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Development of Filmmaking in America

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    In the period previous to the 1930’s, the predominant form of filmmaking was that of the crank camera. This is not to say that motor-driven cameras were not possible. However, the motors to advance the film were so large that they were simply too cumbersome to be effective. Thus, it was the cameraman himself who would crank the film at a steady rate to expose the frames. When it came to showing the film, on the other hand, motor driven projectors were quite convenient, and by the 1920’s a standard 24 frames per second was established for projecting films. Filming, however, remained unstandardized due to the inherent variation in recording speeds, since it depended directly on the cameraman. An experienced cameraman was capable of filming an entire film at approximately the same speed, yet often variations were made in the recording speed for dramatic effect. Decreasing the number of cranks, for example, exposed fewer frames and thus when projected at the standard 24 frames created the frenzied action that characterized much of the Vaudeville cinema.

    The French filmmaker Georges Melies was among the first to employ changing backdrops and costumes to tell his story. Up until that point many film were only a few minutes long taking place on a single set. Changing sets and costumes opened a vast range of new possibilities and spurred further growth in the fledgling industry. As the film industry expanded in America, filmmakers found and increasing need for to establish a single location at which they could build sets and film undisturbed. The bright sunlight, relative stability of climate, and varied terrain found in California made it an ideal place to film, much of the reason for the industry’s concentration there. During this time, films were shot on a single reel, resulting in filmstrips that were only 15-20 minutes. Independent producers pioneered the use of double reel filmmaking during the years before the First World War.

    This allowed much longer films and opening the door for further opportunity, both financially and creatively, as well as bringing into being the double reel camera that became such an icon of movie production. The major advance of the 1930’s was the introduction of synchronous sound and dialogue in the late 1930’s. First invented and shown in the 1920’s, it became the standard by the early 1930’s, partly due to the invention of a device based on the radio that could effectively amplify sound in the theater. Initially there were two available systems with which to record sound. The first was similar to a phonograph, and recorded the sound to a separate disc. The second, more popular, system recorded the sound directly onto the celluloid strip. Initially sound hindered the filmmaking process, since the cameras had to be encased to muffle the noise of their motors and actors could not stray far from the stationary microphones. However, technological advances soon made up for this and the sound became an integral part of filmmaking.

    The incorporation of sound into film and the resulting movie theater draw triggered a number of mergers in Hollywood as companies tried to consolidate their power (and their wealth). The result of these unions was the creation of the first major studios that dominated the industry for decades, Fox Studios (later 20th Century Fox), Leow’s Incorporated (later Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer), Paramount, RKO, and Warner Bros. These studios monopolized the industry through vertical consolidation, meaning they controlled every part of the production process. They owned the writers, the directors and producers, the actors, the equipment and crew, even the theaters. They controlled every step and dominated Hollywood until 1948 when the U.S. Government found them to be an illegal monopoly. It was also during this time that color in movies became possible through the use of the Technicolor system. Technicolor was created using a special camera that ran three strips of film, one in red, one in blue, and one in yellow.

    When the three strips were consolidated, the resulting image was in full color, though the colors were frequently very exaggerated as can be seen in two such films that were filmed in this manner, Gone With The Wind (1939) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). The 1940’s also marked the beginning of the Italian movement known as “neorealism.” This movement focused on portraying the non-fictional aspects of Italian society for entertainment, in contrast to many of the dream worlds that were being produced by Hollywood. Future generations of filmmakers would look to this movement as inspiration for their own films depicting their home countries in a style that is sometimes known as “slice-of-life.” A novelty technique used during the 1950’s was the introduction of 3-D. Filmed with special lenses and then viewed by the audience with special glasses, Hollywood released about 35 of these films during its brief popularity. Unfortunately, audiences quickly became bored with it and Hollywood soon dropped it. Another technique introduced in the 1950’s was the wide screen format.

