A dot so small

Time to return to the art of silent film today, and this truly remarkable short film made by Ed Patterson and Will Studd at Aardman Animation. Entitled Dot, it tells of the struggles of the 9mm high Dot in her microscopic world. The remarkableness comes in that 9mm. The film was shot using a Nokia N8 12 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss lens and a microscopic attachment entitled the CellScope, invented by Professor Daniel Fletcher, which is usually used for medical analysis.

The film set was no more than a metre and a half long, and the objects were all painted under a microscope animated using tweezers. Dot herself was converted from drawings to a series of 3D object by use of Rapid Prototyping 3D printing technology that uses a computer-generated model of an object or character and then prints it in full 3D using a plastic resin material.

The film which has been widely acclaimed for its smallest and its ingenuity, but should receive additional praise here for its wordless, impeccably visual storytelling.

And here’s how it was done:

Unveiling the secrets of nature

Mould growth, filmed by Percy Smith for The Plants of the Pantry (1927)

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower

Things were not good for British films in the 1920s and 30s. Things seldom have very been good for British films, but in the 1920s in particular the situation was more than particularly desperate. There was too little production finance, too few stars, too few filmmakers of ability, too little appeal for audiences in thrall to Hollywood. Critics were utterly dismissive of the qualities of British film production, damning British producers and British creative talent for – well, a lack of creative talent.

But those critics did make an exception (OK, two exceptions – the other was was Alfred Hitchcock). It was Secrets of Nature. A series of nature films produced by British Instructional Films between 1922 and 1933, filmed by a small band of dedicated but unglamorous naturalists, and produced for in its latter years by one of the few women filmmakers of the 1920s, the Secrets of Nature series was widely acclaimed for its intelligence, inventiveness, dedication to science, and for the extraordinary beauty of some of its images. Paul Rotha, generally scathing of the silent British film in general, wrote in The Film Till Now:

… the numerous Secrets of Nature films … have always been admirable in conception and execution. They are, in fact, the sheet-anchor of the British Film Industry.

While Rachael Low, historian of British cinema, says:

… these outstanding films played a versatile role, as works of art and scientific record to their makers, entertainment to the cinemas, and teaching to the educational film enthusiasts.

They ticked every box. They did what many thought films were there to do – to illuminate the world.

Now the world can be illuminated a little further, because the BFI has shown considerable boldness by putting together a DVD of Secrets of Nature. It is itself an intelligent, inventive and beautiful production, and truly dedicated to science. It contains nineteen films dating 1922-1933, artfully arranged into four sections: The Techniques, The Birds, The Insects and The Plants. An extra film from the Charles Urban Movie Chats series shows filmmaker Percy Smith nursing a pair of herons. The hansomely illustrated thirty-six page booklet has essays by Dr Tim Boon (author of Films of Fact and the driving force behind this DVD), Tim Dee, Charlotte Sleigh and John Agar, each taking on one of the themes, each praising the films for their acute observations and high image quality. Archivist Jan Faull writes on the care of the films, and there is a set of mini-biographies of the filmmakers (one or two penned by your scribe).

Secrets of Nature was launched in 1922 by H. Bruce Woolfe, a former film distributor who set up British Instructional Films in 1919 with the ambition of creating popular informational films. Woolfe enjoyed great success with dramatised documentaries of the First World War, such as Zeebrugge and Mons, but his greatest achievement remains Secrets of Nature. He gathered together a remarkable array of naturalist-filmmakers, encouraging the development of a form of popular scientific filmmaking which had been pioneered by F. Martin Duncan and Percy Smith working for Charles Urban before the First World War.

Percy Smith attending to a pair of young herons, from a Charles Urban Movie Chat, 1921

F. Percy Smith (1880-1945) was one of the greatest filmmakers of the silent film era. Doubt my word? Just take a look at the The Plants of the Pantry (1927). This extraordinary work of art and science, beautifully entwined, shows how mould grows on household food such as cheese. Combining stop motion photography with micro-cinematography and even animation sequences, Smith illustrates the mysteries of the unseen, portraying the reality while unveiling the abstract unreality. His work is as close to that of avant garde animators of the period – Walter Ruttman, Oskar Fischinger, Viktor Eggling or Fernand Leger – as it is to the plain exposition of science lecture. One is continually left open-mouthed in amazement at the quality of his images, which challenge our understanding of nature and reality. It is usual to point to the French filmmaker Jean Painlevé as someone who combined surrealism with science, but Smith was there first and was probably the superior filmmaker. He simply saw more than most.

Percy Smith is the leading filmmaker on the Secrets of Nature set, but he was only one of a team. Others represented on the DVD set (some of whom were BIF employees, others freelancers) are ornithologist and pioneer of natural history cinematography Oliver Pike; Natural History Museum curator W.P. Pycraft; ornithologist Edgar Chance (“a scientist in search of evidence” as Rachael Low writes); bird photographer Walter Higham; naturalist Charles Head, a specialist in recording the everyday life of the countryside; and chemist-turned-documentary filmmaker H.M. Lomas, the only one of the Secrets of Nature team who was not a naturalist first, filmmaker second.

The White Owl (1922), filmed by Oliver Pike

Leading this team from 1929 was Mary Field, a former school teacher who joined British Instructional Films in 1926 as its education manager and rapidly became skilled in all aspects of film production, becoming editor of the Secrets of Nature series in 1929. She went on to enjoy a notable career promoting the educational value of film with the Rank Organisation (where she established the Children’s Film Foundation) and UNESCO. She wrote the book Secrets of Nature (1934) and co-wrote Cine-biology (1941), with Percy Smith and J.V. Durden.

Field was in charge when the series acquired sound, and it is the sound examples from the series which have perhaps caused Secrets of Nature to be looked down upon by later generations. The plummy-voiced commentaries can now sound comically quaint, paronising even, and it does require a degree of sympthatetic understanding of past manners to appreciate films whose photographic and observational qualities remained as high as ever. There is also a degree of anthropomorphism which even at the time caused commentators to complain, but which is really no worse than the typical wildlife documentary of today, where no lion or meerkat can be allowed to pass without our narrator giving them a name and a human outlook on the world.

Interestingly, the silent films on the DVD are presented in silence – no music accompaniment is included. Whether this is through economy or a wish to distinguish the earlier films from the later titles with soundtracks is not explained. The result draws one all the more to look in wonder at the exquisitely composed images, the product of keen observation, much patience, and an understanding of the power of the image to reveal scientific truth. The techniques on display, such as underwater photography, microcinematography (literally filming through a microscope), high-speed cinematography and stop-motion may be familiar to us now (or at least the results are), but here they were being shown to audiences who had never experienced such marvels, and one can only wonder at the astonishment that many must have felt at seeing the life that teemed on a piece of mouldy cheese or in a wine glass into which a wisp of hay has been placed, turning it into a mini-aquarium of micro-organisms (The World in a Wine-glass, 1931). These were films that not only informed but encouraged the cinema audience to think and to look at their world anew.

Secrets of Nature is an important part of British film history, but one that one hardly expected ever to see on DVD. All praise then to the BFI for its commitment to an inclusive film history, to encouraging us to think about that film history, and to see more.

(No one should miss the high quality images on the DVD, but if you are keen to sample some examples of Secrets of Nature beforehand, there are numerous examples in low resolution on the British Pathe website – though all from the sound series, please note).

Pigeon: Impossible

The Bioscope scribes are currently toiling away at a long post which is taking ages to research (regulars may not realise that every post is first written out in long-hand with quills pens wielded by white-haired amanuenses working to the roughest of outline sketches, who then hand the parchment to a team of owl-eyed fact-checkers who lurk deep within the bowels of Bioscope Towers, seldom seeing the light of day. Only then is the hallowed text handed to yours truly, who heartlessly ignores most of it and instead types down whatever comes into his head).

