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class="style5" Silent Films Tricks

>Published : 8th July 2005

>Dear All,

>I was watching several silent films from the 20's and I was just blown away once again. There were some screwballs comedies, and chase-and-run films from Harry Langdon, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, etc... There's no way you can feel tired of those amazing films. And I just wonder if there is any good book that tell the way those films were made: the different techniques they used, the amazing tricks they used to get these even more amazing results: the crazy chases involving all kind of vehicles and dangerous actions, destroying houses, or the great "Steamboat Bill, Jnr.," where Keaton stands in front of a house during a cyclone, and a wall falls on top of him; he is saved because he happens to be exactly where the window is and so on...

>Even considering it primitiveness (from a technical point of view) they seem very sophisticated and amazingly well done. Did they use stunts??? Did they shot at different speeds??? There was no thing such a blue screen so then, how they achieved having an actor dangled from a clock face far above the street and many other scenes like this??

>I'm sure there must be a good resource to know more about this period.

>There are scenes you can guess or see how they get it done (oh! they fix a wheel there to keep the motorcycle slant, how clever...) but other times you just can be blown away by the audacious talent, the crazy originality and the amazing imagination of these films.

>And they already invented some of the so-called techniques of modern cinematography such the changing speed in a scene. And when the term "amateur" was not yet invented, these films are great examples of craftsmanship. If these films were made today no one would doubt about consider its director a genius, an inspirational work from the Burtons, Gillians, etc...

>Please, any info about resources will be greatly appreciated.

>Best wishes,

>Santi Trullenque
Barcelona
Director


>Hi Santi,

class="Paragraph">> Any good book that tell the way those films were made : the different >techniques they used, the amazing tricks they used to get these even >more amazing results: the crazy chases involving all kind of vehicles >and dangerous actions, destroying houses

>The technique is no insurance and no lawsuits

class="Paragraph">> the great "Steamboat Bill, Jnr.," where Keaton stands in front of a >house during a cyclone, and a wall falls on top of him; he is saved >because he happens to be exactly where the window is and so on...

>Keaton was an incredible stuntman. The story I know is that Keaton was very depressed and suicidal at that point and didn't really care if the house crushed and killed him. I'm pretty sure he had eyes in back of his head and can only guess that there were guys off camera screaming "look out!!" - "wait... OK NOW!!!" etc. It's great to see so many of those scenes that are done in long running, wide shots. That's when you realize that they really just physically did the stunt, not edit to fool you, no slight of hand. I love those speed ramps as well.

>There is a good book on Keaton in his early years :

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0025115707/qid=1120838034/sr=1-5/ref=sr_1_5/103-9960197-4114265?v=glance&s=books


Best,

>Anders Uhl
Cinematographer
The DoP Shop
www.thedopshop.com
ICG, New York


>Santi Trullenque writes :

class="Paragraph">> Please, any info about resources will be greatly appreciated.

>The best overall source of information on the silent era is Kevin Brownlow's "The Parade's Gone By" published in 1968. There's a paperback edition as well. It's readily available from online book search companies.

>At the time of its publication, many of the directors, producers, cameramen, editors, writers, and stars were still alive and Brownlow interviewed hundreds of them including Buster Keaton, Harold Loyd, Charlie Chaplin, Abel Gance, William Wellman, and Josef von Sternberg. It's woderfullt written as well.

>Other excellent sources are early editions of AC magazine, and movie fan magazines such as Photo Play, which was quite different than today's versions.

>As far as stunts are concerned, many of them were done just as you see them. Keaton and Lloyd were incredible atheletes.

>Of course, without fear of lawsuits and modern liability laws, many stunt people were seriously injured or killed in performing stunts. In filming the battle of the galleys form the silent Ben Hur, dozens of extras nearly drowned, a couple may have. In the chariot race, at least one chariot driver was killed -- and scores of horses were injured and subsequently shot.

>Brian Heller
IA 600 DP


>There are so many good books on the Silent Era that it's hard to know where to start. Kevin Brownlow's "Parades Gone By" is a good place to start, as well as his documentaries ("Hollywood", ones on Buster Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, etc.)

>For technical information, there's Salt's "Film Style and Technology : History and Analysis".

>Interview books with early cinematographers, like Maltin's, or some of their autobiographies will give you some ideas. Karl Brown wrote a great one called "My Adventures with D.W. Griffith".

