Saturday, February 4, 2017

Later Developments in Cinema

The history of the development of cinema after the early portion of the silent era is largely -- though not entirely -- a question of the gradual progress towards both sound and color. Each of these, as we've already seen, started much earlier than generally imagined; sound began with Dickson's "Experimental Sound Film" of 1894, and hand-painted color had already reached a high-water mark with Georges Méliès's 1900 version of Joan of Arc. With sound, the great problem was synchronization; there were all kinds of schemes for keeping sound -- as a phonograph record, an optical code, or any other pre-recorded substrate -- in time with image. When it came to color, hand-painted films -- even with stencils, and armies of (mostly female) colorists, it remained a premium mode without a premium payback. The main use of color in commercial film, in fact, was with tinting -- a process in which certain segments of film to be edited were run through chemical baths. An emotional scene might be bathed in red, while another encounter would be shown in blue or purple. The advantage of tinting was that all the varied colors could be achieved in post-production, at the director's discretion. Such scenes as the "mellow yellow" of the frame from an unknown film of this era, were common indeed. In some cases, tinted prints survive and have been restored; in others, the indications for tinting have been recreated in restoration.

At the same time, efforts progressed toward a technology that would bring about the appearnce (at least) of full color. The pioneer in this field was Charles Urban, an American expat in England who had already achieved success with his black-and-white films in the era of the "Cinema of Attractions." Urban realized that persistence of vision, the same principle that enabled the illusion of motion, could enable an illusion of color as well; this was the basis of his "Kinemacolor" system. Black-and-white was shot through a special camera using a spinning filter which filtered alternate frames in red and green. After developing the film, it was played back through alternating color filters, so that the "red" frames were tinted red and the "green" frames green; the result was something very close to the feeling of full color (though in fact the process missed part of the spectrum -- with dark blue being very imperfectly reproduced). Urban's process also had the huge technical advantage that, although special cameras and projectors were needed, the film was just ordinary black-and-white stock. Urban promoted his system through ambitious, epic-sized films shown in specially built, luxurious cinemas. Unfortunately for Urban, he was sued by cinema pioneer William Friese-Greene, who (falsely) claimed he had had the idea for this kind of color alternation before. As has happened with modern patent lawsuits, the British judges had no grasp of the technology on which they were ruling, confusing concept with practical art, and Friese-Greene's scheme of staining alternate frames (which produced only a muddy mess) with Urban's far superior pictures. They ruled in favor of Friese-Green, and Urban was eventually forced into bankruptcy. Friese-Greene was never able to bring his system to the point commercial success, though his son Claude, using a process much more like Urban's system than his father's, made a number of fine early color films.

Ironically, it was to be one of William Friese-Greene's original concepts -- dyed film which was glued or bonded together -- which would ultimately be the precursor of modern color processes. The Technicolor company started out with a red/green system much like Urban's; they called this "System 1." Films made with this system have a haunting, greenish-yellowish hue which, while perfect for horror features such as "Dr. X" (1932) was less well suited for dramatic or comedic subjects. They next developed "System 2," a subtractive color process in which two dyed films were cemented together, but the finished film was prone to bubbling and cupping. A third system transferred the dyed prints to a fresh single film, but was still limited to two colors.

By the mid-1903's Technicolor shifted to a three-strip system, which was shot on three separate films, which were then dyed and transferred to produce the final prints. This offered the first commercially successful full color image, although red and green still had the most zing -- thus Victor Fleming's choice of ruby slippers and green witch's makeup for 1939's The Wizard of Oz. Not many people realize it, but "Color by Technicolor" was a licensed process not owned by the studios; directors had to hire Technicolor's camera operators and technical consultants, as well as entrusting post-production to their facilities.

Now, as to sound: at nearly the same time, different technologies were being tried to synchronize sound with moving pictures. Emile Berliner was involved with a disc-based system; Edison offered a cylinder-based one, but neither achieved real success. All the various attempts at sound stumbled with the issue of synchronization until the development of optical soundtrack systems, which in turn had to wait until amplified electrical recording became possible in the mid-1920's. These, because they could be recorded on to the actual film, and duplicated along with it, were both reliable and economically feasible, though of course exhibitors would have to invest in new equipment. Although hailed as the first sound picture, 1927's "The Jazz Singer" in fact only had sound in certain portions of the film, and still relied on the old sound-on-disc system. Rival technologies -- RCA's "Photophone" system, Western Electric's variable density system -- vied for the new industry standard.

