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American Cinematographer (1989) - The Film Explosion




The Film Explosion

Motion pictures burst upon the world with an impact that was felt in almost every region that supports human life. It happened some four centuries after the invention of the printing press, more than a half-century after the first Daguerrotype was exposed, and several years before Marconi patented his wireless transmitter. Like tendrils of flame, motion picture film spread quickly over the earth, bringing changes every place it went.

Eastman quickly opened branches in countries over the globe to supply its own brand of film, and later manufactured the films sold by Pathé, Gaumont, and other large suppliers. By 1897 several other companies were manufacturing motion picture film stock, including Blair in the U. S., Lumière in France, Schering in Germany and John H. Smith in Switzerland. Later, Bayer introduced its Cellit-Film, made in Leverkusen, and Agfa began producing movie film at their factory in Wolfen. Gevaert Photo-Producten in Mortzel, Belgium, began manufacture of ortho negative in 1925. Dupont Film Manufacturing Company in America rose to prominence in the 1920s as a major supplier of cine film.

A practical film for the purpose of making movies was created a hundred years ago; audiences saw their first real movies projected on a screen six years later. In a short time the motion picture grew from a novelty amusement into the true international language. Most of the countries touched by film seized upon moving pictures as a means of expression, each adding unique contributions and improvements to the grammar of film. All of them had stories to tell and their own ways of telling them.

Movies became the most popular and addicting form of entertainment, information and education in the world. The word "art" was even applied, hesitantly at first, but eventually without cavil.

By examining the beginnings and early development of motion pictures in various parts of the globe we can give a suggestion of the influence of film upon these places as well as the ideas that were given from all quarters to the literature of film.


In the prehistory of motion pictures France gave us Niepce, Daguerre, Bayard, Janssen, Marey, Reynaud. At the dawn of projected movies Louis Lumière led the way. From the earliest past and into the present, France has played a key role, and, for seven crucial years, French filmmakers truly dominated world cinema.

Lumière was more than an inventor and random showman, he was an artist - the composition of even his earliest scenes is above reproach. He was also the prototype movie executive, who established a world market for his products within months of the debut of his cinematograph. While Edison was still working in the Black Maria, Lumière and his agents were making movies in America, Australia, Asia, Africa and much of Europe.

Georges Méliès, a professional magician and owner of the Theatre Robert-Houdin de Paris, attempted to purchase a Lumière cinematograph; Lumière had built 25 of them but they were not for sale. Méliès then bought an animatographe projector in London from R. W. Paul and from it built his own camera. From Lumière-styled scenes he progressed in 1896 to putting his own stage illusions on film - conjuring acts to which he soon added the unique magic only the camera could provide.

This began, by his own account, while Méliès was photographing the facade of the Paris Opera House in 1896. His camera jammed, and after making hasty adjustments, he resumed cranking. Upon viewing the film, he was astonished to see a passing bus change abruptly into a passing hearse. He had discovered by accident the substitution trick the American Clark had invented two years earlier. Later that year Méliès employed the trick to change a lady into a skeleton in his short film, The Vanishing Lady. This tentative step was followed by increasingly elaborate productions which he called "artificially arranged scenes" in which mechanical stage tricks were augmented by photographic effects. The camera made possible the depiction of giants, elves, ghosts, angels, dragons, space travel, etc. These were filmed in his specially constructed glass studio, at Montreuil, which was equipped with trap doors, mirrors, winches, pulleys, wire riggings and other staples of the conjuror's art. The heavy camera was anchored to permit substitutions and multiple exposures, but could be moved back and forth on a track.

About 90 of the more than 500 films made by Méliès between 1896 and 1912 exist today. They include reconstructed news events, scenics, stage acts and the kind of films for which he is most famous: comic fantasies, fairy tales and literary excerpts. Lengths range from about one to three minutes, with an occasional extravaganza such as A la Conquete du Pole (The Conquest of the Pole, 1912), which runs 22 minutes. Some are hand colored.

