Behind the Camera

Film historians disagree on who invented the first movie camera – Louis Le Prince, who made a short film in 1888 and then disappeared before he could exhibit his new invention? Thomas Edison, who allegedly stole credit for an employee’s invention in 1892? But one thing is certain: “moving pictures” radically changed the face of entertainment worldwide. By 1914, technical developments had brought movies from short clips of only a few minutes to compelling narratives lasting an hour or more. Audiences flocked to “dream palaces” to be immersed in romance, comedy, suspense, and adventure on the silver screen. But few understood how exactly these “dreams” got there.

In Moving Pictures: How They Are Made and Worked (1914), author Frederick A. Talbot explains to a general audience the technical aspects of film-making as then known. Talbot wrote a number of similar books on railways, lighthouses, airplanes, and “waste reclamation” (an early term for recycling). He also followed his Moving Pictures book with one on cinematography for amateurs.

Moving Pictures begins with a lengthy history of “animated photography” that, not surprisingly, omits the vanished Le Prince and mainly focuses on Edison, who was not just a talented inventor but also a very shrewd businessman. The book also duly credits the Lumière Brothers, Robert Paul, George Eastman, and others with important advances in camera, film, and projection processes.

Talbot’s book is chock full of photos of devices, laboratories, studios, and film sets. We learn how celluloid – the old, flammable, perishable medium for film – was made from a chemical soup known as “dope.” There are chapters on how perforated film was developed to move film through the camera quickly, how film cameras worked, how film was developed, and how moving images were projected onto a screen. He explores the technical aspects of filming major events and natural processes, the creation of what were later called newsreels, and even the possibility of home movies.

We also learn how films were staged in the studio. Talbot tells us that Edison’s tiny “Black Maria,” built in 1892 and believed to be the world’s first film studio, had become a gigantic glass building by 1914, with a 2,400-square-foot stage and a 130,000-gallon water tank for “aquatic spectacles.” But film producers without such resources also knew how to answer when opportunity knocked. Talbot recounts how one producer, hearing of a huge fire in a Los Angeles department store, sped a film crew to the scene. They somehow persuaded the fire department to let the lead actor, costumed as a fireman, rush into the still-burning building to “rescue” an actress who was set in an upper window screaming for help. “The players ran great risks,” says Talbot, “but the film producer was satisfied.”

Talbot also pointed out the special problems presented by narrative films. We may find the exaggerated expressions and gestures of silent movies laughably quaint today, but the primitive medium of the time made them vitally necessary, as Talbot explains:

The stage management of a play before the celluloid film is far more exacting than the staging of a play behind the footlights. . . . The picture play is essentially pantomime and the camera is a searching, unequivocal critic. It produces a stern, matter-of-fact representation of what is enacted before it. There is no dialogue to conceal blemishes, or mitigate the deficiencies of the actors and actresses. Words have to be converted into action and gestures.

Although “talking pictures” were still 13 years in the future, Talbot has a chapter on early attempts to make sound films. But he didn’t think much of them. “[U]ntil the peculiar nasal sound is eliminated from the talking machine it will not prove popular. . . . [T]he majority of picture-theatre lovers, after the first wave of excitement and curiosity, will patronise those establishments where they can see movement alone.” One wonders what he would have made of today’s ultra-realistic Dolby sound systems. Talbot also bemoans the failure of attempts to make true-color films, which had begun as early as the 19th Century.

The six chapters on trick cinematography are especially fascinating, showing how early filmmakers thought outside the box to enthrall audiences with special effects – all created without the aid of a computer. Stop-motion photography, double-exposure, miniature models, invisible wires, and other devices, some still in use today, were all invented at this period. Camera tricks to make people look gigantic or tiny – in the 21st Century used to very great effect in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films – also dated from this time. One interesting, if sad, example of a film trick known as “stop and substitution” involved a real-life “legless cripple,” as Talbot calls him, who was paid to be a stunt-double in a French film about a car accident. A character played by the lead actor gets his legs severed by a car. The legless double, with fake severed legs, substitutes for the actor. The legs are then miraculously reattached by a passing doctor, the actor now substituting for the double. Talbot surmised, “Probably the unfortunate had never before found his misfortune so profitable to him.”

Film preservation was of great concern to Talbot, but he was fatalistic about it because of

the perishable character of the celluloid film, and also of the photographic image upon the emulsion. Both would deteriorate, even if preserved in hermetically sealed cases, with the flight of time, and the chances are if a film were held for one hundred years that it would be found useless when opened at the end of that period.

He also feared that, because celluloid was so flammable, “The end is tragic: the film slips from sight in flame and smoke.” His fears were not unfounded. The Library of Congress estimates that some 75% of American silent films have been “completely lost to time and neglect.”

Talbot stays entirely on-topic in his discussion of the technical side of movie-making. You won’t find gossipy references to the top movie stars of the day, like Mary Pickford. But you will marvel at how early filmmakers developed the very equipment and techniques that still keep us entertained over a century later.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.

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