IDENTIFICATION AND PRESERVATION OF EARLY FILMS
In the silent era, there were no archives devoted to preserving films. Nearly all films from the first decade of the cinema are lost or incomplete, and those that survive are often difficult to identify. Many early films bore no identifying title, and there were seldom stars or other distinctive traits that would provide clues to the source.
Fortunately, however, some segments of this era of film history have been preserved. In the United States, one method of copyrighting films involved printing every frame on a long roll of paper. This practice lasted from 1894 to 1912, although only a small proportion of films produced were copyrighted in this fashion. These "paper prints" were discovered in the 1940s at the Library of Congress and rephotographed onto film. In France, many negatives of the Lumière company were preserved. In some cases, release copies of early films were stored away and found later, so archivists can now duplicate them. Historians have also combed catalogues of early sales and distribution companies, trying to create filmographies of the movies made in a country or by a single studio.
For a description of the paper prints, see Kemp Niver, Early Motion Pictures: The Paper Print Collection in the Library of Congress (Washington, D.C.: The Library of Congress, 1985), and Charles "Buckey" Grimm's "A Paper Print Pre-history," Film History 11, no. 2 (1999): 204–16. Niver's Biograph Bulletins 1896–1908 (Los Angeles: Locare Research Group, 1971) reproduces the American Mutoscope and Biograph catalogues for this era; it provides a good example of the type of primary-source printed material historians work with. Denis Gifford's The British Film Catalogue 1895–1985: A Reference Guide (London: David & Charles, 1986) represents one of the most ambitious attempts to document a country's entire fiction-film production.
Information about American film archives is available at http://www.amianet.org/. The world association of archives is the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), and its website is http://www.fiafnet.org/. To try your hand at identifying unknown films, go to the Nitrate Film Interest Group's stills and clips at http://www.flickr.com/people/nfig/.
REVIVING INTEREST IN EARLY CINEMA: THE BRIGHTON CONFERENCE
For many years, the earliest period of the cinema was treated as relatively unimportant. Historians dealt with the invention of cameras and projectors but dismissed early films as crude. Overgeneralizations abounded. Edwin S. Porter, for example, was credited with being virtually the only stylistic forerunner of the American cinema's system of editing.
A major event in 1978 helped change many notions about the early cinema. The Fédération International des Archives du Film (FIAF, the International Federation of Film Archives) held its annual conference in Brighton, as a salute to the Brighton School. Film historians were invited, and nearly six hundred pre-1907 films were screened. The result was a new appreciation of the variety and fascination of early films. To this day, the silent cinema remains one of the liveliest research areas of film history.
The proceedings of the Brighton Conference, along with a tentative filmography of surviving prints, were published as Cinema 1900/1906: An Analytical Study, 2 vols., ed. Roger Holman (Brussels: FIAS, 1982). For a description of the Brighton Conference and its effects on historians' work, see Jon Gartenberg, "The Brighton Project: Archives and Historians," Iris 2, no. 1 (1984): 5–16. Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, ed. Thomas Elsaesser, with Adam Barker (London: British Film Institute, 1990) contains several essays influenced by the Brighton event and written by historians who participated, including Charles Musser, Tom Gunning, André Gaudreault, Noël Burch, and Barry Salt.
Since 1982, the Cineteca de Fruili has carried on the Brighton tradition by holding an annual festival of silent cinema, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto ("The Days of Silent Cinema") in Pordenone and later Sacile, Italy.
SILENT FILMS: HOW FAST IS TOO FAST?
In the late 1920s, sound film was standardized to run at 24 frames per second (fps). The camera drove the film at that rate during filming, and the projector ran the film at the same speed during the screening. Today 24 fps remains the standard, although there are exceptions. But most silent films look very fast when projected at 24 fps. Dramatic scenes can look frenetic, and rapid-fire action can become dizzying.
In the silent period, the cameraman cranked the film through by hand, and he could crank at different rates. Projectors could also run at different rates, either mechanically or manually. Naturally, historians began to wonder: What is the proper rate to screen a silent film? What frame rates look most natural? What were the practices of the time? As with most questions of film history, these can raise some surprising answers.
The movement in film images seems most natural when the shooting rate and the showing rate are identical. Many cinematographers of the 1910s and 1920s said that they cranked the film at 16 fps, and some printed sources confirm it. As a result, for many years historians believed that was the appropriate rate. After all, when a silent film was run at 16 fps, it looked somewhat more natural than at 24 fps.
The problem was that at 16 fps some films or scenes looked too slow. The running time changed as well, of course: a movie that ran 60 minutes at 24 fps would take 90 minutes at 16 fps. Evidence from musical accompaniment scores suggested that such dragged-out screenings were not common in the era.