Méliès and other independent producers were overshadowed by the growing power of Charles Pathé, who, in 1896 founded the heavily capitalized Pathé Freres, and, soon after the turn of the century, became the largest film company in the world. The company first used Lumière cameras and Eastman film. Pathé cameras, designed in 1902 by Pierre Continsouza, quickly became the first choice of most cinematographers - it is believed that from 1903 to 1918 60% of all movies were photographed with Pathé cameras. Eastman continued to manufacture the film distributed throughout the world by Pathé, supplying more than 32 million feet of film per day during peak years. The film was of exceptional quality, being custom made to contain 20% more silver than regular cine film.

Pathé productions, closely supervised by Ferdinand Zecca, became renowned for realistic crime reconstructions, costume dramas, and especially trick films in the Méliès manner. The latter were staged handsomely by a magician, Gaston Velle, who was hired after Méliès declined to join Pathé, and by the Spanish cinematographer, Segundo de Chomon. Release prints were elaborately hand-colored by the Pathecolor stencil method.

Leon Gaumont's company resembled a smaller version of Pathé, specializing in photographic and cine equipment and producing movies initially as a necessary sideline. In 1905 Gaumont built Europe's largest studio in Paris. Glass enclosed, it included a 70 x 100-ft. special effects stage. Over a period of nine years Alice Guy, Gaumont's young secretary, directed at least 301 subjects of all kinds and more than 100 Phonoscenes (singing and acting performances with recorded accompaniment). Her most famous was La Esmeralda (1905), an adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This remarkable producer-director, probably the first of her sex, made the majority of Gaumont's Paris productions between 1897 and 1906 while continuing her duties as secretary! Her career continued in Germany and the United States.

Emile Cohl was a pioneer of animated film, who in 1907 made comical puppet films using stopframe technique and in 1908 began making cartoons (the first was Fantasmagoria) with simple white line figures moving smoothly on a black background. Only one such cartoon had been made earlier (by Blackton in the U. S.).

In 1908 the French film took a big step forward in international prestige - and a simultaneous step back in terms of technique - with the birth of Le Film D'Art, an effort by Andre Calmettes, Charles LeBargy and others to bring famous stars of the stage to the screen in their greatest triumphs. "The divine Sarah" Bernhardt, Rejean, LeBargy and others were shown in the dullest possible way, speaking their stage lines silently between lengthy subtitles in pictures that were photographed from a single point of view and seemed intolerably long. The camera was unkind to aging performers best seen from beyond the footlights and exaggerated the florid acting necessary for the stage.

Yet, there were rewards in these films. Strong characterization was attempted in French cinema for the first time and the sets and costumes set higher standards. L'Assassinat du Duc de Guise (1908) had the distinction of a specially composed score for small orchestra by Charles Camille Saint-Saens. Les Amours de la Reine Elisabeth (1912), directed by Louis Mercanton with Bernhardt, was acquired by Adolph Zukor for U. S. distribution, and its success not only provided a foundation for what became Paramount Pictures but led to the making of longer features in America and other countries. They also inspired some noteworthy literary adaptations directed by Albert Capellani from works by Hugo, Zola, Sue, and others.

Two much livelier types of film defied the stagnation into which the mainstream movies fell after 1908: comedies and thrillers. These were movies that moved! The greatest comedian-director was Max Linder, who created a debonair man about town character as endearing as Chaplin's Little Tramp and was for a while the world's highest paid actor.

Victorin Jasset, sculptor and designer, fathered the French detective thrillers at the Eclair Company in 1908 with a series of Nick Carter - Le Roi des detectives (Nick Carter, King of Detectives) pictures based on the American dime novel character. He followed with three pictures about a master criminal, Zigomar (1911-1913), and had started the crime series Protea when he died. Numerous imitations followed. Louis Feuillade of Gaumont became the greatest French master of the genre with his Fantomas series of 1913-14, in which a masked criminal baffles the police at every turn. Murders, gun battles on the Paris streets and fantastic stunt action are depicted with great imagination.

The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 all but shattered the French film industry, whose dominance of the world cinema soon fell to the Americans.