While we wait, and while I head off to a conference and other such business for a couple of days, here’s a modern silent to entertain you, recommended by Bioscope regular Frederica. But is it a modern silent, or is it closer to a Tom and Jerry cartoon? Or should we look upon Tom and Jerry cartoons as model examples of silent filmmaking (Spike the dog aside)? You decide – or just enjoy a particularly ingenious and rib-tickling piece of modern animation.

Silent animation online

A trailer for The Lost World, from http://animation.library.ucla.edu

Acknowledgments to the Nitrateville discussion forum for news of this latest discovery. The UCLA Film and Television Archive has produced Silent Animation, a section of its website which offers eleven animation films from the silent era for viewing online or download. The films cover all kinds of silent animation productions, including lightning sketches (a ‘lightning’ artist filmed drawing a caricature), hand-drawn animation, stop-frame animation, cut-out animation, animated letters, and films which integrate live action with animation.

These are the eleven film on offer:

A Pool Plunge (1920)
Burr’s Novelty Review
Animator, J.J. McManus

Animated Hair Cartoon (1925)
Red Seal Pictures

Bob’s Electric Theatre (1906)
Pathé frères
Director, Gaston Velle (animation by Segundo de Chomón)

How Jones Lost His Roll (1905)
Director, Edwin S. Porter

Indoor Sports (1920)
International Film Service
Animator, Paul D. Robinson

Joys and Glooms (1921)
International News Corp.
Animator, John C. Terry

The Enchanted Drawing (1900)
With, J. Stuart Blackton

The Lost World – Promotional Film (1925)
First National

The Lost World – Trailer (1925)
First National

The Wandering Toy (1928)
Lyman H. Howe Films Co., Inc
Director, Robert E. Gillaum
Animator, Archie N. Griffith

Theatre De Hula Hula (19–)

Each film can be viewed silent, with piano score, with a music score or with a commentary from the film’s preservationist. The download options for each are MPEG-2 (at 8Mbps) or MPEG4 (at 1.1Mbps). You can also view notes by preservationist Jere Guldin and historian Jerry Beck, which are available in longer form as downloadable PDFs. There are also sections giving background information on the UCLA project to preserve and make accessible its silent animation holdings, on the music (commissioned from Michael D. Mortilla), a study guide (which lists many other silent animation films held by the UCLA archive), and an historical overview of animation in the silent era written by Mark Langer, which situates the animation film within the histories of pre-cinema motion picture devices, newspaper cartoons, and early film. As Langer observes, all films at this time were, to a degree, seen as animation films:

Animation’s silent era was a period of discovery and experimentation in which animation was not yet regarded as a separate subset of the cinema at large. Indeed, in the first years of film’s existence as a medium, movies commonly were referred to as “animated films,” based on the principle that all motion pictures were still objects (be they photographs or drawings) magically brought to life through the cinematographic apparatus. What were to be the separate forms of live-action and animated cinema both drew on those pre-existing mass media and entertainments.

It’s a helpful account of the roots of animation film and of the world in which early film in general was situated. All in all this is a most impressive resource, thoughtfully presented with educational and research use in mind. The help notes state that the films are all presumed to be in the public domain; the silent versions are published with a Creative Commons licence “to encourage free and unlimited repurpose for educational use or remix”. All music on the site is copyright Michael D. Mortilla. All written text is published with a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States Licence.

Lucky us. Go explore.

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.)

Chaplin in 3D

Announcement of the Chaplin series being made in Mumbai

DQE, an India-based company which describes its activities as “Animation, Gaming, Live action production and global distribution” has announced its intention to produce a series of 3D animated short films for television, in collaboration with French production companies Method Animation and MK2. The subject of the 104 six-minute episodes will be Charlie Chaplin. The press release fascinatingly describes the character they will create as being Chaplin’s “Animated Avatar”, and promises that the films will preserve “the sense of humour and the emotional values present in all of Charlie Chaplin’s 70 films, all the while bringing out the quirky, burlesque and comic tone of the character he created”. The films will be ‘silent’ themselves, and though they won’t follow any of the story-lines of Chaplin’s own films, they will use gags from them, while putting Chaplin in modern situations, which sounds intriguing. Variety reports on seeing a 45-second clip in which an animated Chaplin performs “one of his trademark pratfalls” against a New York City backdrop, and shows him using a mobile phone which is shaped like an old-fashioned phone. The press release stresses this intention to combine past with present:

With a global production budget of approximately Euro 8 million, the first series will be developed in colour creating a timeless atmosphere and a unique look, blending early 20th century with present time, allowing for younger generations to identify with the Charlie Chaplin character. In keeping with the spirit of Chaplin, the short episodes will be presented without dialogue, giving enough space for the full scope of the famous character’s talents in pantomime. Completing the picture, putting particular emphasis on the choice of music and the sound design, will add to the laughter and emotion of the adventures of the legendary tramp.

The really intriguing element here is the 3D. The press releases promises that “the entire series will be produced in stereoscopic 3D bringing forth a fully immersed visual and emotional experience”. 3D television is gloing to be the next big media revolution (at least, that’s what the industry is baking on) and there is going to be a need for ready-to-use programming to help fill world schedules. The series will be developed for mobile, television, home video and internet platforms, naturally.

So this may be a smart move by DQE and partners (DQE has already found success with the 3D animated series Iron Man: Armored Adventures), producing a language-free content package which will have appeal across the world, though whether “21st century kids and the[ir] families” will identify with – or even recognise – Charlie Chaplin is something that remains to be seen.

Charlie Chaplin in Zepped


All frames from Zepped in this post come from http://www.independent.co.uk

Last week there was much publicity about the discovery of an apparently lost Charlie Chaplin film. Morace Park, of Henham in Essex, purchased a nitrate film from eBay for the princely sum of £3.20 ($5), though he was more interested in the can. When he opened the can he found a reel of nitrate film bearing the title Charlie Chaplin in Zepped. Park could find no record of the film in any Chaplin filmography or biography. The film was a mixture of live action film of Chaplin and animation. Park’s neighbour just happened to be John Dyer, a former member of the British Board of Film Classification, and together they began investigating the history of the film.

They have been thorough in their studies so far, and have determined that the film features unused footage from the Chaplin films The Tramp, His New Profession and A Jitney Elopement. The Independent newspaper, which carries the fullest account of the discovery (including several frame illustrations), describes the film thus:

The unearthed film, called Charlie Chaplin in Zepped, features footage of Zeppelins flying over England during the First World War, as well as some very early stop-motion animation, and unknown outtakes of Chaplin films from three Essanay pictures including The Tramp. These have all been cut together into a six-minute movie that Mr Park describes as “in support of the British First World War effort”. It begins with a logo from Keystone studios, which first signed Chaplin, and there follows a certification from the Egyptian censors dating the projection as being in December 1916. There are outtakes, longer shots and new angles from the films The Tramp, His New Profession and A Jitney Elopement.

The main, animated sequence of the film starts with Chaplin wishing that he could return to England from America and fight with the boys. He is taken on a flight through clouds before landing on a spire in England. The sequence also features a German sausage, from which pops the Kaiser. During the First World War there was some consternation that the actor did not join the war effort.

At first it seemed to those who thought they knew their Chaplin history, and the habits of film collectors, that this was some cobbled-together item by someone who had edited together Chaplin clips with a separate animation film of the 1914-18 period, Chaplin being a regular subject for animators at this time. But then evidence turned up that there had indeed been a film called Zepped, exhibited in Britain in 1916. In 2006 British film historian Mike Hammond had uncovered a reference to the film in a Manchester journal (probably Film Renter), as an article in a Russian online journal reveals (scroll down to note 43 and get an English translation through Babelfish).


So what is this peculiar hybrid? The six-minute film is a mixture of Keystone and Essanay titles, plus the animation. Chaplin left Keystone in 1914 to join Essanay, leaving the latter to join Mutual in 1916. Essanay is known to have tried to make the best out of its loss by issuing Triple Trouble (1918), a mish-mash of Chaplin outtakes, but Zepped contains Keystone and Essanay titles, suggesting a still more irregular arrangement. The existence of an Egyptian censors’ certificate only adds to the peculiarity of the whole affair. There seems to be a connection with the accusations made at the time that Chaplin was avoiding his military duty by residing in the United States, though clearly this was an unofficial film and Chaplin had nothing to do with its production.

Chaplin biographer Simon Louvish speculates (in the Independent article) that the film was compiled in Egypt, which was under British occupation at the time. However, no one was making animated films in Egypt in 1916. The access to the outtakes suggests an American source, yet the theme and reference to ‘Blighty’ in the title cards hints at a British source. The frames showing some of the animation (below) look like the crude semi-animated films that British artists such as Lancelot Speed or Dudley Buxton were making at this time. The reference to ‘Made in Germany’ is a British allusion (there were protests at the import of German goods into Britain long before the War), and America was scarcely indulging in anti-German propaganda at this time. I’d point the finger at a British film distributor.


The film has been transferred to DVD, and Park and Dwyer have been showing it to assorted Chaplin experts. They have also started making a documentary film in America about their voyage of discovery, and you can follow their ‘Lost Film Project’ through Twitter and through a project blog. They seem to be making a good job not only of exploiting the discovery but of seeking to understand it. If it’s not quite ‘THE cinematic find of the last 100 years’ that the blog claims, it’s a real coup – not least for how it has left the experts baffled. We now await anxiously for the results of their researches.

Update (20 November 2009):
The people behind the Zepped discovery have kindly sent me two advertisements for the film plus a press notice, all from the journal Film Renter. Now we learn that the film was made by Screen Plays Co. of Manchester, that it was 1,000 feet long, and that there was some sensitivity over its relationship with Chaplin because the first version of the advert pointedly neglects to mention his name. He is mentioned in the second, however:

Original advertisment from Film Renter, 23 December 1916

Revised advertisement from Film Renter 30 December 1916

Press notice from Film Renter (date not given)

You can see the documents on the website for the company producing the documentary about Zepped, Clear Champion Ltd.

Another update (11 July 2011):
The latest extraordinary twist in the Zepped saga is that another print of the film has turned up, this time in a second-hand shop in South Shields, UK. This second Zepped is slightly incomplete (opening shots of a Zeppelin are missing, apparently) but otherwise looks to be the same film. It was discovered by one Brian Hann. More information (though with a muddled idea of the film’s history and value) is given in The Shields Gazette and in the comments below.

Brian Hann with the second Zepped, discovered in a South Shields second-hand shop

Pordenone diary 2008 – day seven

Alexander Shiryaev (1867-1941) is not a name that you will find in any film history. He was a member of the Russian Imperial Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, a protégé of the great choreographer Marius Petipa, a character dancer of great skill (he was too small for the classic leading roles), and a gifted ballet teacher.

It was his teaching that seems to have led Shiryaev to film. Fascinated with human movement and the notation of ballet, Shiryaev began producing sequential drawings of dance steps that documented the minutiae of such movements, work that was inherently cinematic in construction. Shiryaev must have seen the connection, because in 1904 he applied to the theatre management to let him purchase a motion picture camera and film to record the dancers of the ballet. He was turned down – no films were allowed to be made of the dancers of the Imperial Ballet. Undaunted, Shiryaev purchased a camera anyway – a 17.5mm Biokam acquired in London, to be followed by an Ernemann Kino, also employing 17.5mm film. At some point he also had used of a 35mm camera.

Shiryaev took to filming as one who instinctively knew what the medium could do. He understood the camera as he understood dance. Between 1906 and 1909, Shiryaev produced an astonishing body of work – live records of dances, home movies, comedies, trick films, animations and puppet films. None of these was seen in public. They might have disappeared from history entirely, had they not first been narrowly saved from destruction in the 1960s by a friend of Shiryaev’s, Daniil Saveliev, and then discovered again in 1995 by filmmaker Victor Bocharov, who has been their custodian ever since. Bocharov produced a documentary on the collection in 2003, Zapazdavshaya Premiera (Belated Premiere), but the screenings at Pordenone were the true public premiere for the majority of these films, many of which came fresh from the specialist labs of PresTech in London.

The Shiryaev films were shown over a number of days, the programmes including A Belated Premiere and films related to his world, such as Anna Pavlova dancing. But the main programme came on Friday 10 October, and divided up his ouevre into four categories.

Dance films
These were films of Shiryaev and his dancer wife Natalia Matveeva dancing on a sunlit stage at their Ukraine home. As the only films of the Russian ballet greats at this time, they have plain historical value, but they are also a visual delight. The two dance singly or together in a selection of folk-based dances, performed with sparkling zest, and each ending delightfully with the dancer leaving the stage then returning for a bow. The most dazzling are those on 35mm, particularly Shiryaev’s party piece, ‘Fool’s Dance’ from Petipa’s Mlada.

Trick films
Shiryaev was evidently a film-goer himself, and decided to emulate some of the trick films common in the mid-1900s. All were again filmed at his summer home, in the open air. One film where a giant spider came down and settled on a sleeping man was clearly inspired by Georges Méliès’ Une nuit terrible. Another, given the title [Chairs], anticipated Norman McLaren’s Neighbours by some fifty years, with its stop-animation of humans seated on chairs and swapping positions.

Earlier in the week we had seen numerous fleeting home movies of Shiryaev and family (they are some of the earliest surviving home movies anywhere) and various staged comedies made by the family. The marvellous thing to behold was how the boundaries between home movies, comedies and then trick films blurred, all created in the same spirit of joyous performance. The family’s whole lives seemed to be some form of dance.

Paper films
For me, Shiryaev’s paper ‘films’ were his greatest achievement. Before he had a camera (or so it is assumed), he produced animations on paper (45mm wide) which have now been reconstituted on film. One such film with delicate line showed birds in flight, the observant results of which the festival catalogue rightly pointed out connected his quest for reconstituted movement with that of the chronophotographers Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey. But finest I think was [Cakewalk], a trio of dancers in exquisite, gently swaying unison. Only a minute or so long, but I have never seen a finer piece of animation.

Shiryaev’s puppet animation P’ero-Khudozhniki (Artist Pierrots), from http://www.watershed.co.uk

Puppet films
For David Robinson, the festival’s director and a most enthusiastic advocate of Shiryaev’s work, the stop-frame puppet films he made were his greatest achievement. They were certainly the most astonishing. Years ahead of animation elsewhere in the world (and two or three years ahead of Starewitch), these films used puppet figures in a theatre set to recreate, in meticulous detail, actual ballet dancers. Some of the effects – such a water or paint being thrown, or balls being tossed in the air – were astonishingly accomplished, and simply the co-ordination of several puppets all dancing at the same time would have required prodigious patience and skill. One of the films indeed revealed the animator’s hands to the edge of the frame, moving manically into a mysterious blur.

The puppet films required some concentration on the part of the audience, particularly the 12-minute-long [Harlequin’s Jest], which was in five acts with long titles (supplied by Bocharov) explaining the action. What helped enormously was the music. We know that Shiryaev meant his films to be so accompanied, including the animations, but not what that music was. John Sweeney, one of the festival’s core band of pianists, took on the task of matching music (some from Petipa ballets, some his own) to the films, with Günter Buchwald joining him on violin for [Harlequin’s Jest]. The brilliant results were rightly given loud acclaim by the audience – the musical highlight of the festival.

We will certainly be hearing more about Alexander Shiryaev. The documentary A Belated Premiere gets its British premiere at the Watershed in Bristol on 19 November (nearby Aardman Animation has been involved in supporting the restoration of Shiryaev’s work), and with the restoration of the films as yet incomplete (some we saw only on DVD), it’s a certainty that there will be more on show at Pordenone.

