HOW THEY ARE MADE
AND HOW TO
BARRETT C. KIESLING
1937, Chapter 2 p.10ff
Terry Ramsaye has named his excellent standard history of the motion picture A Million and One Nights. Ramsaye’s reference is, of course, obvious. If we enjoy the anthology of the Arabians, The Thousand and One Nights, glamorous, romantic, exotic, filled with the uncertain and the unexpected, Ramsaye asks that we stop for a moment and consider the origin of the motion picture. It has a truly remarkable dramatic and scientific heritage.
Out of the past of the motion picture we may find some of the reasons for its present amazing vitality. American history would be meaningless without Washington, Lincoln, and Jackson. Similarly, no one can know the present stature of the photoplay or attempt a prophecy of its future without understanding its past and the parts played in it by pioneers like Muybridge, Armat, Lumiere, Edison, Laemmle, Griffith, Zukor, Mayer, Thalberg, DeMille, Zanuck, and the Warners. But, long before these pioneers, there were men who had made inventions which played an important role in motion picture development.
In 1640 Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit, showed his Magia Catoptrica, or magic lantern, before an audience of Roman nobles. His single shadows on the walls were very much like those presented by the more modem magic lantern of today. But he also showed in his book Ars Magna Lucis et Umbre (The Great Art of Light and Shade) a method of changing from picture to picture by the use of a revolving drum. He approached closely an understanding of the optical illusion which is the foundation of the motion picture, but his goal was not quite achieved.
The inventions and discoveries available today were unknown to Kircher, but to him came one of those flashes of inventive prevision without which we would not have our remarkable, mechanical world of today. Kircher lit a small match which became the blazing conflagration which is the modem motion picture. What would the world have done without its Kircher; without its Watt, discovering the principle of the steam engine from the action of a tea kettle on a table in his English home; without Franklin, who with his kite and his metal key brought electricity from the lightningstreaked heavens?
Every industry of today has its imposing biography of genius. Ford, Chalmers, and Kettering are but a few names along the highroad which led to the 1937 automobile. Edison, Steinmetz, and Marconi we recognize as leaders in the field of electrical science.
In equal measure the motion picture has its parade of genius. After Kircher the next genius of great importance to emerge was Peter Mark Rôget, author of the widely used Rôget’s Thesaurus. But Rôget was also a scientist and in 1824 he appeared before the Royal Society in London and read a paper entitled “Persistence of Vision with Regard to Moving Objects.”
Rôget had caught in his mind a concept of the next step beyond Kircher’s Magia Catoptrica. He pointed a way whereby the single picture consecutively presented by Kircher, or anyone else, could be made to seem to move. His theory, and it is the scientific basis of the billion-dollar film industry of today, is that if pictures of persons or objects are passed before the eyes in separate consecutive stages of movement, the eye tends to remember the last picture as it passes on to the next. But Roget merely expressed this theory in words.
It was Sir John Herschel who noted that when a shilling was spun on a table the face and the obverse were blended. Hearing of this incident, Dr. William Henry Fitton—a geologist, chemist, and physician — prepared a demonstrating device. It was a little disk of cardboard with strings attached to twirl it. On one side was a drawing of a bird, on the other a cage. Revolve the disk, and the bird appeared to be in the cage.
Dr. Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau, of the University of Ghent, Belgium; Dr. Simon Ritter von Stampfer, Vienna; the great Michael Faraday; Lt. Baron Franz von Uchatius, Vienna; William George Horner, Bristol, England—these, and other scientists, developed still further the possibility of showing objects and persons in motion through the Law of the Persistence of Vision.
At the same time Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre and Joseph Nicephore Niepce were carrying forward, separately, the invention of single picture photography. December 14, 1829 saw the birth of a process to make light record its images through a lens on a treated metal plate.
February 5, 1861 marked the emergence of the term “cinema.” Coleman Sellers, mechanical engineer of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, patented his Kinematoscope and gave to a great modern industry its basic name. The Kinematoscope did not present photographed motion, for the plate of the day was chemically too slow for consecutive photographs. But Mr. Sellers took separate poses of his young sons in consecutive steps of action. These pictures were mounted on a device similar to a paddle wheel. Observed when revolved at a proper rate of speed, an impression of motion resulted.
In 1863 the Phasmatrope of Henry Hevl, of Columbus, Ohio, and of Philadelphia, presented such an effect bv means of a magic lantern. Thin glass positive pictures of Heyl’s waltzing with a partner were mounted radially on a wheel. They were exposed intermittently to the light ray of the lantern. Of these Ramsave writes: “This machine had a shutter and a ratchet and a pawl intermittent mechanism which produced all of the mechanical effects necessary to the proper projection of pictures, even by today’s standards.”1
The years moved on until 1872. Governor Leland Stanford, of California, horse breeder and statesman, contended with two doubting friends, James R. Keene and Frederick McCrellish, that at various gaits a horse at full speed took all of his four feet off the ground at once. The controversy brought about a wager of twenty-five thousand dollars.
To settle the wager, Eadweard Muybridge, a San Francisco photographer, was employed. Muybridge’s first efforts to get a series of action photographs failed. The plates of the time had a speed of only one twelfth of a second.
In 1877 the experiments were resumed. The photographic plate was now fast enough to record the movements of a speeding horse. But shutters and lenses and the photographer were too slow. Muybridge got many photographs, mostly of fast-moving noses and tails! One vague picture, however, showing a horse with all four feet off the ground, spurred Governor Stanford on in his experiments. He decided to try to get various sections of the horse’s stride by using a row of cameras. The camera shutters were connected by strings which the horse was to break as he ran. But the strings broke at the wrong time and frightened the horses. Stanford controlled the Central Pacific Railway. Arthur Brown was chief engineer of the road. When Stanford wanted things he just asked his boys to deliver. Brown took Engineer John D. Isaacs from an important bridge job to help Stanford win his big wager.
Isaacs developed a method whereby the steel tire of a trotting sulky closed electrical contacts which operated each shutter of each camera in turn. The final number of pictures to a set was twenty-four. Ramsaye states that Stanford’s expenditure was “something like $40,000.” 2
Despite the mechanical part played by Isaacs in making the result possible, fame came to Muybridge for years as the “first action photographer.” He was fêted in Europe and later employed by the University of Pennsylvania for photographic research. He wrote a book entitled Descriptive Zoopraxography, or The Science of Animal Locomotion.
Inspired by the Muybridge pictures, Jean Louis Meissonier of France developed the Zoopraxinoscope. The theory of Persistence of Vision in Moving Objects was steadily developing in various hands toward practical motion projection, if not photography.
But now a giant step was to be taken.
In 1886 Thomas Alva Edison was perfecting the phonograph. To him came the idea of making the invention appeal to vision as well as to hearing. He and an assistant, William Kennedv Laurie Dickson, developed a cylinder-recording camera which photographed “start and stop” pictures fortv-eight times to a second. For some years, motion photography was standardized at sixteen pictures to the second. This rate has been increased to twenty-four pictures per second for talking pictures, largely for sound recording reasons.
Edison’s pictures were very tiny. Thev were photographed in spirals around a cylinder. But while his camera worked, it was obviously not practical. Edison had never tackled such a vexing problem.
Then came the notion of slotted strips of film being fed to the stop motion device, for motion pictures do not “move” steadily. They stop and start. The illusion in one’s eyes, because of the Law of Persistence of Vision, does the rest, as we have seen. The size of the motion picture frame today is exactly that which Edison measured out in 1888 on strips of sensitized celluloid furnished by John Carbutt.
Meanwhile, George Eastman of Rochester was working on a process to supplant glass plates in photography with cheap flexible roll film. When Edison saw the first Eastman film on September 2, 1889, he cried, “That’s it! Now we’ve got it.”
The first goal of all these experiments was a camera, the Kinetograph, and, Ramsaye says, “the Kinetoscope, a peep show machine in which Edison’s pictures were exhibited. There was an inadequate unnamed projector at the time, but Edison’s general manager wanted to sell the peep show machine, which was ready.”
The Kinetoscope “fired the gun” for a race which was to take picture projection from the peep show class and put it on the screen. Experimenters were simultaneously at work in England, France, and the United States. They included Woodville Latham, Robert W. Paul, Louis Lumiere, C. Francis Jenkins, and Thomas Armat. The latter was a particularly vital figure whose efforts, states Ramsaye, “really did the most to take the motion picture out of the peep show.”
Edison himself improved his early device and introduced the Edison Projecting Kinetoscope. But he never achieved the practical talking picture he sought and his interest waned.
Out of this state of affairs, legal tangles were to be expected, and suits were filed by various claimants. A decade of dispute ensued, to be settled December 18, 1907, when conflicting factions, represented by the Edison, Biograph, Vitagraph, Lubin, Selig, Essanay, Pathé, and Melies companies, pooled their patents and claims to special rights in the Motion Picture Patents Company. The General Film Company became the distributing arm for the members of the basic company. The most powerful single concern the motion picture has known had been born.
The motion picture took enormous strides forward on the impetus of two events which gave it extraordinary publicity. Edison would not hurry. His Kinetoscope was too late for the World’s Fair. But on November 3, 1899 Biograph filmed the Jeffnes-Sharkey fight, and in 1 906 motion pictures of the San Francisco earthquake riveted more attention than all the dancing and “chase” and scenic pictures which had been produced.
But several independent producers resented the efforts of the General Film Company to control their destinies. Included in this fighting group were such pioneers of the film of today as Carl Laemmle, Jesse Lasky, Adolph Zukor, Cecil B. DeMille, and Samuel Goldwyn. Had a struggle not been necessary, it is possible that a number of cinematic advances might have been many years delayed. Struggle made keener the minds of ambitious men. And eventually these leaders soared above the General Film Company, which has long since been forgotten.
A familiar form of early picture theatre was a railroad coach into which audiences were lured under promises of “A Trip to China.” The name of the device was “Hale’s Tours.”
Then came the “store show.” Usually, it was simply a store with a few folding chairs. Early theatre operators, who were certain that “movies are just a passing fad,” made no effort to keep their “theatres” either clean or comfortable.
But here and there about the country were farseeing men who looked ahead. Among these was a young Canadian, Louis B. Mayer, who had purchased a store show at Haverhill, Massachusetts. He cleaned it, installed comfortable seats, and offered as his opening picture From the Manger to the Cross, a religious film made in Italy and far more ambitious than any American product of that time. From vision of this sort came the modern motion picture theatre, well lighted, well furnished, a welcome aesthetic addition to a community.
Credit belongs to D. W. Griffith for first proving that the public would accept long continued stories played by capable actors. His Birth of a Nation was a flame that set the whole cinema world ablaze.
Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille are credited with the creation of such routine photographic effects of today as the close-up, the flash back, and the backlight. These represent considerable advance over the drab, unrelieved flat lighting of the very first pictures.
DeMille tells an amusing story of his first attempt to get away from the use of “flat” lighting. He fashioned the first rude “spotlight” and, in a scene of Warrens of Virginia, he snowed for the first time an effect now familiar, a man with his face strongly lighted on one side, and heavy shadows on the other. The effect emphasized the dramatic value of a certain war scene.
But from DeMille’s New York office came a wail from a too practical executive, “We pay these actors well. Why show only one half of their faces?”
De.Mille answered quickly, “Don’t you ever look at great paintings? That’s Rembrandt lighting!”
The New York executive thought the phrase strongly descriptive. The picture was advertised as “the first to have Rembrandt lighting,” and motion picture photography with its present emphasis upon artistic content had been born.
Under various producers and directors, the silent film advanced steadily in importance until 1927. Clever men found endless ways to make effective pantomime and inserted written titles to take the place of stage dialogue. Stage producers noted with alarm that it was increasinglv difficult to get experienced actors. The best had crone to Hollywood or to the first Eastern studios established at Fort Lee, New Jersey. In New-York, silent motion pictures scored greater success than most stage plays. The Big Parade ran for more than a year on Broadway.
The silent picture era developed some magnificent films. The following will probably always be remembered: The Birth of a Nation, The Ten Commandments, Seventh Heaven, Broken Blossoms, The Covered Wagon, The Little Minister, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ben-Hur, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Quo Vadis (Italian), Cabiria (Italian), The Three Musketeers, Eyes of the World, Queen Elizabeth, Carmen, Civilization, and Abraham Lincoln.
