Monday, December 04, 2006

The Sound Era

Experimentation with sound film technology, both for recording and playback, was virtually constant throughout the silent era, but the twin problems of accurate synchronization and sufficient amplification had been difficult to overcome (Eyman, 1997). In 1926, Hollywood studio Warner Bros. introduced the "Vitaphone" system, producing short films of live entertainment acts and public figures and adding recorded sound effects and orchestral scores to some of its major features.

The real turning point came in late 1927, when Warners released The Jazz Singer, which was mostly silent but contained the first synchronized dialogue (and singing) in a feature film. It was a gargantuan success, as were follow-ups like Warners' The Lights of New York (1928), the first all-synchronized-sound feature. The early sound-on-disc processes such as Vitaphone were soon superseded by sound-on-film methods like Fox Movietone, DeForest Phonofilm, and RCA Photophone. The trend convinced the reluctant industry that "talking pictures", or "talkies," were the future.

wikipedia - free encyclopedia -
World film at the peak of the silents

But even now, the dominance of mainstream Hollywood entertainment wasn’t as strong as it would be, and alternatives were still widely seen and influential.

Germany was America’s strongest competitor. Its most distinctive contribution was the dark, hallucinatory worlds of German Expressionism, which advanced the power of anti-realistic presentation to put internal states of mind onscreen, as well as strongly influenced the emerging horror genre.

The newborn Soviet cinema was the most radically innovative. There, the craft of editing, especially, surged forward, going beyond its previous role in advancing a story. Sergei Eisenstein perfected the technique of so-called dialectical or intellectual montage, which strove to make non-linear, often violently clashing, images express ideas and provoke emotional and intellectual reactions in the viewer.

Meanwhile, the first feature-length silent film was made in India by Dadasaheb Phalke, considered to be the Father of Indian Cinema. The film was the period piece Raja Harishchandra (1913), and it laid the foundation for a series of period films. By the next decade the output of Indian Cinema was an average of 27 films per year.

The cultural avant gardes of a number of countries worked with experimental films, mostly shorts, that completely abandoned linear narrative and embraced abstraction, pure aestheticism and the irrational subconscious, most famously in the work of Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel. In some ways, in fact, this decade marked the first serious split between mainstream, "popular" film and "art" film.

But even within the mainstream, refinement was rapid, bringing silent film to what would turn out to be its aesthetic summit. The possibilities of cinematography kept expanding as cameras became more mobile (thanks to new booms and dollies) and film stocks more sensitive and versatile. Screen acting came into its own as a craft, leaving behind its earlier theatrical exaggeration and achieving greater subtlety and psychological realism. As visual eloquence increased, reliance on intertitles decreased; the occasional film, such as F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (Germany, 1926) even eschewed them altogether. Paradoxically, at about this point, the silent cinema came abruptly to an end.

wikipedia - free encyclopedia -
Hollywood triumphant

Until this point, the cinemas of France and Italy had been the most globally popular and powerful. But the United States was already gaining quickly when World War I (1914-1918) caused a devastating interruption in the European film industries. The American industry, or "Hollywood," as it was becoming known after its new geographical center in California, gained the position it has held, more or less, ever since: movie factory for the world, exporting its product to most countries on earth and controlling the market in many of them.

By the 1920s, the U.S. reached what still stands as its era of greatest-ever output, producing an average of 800 feature films annually [1], or 82% of the global total (Eyman, 1997). The comedies of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, the swashbuckling adventures of Douglas Fairbanks and the romances of Clara Bow, to cite just a few examples, made these performers’ faces iconic on every continent. The Western visual norm that would become classical continuity editing was solidified and exported everywhere - although its adoption was slower in some non-Western countries without strong realist traditions in art and drama, such as Japan.

This explosion was vitally intertwined with the growth of the studio system and its greatest publicity tool, the star system, the engines of American film for decades to come and the models for many other movie industries. The studios’ efficient, top-down control over all stages of their product enabled a new and ever-growing level of lavish production and technical sophistication. At the same time, the system’s commercial regimentation and focus on glamorous escapism discouraged daring and ambition beyond a certain degree, a prime example being the brief but still legendary directing career of the iconoclastic Erich von Stroheim in the late teens and the ‘20s.

wikipedia - free encyclopedia -
Rise of the feature film and film as art

The standard length of a film remained one reel, or about ten to fifteen minutes, through the first decade of the century, partly based on producers' assumptions about the attention spans of their still largely working class audiences.
Australia's The Story of the Kelly Gang (also screened as Ned Kelly and His Gang) is widely regarded as the world's first "feature length" film. Its 80 minute running time was unprecedented when it was released in 1906. In 1906 Dan Barry and Charles Tait of Melbourne produced and directed 'The Story of the Kelly Gang.' It wasn’t until 1911 that countries other than Australia began to make feature films. By this time Australia had made 16 full length feature films.
Soon Europe created multiple-reel period extravaganzas that began to push the envelope of a film's length further. With international box office successes like Queen Elizabeth (France, 1912), Quo Vadis? (Italy, 1913) and Cabiria (Italy, 1914), the feature film began to replace the short as the cinema's central form.
Leading this trend in America was director D.W. Griffith with his historical epics The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). Unprecedented in scale, they also did much to fix the developing codes of editing and visual storytelling that remain the foundation of mainstream film grammar. The former film was also notable as perhaps the first to inspire widespread racial controversy.
Along with a boom in high-toned literary adaptations, these trends began to make the movies a respectable diversion for the middle class and gain them recognition as a genuine art form with a secure place in the emerging culture of the twentieth century.