Friday was a day for superlatives. In the morning we had seen more of the Corrick collection of early films collected by a family of entertainers in 1900s Australia. Now, having written my thesis on Charles Urban (right), published a website about him, and taken my blog nom de plume from his company logo, it might be argued that I could be a little biased when it comes to praising his works, but – damn it all – Living London, made by the Charles Urban Trading Company, if it isn’t one of the greatest of all silent films, then it is undoubtedly the greatest film of 1904 [update: the film has now been identified as Urban’s The Streets of London (1906)]. The film is an eleven-minute section from an original forty-minute documentary (no other word will do) depicting London life. Moving approximately eastwards (from Westminster to the City, with a diversion along the Thames), the film shows the metropolis at its imperial zenith, vividly alive, with cameras picking out every detail, high and low (the trouble taken over camera positions was particularly noticeable) – traffic, roadworks, people dancing in the street, workers of every kind, buildings under construction, the river teeming with craft, even in one shot a row of men with sandwich boards advertising Urbanora film shows. The catalogue compared it to Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera or Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, but this was a work of a different kind, a sort of missing link between the single-shot actualities of the early cinema period and the constructed documentary. I can think of few other films that can so thrill with a plain exposition of ‘reality’.

The Corrick collection yielded other gems. Particularly noteworthy were Bashful Mr Brown (1907), a chase comedy made by the Corrick’s themselves; Babylas vient d’hériter diune panthère (1911), pure surrealism from Alfred Machin as an inquisitive leopard is introduced into a bourgeois household; and The Miner’s Daughter (1907), an exercise in beautifully judged pathos from Britain’s James Williamson, in which the title character parts from her father when she marries an artist, and after much grief they are finally brought together by his granddaughter. And it’s a rare early film that combines a mine explosion with scenes inside the Royal Academy.

After the highs of Shiryaev we relaxed in front of Ihr Dunkler Punkt (1929), a typically professional vehicle for Germany’s favourite Briton, Lilian Harvey, who played two identical people, one an ordinary young woman about town, the other a jewel thief, whose lives and lovers get mixed up. A light but cleverly made concoction, in which I most liked the comic turn by the normally sombre Warwick Ward, another Briton who plied his trade in German films.

Michael Nyman takes his bow

I was tiring just a little of films by this stage, and chosen not to follow D.W. Griffith into the sound era with Abraham Lincoln (1930). Instead I concluded my Pordenone with the evening screenings of A Propos de Nice (1930) and Kino Pravda no. 21 (1925). A large crowd of Pordenone locals queued up for this, and the theatre was filled up to its third tier. How come? Because Michael Nyman was playing the piano, and Italians, it seems, love his music. Nyman had been due to play at the festival last year, but had to withdraw owing to illness, so did the honourable thing by turning up this year. Despite his star status, Nyman found himself in the pit the same as all the other musicians during the festival, with the result that no one saw him until he emerged for his bow at the end. A Propos de Nice came first, and Nyman’s complexly repetitive music provided the ideal match for Vigo’s cumulative montage of telling images. It was certainly quite different to anything else we heard during the week, a lesson in how we should always be encouraging different musical interpretations of silent films. Particularly striking were sequences with a single bass note pounded with a rapidity that seemed to be testing the piano’s stamina to the limit.

The Kino Pravda, a celebrated example of the series, on the death of Lenin, was less successful. The film itself, with its hectoring, fractured style, combining newsfilm with slogans and animation, probably defies most forms of musical accompaniment, and Nyman’s score churned out circular themes that didn’t much connect with the film. The score lacked the inspiration of A Propos de Nice, and the film ended a few bars before he did, so that he was being applauded while still trying to finish playing. Opinion afterwards was mixed, with some of the musicologists among the Giornate regulars in shock.

And that was it for me. I left early on the Saturday, the last day of the festival, and so missed Griffith’s final film The Struggle (1931) (touchingly paired with a re-showing of his first, The Adventures of Dollie) and the grand finale of Jacques Feyder’s Les Nouveaux Messieurs (1929). This was a fine festival. Few outstanding classics, but so much to interest, stimulate, challenge and excite the imagination. There were welcome innovations, such as the electronic subtitles, and encouraging signs of closer relations between town and festival. The Giornate del Cinema Muto never rests on its laurels, recognising the broad and knowledgable audience that it attracts, and that in a real way Pordenone is silent film today. It sets the agenda; it builds up the canon; it consistently reminds us of how various the silent film was (and continues to be – there were some examples of modern silent shorts, though none that I saw were terribly distinguished). Warm thanks to all who make the festival such a success year after year. We’re so lucky that it’s there.

