Refining the Product
Refining the Product
The novel effects in pictures, such as the unique dissolves and multiple exposures, have an immeasurable bearing on their popularity. Titles run in over the scene, as in "Footprints of Mozart," recently released, and "The Cricket on the Hearth," in which the style of type used was in conformity with the spirit and locale of the story, are of greater importance than would appear to the casual observer, and they really supply the little touches that make up the "finished" product.
—S. S. Hutchinson, president of the American Film Manufacturing Company, in Moving Picture World, 11 July 1914, p. 183
Improvements in lighting and special lighting effects were among the first refinements that began to preoccupy producers (and critics) in the newly structured motion-picture industry of 1909. Although the art and science of photography were at hand to provide models of lighting skill when the motion picture began, and some of the moving-picture cameramen had experience as still photographers prior to getting into film, the transformation of the lighting techniques of still photography to lighting for moving images was slow. One reason was probably the expense: the early outdoor production crews could not wait for the best natural conditions, and the more subtle aspects of using artificial light required the construction of enclosed studios and installation of lighting equipment. These developments came later, with the stabilization of the industry and more investment in the film plant. It would not have cost much, to be sure, to improvise reflectors and diffusers and modify the effects of sunlight, if there had been enough interest. But in the beginning, producers were satisfied as long as the image was clear. It was only with the new dominance of the story film that the need for illusionistic and expressive lighting grew stronger.
When the producers first formed themselves into an organized group, Vitagraph, Edison, and Pathé had just built large studios of glass, and Lubin was about to do the same. The glass-enclosed studios made it possible to film in cold weather and to avoid the problems of wind and rain on the sets. The newer companies or smaller ones continued to do most of their filming out-of-doors. The Biograph studio in the brownstone building at 11 East Fourteenth Street in New York, in operation from 1903 to 1913, was unusual in being lit entirely by artificial light. These were the banks of mercury-vapor tubes known as Cooper-Hewitts; they were also available in the glass studios, but there, they were usually combined with natural light. At best, the Cooper-Hewitts gave a diffused and even lighting, while the sun was apt to create harsh shadows (although these shadows could be softened with diffusers made of special kinds of glass or sheets of muslin and hung overhead). Certain effects could be obtained with small spotlights beamed from outside the camera range or inserted into furniture and objects. As early as 1905 Edwin S. Porter had used a spotlight comng from a fireplace to simulate firelight, and G. W. Bitzer had created similar effects for Biograph films. All kinds of special effects were certainly well known in theatrical lighting too and therefore would have been familiar to the new generation of filmmakers, many of whom had theatrical backgrounds. After 1908 there was increased attention to illusionism; from 1911 onward the expressive uses of light were explored; and by 1913 there was also an interest in pictorialism.1
Then, as now, lighting served to increase the illusion of reality by giving depth to settings and dimension to people and objects. This is accomplished by providing a variety of light sources, from the back and the sides as well as the front, so that one side of the figure or object receives additional light. Naturalistic effects are further enhanced by placing light sources where they would appear in actuality—in windows and doors, and especially in lamps and candles—and by changing the amount of light in the image as such sources are lit or extinguished.
Good or poor photography was a frequent topic of comment in the early film reviews, but very often only from the viewpoint of clarity and sharpness. Thus, in comments on Biograph's Romance of a Jewess in the fall of 1908, a writer implicitly chided lightning defects with the remark that "One cannot help noticing in this film the superior photographic quality in the scenes that are taken outdoors over those that are photographed with the glare of the electric arc light."
