Friday, February 4, 2011

The Silent Oscars: 1906-1914—Part Two

[To read part one of this essay, click here.]

Documentaries and Animation
● In the years between The Great Train Robbery (1903) and D.W. Griffith's first film in 1908, the most interesting films were documentaries. Although in form, they more resemble "newsreels" than what we now think of as documentaries, these short films provided audiences of the time a window into people and places they might otherwise have never seen and continue to offer an insight into the era for historians.

● The first great documentarians were the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, who I wrote about at some length in a previous post. Their forays into documentary film making were more in the nature of experiments with their newly-invented camera, mostly recording scenes from the world around them although they did occasionally film newsworthy events, such as the arrival of delegates to a conference on photography in 1895. The Lumière brothers abandoned movies altogether in 1900, famously declaring "the cinema is an invention without any future."

● One of the first American docum- entarians was G.W. "Billy" Bitzer. Better known now as D.W. Griffith's cinematographer, Bitzer began his career making film shorts, first collaborating with W.K.L. Dickson after the latter left Thomas Edison's lab, then later at the American Mutoscope Company, the forerunner of Biograph. Bitzer filmed hundreds of shorts, such as Film Registry title Westinghouse Works and Arrival of Immigrants at Ellis Island. In 2003, the International Cinematographers Guild named Bitzer one of the ten most influential cinematographers of all time.

● Footage of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake proved once and for all the power of the new film medium. Perhaps the most interesting of the many shorts emerging from the disaster is A Trip Down Market Street Before The Fire, which by happenstance was filmed four days before the San Francisco earthquake. Coupled with footage shot at the same locations immediately after the earthquake, the devastation is still shocking. Imagine what it must have been like to see this footage in 1906, the first time in history the public could bear witness to a catastrophe that had happened a world away. (I encourage you to click the fullscreen function when you watch this.)

● A pair of feature-length documentaries from 1914 show the diverging approaches to the form. In the Land of the War Canoes, Edwin S. Curtis used staged re-enactments and fictional events to show the life of an aboriginal tribe in British Columbia, aiming more for entertainment than veracity. That same year Vilhjálmur Stefánsson brought back actual footage of his own disastrous expedition to the Arctic. (I'd tell you that the latter style of documentary eventually won out, but the fact is documentarians such as Michael Moore stage events for the camera to this day.)

● The fields of animation and stop-action photography also made significant strides during the pre-Griffith film era.

● Émile Cohl was a well-known caricaturist working in Paris who got into the motion picture business when he spotted a movie poster design obviously stolen from one of his drawings. To placate Cohl, the management of the Gaumont Film Company (the oldest studio in the world) offered him a job on the spot, mostly turning out short animation sequences for insertion into live-action films. In 1908, Cohl drew and directed a two-minute film, Fantasmagorie, believed to be the first all-animated film in history. [But see the discussion in the comments section where Matthew Blanchette and I agree that the distinction should go to Charles-Émile Reynaud's Pauvre Pierrot. ]

● In America, J. Stuart Blackton took an early stab at animation with such shorts as The Enchanted Drawing and Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, a series of faces chalked up on a canvas and a blackboard, respectively, but it was Winsor McCay who earned the title as America's first great animator. Already a successful newspaper cartoonist, McCay was inspired by his son's cartoon "flip" book to turn four thousand ink drawings based on his comic strip "Little Nemo" into a film cartoon.

After the success of Little Nemo, McCay signed with the William Randolph Hearst newspaper chain where he continued with his work in the field of animation. In 1914, he produced his most famous character, Gertie The Dinosaur, often credited as the first anthropomorphic cartoon character. McCay toured with the country with the film, "interacting" with Gertie in front of the audience, using a whip to coax her out from behind an outcropping of rock and even feeding her an apple.

● Known as the "Spanish Méliès," Segundo de Chomón special- ized in surreal optical effects films. Working in France for Pathé, Chomón successfully combined miniatures and live-action, pioneered hand-tinted film and invented the "film dolly" which allowed complex tracking shots. As a director, he was known for his trick photography—for example, building one short (The Electric Hotel around a suitcase that unpacked itself, and another (Les Kiriki) around a troupe of Japanese acrobats who perform impossible stunts. Later he provided the special effects work in important feature-length films such as Cabiria (1914) and Abel Gance's Napoleon.

● For my money, though, the best of these early animation pioneers was Wladyslaw Starewicz (he later changed his name to Ladislas Starevich when he moved to France). Born in Moscow to Polish parents, Starewicz was the director of the Museum of Natural History in Lithuania when he inadvertently embarked on a film career. Attempting to document on film a fight between two male stag beetles, Starewicz was frustrated by the insect's nocturnal nature—whenever the camera's lights were turned on for filming, the bugs invariably rolled over and went to sleep—but rather than give up, Starewicz made two models of the beetles with wax and wire, and staged the fight using stop-motion photography.

The result, Lucanus Cervus, was a sensation and Starewicz became a full-time director. In 1912 he made his best film, The Cameraman's Revenge, in which an adulterous insect is captured on film by her cuckolded husband then invited with her unwitting lover to the film's premiere at the local cinema:

Starewicz was decorated by the czar and won the Gold Medal at an international film festival in Milan in 1914, but fled Russia after the October Revolution in 1917. He continued to make films for the rest of his life, dying in 1965 while working on the film Like Dog and Cat.

[To continue to Part Three, click here.]


Matthew Blanchette said...

Animated film started long before 1908; probably the pioneer of this work was Charles-Émile Reynaud, who gave his first public exhibition of his short animated works in 1892; unfortunately, due to going bankrupt over the Cinematograph over two decades later, he thew most of his work into the Seine; here's a link to one of his only surviving early films, Pauvre Pierrot:

...and here's his Wikipedia page:

Anonymous said...

thanks for uploading the videos I especially liked the Cameraman's revenge,so much detail, that must of been a real fiddly film to film.
as always learnt a lot over here.

Mythical Monkey said...

Animated film started long before 1908 ...

Don't know why Émile Cohl is so often credited as having created the first all-animated film. I have actually seen Pauvre Pierrot, back when I was working on the earlier essay about the Nickelodeon era. You're right, Charles-Émile Reynaud should get the credit.

That was (uncharacteristically, I hope) sloppy of me. I will make a note in the original text ...