THE EARLY YEARS
Origins and Survival
PAOLO CHERCHI USAI
PRE-CINEMA, FILM, TELEVISION
The history of cinema did not begin with a 'big bang'. No single event -- whether Edison's patented invention of the Kinetoscope in 1891 or the Lumière brothers' first projection of films to a paying audience in 1895 -- can be held to separate a nebulous pre-cinema from cinema proper. Rather there is a continuum which begins with early experiments and devices aimed at presenting images in sequence (from Étienne Gaspard Robertson's Phantasmagoria of 1798 to Émile Reynaud's Pantomimes lumineuses of 1892) and includes not only the emergence in the 1890s of an apparatus recognizable as cinema but also the forerunners of electronic image-making. The first experiments in transmitting images by a television-type device are in fact as old as the cinema: Adriano de Paiva published his first studies on the subject in 1880, and Georges Rignoux seems to have achieved an actual transmission in 1909. Meanwhile certain 'pre-cinema' techniques continued to be used in conjunction with cinema proper during the years around 1900-5 when the cinema was establishing itself as a new mass medium of entertainment and instruction, and lantern slides with movement effects continued for a long time to be shown in close conjunction with film screenings.
Magic lantern, film, and television, therefore, do not constitute three separate universes (and fields of study), but belong together as part of a single process of evolution. It is none the less possible to distinguish them, not only technologically and in terms of the way they were diffused, but also chronologically. The magic lantern show gradually gives way to the film show at the beginning of the twentieth century, while television emerges fully only in the second half of the century. In this succession, what distinguishes cinema is on the one hand its technological base -- photographic images projected in quick succession giving the illusion of continuity -- and on the other hand its use prevailingly as large-scale public entertainment.
THE BASIC APPARATUS
Films produce their illusion of continuous movement by passing a series of discrete images in quick succession in front of a light source enabling the images to be projected on a screen. Each image is held briefly in front of the light and then rapidly replaced with the next one. If the procedure is rapid and smooth enough, and the images similar enough to each other, discontinuous images are then perceived as continuous and an illusion of movement is created. The perceptual process involved was known about in the nineteenth century, and given the name persistence of vision, since the explanation was thought to lie in the persistence of the image on the retina of the eye for long enough to make perception of each image merge into the perception of the next one. This explanation is no longer regarded as adequate, and modern psychology prefers to see the question in terms of brain functions rather than of the eye alone. But the original hypothesis was sufficiently fertile to lead to a number of experiments in the 1880s and 1890s aimed at reproducing the so-called persistence of vision effect with sequential photographs.
The purposes of these experiments were various. They were both scientific and commercial, aimed at analysing movement and at reproducing it. In terms of the emergence of cinema the most important were those which set out to reproduce movement naturally, by taking pictures at a certain speed (a minimum of ten or twelve per second and generally higher) and showing them at the same speed. In fact throughout the silent period the correspondence between camera speed and projection was rarely perfect. A projection norm of around 16 pictures ('frames') per second seems to have been the most common well into the 1920s, but practices differed considerably and it was always possible for camera speeds to be made deliberately slower or faster to produce effects of speeded-up or slowed-down motion when the film was projected. It was only with the coming of synchronized sound-tracks, which had to be played at a constant speed, that a norm of 24 frames per second (f.p.s.) became standard for both camera and projector.
First of all, however, a mechanism had to be created which would enable the pictures to be exposed in the camera in quick succession and projected the same way. A roll of photographic film had to be placed in the camera and alternately held very still while the picture was exposed and moved down very fast to get on to the next picture, and the same sequence had to be followed when the film was shown. Moving the film and then stopping it so frequently put considerable strain on the film itself -- a problem which was more severe in the projector than in the camera, since the negative was exposed only once whereas the print would be shown repeatedly. The problem of intermittent motion, as it is called, exercised the minds of many of the pioneers of cinema, and was solved only by the introduction of a small loop in the threading of the film where it passed the gate in front of the lens (see inset).
The moving image as a form of collective entertainment -what we call 'cinema' -- developed and spread in the form of photographic images printed on a flexible and semitransparent celluloid base, cut into strips 35 mm. wide. This material -- 'film' -- was devised by Henry M. Reichenbach for George Eastman in 1889, on the basis of inventions variously attributed to the brothers J. W. and I. S. Hyatt ( 1865), to Hannibal Goodwin ( 1888), and to Reichenbach himself. The basic components of the photographic film used since the end of the nineteenth century have remained unchanged over the years. They are: a transparent base, or support; a very fine layer of adhesive substrate made of gelatine; and a light-sensitive emulsion which makes the film opaque on one side. The emulsion generally consists of a suspension of silver salts in gelatine and is attached to the base by means of the layer of adhesive substrate. The base of the great majority of 35 mm. films produced before February 1951 consists of cellulose nitrate, which is a highly flammable substance. From that date onwards the nitrate base has been replaced by one of cellulose acetate, which is far less flammable, or increasingly by polyester. From early times, however, various forms of 'safety' film were tried out, at first using cellulose diacetate (invented by Eichengrun and Becker as early as 1901), or by coating the nitrate in non-flammable substances. The first known examples of these procedures date back to 1909. Safety film became the norm for non-professional use after the First World War.
The black and white negative film used up to the mid1920s was so-called orthochromatic. It was sensitive to ultraviolet, violet, and blue light, and rather less sensitive to green and yellow. Red light did not affect the silver bromide emulsion at all. To prevent parts of the scene from appearing on the screen only in the form of indistinct dark blobs, early cinematographers had to practise a constant control of colour values on the set. Certain colours had to be removed entirely from sets and costumes. Actresses avoided red lipstick, and interior scenes were shot against sets painted in various shades of grey. A new kind of emulsion called panchromatic was devised for Gaumont by the Eastman Kodak Company in 1912. In just over a decade it became the preferred stock for all the major production companies. It was less light-sensitive in absolute terms than orthochrome, which meant that enhanced systems of studio lighting had to be developed. But it was far better balanced and allowed for the reproduction of a wider range of greys.
In the early days, however, celluloid film was not the only material tried out in the showing of motion pictures. Of alternative methods the best known was the Mutoscope. This consisted of a cylinder to which were attached several hundred paper rectangles about 70 mm. wide. These paper rectangles contained photographs which, if watched in rapid sequence through a viewer, gave the impression of continuous movement. There were even attempts to produce films on glass: the Kammatograph ( 1901) used a disc with a diameter of 30 cm., containing some 600 photographic frames arranged in a spiral. There were experiments involving the use of translucent metal with a photographic emulsion on it which could be projected by reflection, and films with a surface in relief which could be passed under the fingers of blind people, on a principle similar to Braille.
The 35 mm. width (or 'gauge') for cellulose was first adopted in 1892 by Thomas Edison for his Kinetoscope, a viewing device which enabled one spectator at a time to watch brief segments of film. The Kinetoscope was such a commercial success that subsequent machines for reproducing images in movement adopted 35 mm. as a standard format. This practice had the support of the Eastman Company, whose photographic film was 70 mm. wide, and therefore only had to be cut lengthwise to produce film of the required width. It is also due to the mechanical structure of the Kinetoscope that 35 mm. film has four perforations, roughly rectangular in shape, on both sides of each frame, used for drawing the film through the camera and projector. Other pioneers at the end of the nineteenth century used a different pattern. The Lumière brothers, for example, used a single circular perforation on each side. But it was the Edison method which was soon adopted as standard, and remains so today. It was the Edison company too who set the standard size and shape of the 35 mm. frame, at approximately 1 in. wide and 0.75 in. high.
Although these were to become the standards, there were many experiments with other gauges of film stock, both in the early period and later. In 1896 the Prestwich Company produced a 60 mm. film strip, an example of which is preserved in the National Film and Television Archive in London, and the same width (but with a different pattern of perforations) was used by Georges Demený in France. The Veriscope Company in America introduced a 63 mm. gauge; one film in this format still survives -- a record of the historic heavyweight championship fight between Corbett and Fitzsimmons in 1897. Around the same time Louis Lumière also experimented with 70 mm. film which yielded a picture area 60 mm. wide and 45 mm. high. All these systems encountered technical problems, particularly in projection. Though some further experiments took place towards the end of the silent period, the use of wide gauges such as 65 and 70 mm. did not come into its own until the late 1950s.