By 1911, however, it was in the name of realism that Louis Reeves Harrison
praised Rex's Five Hours: "A notable feature of this photoplayis the light. It comes from where it should come from. This is a most desirable feature in moving pictures; the high lights and shadows are so carefully adjusted as to perfectly mold the figures, bringing them out in clear relief from the background. They are human beings, not photographs." Remarks on other films praised "figures in full relief" and the fact that "the light is so good that practically every branch, not to say every leaf, is seen in relief, nothing flat—a picture full of depth."2
It was similarly in the name of realism that Oliver Twist (Vitagraph, May 1909), when Nancy Sykes lit a candle, the room was lighted, and in The Power of the Press (Vitagraph, December 1909), when a lamp was broken, the light went out, and in The Cat's-Paw (Essanay, December 1912), when Eva turned on the light, the room went from semidarkness to light. Such touches were for the big studios with the facilities to execute them, but by 1911, if a character carried a candle or a lantern without an effect of light coming from it, the failure would be criticized. It was not "realistic."3
Another motivation for developing lighting skill was to add to the means of expression. Lighting, it was discovered, could be used to enhance a psychological mood, point up a moral, clarify a narrative, or deepen an emotion. The expressive qualities of selective lighting had already been noted in Suffer Little Children (Edison, 1909), a film about child labor: "Some very beautiful lighting effects are introduced, effects which emphasize the faces while subordinating everything else." A reviewer of Biograph's The Punishment (April 1912) asked his readers to "note especially the soft lights cast upon the faces of the actors to bring out the slightest detail of facial expression."4
A more dramatic use of lighting contrasts began to appear in American films from 1911 onward, especially in mystery and horror films. The extreme contrast of light and dark created an atmosphere of emotion, drama, and mystery, as noted in this review of At Sword's Point (Reliance, March 1911), which suggested that an unusual lighting effect had its motivation in the plot:
One of the most striking features ever introduced in motion pictures is the duel in the dark between the young king's mother, impersonated by Miss Marion Leonard, and the assassins who had come to murder him. The only light comes from the clashing of steel as sword strikes sword in the darkness. The audience sat as though rooted to the spot while this life and death struggle was in process. It is impossible to convey to those who have never seen it the strange, weird fascination which makes this scene one of the most notable ever seen on the screen (Moving Picture World, 1 April 1911, p. 728).
Essanay made use of similar lighting contrasts in Ghosts (October 1912) and again in The Shadow of the Cross (December 1912). In the latter, a candle is dashed to the floor, the room left in darkness, and slowly "a shaft of light penetrates the gloom and falls upon the crucifix," and saves the hero from committing murder.5
By the fall of 1912, however, at least one observer thought that special lighting effects could be overdone. Calling attention to this "struggle for effect and atmosphere, or what might be called tone," for "bringing out certain impressions of moment to the story," the Mirror's critic cautioned that "[they] may be used indiscriminately in such a way as to detract from the drama itself."6 At the time, expressive lighting was attracting attention in the theater, especially in the work of Max Reinhardt in Germany, although when the low-key and dramatic lighting of The Cheat (Famous Players-Laksy-Paramount, directed by Cecil B. DeMille) came along in 1915, in keeping with the loftier aspirations of the producers the inspiration was attributed to Rembrandt.
When filmmakers began to aspire to high art, they looked first to pictorialism—that is, to beautiful images, such as might be found in nineteenth-century paintings and photography. One much-admired pictorial lighting effect was the "open door." Derived from still photography, it entailed posing the subject inside an open door, looking out. The figure inside would be seen nearly in silhouette, with a little sidelighting, while the exterior would be very bright. This was a popular and easy way to obtain strong contrast lighting without artificial light and in some instances may well have occurred only as an accident of a real location. In addition to its pictorial qualities, the effect could also serve to highlight action occurring in two different spatial areas within the same shot. The World critic first noted its appearance late in 1909 with an Italian film known in English as A Broken Life (Roma, Turin):
There are some effects … such as we have never seen before, notably the simultaneous exposition of an exterior street scene with an interior and with movement taking place in both. Then another part of the picture shows the figure of a woman almost silhouetted against a very bright
exterior scene—an open-air effect very popular in stationary photography (Moving Picture World, 13 November 1909, p. 648).