The introduction of sound to film brought with it a host of technical problems: microphones had limited range, and had to be hidden in potted plants and tableware; camera noise was too easily picked up, and cameras had to be encased in sound-proof coverings. Mary Pickford, one of the greatest stars of her day and a founder of United Artists, had a terrible experience with her 1929 sound film, "Coquette"; she had to strain her voice to get it picked up by the microphones, and the results were far from complimentary. Her UA partner Charlie Chaplin, though he eventually embraced the idea of using musical scores on his soundtracks, put off the use of voice; aside from a phonograph recording, a one-liner ("Get back to work!") and a nonsense song in 1936's "Modern Times," Chaplin did not use spoken dialogue in any of his films until "The Great Dictator" in 1940, though some years later he recorded narrative voice-overs for many of his early features. Nevertheless, sound, well before color, became a standard feature of film very soon after its introduction.

Next up: 3D film -- in 1922?!


  1. Learning about how color was first added to film was strange for me. Similar to the last post on the ‘Origins of Cinema’, I found it stressful, but this one even more so than the last. Film was at a point where it was shown in a very professional way, but the filmmakers wanted to start adding color to the film so they would have others paint on the frames to get in that next dimension. I believe what bothered me most about all this was how in elementary school I had a black and white manga and one day got bored so I decided to color it in with crayon. I know what I had done was different from what the filmmakers at the time were doing, in skill and purpose, but it very much felt the same to me. It had me wonder why hadn’t they experimented until they found a better solution than just coloring in the film. But that’s when I think back to my mention of virtual reality and how it all started (to my knowledge, fact check me) with Nintendo and their Virtual Boy. The console didn’t do well in sales, its performance in general wasn’t good, but it was the start, the introduction to the media and it got people excited. The next time I was to see something like it happen would be not long after the Nintendo Wii era where Nintendo helped introduce motion controls. Now companies like Sony and Oculus are experimenting with today’s standard of virtual reality and it is and has improved a lot. Nintendo is giving the world “HD Motion Controllers” which when held could rumble in a way that would give you the impression of holding a glass and have water and ice poured into it. Who knows what other companies could do with that?! Many VR headsets when they were starting not too long ago used nintendo controllers and then as their product evolved, so did the controllers they used. I am talking a lot about Virtual Reality, perhaps I could make a project about it. But my point is that through one person’s failure or poorly done experiment, it influences others to try their hand at it and create something amazing. That is exactly what we see with color in films and just about anything in general, but I think just knowing this and thinking more about it I can respect the filmmakers attempt to adding color and I can appreciate it because of that.

  2. *(Fact checked myself through Wikipedia, seems that Virtual Reality was something being experimented on way before the Virtual Boy, makes a lot of sense when I think about it.)

  3. It saddened me to read about what happened to Kinemacolor inventor Charles Urban. He unfortunately lost the patent lawsuit that was waged against him by William Friesse-Greene and went bankrupt. A classic example of when avarice gets the better of us. The invention of film, color and sound as Edgar mentioned was CLEARLY a concerted effort. The credit goes to all involved. It’s unfortunate that inventors cannot work together to achieve a desired result. Everyone wants to win the race so to speak. We are often times unwilling to share the spotlight. We fail to realize that “it takes a village” to accomplish any feat; whether it be inventions like color and sound, raising a child, passing new legislature, discovering better methods to fighting cancer. In the immortal words of the late Rodney King, “Can we all get along?”

  4. Color is good, but black and white has it’s own haunting beauty. Shading and contrast make some things more emotionally effective in black and white than they are in color. Ansel Adams demonstrated this by removing color from one of the most vividly colorful subjects available, nature. I enjoy color films, but watching old Twilight Zone shows in black and white still transports me to, well, the Twilight Zone. Sound, on the other hand, has seldom if ever been bested by silent films. Music and sound convey powerful emotional currents and undercurrents. Plus, in a theatre without film sound, one is distracted by the random ambient noise of the venue. This pulls the audience out of the story. It is far less immersive. One of my favorite (cult) developments in cinema was the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Amateur teams would act the movie out live, during the movie! The audience brought props and yelled back at the screen in response to character’s dialog. This was immersive fun and brought patrons back to see the same movie dozens and in some cases hundreds of times. It was a new experience each time. Even color and sound can’t do that easily!
    -Tony Ricci