More important than any attempts to expand the image, however, were those aimed at reducing it and producing equipment suitable for non-professional users.
In 1900 the French company Gaumont began marketing its 'Chrono de Poche', a portable camera which used 15 mm. film with a single perforation in the centre. Two years later the Warwick Trading Company in England introduced a 17.5 mm. film for amateurs, designed to be used on a machine called the Biokam which (like the first Lumière machines) doubled as camera, printer, and projector; this idea was taken up by Ernemann in Germany and then by Pathé in France in the 1920s. Meanwhile in 1912 Pathé had also introduced a system that used 28 mm. film on a non-flammable diacetate base and had a picture area only slightly smaller than 35 mm.
An alternative to celluloid film, the Kammatograph (c. 1900) used a glass disc with the film frames arranged in a spiral
The amateur gauge par excellence, however, was 16 mm. on a non-flammable base, devised by Eastman Kodak in 1920. In its original version, known as the Kodascope, this worked on the reversal principle, producing a direct positive print on the original film used in the camera. Kodak launched their 16 mm. film on the market in 1923, and around the same time Pathé brought out their 'PathéBaby', using 9.5 mm. non-flammable stock. For many years 9.5 was a fierce competitor with 16 mm., and it survived for a long time as a reduced projection gauge both for amateur film-making and for the showing of films originally made on 35 mm.
Filoteo Alberini, unidentified 70 mm. film ( 1911). Frame enlargement from a negative in the film collection at George Eastman House, Rochester, NY
There were also more exotic formats, using film divided into parallel rows which could be exposed in succession. Of these only Edison's Home Kinetoscope, using 22 mm. film divided into three parallel rows with an image-width of just over 5 mm., each of them separated by a line of perforations, had any significant commercial application.
As early as 1896, copies of films which had been handcoloured frame by frame with very delicate brushes were available. The results achieved by this technique were often spectacular, as in the case of Georges Méliès's Le Royaume des fées ( 1903), whose images have the glow of medieval miniatures. It was very difficult, however, to ensure that the colour occupied a precise area of the frame. To achieve this, Pathé in 1906 patented a mechanical method of colouring the base called Pathécolor. This method, also known as 'au pochoir' in French and stencil in English, allowed for the application of half a dozen different tonalities.
A far less expensive method was to give the film a uniform colour for each frame or sequence in order to reinforce the figurative effect or dramatic impact. Basically there were three ways of doing this. There was tinting, which was achieved either by applying a coloured glaze to the base, or by dipping the film in a solution of coloured dyes, or by using stock which was already coloured. Then there was toning, in which the silver in the emulsion was replaced with a coloured metallic salt, without affecting the gelatine on the film. And finally there was mordanting, a variety of toning in which the photographic emulsion was treated with a non-soluble silver salt capable of fixing an organic colouring agent. Tinting, toning, mordanting, and mechanical colouring could be combined, thus multiplying the creative possibilities of each technique. A particularly fascinating variation on tinting technique is provided by the Handschiegl Process (also known as the Wyckoff-DeMille Process, 1916-31), which was an elaborate system derived from the techniques of lithography.
The first attempts (by Frederick Marshall Lee and Edward Raymond Turner) to realize colour films using the superimposition of red, green, and blue images date back to 1899. But it was only in 1906 that George Albert Smith achieved a commercially viable result with his Kinemacolor. In front of the camera Smith placed a semi-transparent disc divided into two sectors: red and blue-green. The film was then projected with the same filters at a speed of 32 frames per second, and the two primary colours were thus 'merged' in an image which showed only slight chromatic variations but produced an undeniable overall effect. Smith's invention was widely imitated and developed into three-colour systems by Gaumont in 1913 and the German Agfa Company in 1915.
