Saturday, November 1, 2008

Forgotten old movie tech

Last night, Scarlet and I went to Davies Symphony Hall and watched the 1925 film "The Phantom of the Opera" (starring Lon Chaney) with the original accompaniment score performed on solo organ (and Foley board) by Dennis James. Mr. James played the renowned Ruffati organ installed in Davies 25 years ago this year. It is the largest concert hall organ in North America. It was a spectacular evening, but the real highlight for me was a re-introduction to early motion picture technology.

Advances in the state of the art in any field always obsolete prior technology, resulting in the loss of specialized techniques used to optimize the technology of the time. Case in point: the iambic keyer. It represents the state of the art in optimizing the transmission of morse code. Morse code is an obsolete technology, relegated largely to the amateur radio bands nowadays. With the advent of satellite based search and rescue beacon technology, the last non-amateur use for morse code (namely the maritime service) has gone by the wayside. Apart from Amateurs, nobody therefore has a use for an iambic keyer. And I think it won't be too long before you'll need to go to a museum to see an Iambic keyer - the furthest development of a technological cul-de-sac.

Thus is it with film. When we think of early films, we think of black-and-white silent films. We think of that because we're used to television, and before color television, TV was itself monochromatic (black-and-white is a misnomer: both TV and film offer a continuous greyscale). But, as I discovered last night, early cinema was not monochromatic. Early TV was monochrome because the actual color that the viewer saw depended on the color of the phosphors that were built into his own TV set. Thus, everybody saw exactly one color - which tried to be as close to a neutral grey as possible.

This was not the case for film, however. While the actual photographic process was greyscale, the film stock itself could be tinted. Within the single film we saw last night, I counted at least 3 different film-stock tints. These differing tints were used by the film's creators to change the tone of the scenes. This is something that was impossible for television before the advent of full color broadcasting in the 1960s. When you saw a film on TV, it was greyscale, period (unless you put colored films or other such trickery in front of the tube).

Not only that, but certain scenes in the film we saw last night were actually in full Technicolor! Color photography was in its infancy in the 1920s. It was nightmarishly expensive, but it could be done. In addition, it was possible for much less money to highlight a single color - the Phantom's red cape, for instance - in a particular scene. This was also done in the film we saw last night.

In addition, it was not unheard of for some filmmakers to have certain elements of their films hand tinted. An example of this is still preserved today in the Chriterion Collection edition of Jacques Tati's film Jour de Fête, where the french flag is tinted red and blue.

Lastly, before the advent of synchronized soundtracks, it was customary for the projection frame rate for films to be variable. Usually, instructions were provided to the projectionist along with the reels of film for what speed various scenes were to be shown. Sometimes the projectionist would ignore those instructions and do whatever they felt was right (or perhaps they were just lazy and set one speed at the start). Because of that, individual experiences in viewing a single film could actually vary. Essentially, there is a tradeoff between slower speeds that flicker a bit less and use less feet-per-minute of film, versus faster speeds that make fast action less blurry.

With the advent of synchronized soundtracks, it was necessary to stick with a standardized frame rate (the industry chose 24 fps) to insure that the pitch of the sound didn't vary, but at the same time, one of the tools used for decades to customize the performance was lost.

With modern digital video technology, resolution and frame rate are, once again, adjustable. There's nothing that would prevent someone from varying the frame rate by scene. But the problem is that it likely wouldn't do any good, since most displays simply adapt the incoming material's frame rate to the native refresh rate of the display. Making matters worse, some displays either do a lousy job of this, or fail if faced with non-standard refresh rates. For instance, most cartoons are animated at only a maximum rate of 12 fps (with adjacent frames of 24 fps film being identical), and that's only during action sequences. The reason for this is the enormous cost of animation. It would make sense, therefore, to MPEG encode such cartoons at 12 fps. But this typically isn't done. Instead, the encoding is done at 24 FPS and redundant, empty I frames are sent in the extra time.

With the advent of television and full color movies, these techniques were rendered obsolete. In the case of television, the viewer could only see monochrome anyway, and in the case of movies, full color made the other tricks unnecessary. It is only in experiencing what must be characterized as an early cinema museum performance that we in the audience were privileged to get a glimpse of the highest state of the art of early cinema.

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