an interesting chapter on colour (covering stencil colour, the Friese-Greene process, Kinemacolor and Gaumont Chronochrome), stereoscopy and synchronised sound films.

Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting is rather muddled in the guidelines it provides, as it is unsure at what level or precisely to whom it is directing its advice. Buyers at the time might have been less than satisfied, but for us now it has plenty of handy information on how the industry was perceived and some useful data and social observations relating to the exhibition sector. There are illustrations of studio interiors, laboratories, wardrobe rooms, camera operators, cinema floor plans, projection booths and so on, to add to its value as a reference source. It’s available from the Internet Archive, and into the Bioscope Library it goes.

Photoplay online

Do you remember if those early days of the Web, when businesses and organisations would proudly announce that they had just launched a website? Apart from start-ups, you don’t get so many such announcements these days, particularly for well-established businesses. But some move at more casual pace than others, and so it is that Photoplay Productions – established 1990 – has just launched its first website, which also marks its twentieth anniversary.

Photoplay is the independent company, run by Kevin Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury, dedicated to film history and in particular to reviving and sustaining interest in silent film. It was formed in 1990, but as the About Us section recounts, the history goes back to 1955, when Kevin Brownlow first entered the film industry as an editor. While working on documentaries and feature films (notably editing Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1968) and directing his own distinctive features (It Happened Here, 1964, and Winstanley, 1975) Brownlow was building on his childhood passion for silent film. His extensive interviews with people from the then sorely neglected silent era of film helped make up his classic 1968 book, The Parade’s Gone By.

The book encouraged the UK’s Thames Television to commission a television series, Hollywood – The Pioneers (1980), made by Brownlow and TV director and former ballet dancer David Gill (left, with Brownlow). The series teamed Brownlow and Gill for the first time with composer Carl Davis, whose sweeping scores came to be synonymous with the silent film revival. That revival took the form of eye-opening screenings of restored silents, shown in optimum conditions and correct running speeds with live orchestral accompaniment. The first and most spectacular of these was Abel Gance’s Napoleon, first shown at the London Film Festival in 1980. Its success led Jeremy Isaacs, then setting up the new UK television channel Channel 4, to commission a series of restorations and broadcasts under the title of Thames Silents. Those of us around at the time sat awestruck as The Wind, Ben Hur, The Crowd, The Thief of Bagdad and others were returned to the screens large and small. Thames Silents also led to three exemplary television series, Unknown Chaplin, Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow and Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius.

Thames Television lost its franchise at the end of the 1980s, which meant the end of Thames Silents (Channel 4 Silents followed it for a while). The changes in the UK broadcast landscape encouraged the formation of independent production companies to chase commissions, and one of these was Photoplay Productions, formed in 1990 by Brownlow, Gill and finance expert Patrick Stanbury. The new company continued to undertake restorations and to produce television series on aspects of film history, notably D.W. Griffith: Father of Film (1993) and Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood (1995).

David Gill died in 1997, but Brownlow and Stanbury have carried on, in the face of increasing difficulty in obtaining commissions or funding restorations for the ‘difficult’ subject of silent film. The distribution of their ‘live cinema’ titles is a major part of the business, and the website lists all of their productions, with full technical details and information on disribution services and licensing. The site also has information on Kevin Brownlow’s book publications, and its News and Upcoming Shows section lists screenings of Photoplay productions and restorations around the world. In particular, for those in the UK, there are three screenings being held at the Barbican in London to mark Photoplay’s 20th anniversary – Orphans of the Storm (7 February, above), The Chess Player (11 April) and The Iron Mask (30 May).

It’s is great to seen the new site, which makes clear all of the tremendous work undertaken by Brownlow, Gill, Stanbury and colleagues in support of the undying medium that is the silent film. A few dud links need to be sorted out (how curious it is that the link for Napoleon – rarely-screened owing to technical complications, expense and legal issues – isn’t working as yet), but this is not just a guide to the industriousness of one company but a primer on the appreciation of silent film. Congratulations, and many happy returns, to Photoplay Productions.

They thought it was a marvel

Amsterdam University Press has published “They Thought it was a Marvel”: Arthur Melbourne-Cooper (1874-1961), Pioneer of Puppet Animation, by Tjitte de Vries and Ati Mul. Melbourne-Cooper is an interesting minor figure in early British film history, an assistant to Birt Acres (the first person to take a 35mm film in Britain) in the 1890s, then a pioneer of the animation film – some delightful examples survive, such as Dreams of Toyland (1908) and Noah’s Ark (1909) – as well as a being a producer of some rough-and-ready comedy films, typical of some of the low-grade British production of the time. He opened a cinema in his home town of St Albans in 1908 (an intriguingly rare example of an early filmmaker turning to film exhibition), made some industrial films, and generally had a diverting if small-scale career in the first years of British film.

What has made Melbourne-Cooper an unusual case has been the way that his cause has been advocated by a handful of dedicated souls. His daughter Audrey Wadowska was indomitable in championing her father’s cause as a film pioneer. She was a regular visitor to the National Film Archive, tirelessly holding the BFI to account for not sufficiently appreciating her father’s achievement. She collected a vast archive of documentation in support of her cause, and the Dutch researcher Tjitte de Vries took up that cause and has dedicated much of a lifetime to uncovering Arthur Melbourne-Cooper’s history.

This has led to some extraordinary battles. One has raged over a film held in the BFI National Archive (as it is now called) with the supplied titles of Matches Appeal, which features animated matches used in as a military recruiting aid while advertising Bryant & May matches. The claim is that the film relates to the Anglo-Boer war and therefore dates from 1899, making it years ahead of its time as a piece of animation. Others have denied that this could be possibly so and that the film could date as late as the First World War, but the 35mm original is lost, so the contention remains.

Arthur Melbourne-Cooper’s Dreams of Toyland (1908), from the BFI’s YouTube channel

A second battle has raged over the authorship of the films of Brighton filmmaker G.A. Smith, some of which Melbourne-Cooper’s advocates have claimed were made by him. I am not going into the minutiae of this particular argument. If you are at all interested, the arguments for and against are aired in the following:

  • Tjitte de Vries, ‘Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, Film Pioneer Wronged by Film History’, KINtop-4, 1994
  • Frank Gray, ‘Smith versus Melbourne-Cooper: History and Counter-History, Film History, vol. 11, 1999
  • Tjitte de Vries, ‘Letter to the editor: The case for Melbourne-Cooper’, Film History, vol. 12, 2002
  • Stephen Bottomore, ‘Smith Versus Melbourne-Cooper: An End to the Dispute’, Film History, Vol. 14, No. 1, 2002

All of which shows how important the little films at the dawn of filmmaking are to some, and the huge attraction that there is for the idea of authorship and the artistry of the individual. Some would argue that we should have no more biographies of filmmakers if we are to have a proper early film history, but it would be a cold history without character. The Melbourne-Cooper saga pits two different kinds of history against one another – one based on family history, reminiscence, and single-minded advocacy; the other based on primary evidence and comparative analysis. It raises interesting issues about authorship – ‘father’s’ films might have been his not because he filmed them but because he owned and exhibited them. It also shows the glamour of early film technique, with films such as G.A. Smith’s Grandma’s Reading Glass (1900), with its pioneering use of close-ups and point-of-view shots, a glamour that Melbourne-Cooper’s advocates yearn to see assigned to him (read the decidely partial Wikipedia entry on AMC and judge for yourselves).

Anyway, They Thought it was A Marvel argues its case over 576 pages, and comes with a DVD with six of Melbourne-Cooper’s animation films. Melbourne-Cooper deserves his small place in film history, not for the dubious claim to another man’s films and creativity, but as a genuine pioneer of the animation film, perhaps the first person to make such films with a child audience in mind. The book is priced €39,50, it is written in English, and it is available from the Amsterdam University Press website, while it is listed on Amazon as being available in the UK from Pallas Publications in December 2010.

(Arthur Melbourne-Cooper has a MySpace page, by the way. He currently has 74 friends. Including the BFI.)

Happy 3rd birthday, Bioscope

Though it seems only yesterday that we first put fingertips to keyboard, the Bioscope is three years old today. In that time it has:

  • Published 940 posts in 84 categories
  • Thwarted 41,874 spam comments
  • Attracted 395,930 visits
  • Generated 1,537 comments
  • Produced approximately 400,000 words (!)
  • Busiest day – 10 March 2008 with 979 visits
  • Busiest month – January 2010, with 18,089 visits
  • Most popular post – Searching for Albert Kahn – 12,364 visits and still rising
  • Most popular search terms – bioscope, albert kahn, kinetoscope, louise brooks, emile cohl, loie fuller

Thank you to everyone who reads the Bioscope. It seems to be of use to some. We’ll keep going.

Bioscopist and Cineteca Bologna researcher Mariann Lewinsky was sufficiently moved by news of the Bioscope’s birthday that she promised a cake. In the end, the cake transmogrified into a plant and a packet of biscuits. Many thanks – here they are:

Encyclopedia of Early Cinema

Now here’s some really good news. The Encyclopedia of Early Cinema is now available in paperback. Originally published in 2005, the hardback is priced at a challenging £128.25. But such has been the success of the book, edited by Richard Abel, that publishers Routledge have assented to the publication of a paperback edition, at the considerably less eye-watering price (from Amazon) of £28.49 ($54.83 in the USA) – and that’s 832 pages you get for your money.

This is one of the best reference books yet published for the silent film era. Its subject is the first twenty-five years of cinema (from the early 1890s to the mid-1910s, the early cinema period having flexible boundaries). Over 950 entries written by nearly 140 contributors cover not just names, companies and countries, but significant themes, genres and critical concepts. This is the main list of headings for the thematic entries:

Archive sources, sites and policies; Audiences/spectatorship; Cultural contexts (e.g.comic strips, department stores, magicians, world’s fairs); Developments in film style (colour, lighting, set design etc.); Film companies; Industry developments; Key figures; Kinds of film; Law and the cinema; Multiple-reel films; National cinemas; Social contexts (e.g. colonialism, modernity, urbanisation); Technology and material; and Trade press.

It is a particularly well-ordered reference work. Entries feature extensive cross-referencing (through use of bold text) and the longer entries come with a further reading list. There are See also references to related entries, a useful classified guide to the thematic entries, a lengthly bibliography and a thorough index. It is clearly laid out and handsomely illustrated. It is also properly international in scope, covering not just the USA and major Western countries but filmmaking in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South and Central America.

It works both for those who require plain information efficiently set out, and those who need guides to critical concepts. Not sure what the ‘Cinema of attractions’ means? Tom Gunning tells you all you need to know in just over two pages. Need to know about ‘Staging and depth’? Ben Brewster comes to the rescue. But dip into the book and you come across such gems of succinct and practical information – cameras, education, advertising, intermittent movement, biblical films, projectionists, phantom train rides, illustrated lectures, Shakespeare, fairs and fairgrounds, programme formats, sound effects, and so many more. Some of the entries are mini-classics – I particularly recommend Nick Hiley’s entry on Great Britain, a model national film history in miniature.

And then there are the people. Just to pick some names at random, you’ll find W. Stephen Bush, Charles Urban, Evgenii Bauer, Mauritz Stiller, Tom Mix, Max Mack, Komada Koyo, Cherry Kearton, Eleonora Duse, Adolph Zukor and King Baggot. Likewise the film companies: Clarendon, Lubin, Khanzhonkov, Milano, SCAGL, Messter, Phalke, Hollandia, Nikkatsu, Nordisk, Saturn, Kosmofilm, Hispano, even the Salvation Army (in Australia).

This is such a useful book – indeed I would have struggled with quite few Bioscope entries had I not got a copy by my side. The paperback edition updates the 2005 edition without radically altering it, because the editor was obliged to keep as far as possible to the original typesetting. So there have been minor amendments (small errors of fact, dates, new snippets of information), some additions to the Further Reading lists, and the bibliography at the back has grown considerably. Abel notes the absence of a list of DVDs and of web resources, which is a shame, but it is a minor loss.

Though the book does not have every single person nor every single film company from the early cinema period, it has most of those you might possibly want to look up. You might also quibble at the restriction to the early cinema period and yearn for the encyclopedia of silent film overall. Now that would be a good idea – but the early cinema period has been well established as a distinctive period in its own right by two or three decades of dedicated research and critical investigation. The Encyclopedia of Early Cinema crowns the achievement.

Moving Image

I have started up a new blog. While the Bioscope is a personal project, dedicated to early and silent cinema, the new blog – plainly but helpfully entitled Moving Image – is a product of my day job at the British Library. I’m employed there as Curator, Moving Image, and the aim of the blog is to write about moving images and the British Library. So that’s more than just the Library’s moving image collection, which is relatively small and specialised. Rather it will aim to cover general developments in the moving image field as they impact upon the Library and research, as well as talking about the British Library as a place for the study of moving images and the study of subjects through moving images.

The blog replaces an earlier initiative, Screen Research, which I’ve closed down. Moving Image will certainly touch on silent films from time to time, but it will also cover film today and yesterday, television, web video, mobile video, and all points in between. It may even feature me wielding a video camera from time to time. I hope that some of you may be able to follow it.

(That’s me top right, by the way – the silhouette figure with a cigar who appears beside my comments is film pioneer Charles Urban, whose film company trademark was Urbanora – hence the pen-name)

Update: I’ve also established a Twitter account to complement the Moving Image blog,