The first actual colour-sensitive emulsion was invented by Eastman Kodak around 1915 and shortly afterwards marketed under the trademark Kodachrome. This was still only a two-colour system, but it was the first stage in a series of remarkable developments. Around the same time a company founded by Herbert T. Kalmus, W. Burton Westcott, and Daniel Frost Comstock -- the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation -- began experimenting with a system based on the additive synthesis of two colours; disappointed by the results thus obtained, the three changed tack in 1919 and began exploring (still with two colours only) the possibility of using the principle of subtractive synthesis first elaborated by Duclos du Hauron in 1868. This worked by combining images each of which had filtered out light of a particular colour. When the images were combined, the colour balance was restored. Using the subtractive principle the Technicolor team were ready within three years to present a colour film -- The Toll of the Sea ( Chester M. Franklin, Metro Pictures, 1922) -created on two negatives and consisting of two sets of positive images with separate colours printed back to back.
The late 1910s and early 1920s saw many other inventions in the field of colour, but by the end of the decade it was clear that Kalmus and his associates were way ahead of the field, and it was their system that was to prevail for professional film-making throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Meanwhile the great majority of films during the silent period continued to be produced using one or other of the methods of colouring the print described above. Literally black and white films were in the minority, generally those made by smaller companies or comic shorts.
Almost all 'silent' films had some sort of sound accompaniment. Early film shows had lecturers who gave a commentary on the images going past on the screen, explaining their content and meaning to the audience. In a number of non-western countries this practice continued long beyond the early period. In Japan, where silent cinema remained the rule well into the 1930s, there developed the art of the benshi, who provided gestures and an original text to accompany the image.
Along with speech came music. This was at first improvised on the piano, then adapted from the current popular repertoire, and then came to be specially commissioned. On big occasions this music would be performed by orchestras, choirs, and opera singers, while a small band or just a pianist would play in less luxurious establishlnents. Exhibitors who could not afford the performance of original music had two choices. The first was to equip a pianist, organist, or small band with a musical score, generally consisting of selections of popular tunes and classics in the public domain ('cue sheets'), which provided themes suitable to accompany different episodes of the film. The second, more drastic, was to fall back on mechanical instruments, from the humble pianola to huge fairground organs powered by compressed air into which the 'score' was inserted in the form of a roll of punched paper.
Music was sometimes accompanied by noise effects. These were usually obtained by performers equipped with a wide array of objects reproducing natural and artificial sounds. But the same effects could be produced by machines, of which a particularly famous and elaborate example was the one in use at the Gaumont Hippodrome cinema in Paris.
From the beginning, however, the pioneers of the moving image had more grandiose ambitions. As early as April 1895, Edison put forward a system for synchronizing his twin inventions of phonograph and Kinetoscope. Pathé also seems to have attempted the synchronization of films and discs around 1896. All such systems, however, were hampered by the lack of amplification to project the sound in large auditoriums.
The alternative to synchronizing films and discs was to print the sound directly on the film. The first experiments in this direction took place at the beginning of the century, and in 1906 Eugéne-Auguste Lauste patented a machine capable of recording images and sound on the same base.
An early example of split-screen technique in an unidentified documentary on Venice. Title on print Santa Lucia, c. 1912
It was only after the First World War that the decisive steps were taken towards the achievement of synchronized sound film. The German team of Vogt, Engel, and Massolle established a method of recording sound photographically by converting the sounds into light patterns on a separate film strip and their TriErgon system was premièred in Berlin in 1922. Kovalendov in the Soviet Union and Lee De Forest in the United States were also working in the same direction. De Forest's Phonofilm ( 1923) involved the use of a photoelectric cell to read a sound-track printed on the same strip of film as the image. Meanwhile the introduction of electric recording and the thermionic valve as an offshoot of radio technology solved the problem of amplifying the sound to make it audible in theatres.
In 1926 the Hollywood studio Warner Bros. presented Don Juan, with John Barrymore, using the Vitaphone system of sound synchronization. This was a sound-ondisc system, linking the projector to large discs, 16 in. in diameter, which ran at a speed of 33¼ r.p.m., with the needle starting at the centre and going outwards. The Vitaphone system was used again the following year for the first 'talking' picture, The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson, and continued in being for a few more years. Meanwhile a rival studio, Fox, had bought up the rights on the TriErgon and Photophone patents, using them to add sound to films that had already been shot. Fox's Movietone soundon-film system proved far more practical than Vitaphone, and became the basis for the generalized introduction of synchronized sound in the early 1930s.
