Tuesday, February 13, 2018

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 of 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. The gradual improvement of color is noticeable in the films of the first decades of the twentieth century. By the late 30s the hues start to resemble the color quality and variations we're accustomed to today. I think that the synchronization of sound for cinematic productions was essential to their longevity. I can't see film enduring as a silent soundless medium. It probably would've been relegated to just another form of theatre with live music performances and no spoken dialogue. Having grown up with blockbuster movie soundtracks and epic film orchestrations (e.g., Apocalypse Now, Rocky, Platoon, 2001: A Space Odyssey) I associate movies with memorable songs that enhance historic film scenes tremendously. As far as television is concerned, I don't know anyone from my generation who isn't familiar or remembers some, if not all, the words to TV show theme songs (e.g., Happy Days, The Jeffersons, Welcome Back, Kotter).

    1. (humming the theme to The Jeffersons), I agree. Still, it’s intriguing to look at films such as “The Artist,” which evokes and reminds us of the silent era. On the other hand, having seen Mel Brooks’s “Silent Movie” in a theatre — the only spoken line is Marcel Marceau’s “Non!” — convinced me that you are right; film as a silent soundless medium would not have lasted much longer!

  2. Unfortunately, the biased and under-researched writings of Brian Coe, 60 years ago, continue to be the benchmark of all interpretation of the inventions of William Friese-Greene, so let me attempt to set the record straight. Firstly, it was Urban who sued Friese-Greene, not vice-versa. It was George Albert Smith who created Urban’s “Kinemacolor” system. Smith claimed originality in using a two-colour system, whereas Friese-Greene had already taken out a patent for a two-colour system, 18 months previous to Smith’s patent. Indeed Friese-Greene had already given a demo of a prototype before the Royal Institution 10 months before Smith took out his patent. The idea of staining frames was just one of many approaches Friese-Greene explored: it did not result in a “muddy mess”, nor is there any logical reason to believe it would have done. Despite the fact that Friese-Greene had not done much to commercially exploit his inventions (never his strong suit) it appears that Urban could not abide what he conceived of as a competitor and felt the need to squash him in the courts. Unfortunately for Urban, some people decided to back Friese-Greene to help him through the legal challenges and it became clear, under the scrutiny of the court, that Kinemacolor had over-claimed what its system was capable of. For that reason they lost control of the system and one might say that it was a case of hubris for Urban for if he had simply let Friese-Greene be he would probably have dominated the market anyway by sheer commercial muscle. By this stage the Great War intervened and the development of colour processes would have to wait until after.
    You can find out more about William Friese-Greene here: