Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Paul Spehr: The Man Who Made Movies: W. K. L. Dickson (a book)

The man wearing a top hat: W. K. L. Dickson. Behind him: Eugene Lauste, to the right: Emile Lauste holding a still camera. Behind them: a Biograph camera on a tripod. A horse cart was needed to move it. The photograph was taken "somewhere in rural France, possibly in December 1898 when President Faure was filmed hunting pheasants" (Paul Spehr, p. 522).

Paul Spehr: The Man Who Made Movies : W. K. L. Dickson.
Hardback, vi, 706 p. : well illustrated ; 24 cm.
ISBN: 9780-86-196-695-0 ; 0861966953 (hbk.)
New Barnet, Herts, UK ; Bloomington, IN, US : John Libbey Publishing Ltd, 2008.

Blurb: "W. K. L. Dickson began his career as an assistant to Thomas Edison. He was in charge of experimentation that led to the Kinetoscope and Kinetograph, the first commercially successful moving image devices."

"Dickson also established what we know today as the 35 mm format (in 1891–1892); designed the Black Maria film studio and facilities to develop and print film; and he supervised production of more than 100 films for Edison (he acted as producer-director using an assistant to operate the camera".

"After leaving Edison, Dickson was a founding member of the American Mutoscope Co. (later American Mutoscope & Biograph, then Biograph)."

"He also set up production, designed a studio, trained staff and supervised film production".

"In 1897 he went to England to set up the European branch of the company and repeated all that again."

"During his career he made between 500 and 700 films, many of which are icons used by scholars of the period - Fred Ott's Sneeze, Sandow, Annabelle's Butterfly Dances, etc."

"Dickson is a key figure in early film history and this well-illustrated book on his career also offers insights into the beginnings of the international film industry. It is also a window on Thomas Edison, but from a quite different perspective". (Blurb)

AA: Thrilled by BFI's fantastic The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show (films from 1896–1901, digitally restored in 2018) I revisited Paul Spehr's magnum opus on W. K. L. Dickson.

The scope of Dickson's career as one of the greatest men of the cinema is well crystallized in the blurb I quote instead of essaying an inferior resume of my own.

This time I focused on Dickson's career at the American Mutoscope & Biograph. At the company Dickson was an executive, a producer, a director, a screenwriter and a studio manager of moving images. He provided also a high quality service of photographs and news for instance from the Boer War.

Dickson was both a brilliant inventor and a great showman who established important links with the Royal Family (enabling home movies of the monarchs, including of the father of Queen Elizabeth II), the Vatican (acquiring a rare privilege of filming the Pope's blessing) and the Majesty's Armed Forces (guaranteeing access to the battlegrounds of the Boer War in the shelter of the naval artillery).

Dickson did not invent 35 mm film but at Edison he established it as the standard. Amazingly, having left Edison, to avoid patent issues he established another format that we call 68 mm, somewhat misleadingly, because it was was not just wider but also higher so that the image was four times larger than regular 35 mm. A super format that has only met its match in IMAX. The framerate remained at 30 fps (Edison framerates were also high in the beginning) which means that technically Biograph prints were superb, in a league of their own.

The movies were shot for use at both Mutoscopes (flipbook machines) and Biograph screenings which were exclusive high quality shows run by Biograph's own expert projectionists.

Large format films were produced until 1903. By the time when D. W. Griffith joined Biograph in 1908 the format was 35 mm.

In Chapter 25 Spehr discusses the good planning and business sense of the company (p. 410), the appointment of Billy Bitzer in 1895 (p. 413), Eugene Lauste's joining the company in 1895 (p. 415), the building of the Biograph camera (p. 418), the first films (p. 421), the invention of the phantom ride (p. 426), now controversial subjects with African Americans (p. 428), staging reality (p. 431), Joseph Jefferson's Rip Van Winkle cycle (p. 431–433), first news films (p. 433), filming at West Point (p. 434) and Niagara Falls (p. 435), the success film The Empire State Express (p. 436) and the highly popular cycle featuring the presidential candidate William McKinley (p. 437–443).

In Chapter 26 Spehr states: "It was the opening on 12 October [1897] that established the Biograph as a leader in increasingly competitive moving picture business and almost immediately it was declared to be the standard against which other systems were judged" (p. 445–446).

No titles were attached to the head of the films. Individual film titles were lettered on glass slides and projected between each film (p. 452–453). Billy Bitzer was the projectionist. There was a live orchestra and sound effects in the screenings (p. 454).

In Chapter 27, dedicated to Dickson's return to Britain, Spehr covers the Biograph premiere at the Palace Theater on 18 March 1897 (p. 467), wonderful early reviews of the large format experience (p. 472), filming the Royal Family (p. 473–478), going to France to film the French military and to Aldershot to film Hiram Maxim (p. 482) and to Budapest to film the Hussars (p. 483) and generally expanding in Europe (p. 484–485).

Chapter 28 covers Dickson's extraordinary achievement of filming the Pope at the Vatican. We also learn about the first reported same day presentation (Trafalgar Day 21 Oct 1898) and the first time motion pictures were used in a law court (6 March 1899). The six films in the Worthing cycle were a step towards longer continuities, but the Mutoscope company discouraged that (p. 496). Programming concepts and practises are discussed (p. 497). The Pope's poem "Ars photographica" (1899) is quoted (p. 513–514).

Chapter 29 is titled "The News in a Pictorial Way". The coronation of Queen Wilhelmina was the occasion for a first time use of multiple cameras (p. 519). The launch of s/s "Oceanic" was big news (p. 523–525). A catalogue of pictorial news in 1899 is on page 528. Filming Admiral Dewey gives us a detailed documentation of the difficulties involved and Dickson's skill and tact in diplomacy and human relations (p. 534–538). The Biograph shot the first Shakespeare film, a cycle of four scenes from King John with Herbert Beerbohm Tree (p. 538–542).

Chapters 30 and 31 are dedicated to the Boer War. Dickson and his team spent eight and a half months in South Africa covering the war at Frere, Colenso, Spion Kop and Ladysmith. It was not the first filmed war but Biograph films have a particularly lasting value. Dickson never filmed actual combat, and the films were mostly staged as almost all war documentaries are, but Dickson's team risked their lives as they staged their films on real locations with real participants in really dangerous situations. We can still learn about these movies and the circumstances in which they were made. These films were the culmination of Dickson's film career.

They preserve the shock of the real.

No comments: