August 31, 2004

'Film History' Journal Entry: Early British Actualities and Animated Photographs

Film History, An International Journal
Volume 16, Number 1, 2004
Editor-in-Chief: Richard Kozarski
Indiana University Press and John Libbey Publishing
Single copies: $17.95
ISBN 0-253-11710-0

 

An exemplary journal of motion picture scholarship, the current issue of Film History is dedicated to early British cinema and is edited by Stephen Bottomore. One essay in this issue, "Panoramas, Parades and the Picturesque: The Aesthetics of British Actuality Films, 1895-1901" by Gerry Turvey, is of particular interest to students of documentary film.

Many students of documentary will be familiar with Erik Barnouw's discussion of the actuality films of the Lumière brothers in his pioneering book Documentary, A History of the Non-Fiction Film (Oxford University Press: 1974), but it may not be generally recognized that actuality films in Great Britain got off to a very early start thanks to the efforts of R.W. Paul, and Birt Acres. As early as March or April 1895, concurrent with the Lumière brothers' production of actuality films, Birt Acres successfully photographed the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race using a motion picture camera made by R.W. Paul.

Turvey's essay focuses on "the aesthetic system of nonfiction practice" of the early British actualities and for much of its source material drew on descriptions of the films offered in the producer's catalogues and their entries in a trade publication called The Era, as "retrieved by John Barnes and appended to the five volumes of his history, The Beginnings of the Cinema in England." Turvey notes that the catalogue descriptions discuss a particular visual effect desired by the filmmaker and that they constitute an "actuality discourse" that articulates aesthetic principles underlying documentary filmmaking in the early years.

In his essay, Turvey has attempted to systematically define the "aesthetic approaches" of the actuality film producers of the 1890s in Great Britain, and he identifies three broad areas of this actuality discourse. First is the concern for the composition of the film image in the frame and its pictorial attributes. Second is movement, duration and temporal structure. Third is the organization of films in series and the sequencing of related images.

Noting that producers typically described their offerings in manufacturer's catalogs as "this picture" or "this photograph," rather than "this film," Turvey observes that actuality filmmakers "were approaching their work by adopting perspectives derived from the foregoing practices of photography and painting." The early single-shot films were also thought of as a self-contained image similar to a photograph or painting, but were also described as "living pictures" or "animated photographs."

Clarity and sharpness was highly desirable in the actualities, unlike the soft-focus and blurred images sought by the avant-garde of British photography in 1892 as espoused by London's Linked Ring group, which had broken off from the sharp focus tradition of the Royal Photographic Society. Portraits and landscapes were taken over as genres in actualities from the earlier traditions in painting.

Camera placement and the aesthetic of the view was an important factor in non-portrait single-shot actualities that consisted of topical events like military parades, sports events and distinctive landscapes. The filming of street parades, for example, tended to display a view down the length of a road to achieve an effect of perspective.

Diagonal composition with figures moving past the camera to accentuate the depth of the image was also important. As a result the foreground-background relationship was continuously emphasized. A 1900 panorama of the Paris Exhibition filmed by Cecil Hepworth is noted as filmed from the Seine so that "at times the intervals between buildings afford glimpses of the most distant portions of the exhibition."

One of the most "frequently applied aesthetic terms for location views was ‘picturesque,'" notes Turvey. "These qualities were largely taken over from the evaluative vocabulary that had been developed for painting and that had been taken up by nineteenth century photography."

Discussing movement, duration and structuring of the shot over time, Turvey offers illustrated filmic examples, which used either movement toward the camera, past the camera or movement of the camera itself. The most popular camera motion to be exploited, however, was foreword movement of the camera through space, as with the popular "Phantom Ride" films where the camera was mounted on the front of a train.

Eventually, producers began combining single-shot films into a series of views of one subject, which presented for the exhibitor "the possibility of presenting a succession of films with a coherent thematic relation." Turvey's intriguing essay is an insightful inquiry into the genesis of cinematic language that subsequently proved integral to narrative film.

 

Ray Zone can be reached at r3dzone@earthlink.net.

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