The "open door" effect was subsequently admired by the critics in Essanay's A Bandit's Wife (June 1910) and in Gay, Gay, Let Us Be Married (January 1911). It is not difficult to find examples of this kind of pictorial shot, which may also be used quite expressively, in surviving films. In Power of the Press (Vitagraph, December 1909), there is a strikingly dramatic composition in which a girl at the left side of the image eavesdrops at a door, while the rest of the frame is shrouded in darkness. In The Deerslayer (Vitagraph, May 1913), an impressive pictorial shot looks through a wide door onto water, with this central panel of water and its bright light reflections bordered by two panels of darkness of about equal size. In A Modern Noble (Domino, February 1915), there is a similar interior shot of the open door, at the beer garden in Heidelberg, where the central panel is bright, and the actors in the dark side panels are nearly in silhouette.7
Still other examples use the effect to more explicitly narrative ends. In The Dream (Republic, March 1912), a deranged mill worker, in near silhouette, looks out the door to see his daughter meeting the mill owner's son in the snow and light outside. In a kind of waking dream or nightmare that is the "working of a distorted mind," he kills the man, then enters the door of his house in semi-silhouette, with sharp side light from the window. The lighting creates the dramatic mood of the scene; the mill worker, standing at the window, fists clenched, thinks he hears the dead man call.8 Similarly, a shot in The Army Surgeon (Kay-Bee, November 1912, directed by Francis Ford) uses combined light sources at a window to highlight a dramatic choice. The hero, standing outside, looks through a window at a party scene; the interior light shines on him on one side, and the softer light of a dying sun on a hillside filters behind him. The scene is meant to be emotionally expressive, because at that moment the hero is giving up his chance to win the hand of the girl at the party in order to go and do his duty.
In the fall of 1912 Essanay brought out "a powerful battery of searchlights" to do some night shooting on the big sets of their three-reel feature King Robert of Sicily (August 1913), based on the Longfellow poem. According to a viewing of the test results, the experiment was a success and achieved "a photographic effect unusual in lighting schemes." At the end of 1914, new Panchrome Twin Arcs, powerful and portable arc lamps, were used for a night-shooting sequence for The House of Fear (IMP, January 1915). This time, the use of the lamps also served as a publicity device, as Kristin Thompson points out, because the press was invited to attend the shooting. The sequence that was filmed that night (by Eugene Gaudio) might be described as a "reverse angle" of the open-door effect. The lights were placed inside the house and the camera was outside; technically, therefore, it was night shooting out-of-doors. According to the World, the new lamps were bright enough "to make clear not merely the outlining of the figures, but their faces." The use of arc lamps to light specific areas of the image was not at all news at this time, but the particular value of the new lamps, it was explained to the press, was their portability. When the heroine rushed out the front door of the house, another of the brilliant portable arcs placed up in a tree lit her face, as though the moon had come out from under a cloud just at that moment to reveal her fearful expression.9
Artificial light was used much more rarely in California, where the brilliant sunshine could be tapped for similar special effects. For example, Karl Brown describes such an effect in the filming of The Birth of A Nation: a mirror reflection of sunlight was used to make a "follow spot" for Lincoln's assassin as he crept through the crowds in the re-creation of Ford's Theater. According to Brown, this was not a realistic use of a spotlight, but one that transformed the black-clad figure into a symbol of death.10
It was only at the very end of this period that there began to appear some examples of artificial lighting for filming at night. Normally the scenes were made in daylight and the prints tinted blue in dye baths to indicate night. Because the tint was applied after printing, it was easy enough for some prints to slip out without the blue color, as evidenced by the complaints of C. H. Claudy: "The time is past when you can take a picture in broad sunlight and call it midnight and get away with it …. They won't stand for such crudities now." At that time, prints were still assembled by hand, individually, shot spliced to shot. In the long run, the separate tinting of scenes for every print that was released was not very practical, especially given the growing numbers of prints needed, and it is difficult to understand why the practice lingered as long as it did. In the name of efficiency and mass production, it would later become preferable to complete editing in the negative and make release prints that did not need to be individually spliced together. (Indeed, since this is the case today, most modern prints of early films are without the tinting bath, which accounts for scenes such as that in The Lonedale Operator where Blanche Sweet pretends that a wrench is a gun and fools the burglars. It does not look very plausible until the blue tint is added.)11
Other refinements increasingly employed from 1911 on were the "fade-in" and "fade-out" (gradually darkening or lightening a scene) and the "iris-in" and "iris-out" (opening or closing the camera's iris so that a round framing device becomes smaller or larger). These were used for beginning and ending shots or scenes, and one reason for their popularity might have been a lingering unease about continuity in cutting to a new scene. Like the style of alternate editing that depended on interrupting one line of action and resuming another, the fade and the iris called attention to the rupture between shots, but these devices softened it, making the change less abrupt. The iris could also function in the role of a close-up, directing attention to a detail without risk of the disorientation that was then felt, or feared, when cutting to a close-up. Later, however, when emphasis was placed on making cuts as inconspicuous as possible, by such means as cutting on action, the use of these early devices lessened.
Both the fade and the iris served to refine the product: they made the finish more "smooth." Judging by surviving films, there seems to have been no particular consistency in their use. In Wenona's Broken Promise (Bison, November 1911), a fade-out is used to end a film. It becomes a transition between present and past in The Old Guard (Vitagraph, 22 February 1913), in which the last "Old Guard" of Napoleon dreams of the past days of glory; each of the old soldier's mental visits to the past is faded in and faded out, or faded out and additionally faded in to the present. In The Warning (Majestic, September 1914), an iris closes as a transition to a new scene. An iris opening to begin a film was quite a popular device, as seen in The Tragedy That Lived (Selig, October 1914), which is actually a good example of the varied uses of all these devices within a single film: a fade-out followed by an iris opening serves as a transition to the past; then, after an iris closes on the scenes set in the past, there is a straight cut to the present. In this sequence, an iris opens as a transition to another scene, and finally, an iris closes to end the film. In Vitagraph's The Man That Might Have Been (November 1914), fades signal the end of memories. Following the long introductory sequence of Damon and Pythias (December 1914, Universal), an opening iris signals the beginning of the story, then in several places marks the beginning of another scene, while a fading iris ends one.
Discussing these refinements in his column for aspiring photoplaywrights, William Lord Wright discouraged their use on economic grounds (note that he also defines a fade incorrectly):
When one scene dissolves into another it is termed a fade. However, this fade and trick stuff frequently mitigates the sale of a story. Trick effects mean a lot of work. Visions are also annoying to handle and the writers who persist in submitting the "dream stuff" soon become unpopular in many studios. Effects will never save a weak idea or pull up the necessary threads of a story (Motion Picture News, 8 November 1913, p. 23).
In fact, the economic argument may be applied in reverse. In the 1913-1914 period the cost of production was one of the reasons why a feature film was worth the extra price, to rent or to see. Expensive refinements added to the value of the film. However, Wright's column was directed to the amateur scenarists who were expected to write for the one-reel film, and therefore he was giving sound advice to his readers.
Another addition to the list of refinements was the great revival of interest in the double exposure beginning about 1912. This had been one of the devices of the early trick film: it could be done in the camera, either by exposing two images on the same frame with a neutral background or by masking part of the image and then winding back the film to expose that part, or alternatively, it could be done in the printer by the double printing of two films, one over the other. Such effects might destroy the illusion of reality, especially if they were not executed with care and skill, and they were therefore rejected by some filmmakers at the beginning of this period. The most frequent use of the double exposure in the story film was to show a vision, a memory, or a thought. In An Alpine Echo (1909, Vitagraph), for example, the immigrant from Switzerland remembers a childhood scene when he hears a familiar music box and raises his arms to a vision of his past, which appears on the wall.
The more modern system used other forms—alternate scenes and inserts, closer views, a more intimate acting style—as embodied, in Tom Gunning's term, in the "narrator system." Nevertheless a number of producers continued to prefer double exposures as a narrative device, and in this period perfected the techniques for making them. As pointed out in chapter 4, some people considered it "more realistic" to show a character's memory on the wall of the set than to cut to another shot. The coming of the feature film with its greater narrative complexity drew producers to a renewed emphasis on such devices. Then, as we will discover, the double exposure became quite attractive as a novelty in a period when producers sought means to hold the spectator's interest during longer films.
According to Barry Salt, the Bell and Howell studio camera available in 1912 not only offered greater steadiness and improved image viewing but came equipped with a built-in frame counter "which facilitated the making of accurate dissolves and other special effects." Finding "no definite mention" that any cameraman had acquired the new device before 1914, Salt concluded that the high price probably discouraged immediate sales. However, there is evidence that the camera was indeed acquired by the Essanay studio and used for the special effects in Sunshine (October 1912). Given the great emphasis on double-exposure scenes at this time, it seems probable that the camera was employed by other studios as well. The growing use of the Bell and Howell camera at this particular time would surely have owed something to the court decisions of the same year that declared the Latham loop patent to be invalid and thus freed independent producers to use openly whatever camera they wished without fear of lawsuits.12
The renewed interest in the use of double exposures in 1912 manifested itself most strongly in the fad for playing double roles, where one actor would appear in the same scene with himself. In Edison's The Corsican Brothers (January 1912), for example, both of the brothers were played by George Lessey. The same month, the Selig Company released a double-role film with Hobart Bosworth playing both the tramp and the millionaire in Merely a Millionaire.
As a reviewer explained in the case of The Corsican Brothers, "This is done by means of a trick of photography that is well understood in all studios, the distinctive point of this example is that it is so well done as not to be apparent. For instance, in the scene pictured below, in which the two brothers are seated at the table, the mother pours coffee on the hand of one brother, and both flinch at the same moment."13
The use of double roles required a considerable degree of advance planning in the production stages in order for the illusion to work properly, but the results were not always successful, as can be seen in Kalem's The Parasite (September 1912). A man has stolen the identity of a "look-alike" from what he thinks is a dead body on the battlefield, but the supposed corpse reappears, alive, and faces the fake. During this very brief confrontation, the body of the authentic character is insubstantial, transparent, but as soon as the fake leaves the scene, there is a cut (supposed to be invisible) and the real figure appears to be more solid. The scene lasts such a short time, however, that it betrays the producer's awareness of its weakness.
Wilbur Crane appeared on the same screen with himself in Pathé Americans The Compact (November 1912), and Porter announced plans to use the device in order for James Hackett to play the double role of the King and Rudolph in The Prisoner of Zenda.14
In 1913 such scenes grew in popularity. In The Twin Brothers (Edison, June 1913), Augustus Phillips is shown shaking hands with himself: the publicity claimed that "this is the first double-exposure picture in which a player, appearing in two roles, seems to come into contact." Marion Leonard played a double role in The Dead Secret (April 1913), as did James Cruze in The Plot Against the Governor (Thanhouser, October 1913). In Breed of the North (Lubin, October 1913), twin brothers are played by the same man in double exposure. Edwin August wrote and directed and played both roles in A Stolen Identity (Powers-Universal, November 1913), where his special achievement was said to be filming the two men he played walking and talking together along a sidewalk. As the film has not survived,
it is not known whether that might have meant a tracking shot, which would indeed have complicated the trick. Paul Wegener's double portrayal in the German film The Student of Prague (1913) arrived on American shores at about the same time, while Grace Cunard outdid everyone by making the leap from double to triple exposure with The Twin's Double (Universal-Gold Seal, November 1913, directed by Francis Ford), a film for which she wrote her own scenario, calling for her to appear in the same scene as three different women.15 A year later, King Baggott found a way to go further still. He played six parts in one scene for Shadows (IMP, October 1914), necessitating six exposures of the film. This trick undoubtedly required the Bell and Howell frame counter for accuracy.16
The double—or sextuple—role, always a challenge to the ego of an actor, by no means represented all the varied uses of double exposure from 1912 onward. It is clear that the multiple exposure was appreciated as a special effect, something to add to a film's interest, admired by the viewers for its cleverness. Such uses of the device departed from the notion that a double exposure is more "realistic" because less disruptive of the narrative flow than a cut to another scene; on the contrary, the device was now calling attention to itself, breaking the illusion that the screen represents reality. American Eclair won "especial praise" for "a bit of double exposing wherein is shown a moving picture screen projection. The register of action is … perfect." It is a particular loss to the history of film exhibition that the film described, The Transgression of Deacon Jones (November 1912), no longer survives, as it showed a nickelodeon in a small town, and the actions of a "Purity League" that wanted to close it. Edison brought out The Third Thanksgiving (November 1912) in time for the holiday, with "a pretty double exposure" to contrast two celebrations. Kinemacolor claimed to have succeeded in doing a double exposure for the first time in a Christmas film for the 1912 season (A Christmas Spirit); this was previously believed impossible to do with the Kinemacolor process. Edison's An Unsullied Shield (December 1912) won high praise from Louis Reeves Harrison for its double exposures showing the dreams of a degenerate scion as his ancestors step out of their portraits one after another to relive their achievements in the same image with the sleeping man. But shortly afterward, Harrison marveled over Thomas Ince's double exposures to show the heroine's thoughts in A Shadow of the Past (Kay-Bee, January 1913), as though no one had ever done it before.17
In Essanay's The Warning Hand (October 1912), a mysterious painting of a jeweled hand suspended from a sword by a chain appears at times of moral crisis to guide the hero on the right path. The Phantom Signal (Edison, October 1913), in two reels, was an attack on corporate heads of an unnamed railroad in New England, who are at fault for train wrecks resulting from the long hours and exhausting work of men at signal stations. A double-exposure animated skeleton forecasts each of several tragedies, while another shows two trains approaching on a V switch. In another double exposure, in The Ghost (Domino, November 1913), a drunkard, in a dream, thinks he is dead and wanders among his friends as a ghost.18
The new skill in handling multiple exposures also yielded a variation on the telephone theme already discussed in chapter 4, as Essanay returned to the example of Porter's 1907 film College Chums in The Battle for Love (December 1914):
In this scene Francis X. Bushman is discovered in his office at the telephone on one side, and Ruth Stonehouse, his sweetheart, at the phone on the other side. In the center is a picture of a street with the telephone wires. From these wires flash out the message on the screen letter by letter. This requires a fourth exposure to work the letters into the central picture, making it practically a quadruple exposure to finish the picture (Motion Picture News, 19 December 1914, p. 113).
The more complex the use of multiple exposures, the more publicity value it had. In its description of The Stolen Birthright (Eclectic, December 1914), filmed by the Whartons at the Ithaca studio, the Motion Picture News told readers:
Near the close of the picture there is a particularly fine series of double exposures. These show the two principal male characters hurrying to their homes. One is rushing west and the other east. The two are shown boarding different trains, and the trains are seen on their respective tracks in this series of double exposures. As a climax to this photographic effect the two men are seen on opposite sides of the screen, one clasping his wife and the other his sweetheart in his arms (Motion Picture News, 19 December 1914, p. 60).
Another important development toward the end of this period was the return of camera movement. The moving camera, while not frequent in pre-1907 cinema, was not unusual either. The mounted moving camera, or traveling shot, was extremely popular as a novelty around the turn of the century, when train- and ship-mounted cameras thrilled the spectators with movement for its own sake. After 1907, however, the camera rarely moved. Where a far-reaching camera pan was previously found useful in carrying the scene of action to another location, now a cut accomplished the same end.
For the most part, any camera movement that was employed between 1908 and 1912 remained unobtrusive, with the camera shifting only slightly on occasion to keep significant action in the center of the shot: for example, when an actor sits down or gets up. Even in such a case, many producers did not object to large areas of unused space left over when the camera position remained static. At this time, when symmetry was important in compositions, such unused areas are often unintentional clues that someone is about to enter the space, or that a double-exposure vision is about to appear in it. In this respect, the long panoramic shot that begins and ends The Country Doctor (Biograph, July, 1909) was quite unusual for its time. But even so, while the panning at the beginning and end of the film forms a lyric circular frame, it should be noted that this movement does not interrupt the formal editing pattern of the interior of the film. If one accepts a technological explanation for film history, it might be argued that cameras seldom moved in this period because a smoothly panning shot was too difficult to achieve with existing equipment. However, the more overpowering reason was the need to discard pre-1907 techniques, including panning shots, while trying out new methods, such as editing. The technique would have seemed old-fashioned to the new generation of filmmakers.
The moving camera began to be found useful, however, for the horseback chases of Westerns and any other far-ranging movement that could not be precisely controlled out-of-doors. The camera moved in order to keep the action within the frame and centered as much as possible. The lengthy panning shot to follow action began to be more fully exploited in 1911-1912. It is especially noticeable in films from the American Film Company, which was making a specialty of Westerns: the posse going after an outlaw in The Ranchman's Nerve (July 1911), a horseback chase in Their Hero Son (September 1912), an unusually extended camera movement in The Fear (September 1912), probably influenced to some extent by the California terrain. In this last film, the camera follows a group of cowboys riding a diagonal line down a hill, pans with them as they cross a stream, and ends with a reverse-angle cut to show the back view as the cowboys break through to the beach.
While the moving camera did not become a strong factor in the dominant style (compared to later developments in the twenties), in 1912 it was being reintegrated into the narrative system that had been built on alternate editing. The tracking shots of the train in The Girl and Her Trust (Biograph, March 1912) added a dynamic element to the "ride to the rescue." Biograph's The Massacre, filmed in November of the same year, made dynamic use of traveling shots, combined with fluid editing.19 In January 1913 the American Film Company used a smooth traveling shot to follow a horseback chase after kidnappers in The Trail of Cards. This shot enables the spectator to see the kidnapping victim drop cards to leave a trail. After the capture, the hero and heroine ride toward the camera, which now pulls back to mark the end of the film on a slow fade. Here one cannot help but think that the filmmakers were so intrigued with making these traveling shots that they did not consider using a close-up to show the cards being dropped, although this might have made the event clearer to the spectator.
In 1913 many productions employed occasional moving-camera shots, but they were still the exception. According to William Christy Cabanne, Griffith didn't use the dolly shot (the "traveling" shot) much because he thought the movement attracted the attention of the audience.20 In The Count of Monte Cristo (Famous Players, November 1913, directed by Edwin S. Porter), so old-fashioned in style as to permit James O'Neill (in the role he made famous onstage) to look at the audience and gesture what he intends to do, the action of a walking couple is followed by the same type of long camera pan used in the early days to avoid a cut.
On 1 June 1914 the big Italian spectacle film by Pastrone, Cabiria, made a sensational American debut at the Knickerbocker Theatre in New York. The fluid camera movements in this film gave a three-dimensional depth and solidity to the enormous sets that had been constructed for it, and they brought scenes forward to the spectator by traveling into the depth of a shot. They were not quite the same kinds of camera movements that had been used in American films, where the purpose was more apt to be that of following action and centering the actors. In any case, the traveling-camera style of Cabiria appeared so unusual to the industry that they dubbed it the "Cabiria movement." Lionel Barrymore later recalled going to see Cabiria with D. W. Griffith, who remarked, "I wonder how they do that goddamn thing?"21
While Cabiria probably encouraged the increasing use of a moving camera, the most visible evidence of a new trend in American films during 1914-1915 was another kind of camera movement: the traveling shot that functioned as the camera following or pulling back, to maintain a constant distance between the camera and the action. This device has already been mentioned in connection with The Trail of Cards, made in January 1913. In The Man on the Box (Jesse Lasky, July 1914), there is a camera pulling back as a carriage races down street toward camera, followed by mounted policemen. A camera pullback in In the Days of the Thundering Herd (Selig, November 1914) manages to be extremely smooth while showing fast-galloping horses on rough terrain.
These shots, still unusual in the production practice and therefore apt to call attention to themselves, sometimes appear like bravura gestures. In Jimmy (Domino, October 1914, directed by Scott Sidney), the opening shot features a very lengthy camera pullback that keeps ahead of Jimmy the newsboy as he runs toward camera on a busy street, crossing intersections and passing many people; this is intercut several times with static shots of the household that depends on him for its support, and interrupted by a fight with another newsboy, after which the camera continues to pull back and Jimmy to run. The unusual shot sequence is placed at the beginning of the film in order not to distract the spectator from the narrative. It serves as a dynamic introduction to the main characters, after which the story can continue. By contrast, however, pans are used fluidly and unobtrusively in Damon and Pythias (Universal, December 1914), where the camera moves across spectators at the stadium, tilts down to include the gladiators, and continues to pan. The traveling camera pullback is also used to film the chariot race, but unlike in Cabiria, it is not used to explore the big sets in depth.
The Bargain (New York Motion Picture Company, December 1914) opens with a prolonged, slow pan over a magnificent landscape, and later, when William S. Hart first looks around the saloon and gambling hall near the Mexican border, there is another long, slow pan, this time around the room, an almost completely circular movement that takes in all the details of the busy scene. This is a subjective shot, from the point of view of the character. Some months into 1915, this same type of movement was used objectively for the opening shot of Lois Weber's Sunshine Mollie, with a very high-angle view of far-stretching oil fields, full of countless derricks pushing upward as far as the eye can see, and a very slow, circular panorama that ends up with the small figure of Lois Weber standing in the road with her suitcase. The interest in new kinds of camera movements continued actively through 1915.
