Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from P-T » Technological Change and Classical Film Style - A Specimen Scene, THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE Scene 34, Sources of Innovation, Case Studies

The Interplay of Style and Technology

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In any industry, one goal of technological change is efficiency—to make a process consume less time, energy, or money. The film industry is no exception. Many tools and procedures were introduced to cut the costs of film production, especially after the advent of talkies had raised expenses considerably. The 1930s was the era in which sound production came to be streamlined in a form that is recognizable today.

Technological change also has an aesthetic aspect. By canonizing a particular style of filmmaking, the Hollywood industry set engineers an agenda. Sound had to be integrated into an existing set of stylistic priorities. More specifically, the fluency and economy found in our specimen scene were goals consciously pursued during the early 1930s. Hollywood filmmakers strove to recover the stylistic flexibility that they had enjoyed during the late silent era and that had often been curtailed during the early days of sound. Technological change in the Hollywood studios thus had two goals: maximal efficiency and maximal integration with, or extension of, the classical stylistic norms.

These two goals came into sharp focus in the earliest days of talkies. Between 1929 and 1931 most filmmakers staged the action for the sake of sound recording. Getting a clear, complete soundtrack had the highest priority, and since microphones were heavy and hard to move, the picture track often became static and rather flatly lit. In addition, most scenes were shot with several cameras running simultaneously, all filming the scene in toto. By placing the cameras at various angles and by using lenses of different focal lengths, the filmmakers could preserve the changes of framing essential to Hollywood continuity editing.

A characteristic example is furnished by a sequence from MILLIE (RKO, 1931). Millie has just eloped with Jack, and they have checked into a hotel. The scene depicting her reluctance to go to bed is staged quite “theatrically” in a wide, fairly shallow set. The hotel room’s parlor gives onto a curtained bedroom in the rear. In the course of the sequence, five cameras follow the characters around the room. After the couple check in, Millie sits down on stage right and Jack joins her; they are filmed in medium long shot (Fig. 12). After she goes out frame left (Fig. 13), a long-shot camera follows her walk to the door, panning right to reframe Jack as he approaches (Fig. 14). At the door, the couple are framed in medium shot as he tries to persuade her to come to bed (Fig. 15). In an extreme long shot he draws her to the bedroom in the rear (Fig. 16). As she resists, a medium shot enlarges them again (Fig. 17). The two medium shots are filmed with long lenses, while the other views are filmed with lenses of shorter focal lengths.

Multiple-camera filming guaranteed synchronization in an era when matching picture and soundtrack posed great difficulties. One cinematographer recalled, “In those days we didn’t know how to cut sound, so we’d shoot the sound in one solid unit, and then cut the film from our twelve [!] cameras to fit the track.” 3

Yet the multiple-camera procedure had many drawbacks. It was inefficient, wasting time and film and requiring a large crew. Since most sound shots could not be made separately, any error in performance or recording necessitated starting the entire scene over. There were also aesthetic drawbacks. The cameras were frequently housed in soundproof booths, and the thick glass reduced photographic quality. Long lenses could not achieve the tight, precise framings of the silent era. In the cinema of the 1920s, the camera was frequently placed close to the players, and actors’ glances and movements in a sense flowed around the spectator. In early talkies, however, the placement of the cameras outside the zone of action made the action seem more distant and uninvolving. In the MILLIE scene, in contrast with the sequence from THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, the viewer does not really enter the hotel room, either through camera movements or cut-in close-ups. Space becomes less voluminous, actors more distant. The analysis of the action is accomplished by enlarging portions of the scene, as if we were looking at a sporting event through binoculars.

Given the economic and aesthetic drawbacks of multiple-camera shooting, it is not surprising that technical personnel devoted a great deal of energy to returning to single-camera filmmaking. Filmmakers quickly learned that shots not requiring synchronized dialogue could be filmed silent and spliced into multi-camera sequences, perhaps with some sound effects added. Soon directional microphones and silenced cameras allowed closer framings and more nuanced lighting. New sound-editing equipment permitted picture and sound to be recorded and cut separately. Mobile camera carriages enabled filmmakers to recover and even enhance the fluidity of silent cinema. By the end of 1931, most studios were able to film with one camera again.

More generally, contemporary observers insisted that there was no going back to the plodding pace of most early talkies. Some writers foresaw a new cinematic rhythm born of ablend of talk, music, gesture, and silence. 4 One writer proposed building smaller sets so that characters could pass through them more swiftly, eliminating “dead footage.” 5 Another commentator asserted that film technique, instead of merely recording theatrical dialogue, was an intrinsic part of cinema’s appeal. “And the tortuous way back to the old silent days’ technique of many angles and rapid cuts, plus sound-camera equipment, was begun.” 6 Yet another critic advocated increased tempo: more and shorter scenes, swift lap-dissolves and montage sequences, rapid-fire dialogue, and “an almost constantly moving camera.”

These writers were not calling for that “creative use of sound” by Mamoulian or Lubitsch canonized in film history textbooks. These directors’ innovations often minimized speech, letting the audience grasp the situation by means of sound effects or purely visual cues. Rather, the commentators mentioned above foresaw a cinema grounded in dialogue. Nonetheless, the actors’ performances would be enhanced by all the visual resources revealed in the silent era, as well as others yet to be developed.

Technological change thus fulfilled several roles. Not only was it aimed at greater economy or efficiency, but new technology could also help filmmakers maintain established standards of visual intelligibility, and it could enhance the appeal of what was essentially a dialogue-based cinema.

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