But, with the year 1927, a new era opened. A singer named Al Jolson sang and talked for part of a photoplay, The Jazz Singer.
The talking picture had been born!
Edison’s dream had at last been realized. Speech and sight were united. Stories whose merit depended on delicacy of dialogue could now be made successfully.
“Action,” all-important word of silent days, was still important. But now the subtle characters of Charles Dickens could really come to life, and Shakespeare on the screen could emerge from the written word to a pictorial reality.
Now in its second decade, the talking pictures can rightfully point with pride to such accomplishments as David Copperfield, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Trader Horn, Sequoia, A Tale of Two Cities, Story of Louis Pasteur, Les Miserables, Little Women, Anthony Adverse, Last of the Mohicans, House of Rothschild, Henry VIII, Rembrandt, Maytime, Naughty Marietta, The Good Earth, Captains Courageous, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Grand Hotel, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and Lloyds of London.
The screen has its faults, but during its short life it has achieved more aesthetic expression per year than any other art. It has been the only art to make a concerted effort by itself, and in itself, to raise general standards of taste.
But physical growth does prove solid popularity. Available figures indicate clearly that the photoplay is no illusory fad, no will-o’-the-wisp, but an integral part of the life of today, and the life of tomorrow.
It has not supplanted the stage nor can it ever, for the stage has a place distinctly its own. And the stage, instead of being harmed by the photoplay, has grown in stature. Stage technique, spurred by motion picture accomplishments, has made great strides. The finest plays of the modern theatre have had a new vitality and originality, since the advent of the motion picture.
In the ’80’s and ’90’s, and even into the present century, stage plays followed a tradition that a play must be presented in three or four acts. Shakespeare, of course, had many scenes in his acts but as the theatre became a more massive structure of wood and stone, the changing of numerous sets became too costly, and stage producers sought economy by urging playwrights to tell their story with fewer acts and scenes.
Compare the plays of forty years ago with those of today. Plays still stay within three or four acts, but, because of revolving stages and more portable settings, six to ten or twelve scenes to a play are common, and plays have been presented with as many as twenty scenes. Of course this number of scenes, if they can be changed quickly, is an admission of the stage producer that the shift of locale germane to the motion picture provides a special advantage over the stage form of presentation.
For years, only the stage play was studied in schools. Today the screen drama is being included in high school and college curricula. Young people of the new generation are seeing and hearing motion pictures. It is their right to have answered the questions which arise in their minds about this art.
Thirty years ago a few hundred thousand feet of film were sufficient for a struggling “plaything,” looked upon with contempt by people of the stage and not viewed with enthusiasm by its own adherents. Most of these cynically considered it a passing fad from which they could make a few thousand dollars and then get out. Today the industry in America alone requires two billion feet of film a year.
Thirty years ago if a film cost two thousand dollars to make, producers threw up their hands in horror. Today to spend two million dollars to make an adequate film presentation of Gone with the Wind is considered a normal expenditure.
Today in the United States alone 28,000 persons are employed in the production of moving pictures and nearly 300,000 in their distribution and exhibition. More than 150 different industries are stimulated by American motion picture expenditures, representing an amount of $200,000,000 a year.
The motion picture is rated by many observers as being among the first ten single commodity industries of the United States. It pays the government over $100,000,000 in taxes annually, spends $30,000,000 for insurance, and advertises to an amount of $77,000,000 a year in the United States and $33,000,000 annually in other parts of the world.3
These figures are not offered with any idea of artificially stimulating the importance of the film industry in the minds of those who read them. The figures given, and others, are available in standard books of statistics.
The past of the motion picture, exciting as it is, is so short that the great accomplishments of the film form lie ahead, not behind. Undoubtedly this is one of the reasons why film making is an important interest and study for young people. Film making is not set and established in its ways. It has traveled only part of its road. It is flexible, and alluring new vistas stretch in all directions from it.
1 Ramsaye, Terrv. A Milion and One Nights, Vol. I: p. 19. Simon &
Schuster. New York. 1926.
2 Ramsaye, Terry. Op. cit., p. 37.
3 Statistics supplied by Association of Motion Picture Producers.
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