    It was introduced largely to distinguish movies from television in an effort to lure dwindling audiences back into theaters. Cinemascope was the first such technology, using a special lens to compress the wider image onto a 35mm film reel. A second lens on the projection piece would later decompress the image to create the wide screen format. It was later replaced by the Panavision system, which did not require special lenses. The 1950’s also saw the rise of the French “New Wave”. The New Wave began with a group of French film critics who believed that the majority of French cinema was overly devoted to written aspects of a film. They believed that the director, the creator of the final visual image should be the true center and set out to direct their own films under this new theory. The French New Wave also sought in some ways to reconceptualize film. Though they were immersed in popular culture and striving to emulate Hollywood’s success, they also incorporated new techniques and styles.

    One such example of this Jean-Luc Godard, who introduced the jump cuts, temporal cuts to disrupt the continuity of a scene. During the 1960’s Germany began its own movement, similar to the Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave, known as “das neue Kino”, translated as The New Cinema. Major aspects of the New Cinema were a focus on history and hardship Germany had endured, the effects of popular culture from America on German society, as well as the inclusion of feminist viewpoints on these subjects. It was during the 1970’s that the blockbusters as we now know it was officially born. The movie that started it all, if it has to go to a single movie, was Jaws. Though somewhat similar to the formula that had described blockbusters under the old studio system, it broke the mold in several major ways. First, its cast was, for the most part, unknown actors. Under the old model it was thought impossible to have a blockbuster without a recognizable cast. Second, and much more importantly, it used shocking special effects, namely a large mechanical shark, to thrill the audience.

    Audiences had scene special effects before, but this was a whole new level of realism. Thus was born the era of the f/x blockbuster. A few years later the trend was reaffirmed when audiences were again captivated by special effects in one of the most popular movies of all time, Star Wars. Special effects surrounding romanticized and often simplistic characters became the core of the blockbusters, the new formula that brought back the large audiences and flowing cash to Hollywood. By the mid-1970’s the new formula for success had been reached. Whereas before a large number of movies were released and shown on the screens of the theaters that bought them, movies were now released in smaller numbers on thousands of screens at once and advertised with massive promotion campaigns to maximize gross on each film. It broke the financial slump of the 60’s and remains the formula today. In 1978 a device was also developed that opened new doors for filmmakers.

    Dubbed the Steadicam, it was a camera mount that attached to the cameraman rather than a tripod or dolly. Thus, instead of being stationary or relying on a track or cart to move, the camera could go anywhere a cameraman could walk or run. Since then, numerous changes in the system have consistently improved its quality and ease of use. One of the most recent examples of a sequence filmed using the Steadicam were the Normandy battle sequences of Spielburg’s Saving Private Ryan. The only major change in the film industry that occurred in the 80’s (aside from the technological advances that occur constantly since the creation of the first camera but are for the most part too technical to be interesting to you or I) was the rise of new mediums. Cable companies exploded in the 1980’s, wiring the country with a multitude of new entertainment possibilities. This wave of entertainment also started a trend of increasing independent production.

    Up until that time, an independent film often had trouble finding an audience as major theater chains only dealt with studios. Cable opened up new audiences for independents and was a strong contributor the growth of that sector of the industry. The major technical advance of the 1990’s has been the advent of the Digital Age. All across America people are going digital, with CD’s having completely replaced vinyl and tapes, DVD’s becoming increasingly popular, and camcorder’s and camera’s becoming sharper and sharper. Hollywood is not to be left behind, in fact they are far ahead. Though digital editors have been in use since the 1980’s, it was not until the 1990’s that the non-linear format of editing became a true standard, as even high school programs began to purchase consumer-grade non-linear devices. At the same time, advances in the 1990’s have grown by leaps and bounds.

    Numerous breakthroughs in computer effects editing make it not only possible to alter the look of a film in a computer, but also extremely cost effective, as more productions use the computer to delete out mistakes in filming, or expand the grandeur of a scene (an example of this will be seen in an upcoming war movie as yet unnamed in which twenty extras charging across a battlefield will be digitally cloned into a thousand-man assault). Perhaps the most important step comes from the pioneer of the digital world, George Lucas. Releasing Star Wars: E1 in three theaters using completely digital projectors (no film reels needed) and making his preparations to film the next two using completely digital cameras and encouraging release on completely digital theaters. It is now clear to Hollywood and the rest of the world that digital is the next evolution in film.

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