The Screening Room
movie magic
As if there weren't enough conflicting events going on in L.A. these days, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has stepped up the number of monthly programs it puts on.  In addition to its Standards screenings, it is currently presenting weekly screenings as part of tributes to George Stevens and Katharine Hepburn, and now its Scientific and Technical Committee is starting a series of programs dealing with various aspects of the areas it covers: sound, color, wide screen, new production and post-production equipment and techniques, etc., to be held at the new Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood.  It was kicked off with a superb program at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater October 14.

The series was probably inspired by previous SRO programs on these subjects presented by the Academy or the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers over the last 30 years.  Last night's program, entitled “Movie Magic: 180 Years Of Cinema Technology,” presented a well researched historical overview of the subject, which used 82 clips from 16, 35, and 70mm film plus video sources, reportedly a record for an Academy program.  The projectionists and others involved got a well deserved ovation.  The programmers were clearly aware that a good percentage of their audience were people who had some knowledge of the subject and had possibly attended previous presentations, so the approach was not watered down for the general public and an effort was clearly made to choose fresh but appropriate clips.

Jonathan Erland presented "Pre-Cinema", unfortunately marred by problems with the Power Point being used for his excellent illustrations.  This device is increasingly being used in such presentations and has proven to be an asset in providing moving illustrations of arcane technical processes that might not be clear from verbal descriptions.  Mr. Erland's presentation, which led up to the Kinetoscope, had to be split in half, which diminished somewhat the transition to a discussion of silent film technology.  And Mr. Erland was diplomatic in acknowledging the various claimants to having invented "motion pictures", particularly in regard to Dickson, Armat, and Jenkins vis-a-vis Edison.

Rudy Behlmer covered the silent era and Scott MacQueen the Thirties and Forties, both with their usual infectiously boyish enthusiasm for the subject and sense of wonder that the amazing technical accomplishments they noted could have been achieved with the knowledge and equipment of the time.

Mr. Behlmer's choice of material ranged from explaining the glass shot (with a Power Point illustration, to pioneering photographic and effects techniques in “The Great Train Robbery” (1903) and “Broken Blossoms” (1919), to an explanation of how Mary Pickford kissed herself without having to be duped in “Little Lord Fauntleroy” (1921), cel animation techniques combining cartoons with live action by Max Fleischer and Walt Disney, and in-camera combinations of live action and stop motion on miniature sets in “The Lost World” (1925), the problems of early two-color Technicolor in “The Black Pirate” (1926), and the dawn of sound with the addition of music and sound effects in “Sunrise” (1927).

Mr. MacQueen picked up there with an example of primitive early sound technique involving a continuous scene shot with three cameras from an obscure 1931 Universal film “A Burglar To Rescue,” contrasted with the more artistic and daring use of sound and camera by Rouben Mamoulian in “Applause” (1929).  He dealt with advances in optical sound rerecording with the ski run sequence from “Spellbound” (1945), for which variable density and variable area tracks were intercut for greater volume and dynamic range from the latter.  He covered the state-of-the art in visual effects, for the next 30 years in fact, with the earthquake sequence from “The Rains Came” (1939), using a sepiatoned nitrate print, the first highlight of the evening.  He also covered advances in color with clips from the two-color Technicolor “Follow Thru” (1930), the rarely exhibited CineColor process with “Gunfighters” (1947), and the three strip Technicolor “Duel In The Sun” (1946).  Most of the clips shown, particularly by Mr. Behlmer and Mr. MacQueen, were from superb looking restorations and it would have been nice if the preservationists and labs involved had been specifically credited in some way.

Rob Hummel did wide screen, naturally, and thanks to David Strohmaier, Cinerama is no longer an aside.  A clip from his “Cinerama Adventure” documentary helped explain the process to those few who weren't clear on it, and hopefully whetted appetites for the “This Is Cinerama” (1952) screenings this coming weekend.  Hummel also showed a clip from the restored “The Robe” (1953), a musical number from an apparently original IB Technicolor print of “White Christmas” (1954) which was really not a good reflection of VistaVision, and the evening's second highlight, the "Do-Re-Mi" number from “The Sound Of Music” (1965) in a 70mm print off the original negative.  Though some felt this print looked strangely yellowish, like the negative might be fading, this did not detract from the impact of that dynamic large negative/print image.

Richard Edlund's segment was called "The Rise of Cool" and dealt with the radical technical changes that occurred in the Seventies with photographic equipment and in photochemical visual effects.  While noting the impact the handheld Arriflex had on "realistic" location filming in gritty productions like “The French Connection” (1971), whose chase sequence was shown, he unfortunately did not mention that the camera had in fact been used in films since 1947, beginning with Delmer Daves' “Dark Passage”, for handheld work or situations in which a small reflex camera would be desirable, or that its use in films like “Connection” grew out of the use of 16mm Arriflexes and the Eclair NPR in documentaries by people like “Connection” director William Friedkin.  This idea of applying documentary techniques to dramatic films was reportedly also the reason for Garret Brown's development of the Steadicam and was definitely behind Haskell Wexler's adopting it for “Bound For Glory” (1976), the famous migrant camp shot from which was shown.  The Louma crane and the remote camera devices it inspired was acknowledged by a clip from the jitterbug sequence from “1941” (1979) and then, in dealing with the major changes in visual effects wrought in the Seventies, came the evening's third highlight, the ice battle from “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), supervised by Edlund, and a perfect compliment to “The Rains Came” sequence.  Where the former took place at night, this took place in brilliant sunlight against snow, yet the sharp, vivid print shown reflected few immediately obvious flaws in the effects and the overall sequence was as gripping and exciting as that from the earlier film.

Jamie Price dealt with the digital era as it affected effects, editing, sound, and release printing, beginning with a 70mm clip from “Tron” (1982) and the stained glass knight sequence from “Young Sherlock Holmes” (1985).  It is here that things get controversial.  Perhaps it's a generation gap thing, but the clip from “The English Patient” (1996) used to illustrate Digital Sound sounded shrill and harsh when compared to the optical and magnetic tracks we'd been hearing for most of the night.  And the digital presentation of a clip from the all digital “Attack Of The Clones” (2002) was definitely underwhelming, appearing soft in resolution and muted in overall impact, paling against the earlier “Empire” clip.  

The evening ended with a clip from Melies' “A Trip To The Moon” (1902).

The Committee's first program in the series is scheduled for December 2.  Based on last night's introduction, it, and those to follow, should be very interesting and illuminating, and the Dunn may quickly prove to be too small to hold those seeking to attend.

Thanks to John Hora, ASC for making this commentary possible.

Rick Mitchell is a film editor, film director, and film historian.  He lives in Los Angeles.
© 2004 Rick Mitchell.  All rights reserved.

Originally posted in 2004.
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