Wednesday, October 31, 2007


As mentioned in a previous posting Cinerama is one of the key forms of widescreen introduced in the 1950s, which offered a participatory experience similar to competing recreation including golf and bowling. Cinerama developed a strong relationship with tourism through presenting travelogues, which provided the audience to view different places around the world and encourage travelling. However, the form was problematic in dealing with narrative because the technology could not deal with close-ups and the optical restrictions with focal length limited varying because only lens could be used.

There is an extensive and well written history of cinerama in wikipedia providing a chronological account of the technological developments involved with the forms.

Widescreen Films - A New Experience

The widescreen film became a special theatrical event in the 1950s through three key developments:

  • Films being booked as blockbusters to a small number of first-run theatres as opposed to standard distribution.
  • The theatres were refurbished creating a more spectacular experience
  • The total experience between the widescreen and refurbishment created a form of participatory recreation where the audience were active contributor in the process.

These changes to cinema becoming a theatrical event were significantly important because there was a decline in box office after World War II and a greater emphasis placed on leisure time creating a broader range of competition.

AndrĂ© Bazin who is one of the most influential film critic and theorists distinguished an audience’s participation in theatre and cinema by noting theatre as a live experience requiring an active involvement by the audience whereas, cinema separated the performance space. John Belton in Hollywood in the Age of Television, claims that wide-screen cinema formed a “greater illusion of participation” (Belton, 1990:188). While Bazin argues a valid distinction between theatre and cinema, wide-screen does fit into either active vs. passive audience theory, but introduces a new form of participation by drawing the audience into the “space of the picture” (Belton, 1990:188).

In the 1950s there were four key developments in widescreen:

  1. Cinerama
  2. Cinemascope
  3. Eratz Widescreen
  4. Todd-AO
John Belton, "Glorious Technicolour, Breathtaking Cinemascope, and Stereophonic Sound" in Tino Balio (ed), Hollywood in the Age of Television (Boston: Unwin, 1990) pp 185-211

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Landmark Film - Intolerance

The role of technology is not only through the actual invention of sound, screen and equipment, but the way of using these elements. D.W Griffith's Intolerance (1916) is considered a pioneering film through the technical development of continuity editing, which is a standard conventional approach to filmmaking. This film is not only regarded for its editing, but also the integration of camera shots creating a far more interesting image construction. The film demonstrates the visual potential between the filmmaker's imagination and technology.

The film can be purchased at

In Australia, the film can be purchased online through EzyDVD for $19.83 plus shipping:

Webiste Review - American Widescreen Museum

The American Widescreen Museum provides a range of information on range of non-current technology used in cinema. Although, do not be is a very busy site heavily using bright red and yellow. If one is capable of adjusting their eyes to the brightness there is some wonderful information on widescreen, cinematography, colour and sound films.

The AWSM provide a series of poster and image galleries:

  • Classic Posters Gallery - includes 20s & 30s precode posters, David O. Selznick classics and Gone With the Wind;
  • Unusual Posters - There a six pages of posters categorised under witty titles by the studios who released the films including MGM and Columbia (megascope) and pioneers including Eastman Kodak;
  • Hi Resolution Images - Is presented in two series based on technology development

Series 1 - Superscope, Cinerama, Cinecolor, Scanoscope, Todd-AO, Technicolor, DeLuxe Labs, Kinemacolor, etc.
Series 2 - Rectified Todd-AO, CinemaScope 55, 28mm Amateur, 35-32 Dual Rank, Iwerks QUATRO, VistaVision 8 Perf, MGM Camera 65, etc.

The image oriented site provides examples of different technological developments in cinema and briefly explains the problematic aspects of them without overburdening the reader with endless pages of details. After all, for an informal account wikipedia provides a great overview and there are many formal texts available in libraries and bookshops around the world. However, the site demonstrates the importance of understanding the history of images by looking at a sample of these images.

