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The Mysterious Lady, M-G-M 1928

Posted by keith1942 on December 3, 2016


This film provided the opening night attraction at the 35th Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. We enjoyed Greta Garbo in a fine Photoplay 35mm print. And with Carl Davis conducting the Orchestra San Marco di Pordenone playing his 1980s score for the film. A presentation fit for the nearly 1,000 film fans filling the Teatro Verdi.

Mark A. Vieira praises the film in the Festival Catalogue:

“Greta Garbo’s sixth American film provides a fine introduction to the Garbo of the silent era. It shows how silent-film technology was evolving, even as sound film encroached. it is also a landmark in the evolution of the Garbo image. In 1928 she was not remote, stately or tragic. She was vital and sexualised. The post-adolescent with the sleepy stare was creating a sensation. There had never been a vamp with a heart, a mind, and a conscience.”

The production and Garbo as lead performer are both excellent. Other aspects of the film are more conventional. The plot was developed from a novelette by Ludwig Wolff, War in the Dark. Essentially it is a war time spy story with Tania Fedorova (Garbo) torn between her Russian spy master General Boris Alexandroff (Gustav von Seyffertitz) and a young Austrian officer Captain Karl Heinrich (Conrad Nagel). M-G-M employed at least six writers over six months producing a final screen treatment. Even then the plot remains predictable and lacking the subtlety of the best spy dramas. It is clear that none of the characters have actually watched or read spy stories, otherwise they would have known what was coming and presumably avoided the perils.

Whilst Garbo is luminous Conrad Nagel is romantic but not inspiring. And his character is certainly juvenile. Leaving Vienna by train Karl is carefully warned about spies and security and he still sleeps soundly through eight hours of the train journey. You can surmise what occurs.

The romance is assisted by some of the motifs placed in the plot. So Karl first sees Tania at the Vienna Opera House during a performance of Verdi’s Tosca; setting up suggestive themes that echo later in the film. We have two border crossing with their particular associations. And all the paraphernalia of spy stories, with secret papers and pre-arranged set-ups.

The film does supply great scenes between the romantic couple. Benjamin Christensen, who worked on the script, supplied one sequence:

“Tania walks over to a, little table where she lights a candle in a beautiful old French candlestick. George [changed to Karl] is playing the piano again, but stealthily his eyes follow her. This strange adventuress seems more and more interesting to him. And the melancholia which rests upon her seems to enhance this woman’s strange charm.”

Niblo, Garbo and Nagel.

Niblo, Garbo and Nagel.

This sequence is one of the many well served by the technology and craft of the production. Mark Vieira records that:

“This career landmark [for Garbo] is seldom mentioned but it was due to a technical innovation, panchromatic film. Before this, orthochromatic film had been the standard. “Ortho” could not see red and saw too much blue; lips went dark and blue eyes turned white. Garbo was beautiful but ghost-like. “Pan” saw the full spectrum, so the black & whit image showed the actual values of the subject.”

And this technical advance was, in this film, in the hands of a fine cinematographer and Garbo’s favourite lighting cameraman:

“The improved rendering of Garbo’s skin, lips, and eyes was more than helpful; it was stunning. In scene after scene, William Daniels used pan film and incandescent lights to paint glowing images of a performer whose presence was so unusual that even co-workers had difficulty describing it.”

The great pleasure of the screening was watching scenes like the one described. The sequence in the darkened mansion set round the piano was lustrous and Garbo looked as fine as in any of her films. In fact, some in a preview audience found this over the top and some shots were cut from the final print version. So the photograph of the production set-up used on the cover of the Catalogue with Nagel, Garbo, Daniels and director Fred Niblo is a shot that is not seen in the final scene. But it does demonstrate nicely the craft of the period and the mood musicians who accompanied the stars.


Posted in Hollywood, Literary adaptation, Silent technology | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The 18th British Silent Film Festival

Posted by keith1942 on September 16, 2015

Silent cover

This excellent four-day event, British Silent Film and the Transition to Sound, took place from the 10th to the 13th of September at the Phoenix in Leicester. It was also supported by the BFI, The Arts and Humanities Research Council and De Montfort University. There was a programme of early films, some of which I will post on individually. And there were introductions and longer contributions on the films and the context of the transition from silent film to sound film. This event was extremely well organised. The programme was intelligent and interesting. The contributions were stimulating. There were well prepared supporting notes.

It says a lot for the organisation that the programme went off with only a couple of minor hitches, even though relying on a stack of film cans from 80 or 90 years ago. The provision by the cinema was also excellent: friendly staff, very good catering and always someone to point one in the right direction. The projection team worked well not only with many old films but with a variety of format – celluloid and digital. And then there were a bunch of talented musicians.

Thursday featured early examples of the new sound technology in British cinema. The day opened with Larraine Porter offering an illustrated talk on the period of transition. Rather like the first years of cinema this was a complicated picture, with rival sounds systems, rival companies and a competition to offer the first example. The larger competition was between the USA and Europe. The most notable intruder was Western-Electric; whilst the notable European system was Tobis Klang-film. As in the USA, whilst there were examples of disc with film, the industry soon tended to sound-on-film.

There had already been a burst of investment following the Film Act of 1927. Much of this, was speculative. As Larraine noted, of six companies launched in May 1928, only Associated Talking Picture survived into the mid-1930s. The new technology required heavy investment, both for studios and cinemas. It also required relatively quick returns, but the UK was already dominated by Hollywood studios and [to a degree] their distribution arms.

Many of these early sound films do not survive. Critical comment suggests that at least some of them did not deserve to. However, there were films of higher quality. One was the morning screening, The W Plan, from British International Pictures (1930). It was directed by Victor Saville at the Elstree Studio and used the RCA Sound System. The film was a World War I spy story and ran for 104 minutes. It starred Brian Aherne [soon to move to Hollywood] and Madeline Carroll: soon to work with Alfred Hitchcock.


After lunch Geoff Brown asked ‘Was Blackmail Britain’s First Talkie?’ As you might expect, it depends on the definition. And Geoff actually said very little about the Hitchcock film but offered descriptions and illustrations of some of the other contenders. These included the now infamous White Cargo where Tondaleyo leads the colonial administrator astray: Mr Smith Wakes Up, a comedy short with Elsa Lanchester singing: Under the Greenwood Tree, which offered a delightful sequence when the village musicians discover the vicar has purchased an organ and threatens part of their livelihoods: and To What Red Hell, a film with an anti-capital punishment message and a character frequently seen after both World Wars, the damaged veteran (all titles released in 1929).          

There were two screenings in the afternoon. There was Dark Red Roses from British Talking Pictures (1929). Unfortunately sequences from the film were missing and it only ran 53 minutes. However, it had a straightforward revenge plot with the rather stilted dialogue common in this period. The second film was a jollier affair, Splinters from British & Dominion Film Corporation (1929). The company had a tie-up with The Gramophone Company ‘His Master’s Voice’, which enabled it to offer recorded music and artists. Splinters was a musical revue actually started by the top brass to entertain front-line soldiers in 1915. And it had become a box-office attraction post-war in London and on tours. There was a certain amount of presentation of the condition nears the front and then the entertainments. These were remarkably good and included an impressive female interpreter, Reg Stone.

I missed the evening screenings, just to be in a fit state for the next day. But the evening featured the US sound version of High Treason from the Gaumont Company (1929) and war drama The Guns of Loos from Stoll Picture Productions (1928).


Posted in Britain in the 1920s, Festivals, Silent technology, US pioneers | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Louis Le Prince Leeds Trail

Posted by keith1942 on July 20, 2015

Le Prince Map In late 1888 Louis Le Prince shot moving pictures in Leeds on a camera of his own design and construction. These are the earliest recorded films, as opposed to multiple photographs. And they precede the achievements of other cinematic pioneers like Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers. Now a documentary film has been released that traces the career of Le Prince and his film actitivies in C19th Yorkshire, The First Film. To celebrate this milestone we are publishing an informal trail of the historic spots in Leeds that are associated with Le Prince and his pioneer achievements. The starting point is in Leeds City Centre, from where all the spots indicated can be accessed by the local bus services: note the relevant bus stops are spread out around the Headrow, Vicar Lane, Boar Lane and the Bus Station. But you can also walk between a number of the sites in the Centre..   Lds Centre Map The trail can be followed in varied ways, depending on your interests and mode of transport. We are suggesting that you start with the Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills in Canal Street. It can be accessed by Service number 5 from F7. [If you follow an alternative route then there is a page on le Prince on Wikipedia you can consult first].   Armley Mills Ent. The Museum has a display on le Prince; copies of one of the cameras that he designed and video copies of the short surviving films from 1888. It is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Returning to the City Centre by no. 5 to T1; we suggest that you continue with the site of Le Prince’s Workshop in Woodhouse Lane, [then at number 160]. Here Le Prince built his several cameras and [it appears] also a projector or ‘deliverer’. Service number 1 from Z1 stops opposite the University Broadcasting Place and alongside it the old BBC Building. The plaque is sited on the city-side end of that new University building. This plaque replaced an older brass plaque which now hangs in the foyer of the new BBC building on Quarry Bank [passed later]. Univ. build and plaque You can enter the open space in the front of the building and read the plaque … Workshop plaque To to continue you need to walk to the nearby pedestrian traffic lights, turn right and catch any bus to the city centre, alighting at J6.  From N2 Service numbers 2, 3 and 3A all run from the City Centre through Chapeltown. Alight by the Library complex and Sholebroke Avenue is a few yards further on. there are no signs on is Prince in the Avenue but at number 16, halfway down the street, Le Prince bought the land and may have had the house built?. No 16 He also resided for a time father up Chapeltown Road at Brandon Villas. That building has been knocked down but you can see the site, now Housing a Sikh Temple. Return to the bus stop but now only service 2 is relevant. It passes the Sikh Temple site in a couple of hundred yards and proceeds to the Oakwood Clock. Oakwood clock The Clock, a local landmark, has recently been restored and there is now a display panel in front of the clock showing local sites of interest. This includes Oakwood Grange where Le Prince shot two strips of film in the garden. The display has a map which shows how to reach the location, about ten minutes on foot.  Oakwood display The Grange building no longer survives but the garden is sill there. It can be viewed from the street end, but the Occupants of the new building [a Training Centre] seem happy when asked to let people view the actual garden. The two short sequences on film of Le Prince’s family and in-laws in the garden still survive.   Roundhay garden Return to Oakwood Clock and there are several buses to the city centre and to Leeds Bridge: it is easiest to walk from K4 [alongside the Market] to the Bridge and back again. Leeds bridge side A Blue Plaque records the building from which le Prince shot his film of Leeds Bridge. In 1988, at the Leeds International Film Festival, the event was celebrated with a re-enactment. Plaque on bridge From T12 you can return to the New Market Street, V2 and walk down to the Bus Station. The BBC Building is on Quarry Bank right opposite the Bus Station. The original brass plaque that marked Le Prince’s Workshop hangs in the foyer of the building. At the Bus station [beyond the Market] you can catch the X6 to Bradford Interchange, this takes just over half-an-hour but it is worth it to visit the National Media Museum. If you leave by the main entrance/exit of the Interchange there are local signs including for the National Media Museum, abut 7 to 8 minutes walk. national-media-museum The Museum, open daily from 1000 to 1800,  has a number of media and film exhibitions. The Louis Le Prince single-lens camera is on Floor 5, alongside the Animation displays: along with examples of other pioneer cinematic technology. In addition the Museum’s Insight Collection has a large range of early cinematic material. There are conducted tours of the collection Tuesdays and Thursdays, but you can also arrange visits in the third week of every month. And there are a number of illustrated pages on Louis Le Prince on the Museum Website. The Museum also has two cinemas and an Imax screen programed by the Picture House circuit, with afternoon and evening screenings. So it is worth checking the programme of screenings. Before or after a film, you can return to Leeds on the X6 from the Interchange: the service only operates until about 6 p.m., but there is the alternative but slower service 72 throughout the evening. Back in Leeds, after all the exertions, you may wish for refreshments. We have not been able to identify a hostelry patronized by Le Prince himself, but there are several Public Houses which were plying their trade in his time. There is the Victoria Hotel in Great George Street, opened in 1865. Then you can indulge your cinematic pleasures by visiting the Hyde Park Picture House. Service 56 runs from J1 and passes the cinema. hydepark The Picture house is currently celebrating its Centenary, November 2nd 1914. The auditorium is still very much as it was when the cinema opened. So this is one of the most delighful venues for watching films across the UK. And the Picture House still has 35mm projection [as well as digital], and 35mm prints are a regular feature of the programme. There are also occasional screenings of silents with live musical acompaniment. A splendid way to end such a tour. There is  a published book on Le Prince and his career – The Missing Reel by Christopher Rawlence, 1989 [copy in Leeds Central Library Local History section]. Thanks to Lyall for the photographs and to Erik for his advice.

Posted in Early cinemas, Silent technology, UK pioneers | 5 Comments »

Carbon Arc Screenings

Posted by keith1942 on July 24, 2014


Carbon arc

One of the treats introduced at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2013 was a screening in the Piazetta Pier Paolo Pasolini using a 1930s projector with carbon arc illumination. At one time this technology was the basis of nearly all cinema projection. The sparks jump between carbon rods and produce one of the brightest illuminations in cinema. I spoke to one projectionist who had suffered a slight eye flaw from their brightness. The technology required projectionists to check and maintain the gap between rods – and rods burnt ou relatively quickly. But the illumination is not only bright but produces an image that is fairly faithful to the original, including the distinctive colour palette.

The Ritrovato screenings start about 10 p.m. and the audience can enjoy the image, the atmosphere and the balmy evenings of summer. This year’s were packed, with other members standing round in the shadows. The screen is framed between trees and the projector not only illuminates this screening but also sends a small beam vertically up above the projector. There is a moment of anticipation as the projector is ‘fired up’ and then the audience swivels from looking behind to looking in front as the film image is revealed.

On the Wednesday evening we had La Princesse Mandane (1928), part of a retrospective of films directed by Germaine Dulac. The film was commercially funded and adapted from a novel by Pierre Benoit. Dulac, of course, is really thought of as an avant-garde filmmaker and an early example of a director who could be labelled ‘feminist’. I suspect it was the disparity between these two forms that made the film less than effective for me. It is well produced and there are some imaginative scenes, especially in a long dream sequence. However, this dream world runs for over 50 minutes of the films 74 minutes running time. I found it padded out with sequences that neither forwarded the narrative nor developed the characters. The Catalogue comments that “The image of the princess – the mise en scène of her femininity – is the object of a masculine fantasy….”

Which is accurate. But this did not seem to generate much critical interrogation of such a ‘male gaze’. Still this was a wonderful way to watch the film. And there was an excellent accompaniment at the piano by Stephen Horne, who added a few other instruments in his inimitable manner.

The Thursday evening saw us back in the courtyard for Sangue Bleu (1914), part of a programme of films directed by Nino Oxilia. But the focus of the film was the silent star and diva Francesca Bertini. She is certainly one of the three major artists of the Italian diva era. Here she was working for Celio Film, but she went on to produce her own films. As is the case in diva films, the mise en scène privileges the star, but also provides an opulent and dramatic range of settings as she emotes, most frequently in the tragic mode. The Catalogue comments that

“Elena (Bertini) appears / disappears, emerges / vanishes, struts like a sleepwalker to a close-up, held together by a mere alternation of shadow and light…”

The plot, which is fairly conventional has an aristocratic wife and mother dumped by her husband and then misused and abused by a series of male characters. Meanwhile the princess struggles to retain and care for her daughter. This is great, over-the-top melodrama, which works partly because of the presence of Bertini. The accompaniment by Daniele Furiati matched the onscreen drama. And the ambience of the occasion was magical.


Posted in French film 1920s, Italian film, Silent technology | Leave a Comment »

Hitchcock’s Nine Silent Films

Posted by keith1942 on September 9, 2013

Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville at work

Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville at work

Alfred Hitchcock directed ten films before the arrival of sound, [including a silent version of the 1929 Blackmail]. Charles Barr discusses these in detail in his excellent English Hitchcock (Movie 1999). And in 2012 the British Film Institute proudly announced the restoration of these nine surviving films, including making them available on both 35mm and DCP formats. In the case of some of these films this meant the feature became a new viewing experience: The Pleasure Garden (1926) now has a coherent plot and takes on the status of a masterful debut for the young director. I have actually seen this film in both the DCP and 35mm versions and I am quite sure that the 35mm print gives greater quality and a better presentation for the film.

However, I have found it extremely difficult to actually see these films in their original format of 35mm. I have asked exhibitors on the occasion of seeing a digital version and it seems that the 35mm format is not available, certainly most of the time. However, the 35mm prints have been seen at several Film Festivals overseas. Il Cinema Ritrovato featured all nine, all on 35mm. At the first screening, The Pleasure Garden, we were informed that “the BFI really wanted to show the films in 35mm” at the Festival. Given the BFI and the National Film Archive are mainly paid for out of the pockets of ordinary British taxpayers I think the BFI needs to review its priorities.

Despite the frequent claims of many distributors and of digital manufacturers there is not an equivalence between 35mm and DCP’s. In the case of modern films, especially when filmed on digital, the benefits are often with digital projection. But for older classics, shot on celluloid and within the technical parameters of that format, it is a different matter.

Early films were predominantly shot in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, though often also in slightly different ratios, for example 1.20:1. 35mm projector have removable plates and when handled by experienced technical staff, it is relatively simple to get the right ratio on the screen. Digital packages come with this function ‘baked in’, i.e. set already in the folders. In fact the image is projected in a 1.85:1 image with masking either side of the frame. However, this masking lacks the density of the projection plates, and unless the blacking masks the frame this can be quite noticeable. Moreover, the ratios are not always correct [though I think the bfi prints are]: I have seen a number of digital projections where the image is slightly cropped – I suspect they sometimes use the standard sound ratio of 1.37:1 instead of 1.33:1, [there is a similar problem with the masking in some cinemas].

Another function ‘baked in’ the folder is the frame rate. When theatrical digital exhibition was introduced the standard rate was 24 fps with no provision for slower rates. But early film was most commonly projected at slower than 24 fps: this can be as low as 16 fps. For 35mm projection the technical staff can set the frame rate. I have been to screenings where the projectionist trailed the print before settling on a rate that looked correct, say 20 fps. There are a couple of ways of ‘adjusting’ digital versions to take account of this. The most common is ‘step-printing’, adding extra frames to allow the faster rate. I have seen projections of Hitchcock’s silent films at rates varying between 18 and 22 fps, which means adding up to six frames for every projection second of the print. FIAF has now introduced specifications for slower rates, between 16 and 24 fps. And it seems that the manufactures have agreed to provide either hardware or software in order to implement these. The problem is, how long will such a transition take. Even at Festivals in 2013 we are still getting DCP versions running at 24 fps.

Then at present nearly all these transfers to digital are being done for 2K packages. There is a lot of argument about what quality approximates to good 35mm projection. However, my experience and readings convince me that it needs to be at least 4K. It is not just pixels versus film grain: there is colour range and resolution and the dynamic contrast. Moreover, whilst this does not apply to the bfi distribution, exhibitors can [and frequently do] use DVD or Blu-Ray for digital screenings. The increasing tendency to less and less information about the formats being used aggravates this.

It is mainly people who patronise UK screens who have funded the BFI and its National Archive. I can understand the kudos for the bfi in screening mint 35mm prints of acknowledged quality films at Festivals. But I do think UK audiences deserve better. I am sure some one will say [or at least think] that the majority does not notice the difference. I am not convinced this is true, but surely to the extent that some people do not discriminate then they are entitled to the opportunity to develop such discrimination. In other areas of the arts there are powerful tendencies for the experience of the actual art object, as originally intended. This is true at the current Promenade Concerts and at galleries like the Tate Modern. It also true in Leeds at the Town Hall concerts and at the Henry Moore Institute, though [unfortunately] the local Assembly Rooms offer live music and DVDs on occasions. I would like the former to be the same for Alfred Hitchcock.

Posted in Britain in the 1920s, Silent technology | 2 Comments »

Il Cinema Ritrovato27th Edition 2013

Posted by keith1942 on July 15, 2013


This year’s festival organised in Bologna by the Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna was a crowded week of archival film material. There were programmes of both silent and sound films spread across five venues and enjoyed in part or whole by about 2000 visitors.

One strand, now running since 2003 was The Time Machine, A Hundred Years Ago. Glorious 1913. This was curated in her own inimitable fashion by Marian Lewinsky. It included a range of films – short actualities and short and long fictional narratives. There were contributions from a range of national archives. The short actualities covered a varied range of topics – street scenes, the Mexican War, Greek antiquities, the Niagara Falls [a frequent cinematic sight] and a longer information film, Our Friend the Police. The last title indicated its content, which was produced by the Manchester Police Force. There were several delightful early comedies from the French auteur Léonce Perret. He both starred in and directed these films and they offered a distinctive and delightful Gallic humour. Longer films included the 1912 Italian Quo Vadis? This was an early example of the then new Italian epic running for 94 minutes. There was also Victor Sjöström’s early socially conscious masterpiece Ingeborg Holm. We had a marvellous performances from the early divas Asta Neilsen in Engelein and Lyda Borelli in Ma L’amo mio non Muore. The majority of these programmes were screened in 35mm with their original frame rates and many enjoyed tin ting, hand colouring or stencil colouring techniques.

The Quiet Don

The Quiet Don

One of the real surprises of the festival were a series of early Russian and Soviet films featuring the female star and director Ol’ga Preobraženskaja. Unfortunately her work as an actress only survived in fragments, though Plebej, an adaptation of Stringberg’s Miss Julie from 1915 and directed by Jakov Protazanov, looked very promising. A contemporary review praised her performance as the ‘volatile, sensitive countess’. The bulk of the programme were films that she directed with her partner Ivan Pravov. These were impressive, especially given that the work has been overlooked for a long time. In the 1920s she worked [predictably even in the progressive Soviet Union] on a number of films for children. One of these, Kaštanka (1926) adapted from a story by Chehkov, was a really fine canine film about a boy and his lost dog. Another Fed’kina Pravda (1925) adapted a classic Ukrainian tale of two boys from different sides of the track whose fates dramatise social inequality. Two films, Anja (1927) and Baby Rjazanskie (1927) focussed on central women characters. Whilst Tichij Don (1930) was an early adaptation of the famous Soviet novel And Quiet Flows the Don. Preobraženskaja and Pravov’s work lacked the distinctive montage style associated with the most famous Soviet filmmakers. However, they were popular drama, often with distinctive techniques in filming, and offering a seemingly realist portrait of aspects of life in the 1920s.

Gloria Swanson in Manhandled

Gloria Swanson in Manhandled

The featured early director was Allan Dwan, who worked in Hollywood from 1911 to 1961. His early one-reelers were mainly westerns. What immediately struck me was his tendency to use distinctive framing and a developing command in the use of landscape: both aspects, which may have influenced John Ford. This programme included two films that he directed for Douglas Fairbanks Sr., A Modern Musketeer (1917) and The Iron Mask (1929). There were also two films he directed starring Gloria Swanson. Zaza (1923) had Swanson and H. B. Warner rather miscast in an adaptation of a classic French melodrama. The other Manhandled (1924) was a department store melodrama and made perfect use of the star’s persona. Her Chaplin imitation in this film reappears in the later Billy Wilder classic Sunset Boulevard (1950), as does her co-star from Zaza H. B. Warner. And there was full-bodied Hollywood melodrama East Side, West Side (1927); this is a rag to riches story, which manages to include romance, heartache, the ‘American dream’ and a pretty good facsimile of the Titanic sinking.

One popular strand was Silent Hitch, the full nine restored silent films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. These were all screened from 35mm prints with piano accompaniments. This was an exciting opportunity and the fine grain prints looked good. However, I did wonder why we had to travel to Italy to see the 35mm prints whilst at home in England it seems only possible to see these on DCPs.

Another familiar filmmaker was Charlie Chaplin. This is the latest phase of the ongoing Chaplin Project, restoring the complete 81 titles that Chaplin made across his long career. This year we had the Mutual comedies. These had all been transferred to DCPs. I noted that the Catalogue information was restricted to the number of reels. The equivalent screenings in 2012 had information both on the frame rate for projection and running times. In fact the Cineteca is one of the few venues where the new FIAF frame rates for early film appear to have been implemented. And there certainly were digital projections at this year’s festival where the screening used the historically determined frame rate. I could not get a direct clarification of the change but I assume the explanation is that only some of the Film Archive have so far implemented the FIAF specifications and that we are in an equivalent period to the arrival of sound, when film speeds are something of a lottery. This is rather sad given the scholarship that has gone into unearthing information and the technical effort into screening films as they would have when originally seen.

The Morieux Collection Exhibition

The Morieux Collection Exhibition

One event that did recreate the nearly cinema experience was in the courtyard of the Cineteca. There were two evening screening of films from The Morieux Collection, a Belgium archive based on a fairground mechanical theatre. There was an accompanying exhibition of Archive materials. The films were projected from surviving carbon arc projector provided by Cineservice. Watching the carbon arc projection is a rare pleasure, and it is a light source which has strong illumination and distinctive colour projection. There was a ripple of excitement in the packed courtyard as the projector ‘fired up’. And we then watched a delightful selection of short black and white and coloured films with musical accompaniments.

Of course there was a lot more in the festival programme. But a really important part of the early film programmes are the musicians who provide the accompaniment. Generally this is of a very high standard and adds immeasurably to the screenings. There were certain performances where I was really struck by the accompaniment and its interaction with the film.

Gabriel Thibaudeau provided a very lyrical accompaniment to a 1915 tragic Italian melodrama Tragico Convegno. Antonio Coppola was equally lyrical for a 1913 programme, which included In Peril of the Sea. Maud Nelissen was spot on for a programme of the early Allan Dwan westerns. A new accompanist for me, Matti Bye, provided a minimal but evocative accompaniment for Ingeborg Holm. And the Hollywood drama East Side, West Side enjoyed the playing of Donald Sosin and the singing of Joanna Seaton. It was all very memorable.

It was a very crowded and for me exhausting week. But it was full of memorable films, some of which I have waited years to see. I wait with anticipation the 2014 programme, which presumably will address the centenaries of both World War I and the start of Chaplin’s film career.

Stills courtesy of the Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna.

Posted in Festivals, Hollywood, Scadinavian film, Silent technology, Soviet Film, US pioneers | 2 Comments »

The truth is not always at 24 fps!

Posted by keith1942 on May 31, 2013

Step printing

The famous dictum by Jean-Luc Godard was voiced in the era of sound cinema; like much else in the cinematic discourse its applicability to the Silent Era needs to be questioned. Specifically, as well as using nitrate film stock, aspects ratios of around 1.33:1, and only additive colour, the ‘silent’ film screenings differed in the running speeds or frames per second from the sound film. The latter when it is actually film normally runs at 24 fps: a rate that as Kevin Brownlow points out was chosen by the technicians on the basis of the projection speeds at Warner first-run theatres. The films of the silent era ran at anything between 16 fps and 24 fps. Many 35mm projector have an adjustment mechanism, which enables the operator to change the projection speed: Photoplay Productions actually do this during the screenings for some films. One of the may oversights with the introduction of the Digital Cinema Package [DCP] was that the running speed, which is ‘baked’ into the digital folder as is the aspect ratio, only offered 24 fps and then in addition 48 fps. Now the La Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film [FIAF] have produced a series of specifications in The Digital Projection Guide for frame rates from 16 up until 24 [though only increasing by twos, i.e. 16, 18, and so on]. How soon projectors will be adapted or the producers of the folders will actually use different frame rates remains to be seen.

In what the UK Parliamentarians call ‘being economical with the truth’ digital publicity usually provides little information regarding the difference. It seems in most instances the producers add extra frames so that the film can run at the faster frame rate without producing the jerky, speeded up movement, which occurs if the film is projected at a faster speed. [There is also an associated technique ‘interlacing]. This is a technique known as ‘step-printing’: it has been used for decades, so that films originally shot at silent speeds were copied on to sound stock with the addition of extra frames. Quite often the assumption was that the original frame rate was 18 fps so there was an extra frame added for every three existing frames.

Computers have made the process more sophisticated: though the technique is basically the same, adding extra frames. However, one additional problem is that computers can add ‘composite frames’, frames that combine elements from the preceding and following frames into the new frame. Clearly this adds a new element in the film which was not put there by the original filmmakers.

The extent to which this alters the film or the viewing experience varies considerably. In my experience the effects are most noticeable when the transferred film uses fast editing and/or special effects. One example of the former is Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin, USSR 1925). The most recent and complete restoration by the Deutsche Kinemathek dates from 2005. The British Film Institute released it for UK distribution in 2010 on a DCP. I had been fortunate enough to see the film at the 2010 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in a 35mm print. It was 1338 metres and ran for 70 minutes at 18 fps. The DCP from the BFI apparently was step printed by adding a frame to three to achieve 24 fps. And I noticed the effect, specifically when we arrived at the famous three lions following the Odessa Steps massacre. According to David Mayer’s ‘shot-by-shot presentation’ in Eisenstein’s Potemkin (1972, using the MOMA print), the sequence of these lions contains 162 individual frames in eleven shots. That would be nine seconds at 18 fps, and this would appear to be one sequence where the MOMA and Kinemathek prints would be identical. It is not clear how the extra frames are distributed across the separate shots. But in the DCP they seemed to ‘race past’ and the sequence as a whole seemed too fast.  

Potemkin lions

I wondered what Eisenstein himself would have thought of this. The likely answer is to be found in Ivor Montagu’s With Eisenstein in Hollywood (1967). He records that after the screening of Potemkin at the London Film Society ‘He [Eisenstein] complained that, with the Meisel music, we had turned his picture into an opera”. The problem appears to have been that Meisel’s score was composed to accompany the German version, which had been censored. The Film Society used a print from the Soviet Union and Meisel told the projectionist to alter the film speed at some point so that the music synchronised. This may account for the laughter from some of the audience when the lions’ sequence was seen.

Another film, which suffered from step printing for digital release, was The Great White Silence (UK 1924). This is Herbert Ponting’s record of the ill-fated 1912 Antarctic expedition led by Captain Scott. Ponting filmed the early stages of the expedition and then used models to illustrate the later stages of the expedition from which Scot and his colleagues did not return. I saw the film at the 2011 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in a 35mm print. This was 2189 metres and ran 106 minutes at 18 fps. The DCP was presumably step-printed to accommodate 24 fps. And whilst the model shots on the 35 mm print were relatively convincing on the changed digital version they were somewhat anachronistic.

Hopefully these sorts of problems will be resolved when the FIAF recommendations are implemented. However, how long this will take and how effectively this will happen is unknown. The major projector manufacturers have provided appropriate software and hardware for conversions. But is would seem likely that teams transferring celluloid prints to digital will only use the frame rates when enough venues have converted. Rather worryingly there is not much sign of this happening yet.

Of even more concern is the increasing use of Blu-Ray and DVD’s for theatrical screenings, including when live accompaniment is provided. Presumably some of this is just down to cost cutting. DCP’s don’t have the delivery costs of 35mm prints. Blu-Ray and DVD are even cheaper to obtain and transport. Partly it also seems to be at the behest of musicians. I have been told on several occasions that the musicians accompany a screening preferred to use a videodisc because they had rehearsed to this. There was even a case at the Leeds International Film Festival there the orchestra wanted a 35mm print screened at 25 fps because they had rehearsed to that video copy. Having seen hundreds of live screenings graced by excellent musical accompaniment, ranging from solo pianos, through ensemble including singers, to large orchestras and choirs I have scant sympathy for this approach.

Blu-Ray and even more DVD do not offer the visual quality of DCP and certainly not of 35mm: though they may look OK when compared with old and worn prints. Frequently the aspect ratios are incorrect, and this cannot be corrected as in the case of 35mm projection. But most notably they are as fast or faster than 35mm sound projection: Blu-Ray running at 24 fps and DVD in the UK runs at 25 fps [elsewhere it can be up to 30 fps]. This means that almost invariably they use step printing to achieve the faster projection speed. Unfortunately distributors almost never seem to actually explain this. There is a dominant tendency to ‘being economical with the truth’ disguises an important technical feature/

An example of this slightly mystificatory approach can be found on the BFI DVD of A Cottage on Dartmoor (UK 1929).

A Cottage on Dartmoor is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and at is historically accurate frame rate of 22 frames per second, using the restoration negative elements from the BFI National Archive. The film was transferred at 24 PsF (progressive scan} and restored using HD-DVNR and MTI digital restoration systems. This master was then slowed down to its correct frame rate of 2 fps. Because of the processing involved at this stage, some slight combing and image stutter may be detected when viewing.” The technical abbreviations apply to restoration and transfer technologies – described in detailed on the Web]. What is not stated in plain English is that for every 22 frames a further three would seem to have been added.

Passion Jeanne d'Arc

A particular example from the last year or so is Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion De Jeanne D’Arc, France 1928). The film was screened at the 2012 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. The film was screened in the local Cathedral with an orchestral accompaniment. This was presumably the reason why DigiBeta rather than 35mm was used. The Catalogue noted that this was ‘transferred at 20 fps’. However it appears prior to the screening the orchestra pointed out that they had prepared using the DVD. So the digital version was run through a computer to add extra frames and run at 25 fps. Fortunately I had decided to watch the alternative 35mm screening. It seems to me that Dreyer’s film is rigorously constructed both in terms of shots, shot length and shot alteration: just the sort of film where step-printing will have a negative impact.

In the UK Dreyer’s film suffered even more. There have been two screenings over the last year or two in this region where a screening with ‘live music’ has used the version of the film issued by Masters of Cinema on DVD and Blu-Ray. I checked with Masters of Cinema and they advised that they had added extra frames to this version to raise the frame rate from 20 per second to 24 or 25 per second.

And readers of Sight & Sound are likely to be misinformed or at least confused regarding this. In the December 2012 issue there was an article by Michael Brooke The Maid remade. The article discusses the film restoration and the Eureka Masters of Cinema version. Brooke does not actually give the frame rate directly but he includes an observation “they were [keen] to preserve Dreyer’s original intertitles and present the film at their preferred projection speed of 20 frames per second”. The article certainly implies that these video versions re-present the film at the original 20 fps. A similar comment was made on the BBC Film Programme when the DVD / Blu-Ray was reviewed there.

I wrote to the Letter Page of Sight & Sound as follows:

“Michael Brooke is quite right to praise Dreyer’s Jeanne d’Arc lidelse og dǿd (Joan of Arc’s Suffering and Death, 1928) however he is wrong to suggest that the DVD and Blu-Ray recreate the 20 fps running speed. DVD runs at 25 fps and Blu-Ray at 24 fps. What seems to be the actual case is that these disc version recreate the running time at that speed, presumably by adding an extra four frames for every 20 to the original. This is all right for domestic users if they choose this version. However, the Blu-Ray has also been used for theatrical presentations with live musical accompaniment. Michael Brooke notes that an earlier version ‘controversially replaced intertitles with subtitles (thus interfering with the editing rhythms)’. I would reckon that adding additional frames to a film that is so rigorously shot and edited would have a similar effect. I would suggest that as well as following Dreyer’s preference ‘that the film be shown in silence’ that theatrical presentations should use a 35mm print. These do exist. “

For the first time in my experience I received an emailed response from the Letter Page Editor at Sight & Sound:

“ Dear Keith, Thank you for your letter on Michael Brooke’s piece. However I’ve no doubt that Michael is well aware of the technicalities of presenting a 20 fps film within a 24 fps format – just that it seemed irrelevantly technical in the context of his Joan of Arc piece. You may want to read a piece he recently wrote for the BFI Website: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news/how-do-you-solve-problem-potemkin Best, James Bell.”

I checked out Michael Brooke’s Blog and, indeed, he does discuss the step printing in the film.

“Masters of Cinema’s new Blu-ray of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) does something similar [to the Battleship Potemkin video]. Respecting the Danish Film Institute’s estimate that the optimum projection speed is 20 fps, four additional frames were created every second using identical methods – this time, five individual frames are followed by a duplicate. Again, the result is perfectly smooth, although in this case they’ve also included the more familiar 24 fps version.”

The result may be smooth, but whether it is accurate is a mater of debate. Brooke’s makes great play in his article regarding the 20 fps rate and also comments how the substitution of sub-titles for intertitles ‘interferes with the editing rhythms’ – touché extra frames! I did reply to James Bell suggesting that whilst Michael Brooke’s might know about this but not all the readers might, and requesting that the letter appear. It did not.

In the March 2013 issue of Sight & Sound there was a letter from Caroline Yeager at the George Eastman House film archive. She chided the organisers of an UK tour who used a DVD version of Beggars of Life (USA) despite also having live musical accompaniment. So I took the opportunity to raise the issue again on the S & S Letter Page, but with no greater success.

Despite claims by some exhibitors and critics about the quality of DVD and Blu-Ray video versions, neither is a theatrical format. Apart from the inferior quality of the screenings presented to audiences this practice is likely to militate against a quick conversion of digital projectors to accommodate the FIAF specifications. And even when this happens the rather inaccurate use of language means that audiences will never be sure whether .. fps means the original frame rate, or the step-printed frame rate. This offers serious irony. When sound arrived a large part of the silent heritage was junked and commonly the films were projected at the wrong speed: a practice that lasted into the 1970s. Archivists and historians like Kevin Brownlow were pioneers for a sea-change leading to ‘‘presenting the films as they were originally screened’’ Now an equivalent change to that of the arrival of sound is taking place in the industry. It is likely that digital copies will have a much shorter archive live than celluloid, we may actually lose painfully restored masterworks in their original form. It is certainly more difficult to see them in their original form than a few years ago. Thus history repeats itself as tragedy; perhaps the blurb on many digital copies is the element of farce!

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