The historian's problem was compounded by the fact that cameramen weren't absolutely consistent in their filming rates. Some scenes, especially those involving fast action, were "under-cranked" to make the images fly by (a practice that continued well into the sound era). Within a film the frame rates could fluctuate, and sometimes projectionists were told to slow or speed up certain sequences. Furthermore, it seemed that frame rates grew faster from the 1910s to the 1920s.
To achieve a natural look in projection, then, archivists found that they often had to judge the best rate by eye. There is a rule of thumb suggesting that films before 1918 should be screened at 18 fps or so, but films made after that often look best at 20-24 fps. By the late 1920s, most filmmaking countries were shooting films at about 24 fps.
By adjusting the showing rate to the shooting rate, you can arrive at a screening that looks natural to us today. But what about audiences of the silent era?
Strange as it seems, there is evidence that many, perhaps most, silent films were projected faster than we would expect. On the basis of cue sheets for projectionists and musicians and brief mentions in trade newspapers, some historians have argued that most films were projected at speeds higher than 16 fps, even if cameramen were shooting at that speed. If a film was shot at 18 or 20 fps, many projectionists would run it at 22 or even 24 fps. Why? Exhibitors had (and still have) an incentive to squeeze in many shows per day. Accelerating a film could yield an extra screening, or at least let everybody go home earlier.
All this pointed to a startling conclusion. Unlike today's viewers, silent-film audiences accepted and presumably enjoyed unrealistically fast motion on the screen, in dramas as well as comedies.
This possibility would explain why cameramen accelerated shooting speeds from the 1910s through the 1920s. Knowing that projectionists were playing their films faster than they preferred, the filmmakers raised their cranking rate to compensate. A sort of arms race developed, to the point where one film historian found some films from the mid-1920s that were shot faster than 24 fps. There is also evidence that projectionists in some countries retaliated by raising the projection speed, sometimes as high as 40 fps!
The variability of shooting and showing rates can pose problems for video versions of silent films. The producers of a DVD must decide at what rate to run the film, and many video transfers do not alter the speed from scene to scene. Accordingly, some video transfers will seem too fast for a contemporary audience. But viewers can console themselves that many viewers in the old days probably watched them at a high rate too.
See James Card, "Silent Film Speed," Image (October, 1955): 55-56 (available at http://cinemaweb.com/silentfilm/bookshelf/18_car_1.htm), and Kevin Brownlow, "Silent Films: What Was the Right Speed?" Sight and Sound 49, 3 (Summer, 1980): 164-167 (available at http://cinemaweb.com/silentfilm/bookshelf/18_kb_2.htm). A website offering a calculator for various running speeds can be found at http://www.scenesavers.com/tls_film.htm. Thanks also to Stefan Drössler of the Munich Film Museum for additional information.
NITRATE WAS GREAT
For about fifty years, the flexible film base of motion picture film was composed of nitrocellulose, a compound used in explosives. As a result, anyone handling a film had to keep it away from heat or sunlight. A film could burst into flame if the surroundings were only 106 degrees. A film fire was hard to extinguish, since nitrocellulose can burn underwater. Nitrate fires also yield toxic fumes.
No surprise, then, that fires in studios and warehouses were common, destroying thousands of films forever. Some nitrate blasts gutted movie theaters. In a small Russian town in 1911, a theater fire killed 183 patrons, and as late as 1980 a movie house in Norway, where nitrate prints had been left to accumulate, exploded. Even disposing of nitrate films was risky business.
Hence the title of a remarkable book, This Film Is Dangerous, edited by Roger Smither and Catherine Surowiec and published in 2002 by FIAF, the International Federation of Film Archives. Subtitled "A Celebration of Nitrate Film," the book includes scholarly articles on nitrate preservation but also legal documents, essays, short stories, cartoons, poems, and interviews covering all aspects of nitrate film's history and handling.
So-called "safety stock" was developed as early as 1909, using a nonflammable acetate base, but it was more expensive than nitrate and did not yield as good an image. In the late 1940s film industries began to switch over to acetate stock. Archivists now faced the task of preserving the world's nitrate legacy. Some urged that the films be transferred to safety stock, and many were. But current opinion holds that unless the film is decomposing (another nasty habit that nitrate has), the best quality is maintained by careful preservation, backed up by copies on safety.
As good as acetate 35mm, and its current successor polyester-based 35mm, look on the big screen, nitrate looks even better. Its images are at once razor-sharp and softly glowing. If you have a chance to see a nitrate print at an archive or festival screening, seize it, no matter what the film is. For many movies, a sparkling, immaculate nitrate print is the equivalent of seeing the original of a great painting in a museum.