The size and shape of the 35 mm. film frame remained virtually unchanged throughout the silent period, at about 23 mm. Oust under 1 in.) wide and 18 mm. (0.75 in.) high. The spacing of the frames meant each foot of film contained 16 frames. This too has remained unaltered, and continues to be the standard today. When projected, the ratio between width and height worked out at between 1.31 and 1.38 to 1. With the coming of sound the frame size was altered slightly to accommodate the sound-track, but the projection ratio remained roughly the same -- at approximately 4:3 -- until the arrival of widescreen processes in the 1950s. In the silent and early sound periods there were a few attempts to change the size and shape of the projected picture. The sides of the frame were occasionally masked out, to produce a square picture, as in the case of Murnau's Tabu ( 1931). In 1927 the Frenchman Henri Chrétien presented the first anamorphic system, known as Hypergonar, in which the image was 'squeezed' by the camera lens to accommodate a wider picture on the frame, and then 'unsqueezed' in the projector for presentation on a wide screen. This was an early forerunner of CinemaScope and the other anamorphic systems which came into commercial use in the 1950s. Other experiments included Magnascope ( 1926), which used a wide-angle projector lens to fill a large screen, and devices for linking multiple projectors together. As early as 1900 Raoul Grimoin-Sanson attempted to hitch up ten 70 mm. projectors to produce a 360-degree 'panorama' completely surrounding the spectator. More famous (though equally ephemeral) was the Polyvision system used in the celebrated 'triptych' sequence in Abel Gance's Napoléon ( 1927), where three strips of film are simultaneously projected alongside each other to produce a single image.
The normal method of projection from the earliest times involved placing the projector at the back of the hall and projecting the image on to the screen in a cone of light over the heads of the audience. Occasional attempts were made to devise alternative spatial arrangements. In 1909, for example, the German Messter Company experimented with showing its 'Alabastra' colour films through a complex system of mirrors on to a thin veiled screen from a projection booth placed under the theatre floor. It was also possible to project on to the screen from behind, but this process (known as back-projection) took up a lot of space and has rarely been used for public presentation. It came into use in the sound period as a form of special effect during film-making allowing actors to perform in front of a previously photographed landscape background.
Throughout the silent years projectors, whether handcranked or electrically powered, all ran at variable speeds, enabling the operator to adjust the speed of the projector to that of the camera. For its part, camera speed varied according to a number of factors: the amount of available light during shooting, the sensitivity of the film stock, and the nature of the action being recorded. To keep the movements of the characters on the screen 'natural', projectionists in the years before 1920 showed films at various speeds, most often between 14 and 18 frames per second. (The flicker effect that these relatively slow speeds tended to produce was eliminated by the introduction early in the century of a three-bladed shutter which opened and closed three times during the showing of each frame.) The average speed of projection increased as time went on, and by the end of the period it had regularly reached a norm of 24 frames per second, which became the standard for sound film. Faster and slower speeds were occasionally used for colour film experiments or in some amateur equipment.
The quality of projection was greatly affected by the type of light source being used. Before electric arc lights became standard, the usual method of producing light for the projector was to heat a piece of lime or a similar substance until it glowed white hot. The efficacy of this method (known as 'limelight') was very dependent on the nature and quality of the fuel used to heat the lime. The usual fuels were a mixture of coal-gas and oxygen or of ether and oxygen. Acetylene was also tried, but soon abandoned as it produced a weak light and gave off a disagreeable smell.
FROM PRODUCTION TO EXHIBITION
It is not known (and probably never will be known) exactly how many films of all types were produced during the silent period, but the figure is almost certainly in the order of 150,000, of which not more than 20,000 to 25,000 are known to have survived. With the rapid growth of the film business, films soon came to be printed in large numbers. For Den hvide slavehandel II ('The white slave trade II', August Blom, 1911) the Danish company Nordisk made no fewer than 260 copies for world-wide distribution. On the other hand many early American films listed in distributors' catalogues seem to have sold not more than a couple of copies, and in some cases it may be that none at all were printed, due to lack of demand.
