Technology progresses at such a breakneck rate, one can look back at the state of the art of a mere ten years ago and bask in nostalgia. Eighty years ago, it was a different world. Here’s an article recapping the technological progress made in 1927 relating to the advancement of film.
For starters, oooooh, replacing arc lamps with incandescent lights! Interesting, that this transition is motivated by a drive to save on electricity, as this is exactly the motivation today to get rid of incandescent lights altogether.
The “Colored Motion Pictures” secton is fascinating, as it describes a number of different ways people were experimenting with using color. Some of these, for example the last paragraph on the first page, show how the mindset was not necessarily to create realistic color, just to find ways to use color in visually inventive ways. That last paragraph, for example, talks about filming action in red and backgrounds in blue. If we did that today, it would probably be more expensive and technically involved than just shooting realistic color, but here was a process conceived perhaps because shooting realistic color was a greater expense and effort. Similarly, the black and white of 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There and the unpreserved look of 2007’s Grindhouse were achieved first by shooting state of the art color and processing the image from there.
The Education section also says a lot about the times and, perhaps more so, the way in which radical new uses of technology are accepted by the public. These writings about film in the class room are supportive, but the writing suggests that it expects opposition. And the article cautions that educational films should only supplement traditional class room learning. We are always suspicious of new things and sweeping changes. Why, if we start having movies teach our children, that’s a slippery slope to replacing teachers altogether, and just because a kid might pass an exam by learning from film, who’s to say he hasn’t lost that subtler but still important element of learning that comes only from the human connection with a teacher?
Today, of course, we have absorbed not just film but all kinds of multimedia into the arsenal teachers have to teach. It’s worth noting, of course, that this article is talking about silent film, not talkies, particularly when it mentions that the medium of film isn’t always the best way to present certain ideas. This is still true of sound film, but less so. Whereas art may be enhanced by the imposition of limitation — for example, the lack of sound — education has an altogether different goal. The more available tools there are, the more things one can effectively teach with them.
There are a few points of interest in the General section. The first paragraph talks about movie theaters augmenting their shows with live effects. The second discusses the founding of AMPAS, the organization that will shortly host the first Oscar ceremony and continues to host the Oscars to this day.
The fifth paragraph is my favorite item in the whole article. A new process allows two movies to be projected on the same screen, at the same time. For example, one film is projected in red, and the other in blue. You have a pair of red glasses and a pair of blue glasses. Put on a pair of glasses, and you mask out one of the two movies so that you can see the other. Switch glasses, and you’re watching the other movie. I don’t know if this process was ever actually used much — I suspect not — but it’s hilarious to speculate about how this would have worked.
At first glance, it actually has potential. There’s that eternal debate — do we go see a mindless action movie for him, or a mindless romance for her? Solution: go to both at the same time. He wears red glasses. She wears blue. They both win. In her movie, a woman’s beloved husband is slain in war. Just as the terrible news is revealed to the anguished widow, a whoop of laughter fills the theater, because over in the other movie, somebody’s just accidentally dropped a bucket of eggs on the mayor’s head.
Attending a double movie like this also works as a form of insurance against bad movies. If one movie isn’t working out, you can always flip to the other one. It’s the pre-television form of channel surfing. I’m sure if this idea had caught on, theaters would have started to advertise just how many movies they were going to project simulataneously. Hey, the theater down the street only has five channels on their program. We’ve got six!
The paragraph following, about showing movies on steamships, is interesting — in part because of that great last line about fire safety! — because this was also around the first time movies were shown on airplanes. There was a trivia question about that back in Episode 11.
The New Applications section is a stunning reminder of how much film has changed our society. Sometimes it’s easy to think, oh, yeah, 80 years ago they didn’t have X — and so you imagine life without X, and that’s the end of your speculation. But when X leads to Y and Z, and Y and Z lead to A, B, C, and D, that’s suddenly a lot of things that life did without. In the beginning and end of this section, we see that 1927 brought us the first X-ray film of the human body, undoubtedly of inestimable value to medical science; the first use of what is essentially a fast photocopy machine (operated by foot pedals!); and the first use of film in court. Now, not only is security camera footage routinely used in court, it also airs on exploitive, cheesy cop shows.
The Stereoscopic Motion Pictures section describes a number of different experiments with 3D film. This is a good complement to our segment on 3D film in Episode 32. The idea about projecting film into spraying water iscommonly used today in light shows at amusement parks, but imagine watching Star Wars that way.
The Talking Motion Pictures section, similarly, serves as a counterpart to our segments on Sound in Episodes 15, 16, and 18. It’s interesting that Vitaphone is listened as one of many technologies, as today it was the only one of those mentioned that gained substantial traction. Vitaphone, brand new in 1927, was the standard for sound but important window of time, when sound film was all the rage but sound-on-film processes like Movietone hadn’t taken over yet.
The Trick Cinematography section is both impressive and amusing. Amusing, because the available tools for achieving special visual effects is quite plain: fades, slow motion, double exposure, etc, feel today more like basic cinematography rather than basic trick cinematography, if you can appreciate the distinction. Nonetheless, movies of the 1920s have some downright astonishing visual effects in them, particularly those made in Germany, as we discussed in Episode 19. You don’t need high tech computers to make impressive effects. Sometimes great things can be made with very simple tools.