How Special Effects Work #5: Mary Pickford Kisses Herself

This is the latest in a long-running, very occasional series of posts about special effects but this is the first time (I can’t promise it will be the last) where my starting point is a trick I can’t explain. Of course, I know that the shot (see above) from Little Lord Fauntleroy, in which Mary Pickford, playing two roles, appears to kiss herself, was created using a double exposure, but I don’t know exactly how they got it to look so seamless. I would be grateful for any inside information, and interested in any speculative theories, about how this magnificent special effect was achieved. Much of this post was derived from out-takes of research for a chapter on special/visual effects in the silent era, for a forthcoming volume of the Behind the Silver Screen series from Rutgers University Press, which should be available some time next year. Continue reading

Digesting Hugo

These are some preliminary thoughts from a first viewing of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. I’m in the process of writing a chapter on representations of Georges Méliès for a forthcoming book, so this will be one of my primary texts, and I’ll need to watch it again. I thought I would assemble some notes as I go along. As a result, this might read like a string of disjointed observations at times, but hopefully there will be some points of interest for you along the way. I’m happy to discuss the film, too, and I’m aware that it has divided moviegoers in a way that it didn’t necessarily divide the critics. A quick perusal (which is all anyone should usually have to endure) of the IMDB comments page will give evidence of popular objections to the film. It was looking like a weighty flop on its domestic release, but Hugo will probably just about claw back its $170million budget  (the best evidence that this greenlit at a time when it looked like 3D was an infallible cash-cow) when the totals are added up from international markets. So, please leave me a comment if you have an opinion about this film.  Continue reading

Koko in 1999 (1927)

One thing that will strike you about the Fleischers’ 1927 cartoon short Ko-ko in 1999 is how it anticipates other motifs in science fiction cinema. Most notable is the moment where the eponymous clown finds himself trapped in a feeding machine with more than a passing resemblance to the feeding machine tested by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936). When a stern Max Fleischer tries to bring Ko-ko down a peg or two by creating a bunch of rival clowns, Ko-ko rebels and shunts the competition out of the frame. Fleischer punishes his creation by conjuring Father Time, who pursues Ko-ko into the future – 1999, to be precise. There, he is assailed by all kinds of automated obstacles, and acquires a wife out of a vending machine. Like A Trip to Mars, which I posted here a couple of weeks ago, this is an extract from the excellent Inkwell Images DVD set, which also features documentaries about the Fleischer Bros. Studios. The music is Stereolab‘s remix of Shonen Knife‘s Hot Chocolate, taken from the Ultra Mix album.

The Hugo Trailer

If you’ve been a regular visitor to Spectacular Attractions (don’t worry – I’m not checking), chances are you’ve heard me mention Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming adaptation of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Over the past few months the title has contracted, so that it is now going under the title of simply Hugo. It’s due for release in the USA on 23rd November, just a couple of weeks shy of the 150th anniversary of the birth of French film pioneer Georges Méliès, who plays an integral, but mysterious role in the story. At the centre of the tale is Hugo himself, an orphaned boy hiding out in a Paris train station and trying to discover the secrets of a humanoid automaton left to him by his father. Continue reading

Fragment #29: Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion

Still playing around with iMovie, which lets me make short videos, I made this quick piece that features a montage of Eadweard Muybridge‘s Animal Locomotion photographic series. The music is an excerpt from Philip Glass’s 1982 opera The Photographer, which took its libretto from documents and transcripts from Muybridge‘s life, and in particular the court proceedings from when he was on trial for the murder of his wife’s lover. If you want to keep up with these videos, and hopefully watch me get better at making them, you can now subscribe to my YouTube channel.

Fragment #25: The Vitagraph Girl

Florence Turner (1887–1946), one of the most popular performers at the Vitagraph Studio in its early years, made her debut in 1907 and was soon starring opposite Maurice Costello. She soon be- came known as “The Vitagraph Girl” and was the subject of a song. Turner left Vitagraph in 1913 to make films in England with Larry Trimble. She was Buster Keaton’s mother in College (1927).

“The Vitagraph Girl” is a 1910 song by J. A. Leggett (words) and Henry Frantzen (music), the first song about a movie star. When audiences began asking for pictures starring “The Vitagraph Girl,” the studio commissioned this song as a pro- motional gimmick. It became popular as a sing- along when Turner introduced it theaters. The lyrics ask, “Who hasn’t been to a picture show and gazed with surprise and delight at scenes that are happy and sad?” and go on to say that the “great- est feast for the eyes is the Vitagraph girl. I’m in love with the Vitagraph girl, the sweet little Vita- graph girl.”

Ken Wlaschin, The Silent Cinema in Song, 1896 – 1929 (McFarland, 2009)

[Click on any image for a larger view, and to read lyrics.]


Bill Douglas: Comrades Doctoral Scholarship

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Bill Douglas’s 1986 film Comrades is one of the most ambitious and astounding British films ever made, and the story behind its production is an extraordinary one. If you’re a potential PhD student, and you’re looking around for scholarships, you might want to consider the following opportunity at the University of Exeter, which provides scholarship funds for the successful candidate to work with newly released papers related to the making of the film. This comes from the official release, with all the necessary information about the scholarship:

Funded by the Bill Douglas and Peter Jewell Trust, the Department of English in the College of Humanities is seeking to award a studentship to support doctoral research on the work of filmmaker Bill Douglas, particularly the production of Comrades, released in 1987.

The Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture is an accredited public museum and a research facility for scholars. It holds over 70,000 artefacts related to the broad history of the moving image and its founding collection was put together by the renowned filmmaker Bill Douglas and his friend Peter Jewell. The Centre plays an important role in teaching and research at the University of Exeter.

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Picture of the Week #73: Charlie Chaplin Colour Portraits by Charles C. Zoller

To mark what would have been the 122nd birthday of Charlie Chaplin on 16th April, I present these three magnificent colour photographs of Chaplin, taken around 1917- 18 by Charles C. Zoller (1854 – 1934) and currently held in the George Eastman House Still Photograph Archive. They look like they were shot on a film set, and Chaplin looks relaxed in the first picture, and more definitely “in character” in the others. It’s a treat to see the tramp costume in colour, and to see Chaplin isolated and working under someone else’s direction. Such candid shots of Chaplin in costume, sapped of pantomime and the energetic grace he had when in motion, give a very different sense of so familiar a star. He looks even more vulnerable than usual, and in colour the outfit looks faintly silly, even more like a protective armour against the indignities of the tramp’s tumbling social status. Also, the faded quality of the pictures, which were taken using the Autochrome process patented by the Lumière Bros in 1903, looks now like a home movie or amateur portrait, offering us more immediate access to a glimpse of Chaplin at work.

I’m not sure which film Chaplin was shooting at the time these photos were taken, and the records for the pics don’t say so either. I would bet, though, that it’s A Dog’s Life. This was Chaplin’s first film following his contract with First National signed in June 1917, which matches the time frame, and the setting and costume (admittedly, they are very similar across a number of films), seem to match this wonderful footage:

Fragment #21: Douglas Fairbanks Wants You to Laugh

[In this extract from his inspirational self-help book Laugh and Live, which sets out the rules for a happy, zestful life, Douglas Fairbanks describes, rather emphatically, why laughter will improve your life.]

“Do you ever laugh?

I mean do you ever laugh right out —spontaneously — just as if the police weren’t listening with drawn clubs and a finger on the button connecting with the “hurry-up” wagon? Well, if you don’t, you should. Start off the morning with a laugh and you needn’t worry about the rest of the day.

I like to laugh. It is a tonic. It braces me up — makes me feel fine!—and keeps me in prime mental condition. Laughter is a physiological necessity. The nerve system requires it. The deep, forceful chest movement in itself sets the blood to racing thereby livening up the circulation — which is good for us. Perhaps you hadn’t thought of that? Perhaps you didn’t realize that laughing automatically re-oxygenates the blood — your blood–and keeps it red? It does all of that, and besides, it relieves the tension from your brain.

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Picture of the Week #69: F.W. Murnau’s Four Devils

It is eighty years to the day since the great German director F.W. Murnau died from injuries sustained in a car crash at the age of 42, a week before the premiere of his final film, Tabu. As a small tribute, my Picture of the Week is a set of images related to Four Devils, his tale of a troupe of orphaned trapeze artists, which has the dubious honour of being one of the most famous lost films of all time. Premiered in 1928 (with a sound version released the following year), the film re-teamed Murnau with his Sunrise star Janet Gaynor (the first ever winner of the Academy Award for Best Actress, who was herself near-fatally injured in a car crash in 1982), but has not been seen since (allegedly), her co-star Mary Duncan lost the only print, which she had borrowed from Fox Studios.

Perhaps the closest you can get to seeing Four Devils is Janet Bergstrom’s excellent documentary Traces of  Lost Film, which re-tells the story using the fragments it left behind in publicity photographs and design sketches: