Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Dawn of Television

The image to the left is a single frame from the earliest known television recording of a human face, made by the inventor John Logie Baird. The subject, a Mr. Wally Fowlkes, was a young lab assistant undistinguished save by his willingness to sit for lengthy periods under the bright, hot lights required to make television recordings. And, amazingly, these recordings were made almost entirely using mechanical means -- a giant disc with glass lenses was linked directly to a Columbia Records turntable equipped with a cutting stylus -- and predate any electronic images of humans by several years! They were preserved on discs that look much like audio recordings, and the frequency of the image data is so low that, if played through speakers, a sound in the audible range is produced. Indeed, Baird claimed that he could distinguish, just by listening to them, a recording of a face from say, a recording of a pair of scissors or a soccer ball. Baird called his process Phonovision, and although he abandoned it as offering too brief, and posing too many technical obstacles, it was nevertheless the first system of recorded television in history.

These recordings were little-known until a few years ago, when recording engineer Donald McLean collected several of them, and transferred their analog signal into digital form. Once this was done, he was able to correct for all kinds of problems that plagued Baird's engineers -- mechanical resonance ("rumble"), pops and scratches on the disc, speed irregularities, and problems with frame registration. The earliest recordings are still quite primitive, but one can at least recognize the faces. 

Even more remarkably, in addition to these laboratory discs, there exist home recordings, made using "Silvatone" aluminum discs (one of these was referenced recently in The King's Speech). Silvatone discs used a heavy, weighted cutting stylus, and could record any sort of signal, whether of the human voice or a radio broadcast. And, due to the relatively low frequency of the signal, they could be used to record television broadcasts as well. During the brief period from the late 1920's through to the early 1930's, when Baird was able to send out television signals with the BBC's co-operation, a number of amateur recordings were made; these, too, have been restored by Mr. Mclean. There are about a half-dozen different snippets: dancing girls (of course!), a marionette show, and a singer by the name of Betty Bolton. McLean actually located Miss Bolton, by then 92 years old, and she was able to personally identify herself as the subject of the recording!

During this era -- in 1930 -- the BBC broadcast the very first television drama, an adaptation of Pirandello's play "The Man with a Flower in his Mouth." Although this does not survive, there is a re-enacted version, using the exact same script, the original music and title cards, and an identical 30-line Baird camera system -- you can watch it here, along with comments on the original broadcast and the recreation.

Mr. McLean has kindly permitted me to show his restored original Baird recordings to you -- but in class only -- as he is concerned to protect his rights in the restored versions. So look for some haunting images at Tuesday's class! 

SIDEBAR: Here's a chart I've prepared showing the relative frequency and bandwidth of television signals, from the days of the Baird discs to HDTV.


• The excellent Television History site, packed with adverts and images of sets.

• The 1936 opening ceremony for the BBC's improved television service, featuring the official TV theme song, with its curious lyrics:
A mighty maze, of mystic, magic rays
Is all about us in the blue
And in sight and sound they trace
Living pictures out of space
To bring this enchantment to you ...
• But wait, there's more: You can see a modern 32-line mechanical TV in action; a 1938 Nazi TV station ident (they named the station after Paul Nipkow, inventor of the Nipkow disc, so as to claim TV as an "Aryan" invention); and lastly, a TV advert for Dumont TV featuring Wally Cox, later a "Hollywood Squares" regular and voice of Underdog.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Color and Sound

The history of the development of cinema after the early portion of the silent era is largely -- though not entirely -- a question of the gradual progress towards both sound and color. Each of these, as we've already seen, started much earlier than generally imagined; sound began with Dickson's "Experimental Sound Film" of 1894, and hand-painted color had already reached a high-water mark with Georges Méliès's 1900 version of Joan of Arc.

With sound, the great problem was synchronization; there were all kinds of schemes for keeping sound -- as a phonograph record, an optical code, or any other pre-recorded substrate -- in time with image. When it came to color, hand-painted films -- even with stencils, and armies of (mostly female) colorists, it remained a premium mode without a premium payback. The main use of color in commercial film, in fact, was with tinting -- a process in which certain segments of film to be edited were run through chemical baths. An emotional scene might be bathed in red, while another encounter would be shown in blue or purple. The advantage of tinting was that all the varied colors could be achieved in post-production, at the director's discretion. Such scenes as the "mellow yellow" of the frame from an unknown film of this era, were common indeed. In some cases, tinted prints survive and have been restored; in others, the indications for tinting have been recreated in restoration.

At the same time, efforts progressed toward a technology that would bring about the appearnce (at least) of full color. The pioneer in this field was Charles Urban, an American expat in England who had already achieved success with his black-and-white films in the era of the "Cinema of Attractions." Urban realized that persistence of vision, the same principle that enabled the illusion of motion, could enable an illusion of color as well; this was the basis of his "Kinemacolor" system. Black-and-white was shot through a special camera using a spinning filter which filtered alternate frames in red and green. After developing the film, it was played back through alternating color filters, so that the "red" frames were tinted red and the "green" frames green; the result was something very close to the feeling of full color (though in fact the process missed part of the spectrum -- with dark blue being very imperfectly reproduced). Urban's process also had the huge technical advantage that, although special cameras and projectors were needed, the film was just ordinary black-and-white stock. Urban promoted his system through ambitious, epic-sized films shown in specially built, luxurious cinemas. Unfortunately for Urban, he was sued by cinema pioneer William Friese-Greene, who (falsely) claimed he had had the idea for this kind of color alternation before. As has happened with modern patent lawsuits, the British judges had no grasp of the technology on which they were ruling, confusing concept with practical art, and Friese-Greene's scheme of staining alternate frames (which produced only a muddy mess) with Urban's far superior pictures. They ruled in favor of Friese-Green, and Urban was eventually forced into bankruptcy. Friese-Greene was never able to bring his system to the point commercial success, though his son Claude, using a process much more like Urban's system than his father's, made a number of exceptionally fine early color films.

Ironically, it was to be one of William Friese-Greene's original concepts -- dyed film which was glued or bonded together -- which would ultimately be the precursor of modern color processes. The Technicolor company started out with a red/green system much like Urban's; they called this "System 1." Films made with this system have a haunting, greenish-yellowish hue which, while perfect for horror features such as "Dr. X" (1932) was less well suited for dramatic or comedic subjects. They next developed "System 2," a subtractive color process in which two dyed films were cemented together, but the finished film was prone to bubbling and cupping. A third system transferred the dyed prints to a fresh single film, but was still limited to two colors.

By the mid-1930's Technicolor shifted to a three-strip system, which was shot on three separate films, which were then dyed and transferred to produce the final prints. This offered the first commercially successful full color image, although red and green still had the most zing -- thus Victor Fleming's choice of ruby slippers and green witch's makeup for 1939's The Wizard of Oz. Not many people realize it, but "Color by Technicolor" was a licensed process not owned by the studios; directors had to hire Technicolor's camera operators and technical consultants, as well as entrusting post-production to their facilities.

Now, as to sound: at nearly the same time, different technologies were being tried to synchronize sound with moving pictures. Emile Berliner was involved with a disc-based system; Edison offered a cylinder-based one, but neither achieved real success. All the various attempts at sound stumbled with the issue of synchronization until the development of optical soundtrack systems, which in turn had to wait until amplified electrical recording became possible in the mid-1920's. These, because they could be recorded on to the actual film, and duplicated along with it, were both reliable and economically feasible, though of course exhibitors would have to invest in new equipment. Although hailed as the first sound picture, 1927's "The Jazz Singer" in fact only had sound in certain portions of the film, and still relied on the old sound-on-disc system. Rival technologies -- RCA's "Photophone" system, Western Electric's variable density system -- vied for the new industry standard. 

The introduction of sound to film brought with it a host of technical problems: microphones had limited range, and had to be hidden in potted plants and tableware; camera noise was too easily picked up, and cameras had to be encased in sound-proof coverings. Mary Pickford, one of the greatest stars of her day and a founder of United Artists, had a terrible experience with her 1929 sound film, "Coquette"; she had to strain her voice to get it picked up by the microphones, and the results were far from complimentary (just after the 3-minute mark, look for the imperfectly hidden microphone wire coming from the box of flowers!!).

Pickford's UA partner Charlie Chaplin, though he eventually embraced the idea of using musical scores on his soundtracks, put off the use of voice; aside from a phonograph recording, a one-liner ("Get back to work!") and a nonsense song in 1936's "Modern Times," Chaplin did not use spoken dialogue in any of his films until "The Great Dictator" in 1940, though some years later he recorded narrative voice-overs for many of his early features. Nevertheless, sound, well before color, became a standard feature of film very soon after its introduction.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Georges Méliès and the Dawn of Fantastical Cinema

In an age when innovation was everything, the French film maker Georges Méliès was the greatest innovator in a pantheon of greats. With a studio -- literally -- in his back yard, and his wife, family, and neighbors as his most frequent cast, he made a vast variety of films -- "trick" films, comedies, farces, and especially films of discovery and adventure -- far beyond anything else made in his era. His background as a stage magician was surely of some help, but so was his sense of fun, his stage presence, and his showmanship. More than anyone else, he bridged the gap from stage to screen.

Legend has it that, in the mid-1890's, he saw a demonstration of film by the Lumière Brothers, and approached them to ask how he could do what they did. He was told that this new art was "merely a fashion of the time," and that in a few years there would be no money in it -- don't waste your time. Perhaps the Lumières were being facetious, but in any case, Méliès bought a camera on his own and in 1896 made his first film, "Une Partie de Cartes" (A card-playing party). Further fancies followed: a woman (his wife) was placed in a chair under a sheet -- with a flourish, she was a skeleton! A lodger checked into a haunted hotel; his coat was stolen, the hat-rack vanished, and he was plagued by enormous bedbugs. Soon, no tale was too wild or strange: a man sang a quartet with his dislocated heads; he inflated his head until it exploded; sailors brought up bodies from the USS Maine as magnified goldfish swam before them. Most famously, a voyage from the earth to the moon was filmed, complete with a crash landing in the "Man in the Moon's" eye; Joan of Arc revived the Kingdom of France, and a bearded explorer -- Méliès again, as usual -- conquered the North Pole (above).

Nearly 200 of Méliès' films survive, out of perhaps 500 that he made. After World War I, the market for his kind of cinema spectacles decreased with the rise of narrative, multi-reel films. By the early 1920's, his company collapsed, and the great director was reduced to selling magic trinkets from a stall at a Paris railway station. Happily, in the 1930's, shortly before his death, he received fresh accolades, and was awarded a pension from the French government, which enabled his widow to live out her days in comfort. Most recently, he was portrayed by Ben Kingsley in Martin Scorsese's brilliant Hugo, which includes both actual footage and re-enactments of some of his most famous films.