There is a clear understanding that cinema is highly dependent on technology, particularly Hollywood, which is evident in animation, science fiction, special effects...and well pretty much every technical element in filmmaking. However, the site highlights the cultural impact of technology at a relatively chaotic period of cinema.

Landmark Film - Don Juan (1926)

The film was first vitaphone production. While it is not regarded as a landmark film in the context of D.W. Griffith, the replacement of the orchestra with a sound recording was the beginnings of the recorded sound evolution and a strange achievement in the failure of the vitaphone system. However, the popularity of the Don Juan probably had very little to do with the shift of technology. Donald Crafton in The Talkies:American Cinema Transition to Sound 1926 - 1931 states the film grossed $790,000 in 36 week run at Warners (Crafton, 1999:102). While this film was successful, it was not long after that the vitaphone system was being removed some theatre owners.

Warners & Sound

The first studio to take sound seriously was Warners Bros. At the time they were not a major, which is evident by the absence of vertical integration. The studio operated without international distribution and their films were released to small independent theatres, which made sound a lucrative opportunity in competing against the major players by reducing the costs of orchestral accompaniment.
To assist the implementation of sound Warners Bros. approached finance company Goldman Sachs and managed to convince the firm of the potential of sound, which lead to the joint venture between Warners Bros and Western Electric. In 1926, they established Vitaphone to produce sound films and market sound equipment.


Sound has played an important role in motion pictures from the beginning, which is evident by the fact that silent cinema was not actually silent at all. While the film was silent they were accompanied by a range of sound sources. To hide the noisy sound of the operation of projectors the sound sources predominantly used in pre 1920s cinema were the following:
  • In small sized theatres - pianist/organist;
  • In medium sized theatres - actor/musicians/noise making machines behind the screen;
  • In prestigious theatres - orchestral accompaniment.
Prior to the 1920s there had been attempts to synchronise sound and images, but they were unsuccessful. The most known example is Thomas Edison who invented the Kinetophone (1894). A viewer would look through the peep hole where images would projected over a light source that was connected to a sound source. In 1913 Edison presented a modified version where sound and cinematic images were synchronised on screen, but it was highly flawed.

In general there were three issues to introducing sound in film:
  1. Expense
  2. Amplification
  3. Synchronisation
Sound became a serious matter for cinema through AT & T (telephone) and RCA (radio) who spent a great deal of researching sound for other purposes than film. Eventually, the two firms realised the potential of sound in film, but the big studios were resistant because the industry was profitable without the introduction of new technology. The studios realised the extensive costs involved through retraining cast & crew and purchasing equipment. The leaders in sound came from the smaller studios.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Landmark Film -

George Melies - French Filmmaker

George Melies (1861-1938) is regarded for integrating cinema and theatre to create a spectacle. As a magician, he is most noted for narrative and technical developments, especially pioneering special effects using multiple exposure, time lapse and dissolves. Melies is highly regarded in the context of fantasy and science fiction. His film, Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A trip to the Moon) 1902, is considered one of the first science fiction films. There is a great deal of discussion around Melies and the technological limitation at the time of his filmmaking in comparison to contemporary cinema. However, these technological developments have been enabled through Melies experimenting with the camera.

Film theory is saturated with information about Melies, but the biographic information can be found on FranceFilm Website.

Book Review - Sound Technology and American Cinema

Sound Technology and American Cinema: Perception, Reception and Modernity
Author: James Lastra
Publisher: Columnia University Press
Year: 2000

This film book is a gift to the truly nerdy. While this blog covers span of the early 20th century American cinema, Lastra goes back to the eighteenth century considering sensory theories around the development of photography, phonography and cinema as a leader in establishing modernity. Lastra takes an unique approach to a highly concreted and defined history to appreciate the development and present condition of contemporary society. It is hard imagine this book being an overnight sell-out, but Lastra demonstrates the relationship between cinema and technology are far complex than the general view. Furthermore, Lastra highlights the cultural significance of the relationship between the prototypes technologies and cinema.