>The "tricks" tended to be mechanical more than due to special effects. Keaton had a great art director named Fred Gabourie who worked out a lot of mechanical gags like the falling house (which was still very dangerous to do.)

>David Mullen, ASC
Los Angeles


>Brian Heller wrote:

class="Paragraph">>...Of course, without fear of lawsuits and modern liability laws, many >stunt people were seriously injured or killed in performing stunts....

>Early on, Harold Lloyd was handed a live bomb instead of the dummy and it blew the fingers off his right hand. He had an expensive prosthetic hand made which looked very realistic, but his stunts all depended primarily on the use of his left hand. If you watch him carefully you'll notice he did all the gripping actions with his left hand and only gestures with his right. He climbed the sides of buildings gripping the bricks with his left and just bracing with the right.

>He was amazing.

>Wade K. Ramsey, DP
Dept. of Cinema & Video Production
Bob Jones University
Greenville, SC 29614


>We own the boxed set (Kino Video) of Buster Keaton's films on DVD. As a result I am the father of Keaton's three youngest fans. I can't think of a better way to learn about this master of the silent film form than these Keaton DVDs. One includes the very late 'Railrodder,' made by the Nat'l Film Board of Canada in the 60s, and a short 'making of.'

>There was an excellent doc film on Keaton (I think it was on the PBS 'American Masters' series) a few years back, but this probably doesn't do Santi much good in Barcelona.

>My favorite Keaton is a late feature, this one not officially directed by Keaton, 'The Cameraman' (1927), in which Buster attempts to win his lady fair by demonstrating his skill as a newsreel cameraman. He trades in his tintype camera for a shabby used handcrank Prevost-- which the other cameramen laugh at.

>David M. mentions Barry Salt's 'Film History and Technology,' which is unique in its analysis of early techniques, however I think Salt is something of a crank. Much of the book is dedicated to criticizing other film historians, and he goes off on a rant late in the book seeming to slam just about all modern cinematography---he says that Storaro's lighting style is result of shooting on a low budget in small locations!

>Salt has clearly done a lot of research but you have to wonder at his analysis and judgement.

>Alan 'shot in the original Essanay Studio' Thatcher
DP
Chicago


>David Mullen wrote:

class="Paragraph">> Keaton had a great art director named Fred Gabourie who worked out a >lot of mechanical gags like the falling house (which was still very >dangerous to do.)

>A badly-restored version of "Steamboat Bill, Jr." was on TCM last night... Keaton was amazing.

>And the Brownlow books are wonderful, too.

>Jeff "there's a great piece about the teenage Brownlow in a 50's AC magazine" Kreines


class="Paragraph">> Alan 'shot in the original Essanay Studio' Thatcher

>My first Union Studio job was at Essany. And the first time I used anything bigger than a Colortran 650 was on that stage. It was a 10K. I sat on the edge of the dolly and thought to myself "what do I do with a light that big." I eventually figured it out.

>Mr. Nostalgia Poster CSC (Chicago Society of Cinematographers)


>I think Salt's book is an amazing piece of work on early cinema. You just have to take some of it with a grain of salt -- no pun intended. He can't stand most of modern film theory, particularly by anyone who is French. In fact, he takes a swing at the entire French education system as somehow explaining how French film theory was created. And he doesn't like modern film technique and thus it all starts to fall apart for him starting in the 1970's with people like Altman.

>He correctly states that Storaro's lighting style tends to involve lighting through windows at a distance with powerful lamps, partly to accomodate Bertolucci's camera movement -- but he makes it sound like this is a visual compromise since the walls tend to bounce the key light around, filling in the shadows with the color of the walls. He makes a similar complaint against David Watkin's single-source style. So photographically, he is somewhat conservative. But it is a valuable resource for what technology was available decade-by-decade to filmmakers. In fact, this is his central premise, that style and technology are interconnected, which I agree with. How "Gone with the Wind" looks and was lit is both due to aesthetic trends, individual artistry -- but also due to the slow-speed of the 3-strip Technicolor process of the time, its daylight-balance, the available lenses, etc.

>I was a film student when I ran across an early edition of his book on a shelf in the CalArt's library -- to me, interested in early film technology, it was like gold.

>Yes, from what I've heard from some U.K. film librarians, he is somewhat cranky, an eccentric more or less self-educated in film history. But I've always had a soft spot for non-academics who become obsessed in learning a very narrow field of knowledge... I once read about some ordinary guy who became an expert in one particular piece of classical music, even being allowed to conduct it at some major orchestras.