Since the cinema was from the outset an international business, films had to be shipped from one country to another, often in different versions. Films might be recorded on two side-by-side cameras simultaneously, producing two different negatives. Intertitles would be shot in different languages, and shipped with the prints or a duplicate negative of the film to a foreign distributor. Sometimes only one frame of each title would be provided, to be expanded to full length when copies were made, and some films have survived with only these 'flash titles' or with no titles at all. Sometimes different endings were produced to suit the tastes of the public in various parts of the world. In eastern Europe for example, there was a taste for the 'Russian' or tragic ending in preference to the 'happy end' expected by audiences in America. It was also common to issue coloured prints of a film for show in luxury theatres and cheaper black and white ones for more modest locales. Finally, censorship, both national and local, often imposed cuts or other changes in films at the time of release, and many American films in particular have survived in different forms as a result of the varied censorship practices of state or city censorship boards.
In the early years of the cinema films were looked on as essentially ephemeral and little attempt was made to preserve them once they reached the end of their commercial life. The appeal of the Polish scholar Bolesław Matuszewski in 1898 for a permanent archive of film images to be created to serve as a record for future generations fell on deaf ears, and it was not until the 1930s that the first film archives were created in a number of countries to preserve surviving films for posterity. By that time, however, many films had been irretrievably lost and many others dispersed. The world's archives have now collected together some 30,000 prints of silent films, but the lack of resources for cataloguing them means that it is not known how many of these are duplicate prints of the same version, or, in the case of what appear to be duplicates, whether there are significant differences between versions of films with the same title. While the number of films collected continues to rise, the number of surviving films is still probably less than 20 per cent of those thought to have been made.
Meanwhile, even as the number of rediscovered films rises, a further problem is created by the perishable nature of the nitrate base on which the vast majority of silent (and early sound) films were printed. For not only is cellulose nitrate highly flammable, which may in some cases lead to spontaneous combustion: it is also liable to decay and in the course of decay it destroys the emulsion which bears the image. Even in the best conservation conditions (that is to say at very low temperatures and the correct level of humidity), the nitrate base begins to decompose from the moment it is produced. In the course of the process the film emits various gases, and in particular nitrous anhydride, which, combined with air and with the water in the gelatine, produces nitrous and nitric acids. These acids corrode the silver salts of the emulsion, thereby destroying the image along with its support, until eventually the whole film is dissolved.
The decomposition of nitrate film can be slowed down, but not halted. For this reason film archives are engaged in a struggle to prolong its life until such time as the image can be transferred to a different support. Unfortunately the cellulose acetate base on to which the transfer is made is itself liable to eventual decay unless kept under ideal atmospheric conditions. Even so, it is far more stable than nitrate and infinitely preferable to magnetic (video) tape, which is not only perishable but is unsuitable for reproducing the character of the original film. It may be that some time in the future it will prove possible to preserve film images digitally, but this has not yet been demonstrated to be a practical possibility.
The aim of restoration is to reproduce the moving image in a form as close as possible to that in which it was originally shown. But all copies that are made are necessarily imperfect. For a start, they have had to be duplicated from one base on to another, with an inevitable loss of some of the original quality. It is also extremely difficult to reproduce colour techniques such as tinting and toning, even if the film is copied on to colour stock, which, given the expense, is far from being universal practice. Many films which were originally coloured are now only seen, if at all, in black and white form.
To appreciate a silent film in the form in which it was originally seen by audiences, it is necessary to have the rare good luck of seeing an original nitrate print (increasingly difficult because of modern fire regulations), and even then it has to be recognized that each copy of a film has its own unique history and every showing will vary according to which print is being shown and under what conditions. Different projection, different music, the likely absence of an accompanying live show or light effects, mean that the modern showing of silent films offers only a rough approximation of what silent film screening was like for audiences at the time.
Abramson, Albert ( 1987), The History of Television, 1880 to 1941.
Cherchi Paolo Usai ( 1994), Burning Passions: An Introduction to the Study of Silent Cinema.
Hampton, Benjamin B. ( 1931), A History of the Movies.
Liesegang, Franz Paul ( 1986), Moving and Projected Images: A Chronology of Pre-cinema History.
Magliozzi, Ronald S. (ed.) ( 1988), Treasures from the Film Archives.
Rathbun, John B. ( 1914), Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting.
En: The Oxford History of World Cinema EDITED BY GEOFFREY NOWELL-SMITH