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2. Silent Expressions

October 10, 2009


Last time we looked at the inventions that made film and motion pictures possible. Many people had a part in perfecting the medium and many small steps combined resulted in something that would change the world and how we see it.

Only a few years after the birth of the medium films were now printed on celluloid strips and shown to crowds of paying viewers.


The icons of early film definitely include the Lumiere brothers. After their first screening of a motion picture for a paying audience December 28th 1895 they were unstoppable. Within the first four months of 1896 they had opened Cinématographe theatres in London, Brussels, Belgium and New York.
The company grew and other operators shot films for them. In 1900 they

decided to stop the screenings and focused on selling their technical inventions, which include equipment for one of the first partially colored photographic processes.

Last time I mentioned a man by the name of Robert W. Paul. He suggested that films should be shown to crowds instead of viewing them individually through peep-hole machines. One might think this is funny coming from him, knowing that peep holes is where his career began.

In 1894 two greek entrepreneurs asked Paul to build a copy of Edisons Kinetoscope, the peep-hole viewer for a single person viewing.

This was only possible because Edison did not have a patent on the kinetoscope for England, by mistake. Paul built a whole string of machines and sold them not only to the greek gentlemen. Edison was a smart man and stopped Paul from putting him out of business by only selling the films to licensed operators of his original kinetoscope.

The only way Paul could remain on the market was to build a camera of his own that could produce films to be played on his copy-viewer. He soon started working with the photographer, Birt Acres and together they developed a working camera. Acres wanted to patent the camera in his name and this resulted in a feud that split up the team.

Paul later developed a projector, the Theatrograph, so that the larger audience could simultaneously enjoy film art.

He also became a successful producer. After making huge amounts of money on selling the equipment, he constructed film studios in northern London and made 80 short film in the summer of 1898 alone. He kept on working until 1910 where he suddenly decided that the industry war to risky, closed the firm and burnt all the negatives.

Acres also developed a projector, the Cinematoscope, but is more famous for creating the first amateur cine camera, the Birtac in 1898. He kept on working in this field untill his death in 1918.

One company that did have a longer lasting success was Pathé.

Charles Pathé and his brothers Émile, Théophile and Jacques started the Pathé Frères company. At first they sold phonographs. After 1901 they start producing films, with Ferdinand Zecca in charge of the creative process. Their success was of yet unseen proportion. By 1905, Pathé was the largest film company in the world, a position it retained until World War I. The first expansion of the company brought them to London and from thereon to Moscow, Berlin and St. Petersburg. The company logo was and is the distinctive rooster of Gaul. Number two on the list of companies was Léon Gaumont’s company, easy to recognize by the logo flower, a marguerite, after Gaumont’s mother.

The brothers started by selling the equipment for cinemas and then began producing in 1897. The big success came to Gaumont through the creative people behind their film. The first female director, Alice Guy, was one of them and so was Louis Feulliade.

Below you’ll find the link to one of Louis Feulliade’s films from 1915, Les Vampires.

It’s a series of 10 episodes, 40 minutes each. This is the first part – “The Severed Head.”

The serial is set in Paris and follows the exploits of a gang of master criminals who call themselves “Les Vampires.”

If you liked it and want to see more, please go to:

Alice Guy’s short film La Glu can be seen here

While most of the produced films showed so-called actualities, documenting life, some people took the new medium into the world of drama and fiction. One of my favorite icons of film history is Georges Méliès. He had worked as a stage magician in Paris during the late 1880’s when he had the opportunity to attend the Lumiere premiere. As a master of illusions he saw a new potential within the medium. He combined the techniques of stage performance with the visual possibilities of film. The camera would be fixed and the actors would perform their show before it.

My adoration of Méliès is not only due to the fact that he and his crew produced 531 films in the years between 1896 and 1914. It is also based on his absolute ingenuity. Others were trying to document the everyday life while Méliès

invented genres like science fiction or horror and executed them through his knowledge of magic tricks.
In late 1896 an accidental jamming of the camera sparked Méliès’ imagination.

Méliès was filming and the camera jammed. It took him a few minutes to get it working again. After processing the material he saw magic happen. Things moved across the screen, jumping from one side to the other, appearing, disappearing, changing shape. Stop motion was born and many other tricks with it.

I have included the link to a film that I believe you need to see. It is not the first film by Méliès, but it is one of the most beautiful ones. The film is called “Le Voyage dans la Lune” and was produced 1902. It’s a crazy little tale of a trip to the moon.

Another icon of the silent era who took motion pictures to another level was D.W. Griffith. The unsuccessful young playwright from Kentucky left his home for New York with the intention of selling a script to Edwin Porter who at the time worked for Edison at the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Porter rejected the script but hired Griffith as an actor instead. After years of acting jobs an opportunity appeared. The main director of AMBC was ill and his son not able to run the company. The position was given to Griffith. Griffith became famous for producing films that blew their budgets. In 1915 Griffith’s most famous film hit the market. The original budget was 40.000$ but at the end of production cost 121.000$

The film was originally called The Clansman, after the book upon which it was based, but was renamed Birth of a Nation. It was a very controversial film due to it’s glorification of the Ku Klux Klan.

The next film, Intolerance, was even larger. It included over 3000 extras and a scene depicting a Babylonian orgy alone cost over 200.000$

Picture from the babylonian sequence of Intolerance
Picture from the Babylonian sequence of Intolerance

As a Dane I feel obliged to have my country represented here.
In 1906, Ole Olsen, a fairground showman, founded Nordisk Film.
Asta Nielsen is the most famous actress from the golden age of Nordisk Film.

Other innovations

Back in the monochrome days one had quite a task ahead when wanting to display different light settings, for example night. The film wasn’t sensitive enough to shoot at night so you had to find another way of telling you viewers which scenes were night scenes.

Tinting was the way to go. The entire film strip was dipped in a colored solution that would leave the strip transparent but tinted. These tints had codes for what they were depicting. Blue meant night, yellow ment indoor light, red  suggested a romantic sometimes promiscuous atmosphere.

Close to tinting but much more difficult was the process of hand colouring the film strips. Frame by frame films would be coloured by painting areas inside the frames with translucent paints. Sometimes thousands of frames would be painted.

Here is a link to a fantastic example of a film that was coloured by hand.

As you may have noticed intertitles were the vehicle to getting the details of a story across. One country, although, had a different approach.

The japanese film audience had extra help. The so-called Benshi (speech person) were live narrators of the films. They would explain the film as it was shown. To this day the Benshi tradition lives on.

From the start people were not satisfied with the soundless illusion.
And right from the start engineers tried to include sound into the film experience.

Some recorded the sound and put it on records to be played simultaneously with the films, the so-called sound-on-disc. But if the film broke, the sound would be out of synch. Eugene Lauste, a former Edison employee had a great idea. He put the sound of the film on the same strip, only as photographic information.

This way visuals and sound would run together, a first sound-on-film.

In the 1920’s sound became more sophisticated and finally resulted in the first (part-)talkie “The Jazz Singer” from 1927.

Phew… that was a big bite. My head is smoking. If you should be an aficionado of silent films and the whole era you will probably find many things and details missing here. Please don’t take it personally if your hero wasn’t mentioned. I’m merely trying to condense these years and years of pioneer work and innovations down to a readable version.
I really hope that you enjoy this blog. I’d love comments.

In case you were wondering…

Next time I’ll go back just a step to the likes of Eisenstein to tell you about how you can depict emotions via a smart cutting technique.


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