Chapter 4 described the general tendency toward centering the action on the screen as a factor in the new narrative systems. Centering the action guided the spectator to find the significant elements of the image and was generally reinforced by movements of the actors toward the center from the edge of the frame. For interior shooting in particular, the centering of the camera level as well, at the actor's face or the upper part of the body, created a kind of shallow stage area with balanced amounts of space around it; again, a careful arrangement of several actors also worked toward this balance. The change to the "nine-foot line," or "American foreground," in 1909-1910 very slightly unbalanced this symmetry, gently "distorting" the image in such a way as to emphasize the actors, bringing the camera closer and lower at the same time, and reducing the amount of "unused" space above the actors' heads and below their knees. A modern viewer does not think of this as distortion, but remember that the World critic Thomas Bedding felt it strongly. It was an actor-centered universe.
Changes from this standard type of shot usually occurred first in outdoor shooting. The differences in composition are particularly striking in the case of the Biograph films, whenever the action moves from the cramped interior sets of the brownstone building on Fourteenth Street to an exterior.
Some of the unusual compositions in this period might well be only the result of an accident. In a film known as Margharita (IMP, 1911)—I think this is probably not the original title), the sets are flimsy painted flats that a wind threatens to tear down. The compositions of the interior scenes are quite undistinguished. But suddenly there is an exterior shot on a city street, and a woman walks toward the camera down a sidewalk that extends into a perspective of great distance; she finally meets her lover at a street corner in the left foreground—a scene with all the depth and strange atmosphere of a De Chirico painting.
In a period when spectators were well accustomed to the practice of centered action and symmetrically balanced compositions, the occasional use of an unbalanced image was found to be very expressive. Diagonal compositions increase dramatic tension in some exterior shots showing Jekyll, the monster, in Thanhouser's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (January 1912). The "vampire" films indicated the off-center nature of the sensual, self-serving woman by placing her in the corners of the frame, her head down on a pillow or on her arms, distorted in relation to her body. She also smoked cigarettes and dressed alluringly to underline her immorality, but her position in the image, when it shifted attention from the center screen, could be as good an indication as any of her tainted character. A similar off-centering served to make an audience experience fright or thrills. One example described in an earlier chapter is the terror-filled image of a threatening face in the corner of the screen in The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). Another startling image appeared in Lois Weber and Phillip Smalley's Suspense (Rex, 1913), which is off-balance in quite another
way. When the heroine looks out of her window to find the source of a noise, her downward glance is followed by an unexpected overhead-angle shot showing the upturned face of a threatening tramp. Such extreme overhead angles are rare in this period, and therefore all the more startling when they do occur.
There is a distinct though subtle change in the look of a number of films at the end of this period, as they go from a classic, balanced composition to a disturbing asymmetry. The occasional breaks from the centered and balanced composition and the depth emphasis of traveling shots together contributed to a change from the boxlike stage space. Spaces in the more modern films are apt to have indefinite boundaries, and action flows in all directions. George Blaisdell noted the interiors of "marked depth" in reviewing The Port of Doom (Famous Players, November 1913). Vachel Lindsay commented that in Judith of Bethulia (Biograph, 1913-1914), "though the people seem to be coming from everywhere and going everywhere, when we watch closely, we see that the individuals enter at the near right-hand corner, or enter at the near left-hand corner and exit at the near right-hand corner." The Variety critic who reviewed The Avenging Conscience in 1914 observed that Griffith "somehow makes his studio scenes of immense proportions in an oblong way."22 Similarly, in The Perils of Pauline (March-December 1914), in interiors as well as exteriors, the action moves from the camera into great depth and forward again. Pearl White as Pauline throws herself energetically through this deep space, showing her youthful eagerness for life to the point of becoming a distraction, because she is never in repose, even when she is not supposed to be the focus of attention.
The expressive use of lighting effects, the intriguing double exposures, and the use of traveling camera shots were all refinements noted and admired by trade-press critics. Eventually, all these refinements became less obtrusive in the way they were used, and they were incorporated into the expressive techniques available to the filmmaker. The changing spatial concepts created by off-center compositions, diagonal movements, and movements in depth—the apparently limitless space continuing outside the range of the camera's view—were more subtle and less observed at the time, but nonetheless contributed as much to the changes in film style in the mid teens.
"Refining the Product." History of the American Cinema. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/refining-product
"Refining the Product." History of the American Cinema. . Retrieved January 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/refining-product
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