During several shaky years the influence of films from America and Scandinavia was strong, but Feullade made some of his greatest crime dramas, the near-surrealistic and totally French Les Vampires series in 1915-16, and later the Judex films, Tih Minh (1919), Barrabas (1920) and others, working until his death in 1925. Several Russian filmmakers fleeing the Revolution, including Yakov Protozanov and Joseph Ermolief, brought some new ideas to French films. The Belgian emigre, Jacques Feyder, arrived during the war and made the epic fantasy L'Atlantide (1921), filmed at great expense in North Africa, as well as a fine drama of an elderly man and a small boy, Crainquebille (1922), an early example of subjective camera effects.

Abel Gance's grandiloquent films, bridging from 1912 well into sound film, were highly romantic and often eccentric. They occasionally achieved greatness, as in the anti-war fantasy, J'Accuse (I Accuse, 1918), in which the war dead rise from their graves to confront the warmongers, and the gigantic Napoleon (1927), which was in work for nearly four years. Author turned director Louis Delluc was an important postwar influence in establishing a film tradition free of theatrical influence, as in his atmospheric study of French low-life, Fievre (Fever, 1921).

Mme. Germaine Dulac, Fernand Leger, Dmitri Kirsanov, Marcel L'Herbier, Man Ray, Alberto Cavalcanti, and Louis Bunuel were among the leaders of the avant garde movement of the 1920s. In adapting the tenets of modern art - impressionism, expressionism, surrealism, dada-ism - to moving pictures, these experimentalists produced a body of work ranging from the merely artsy-craftsy to the intelligent and influential.

The witty and playful works of Rene Clair, nurtured in an experimental return to the Feuillade tradition, led to the incomparable comedy of Un Chapeau de Paille d'Italie (The Italian Straw Hat, 1927) and a long string of successful talkies in France and the U.S. Jean Renoir began his career in the late silent era as well, but his greater fame lay in the talkies. Jean Epstein, whose work in documentary and avant garde films began in 1923, made the brilliant La Chute de la maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher, 1928).

Although France would never return to its pre-war position as the giant among national film industries, it would continue to contribute outstanding films and filmmakers to the world, as it does today.


England's first Kinetoscope parlor opened on Oxford Street, London, on October 17, 1894, and a demand for the peep-show machines followed. Upon learning that Edison had failed to patent the machines in Britain, Robert W. Paul, a maker of optical instruments, built a number of duplicates and installed 15 of them at Earl's Court in 1895. When Edison refused to sell him any films, Paul built his own camera and began exhibiting his own "animated photographs," beginning with Rough Sea at Dover. Paul also built a projector, which he successfully demonstrated at Finsbury Technical College in February 1896. He built a studio on the roof of the Alhambra Theatre in London, where he photographed vaudeville turns and short comedies, the latter being the first narrative films made in England.

Paul built another studio at Southgate in 1899 and, influenced by the Méliès fantasies from France, equipped a special effects stage. He soon became a master at making the so-called trick films. In addition to making multiple exposures in the camera, he invented a printer from which he could combine images from several negatives. His The Haunted Curiosity Shop (1901), Voyage of the "Arctic," or How Captain Kettle Discovered the North Pole (1903), the extraordinary Medieval fantasy, The Magic Sword (1902), and the wildly imaginative The ? Motorist (1906) are among the most sophisticated trick comedies extant, using every photographic effect then known.

Another pioneer was Birt Acres, who made the first movie record of a news event when he photographed the Cambridge boat race and the Derby at Epsom in 1895, using a portable camera of his own design. He invented a projector in 1896 and exhibited at music halls for several years.

G. A. Smith, of Brighton, also began making movies in 1896 with a homemade camera. Within a year he used double exposures with actors to depict a ghost and a vision in tableaux from Dumas' The Corsican Brothers. He made numerous short films, mostly trick or comic shows, but achieved his greatest fame as an inventor. He patented the first successful color process, Kinemacolor, in 1908. Esme Collings, another Brighton man, made about 30 short films in 1896.

James Williamson, a Brighton chemist, began photographing movies in 1897 and was soon producing some 50 shorts a year. His The Clown Barber of 1895 shows a nice feel for the Méliés style, and in Fire (1901) he told a story in five scenes and used red tinting. The travelling showman, Walter Haggar, made excellent trick films, including D. T.'s, or the Effect of Drink (1905) and some vigorous melodramas starring himself and ...

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