Early & Silent Film

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Digital Screenings

One of the pleasures for film lovers in recent years has been the screenings of silent films with live musical accompaniment. Kevin Bronwlow, in particular, deserves praise for pioneering these performances in the UK.

The performances he organised not only had fine music, but good quality prints projected at the correct speed. Unforetunately his example is not always followed. I have been rather worried by a number of recent tours and performances where live music accompanies some sort of video projection.

In several cases the source for a theatrical screening has been a DVD, not even a Blu-ray disc. There is a real difference in visual quality between DVDs and 35 mm prints. Moreover, in the UK the format runs at 25 frames per second. This is faster than standard sound film, and often considerably faster than the speeds used in silent film. As I undestand it the DVD versions are ‘stretched’ on a computer: a sort of electronic version of the old-style step printing. In that technique additional frames were created and inserted into the print. Apparently the computer technique creates composite frames. This may sound like an improvement, but when the film in question is a product of the Soviet Montage school, there is a clear problem in relation to editing.

On one occasion an exhibitor assured me the quality woud be ‘just as good’! Not the case. On another occasion I was informed that the musicians had rehearsed with the DVD and had requested it be used in the actual performance. Having seen and enjoyed several hundred musical accompaniments of silent film screenings I know there are a lot of talented musicians who manage to accompany 35 mm prints, despite this, or even despite not having been able to view the film prior to the performance.

I now always ask an exhibitor beforehand what source is being used for the screening. I think if more potential audience members did this it might discourage the use of inferior formats.

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