Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Future of Sound Motion Pictures

It wouldn't seem right to leave Harold B Franklin's book behind before looking at a couple of his predictions for cinema and the entertainment industry in general.

The first of these concerns the potential evolution of technology which was, in real terms, very much in its infancy:

   Eventually science will certainly develop telephony and television beyond our present imaginative expectations. When they are fully developed a person sitting at home may be "present" at any event, regardless of distance, at will. Stereoscopic television in full natural colours, and perfected wireless telephony, will enable him to see and hear any event that is broadcast as effectively as if he stood beside the transmitting apparatus.

Here Franklin is clearly describing what we would recognise today as 3D, HD television. In many ways an impressive and accurate prediction, but one wonders whether or not he would have been surprised at just how long it took for this technology to become a reality?

If accurate, the second of the author's speculations offers a curious insight as to the mentality of early cinema-goers:  

The dialogue motion picture is also likely to have an interesting effect on the theatregoing habits of its public. While it has meant nothing, until now, to drop in on a picture after it started and then pick up the threads of the story as it progressed, in the case of the talking picture it becomes more important for the audience to be present from the beginning.

It's hard to imagine, for example, anyone coming in late to one of the films mentioned in the previous blog, Sherlock Jnr., and being able to 'pick up the threads'. It would be really interesting to know whether this attitude to late-coming (an absolute pet hate of mine!) was as prevalent as Franklin suggests and if/how the coming of sound affected it. Certainly the noise created by the tardy could potentially cause more disruption and even affect understanding of the plot, even for those who had seen it from the beginning, but as for sound making it more difficult to catch up with the story I'm not so sure. Interesting talking point though.

The next prediction, regarding 3D cinema, is quite lengthy but worth the effort:

Dr. Herbert E. Ives of the Bell Telephone Laboratories has evolved a plan wherein a spectator at one side of the theatre sees a different side of a certain object than is viewed by another spectator on the opposite side of the room. Thus he gives the illusion of solid objects in space instead of flat images on a flat surface. The apparatus necessary to attain the desired effect, however, is both cumbersome and costly. To obtain the result, projection is placed behind the screen, which is transparent; and the spectator is seated on the opposite side of the scree. Both sides are blanketed with grids of opaque lines and open spaces that pass the light in narrow parallel bands. The projectors behind the screen are arranged in a semicircle. All of them render, simultaneously, views of the same scene taken at one time by a battery of cameras arranged to focus on their objective from different angles. Using the present motion picture camera, it is necessary to take sixty images each from a slightly different angle; the procedure requires fifteen cameras with four moving lenses, each photographing about eighty pictures a second- more than four times the ordinary rate of speed. The sixty images taken are then all condensed upon a single film.

Both the potential effect of this, as well as the logistics involved, are just mind-blowing! 

Stereoscopic imagery was, even in 1929, nothing new. Indeed the stitching together of stereoscopic photographic images was an integral part of the evolution of cinema, given that both techniques had been perfected by Eadweard Muybridge in the late 19th century. Indeed Muybridge's influence is also apparent here with the description of the various cameras at different points sounding very much like his early attempts to capture motion. 

The use of sequential imagery from synchronised still cameras was later used to create the 'bullet time' effects of The Matrix (1999)  but what Franklin was describing here would have produced something more akin to a 3D-looking hologram. If incorporating sound had presented studios with challenges just imagine how difficult it would have been to make films which had to be shot a several different angles simultaneously. The lighting alone would have given any cinematographer nightmares and filming fast moving cars on location would have been nearly impossible! And that's not taking into account the expense of upgrading all the theatres.... Still, it is interesting to think that way back in 1929, at the very beginnings of sound motion pictures, someone was looking to make cinema an even more involving and 'real' experience.

Dr. Ives' is perhaps best known for his work on television and telephony but his main area of expertise was optics and you can learn more about his plans for stereoscopic cinema here

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Harold B Franklin's Sound and Motion Pictures

Following on from the previous blog in our series on Harold B Franklin's 1929 book Sound Motion Pictures this post will take a closer look at what made the author so well placed to write about the motion picture industry.
Harold B Franklin

His IMDb page states that Franklin was a booking agent and then theatre manager prior to becoming involved with Famous Players-Lasky, Fox and, later in his career, Columbia. This was, by anyone's standards, an impressive CV. The chronology suggested here also places Franklin at Famous Players-Lasky (later named Paramount) at another pivotal point in motion picture history as the firm began its policy of vertical integration and block blocking, which ultimately came undone in the courts in and around the time he must have started on his book.

This involvement with three of the 'big six' motion picture companies saw Franklin well placed to observe the practices and progress of what was still at that stage a fledgling industry. Although he may have recorded some of his own activities, the Harold B. Franklin collection certainly sounds interesting but sadly does not appear to contain anything especially revealing about the author or his work. Which is a shame as Sound Motion Pictures certainly suggests that his insights into the industry were not confined to theatre management or business practices:

Voice problems were given serious consideration, and after much experimentation and many tests by qualified university men  it was found that the greatest success was attained by players who read their lines with perfect naturalness. It was also demonstrated that, though the legitimate drama had to take into consideration the fact that the voice must carry in a theatre, this issue was not of importance in the making of motion pictures, since the microphone used in the recording of dialogue for the latter was able to pick up even the slightest whisper. If actors of the speaking stage are thus finding a new field for their talent, actors of the silent screen equally are showing amazing versatility. They are finding their voices, so to speak, and are discovering in talking pictures a new form of expression that lends greater scope and variety to their art.

So, away from the money-making aspect of the movies it seems Franklin also understood the artistic potential for actors to express themselves as well as the benefits of natural performances in contrast to the 'pantomime' of silent cinema. Despite this it wasn't until much later in his career that he got involved with the creative side of the business.

Given his interest in sound, both of Franklin's own forays into movie production are particularly interesting; the lead actor of Gambling (1934), George M.Cohan, was a songwriter whose credits also included The Jazz Singer whereas The Villain Still Pursued Her (1940) featured one of silent cinema's biggest stars- Buster Keaton.  Directed by long-time Keaton collaborator, Edward F Cline, and written by an Elbert Franklin (surely a relative of the producer) The Villain Still Pursued Her  is an odd yet interesting film. A metafictional parody of melodrama (it's practically a filmed pantomime), the characters ham it up in ways that are the antithesis of the 'naturalness' its producer had stated was required for talkies. The large amount of physical comedy and use of inter-titles though suggests that the satire here was aimed just as much as silent film as melodrama. Although nowhere near as inventive or sophisticated as Sherlock Jnr. (1924) Keaton in particular shines, and the film's playful and creative use of sound (diegetic applause and hissing from the audience) hints that Franklin's interest in the subject was something which ran deeper than just its academic study. 

Inter-title from The Villain Still Pursued Her

Good, old-fashioned slapstick 

Buster Keaton in The Villain Still Pursued Her