‘Til next year.

Pordenone diary 2008 – day one
Pordenone diary 2008 – day two
Pordenone diary 2008 – day three
Pordenone diary 2008 – day four
Pordenone diary 2008 – day five
Pordenone diary 2008 – day six

Lego goes silent

As we continue our trawls through YouTube looking for imaginative and legitimate (or at least arguably so) creations relating to silent cinema, our eyes settle on Lego…

Lego films (or brick films) have become an honourable strand of the animation film, though one whose apparent ease of production has attracted far too many amateurish efforts. Parodies of films and film genres are rife, inevitably, and so it is that there are numerous silent Lego films to be found, or Lego films imitating silents. For the most part they are as bad as one might fear, showing only the most hackneyed ideas about silents, and minimal artistry. But, as ever, among the dross we find a few gems a-glistening. Here’s a selection to amuse and maybe instruct a little.

So let’s start with The Birth of a Nation. One may tremble with trepidation at what such an offering might mean, but what we get is a parody of one of those TV Hollywood history programmes, presented as though a previously lost fragment of interview material, with talking heads reminiscing over the experience making the films. Enjoy the insights offered by editor Rose Smith, director, producer and editor D.W. Griffith (“I wanted to push the length of feature film productions, baby”), cameraman Billy Bitzer, actor Ralph Lewis, and music editor Joe Carl Briel, all boastfully talking up the film’s length, technical innovations and undying contribution to film history. Created by Geoff Reimer and C.J. Reisenbigler.

Most Lego film parodies tackle the obvious. Here holstenwall has shown a little more imagination and given us a Lego interpretation of the Berg or mountain films of Arnold Fanck, in which Leni Riefenstahl first made her mark as an actress. Here we see Berg von Alptraumen, or Mountain of Nightmares (part 1), complete with German intertitles (with English subtitles), as our hero scales the snowy heights amid settings of suitably midget epic grandeur. Sadly, the world still awaits part 2…

There are various Lego versions of scenes from Metropolis to choose from. This is the one to see. Considerably classier in look than the average, it also shows greater imagination than simply mimicking parts of the film. Entitled 45 Seconds of Metropolis, it takes the film’s famous tag line – ‘Der Mittler zwischen Hirn und Händen muss das Herz sein’ – ‘The mediator between head and hands must be the heart’ – and illustrates this through three sections (two really), dedicated to the hands, the head and the heart. A subtle miniaturist’s idea, and a fine title sequence too. It was created by Gordon Bühler, a.k.a TrashGordon (great name).

That’s probably more than enough, but how could I resist any Lego film which chooses to demonstrate to us that Thomas Edison invented the Kinetoscope…

(I’m just keeping things ticking over while I work on grander stuff to present to you when it’s ready. Bear with me.)

Emile Cohl encore


A new book on the master French animator, Emile Cohl, is due to be published in France on 20 August. The publication of Emile Cohl: L’inventeur du dessin animé, written by Pierre-Courtet Cohl (the filmmaker’s grandson) and Bernard Génin, coincides with the centenary of Cohl’s best-known film, Fantasmagorie, generally held to be the first fully animated film. The book is both a biography and a comprehensive study of his films, but what is most exciting is that it will come with a two-disc DVD, produced by Gaumont-Pathé Archives, which is said to include almost all of his surviving films (around thirty-seven are thought to survive).

One cannot judge as yet whether the book will surpass the exceptional 1990 biography by Donald Crafton, which for the multi-lingually-challenged such as myself holds the inestimable advantage of being in English, but the DVDs will bring a great number of Cohl’s films out of the archives and into the public consciousness for the first time in nigh on a century (as an earlier post notes, very few Cohl films are currently publicly available). The book also has 600 illustrations, which should be more than an attraction in itself.

Book and DVDs are to be published by Omniscience, which has information on book, author and subject on its site (in French), but not on the DVD’s precise contents.

Update: See comments for more DVD information.