>David Mullen, ASC
Los Angeles


class="Paragraph">> Alan 'shot in the original Essanay Studio' Thatcher

>Steven PosterASC

class="Paragraph">> My first Union Studio job was at Essany.

>My first job on a stage was at the old Essanay (not as a DP though). I was thrilled to learn its history and always liked working there, sad when they moved.

>Anders "once AC'd for both Mr. Thatcher and Mr. Poster on the same job,
but not at Essanay" Uhl
Cinematographer
ICG, New York


>I was just projecting a 16mm print of a Harold Lloyd film-amazing, really! And I recall some of his films with choreographed car stunt scenes, trains (I think he did all his stunts) Equally interesting are the early Three Stooges films and the transition to sound. I also remember a later episode where knives were thrown and you could see them "flying" towards camera(wire trick) It was funny to see through the gags and there were so many...

>The Harlod Lloyd film I was watching was filmed "inside" a saloon/bar, but I can bet the set was open to the sun. Also lots of make-up, especially on the villain. I did some experimenting w/ handcranking a Mitchell R-35 and print/intermediate films-to recreate the look-it must be around 16-18fps and a narrow shutter angle since even Parvos had a variable and narrower shutter back then.

>But the public's perception of silent films can be somewhat distorted (if you don't watch them often) and they were not all the same(comedies stood out with deliberate undercranking I suppose) It also depended of course on Directors, nationality, crew...

>John Babl
Miami


A few weeks back I was lucky enough to attend the Film Forum's champagne brunch where they were screening (among other films) Harold Lloyds : "For Heaven's Sake"

( imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0016895/ )

with live accompaniment.

>I was completely blown away. The print was great and his grand daughter was in attendance with copies of his famous stereoscopic pictures. What a childhood that must have been to have Harold Lloyd as your grandpa!

>They also screened a Looney Tunes cartoon (which was a treat, I'm a young'un so I've never experienced what were my Saturday morning cartoons on the big screen) and a nice Ingmar Bergman Spoof, "De Duve" ( imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062906/ ).

Modern Times played there a while back, I'm sad to say I missed it.

There is just something special about seeing those movies projected on a screen.

Those films are nothing less than magic.

Nathan Milford
Gaffer, NYC


class="Paragraph">>... from what I've heard from some U.K. film librarians, he is somewhat >cranky, an eccentric more or less self-educated in film history.

>He is certainly a very peculiar man, hard to understand, I think, unless you are very close to him. He looks and dresses (or at least did more than a decade ago) more like a grill-bar attendant than a scholar, so it was a shock when you discovered he was the only doctor in the whole LIFS (LFS today). A somehow shy, but nice chap. And, certainly, film history is a passion for him, specially the technical side of it ; though that can sometimes bias his judgement.

>Arturo Briones-Carcaré
Filmmaker
Madrid (Imperial - but recivilising - Spain)


class="Paragraph">>They also screened...a nice Ingmar Bergman Spoof, "De Duve"

>Kinda goes without saying, but “De Duve” is pretty hysterical. I believe it was Madeline Kahn’s first (film) acting part.

>David obuchowski
Brooklyn, NY


One way to do the gag of the clam in the soup would be sealing a rubber glove in the bottom of the soup-filled bowl, and having the puppeteer under the table manipulating the snapping clam. Squirting the soup would be just a matter of a hidden hose.


To simulate the "look" of films shot in the silent era, use a blue filter to turn your modern panchromatic stock into a "blue sensitive" stock. Work with your lab or hand process the film to simulate the non-uniformity and streakiness of film processed before the advent of modern continuous processing machines. Use old optics or diffusion filters to simulate the flare and halation of the lenses and film of that era. And of course, experiment with frame rate and shutter angle.

>John Pytlak
Eastman Kodak Company
Rochester, NY
http://www.kodak.com/go/motion


class="Paragraph">> To simulate the "look" of films shot in the silent era, use a blue filter to >turn your modern panchromatic stock into a "blue sensitive" stock.

>Actually, try shooting some of the blue-sensitive lab stocks. Fine Grain Positive is lots of fun if you run it through D-76. Try f/4 at 24 fps in bright sunlight.

>Sound Recording II film was lots of fun too, but the new EXR sound recording stock is too contrasty, even through negative process.

>Scott Dorsey


>Hi,

class="Paragraph">> To simulate the "look" of films shot in the silent era...

>I'm about to be involved with a stage production of "Singing in the Rain", shooting the material that's supposed to be shot during the show.

>Since this is supposed to be 1930/31, I seem to remember that stock would have been panchromatic - and not degraded in the ways we expect 1930s movies to look now. I have a feeling that the director will want it to look all scratched and flickery, though.

>Any pointers?

>Phil Rhodes
Video camera/edit
London


>Phil Rhodes'

class="Paragraph">>".. I have a feeling that the director will want it to look all scratched and >flickery, though. Any pointers?"

>I'd remind the historically-challenged director that "actually the films weren't scratched back then!", while making reference to Weinofsky on verissimilitude, and suggest that illusary impositions denigrate the audiences' intelligence.

>If s/he still doesn't get it, suggest s/he takes a look at McCabe and Mrs. Miller, or whatever, and ask him /her if s/he can see any original scratches etc. And if this doesn't work, suggest to the producer that if the director isn't fired, you'll resign.

>That should sort it.

>Dr. David Woods
Holcus Ltd.,
16, John Street,
Kingston Square
Hull
HU2 8DH
UK


class="Paragraph">>Please, any info about resources will be greatly appreciated.

>There is a fascinating documentary about Chaplin made from the outtakes from his earlier films. (Chaplin destroyed the outtakes of the films which he owned).

What is particularly interesting is that Chaplin "wrote" his films in the camera, making up the scenes as he went along. Sometimes he got into story trouble and would have to add earlier scenes (so he could introduce characters he would end up needing later, for example). So all of his scenes are slated with a single scene number in the order he filmed it and not in script order! This is what allowed the author of the documentary to reconstruct his working order.

There was one film he had to reshoot extensively when he divorced the lead actress!

>The emphasis is on story but there are some good technical parts like seeing the shafts of sun suddenly appearing in the middle of a scene when the wind tears the muslin covering of the set away. There is also a sequence illustrating use of shooting in reverse.

>I think that this documentary is "Unknown Chaplin" by Brownlow and Gill but I'm not sure since it has been a while since I saw it.

class="Paragraph">>Did they shot at different speeds??? There was no thing such a blue >screen so then, how they achieved having an actor dangled from a clock >face far above the street and many other scenes like this??

>Regarding Harold Lloyd's clock scene there were some posts on CML about this back in 1998. May I quote Kent Hughes' post :

class="Paragraph">>It came out after Lloyd's death that the man climbing up the building >was actually a stunt man. Harold Lloyd had lost fingers on his right >hand a few years prior to the building gag and wore a glove to hide the >fact.

>The shots of Lloyd hanging from the clock face, etc were staged using a two story mock-up of the building face constructed on the actual building's roof. It was set back from the edge, far enough to be safe yet, giving the illusion of danger utilizing an angle on the street many stories below.

>A brilliant idea, although not as dangerous as might be thought

>Bruce Douglas, DP
Sao Paulo, Brazil


>Phil Rhodes writes:

class="Paragraph">> I have a feeling that the director will want it to look all scratched and >flickery, though. Any pointers?"

>Can you talk him into accepting black & white alone as "proof of vintage?"
"Singin' in the Rain" is about STUDIO production, not newsreels (which themselves wouldn't have been scratched, dirty, poorly processed, etc., in the first place, and probably weren't all that flickery until the fifth printing generation.

>Dan Drasin
Producer/DP
Marin County, CA


>Wade Ramsey wrote:

class="Paragraph">>... Harold Lloyd was handed a live bomb instead of the dummy and it >blew the fingers off his right hand.

>I f**** didn't know!!! Just amazing, absolutely amazing... unbelievable...how crazy...

>Santi Trullenque
Barcelona
Director


>Santi Trullenque writes :

class="Paragraph">>... Harold Lloyd was handed a live bomb instead of the dummy and it >blew the fingers off his right hand.

>Wait a minute, am I confused or did someone else post that this happened to Buster Keaton? Which one was it?

>John Babl


class="style7">>.. Harold Lloyd was handed a live bomb instead of the dummy and it >blew the fingers off his right hand.

class="style7">>Wait a minute, am I confused or did someone else post that this >happened to Buster Keaton? Which one was it?

>It was Harold Lloyd.

>Wade K. Ramsey, DP
Dept. of Cinema & Video Production
Bob Jones University
Greenville, SC 29614