Camera-wielding insects, taunting red devils, monstrously large pets — since its inception, cinema has been aligned with the fantastic. Early pioneers of special effects developed cinematic “tricks”— cross-dissolves, stop-motion animation, matte shots, even the close-up — that became the building blocks of filmmaking and then were wholeheartedly adopted by narrative cinema and experimented with by the avant-garde. While France’s Georges Méliès may be the best known of these early purveyors of cinéma fantastique, he was by no means alone. In England, Eastern Europe, and the United States, artists and inventors were busy in their studios, labs, and on location creating cinematic fantasies, expanding the tools for moviemaking and, at the same time, breaching the limits of imagination.
DREAM OF A RAREBIT FIEND (1906)
In charge of production at Edison, Edwin S. Porter summoned all the tricks of early cinema to depict the nightmarish effects of too much rich food and drink before bed in this adaptation of an episode in Winsor McCay’s well-known comic strip. To create the sensation of drunkenness, he used a spinning camera and moveable set pieces, along with double- and triple-exposures. When the fiend, played by Jack Brawn, retires, his clothes and furniture flee in stop-motion, and he later flies over the Brooklyn Bridge courtesy of mattes. A machinist and electrician in the days before electrical current was standardized, Porter was a resourceful technician, joining Thomas Edison’s company in 1899, where he built on the special effects pioneered by Georges Méliès. The year following Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon, Porter’s Life of an American Fireman combined stock footage with acted scenes and featured the same kind of noncontinuous editing as in Méliès’s film.
LE SPECTRE ROUGE (1907)
Charles Pathé installed former cornet player Ferdinand Zecca as head of production at Pathé Frères in 1900 after he successfully helped set up Pathé’s pavilion at the Paris Exposition Universelle. In 1902, Zecca hired Segundo de Chomón, Méliès’s distributor in Spain and Latin America. Chomón was fascinated by the possibilities of color and, in 1901, he opened a lab in his Barcelona home for hand-tinting films. He did the meticulous tinting for this devilish film, and the influence of Méliès is apparent in the stop-motion photography and dissolves. Chomón stumbled across stop-motion animation in 1902 while shooting title cards. He didn’t notice a fly on one of the cards until the film was developed and the fly seemed to jump from place to place. Chomón worked on many films, including as cinematographer for Il fuoco (1915) and on special effects for Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927). Zecca supervised the production of hundreds of Pathé films, later editing Méliès’s films for distribution.
THE ACROBATIC FLY (1908)
Frank Percy Smith became fascinated with the educational possibilities of film while creating lantern slides of plant and animal life for the London Board of Education. Encouraged by film entrepreneur Charles Urban, he left his job and began to tinker with cameras, devising his own time-lapse and macro-cinematography equipment, and even a machine that set off alarms around the house when the film magazine needed changing. For The Acrobatic Fly, he built tiny props for his star to “juggle,” a ball, a cork, even a barbell. Birth of a Flower (1910–11) was the first of more than 50 natural history films distributed by Urban as the popular series Secrets of Nature. These early documentaries adapted easily to sound, and the series continued until Smith’s death in 1945.
THE THIEVING HAND (1908)
Using a special cutout platform, stop-motion photography, and the gymnastic skills of Paul Panzer’s left arm, this film about a prosthetic limb with a mind of its own was made at J. Stuart Blackton’s Vitagraph studio in Flatbush, New York. Blackton met Thomas Edison in 1896 while working as a journalist and cartoonist in New York. Impressed with Blackton’s drawings, Edison filmed him for Blackton, the Evening World Cartoonist (1896). Blackton bought a kinetoscope from Edison and went on to form the Vitagraph Company with Albert E. Smith (a spiritualist) and Ronald Reader (a magician), making movies on the roof of the Morse building. In 1906, the company moved to a custom-built glass studio in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where Blackton pioneered stop-frame animation. Blackton later dismissed the very work he pioneered as “juvenile.” In 1917, he wrote, “I fear I have outgrown my joy in lens magic as a thing by itself. Camera tricks are all right, but they have reached a point where they must interpret, not divert.”
PRINCESS NICOTINE, OR THE SMOKE FAIRY (1909)
Another Vitagraph production featuring Paul Panzer, Princess Nicotine is notable for its use of stop-motion and a two-lens camera. The little girls and their oversized props were farther from the camera than Panzer, and all the actors’ movements had to have been coordinated, perhaps by the director or by a metronome. The German-born Panzer got his start acting in Blackton’s early films, including adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. After Vitagraph, his most famous role came as the villain to Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline serial. He played bit parts in Hollywood until the early 1950s.
ARTHÈME SWALLOWS HIS CLARINET (1912)
Ernest Servaes directed and starred in the Arthème series of comedies for the French company Eclipse from 1911 through 1916. In this film, the comic hero has an unfortunate encounter with some furniture movers, and freeze-frame photography is used to replace the real clarinet with a specially made prop that gives the impression that Arthème is impaled on his instrument. Miraculously, he finds that he can still play and makes the most of the situation. By 1910, Eclipse was the fourth largest producer of French films and one of the many French production companies to set up offices in Germany, opening a branch in Berlin in 1906, just a year after its founding.
THE CAMERAMAN’S REVENGE (1912)
In his association with the Natural History Museum in Kovno, Lithuania, Wladyslaw Starewicz made a series of short live-action documentaries about local customs. His interest in entomology led him to try filming a fight between stag beetles, but the bright lights rendered the nocturnal insects immobile. Inspired by Emil Cohl’s Animated Matches (1908), Starewicz decided to re-create the beetles’ encounter using stop-motion. By stuffing the beetles and replacing their legs with wires attached to their thorax with sealing wax, he built insect puppets with articulated limbs. The result was Lucanus Cervus (1910). Making these films was a painstaking process, requiring 500 single-frame exposures for 30 seconds of film. In 1911, he moved to Moscow, where he made two dozen films at Aleksandr Khanzhonkov’s studio, of which The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) is the best known. This stop-motion masterpiece incorporates not only detailed sets and believable characters, but also a film-within-a-film. After the Russian Revolution, Starewicz and his family emigrated to Paris, where he helped set up Ermol’ev-Cinéma in Méliès’s old studio.
DREAMS OF A RAREBIT FIEND: THE PET (1921)
Best known as the creator of the long-running comic series “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” Winsor McCay began as an illustrator for newspaper stories and features. His first comic strips appeared in the Evening Telegram, among them “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend,” which ran 1904–1913. He signed them “Silas,” as they covered darker, more adult themes than his other child-oriented works. By 1909, he was making animated films in his private studio in Brooklyn. His hand-drawn animation Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) is often referred to as the first cartoon with a lifelike, appealing main character. Similar in technique to the less sophisticated Gertie, The Pet was hand-drawn by McCay himself.
Born in Berlin in 1888, painter Hans Richter was part of the German avant-garde that took cinema seriously as an art form. In 1916, he joined the short-lived Dada movement based in Zurich, where he befriended Viking Eggeling. As part of their experiments in abstract painting, the two created scroll paintings and eventually tried to animate them. The dreamlike Filmstudie actually marks the end of Richter’s attention to pure abstraction. Along with simple shapes, negative exposures, and the play of light and shadow, he incorporates photographs of actual objects, refracting some through a prism. His next film, Ghosts Before Breakfast (1927–28), used stop-motion and trick film techniques to create an absurdist world in the spirit of the French surrealists. He left Germany in 1933, eventually settling in the United States, where he influenced the American avant-garde as a teacher at New York’s City College. He once wrote that his generation of abstract artists approached the new art form “with the energy of pioneers, the curiosity of explorers, and the unperturbed objectivity of scientists.”
LIFE AND DEATH OF 9413, A HOLLYWOOD EXTRA (1928)
A collaboration of Paris-born Robert Florey, Serbian émigré Slavko Vorkapich, and American cameraman Gregg Toland, this expressionist film reveals the dark side of trying to make it in Hollywood. The idea for the film came to Florey, then doubling as an assistant director at MGM and a journalist, after seeing a performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Lit only with a single 400-watt bulb, the film was made over the course of three weeks in Vorkapich’s kitchen and edited to the rhythms of Gershwin’s composition. Shots of miniature sets made from children’s toys, matchboxes, paper cubes, and tin cans were intercut with documentary footage of Hollywood itself. Cutout text, stop-motion, and double exposures convey the struggling actor’s mental state. The total budget: $97. Producer Joseph Schenck was so impressed he arranged for a big premiere with live orchestral accompaniment and a limited distribution run. All three collaborators went on to major careers. Toland became a celebrated Hollywood cinematographer, most famous for the deep-focus photography of Citizen Kane. Vorkapich became a widely respected film theorist and special-effects expert, perfecting montage sequences in feature films. Scripts used the notation “vorkapich” to indicate where such sequences should occur. Florey directed more than 50 movies over the next 23 years, from the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts (1929) to The Beast with Five Fingers (1947). Featuring Jules Racourt as “9413,” George Voya as “Star,” and Adriane Marsh as “13,” Life and Death was one of the few experimental films to achieve success in mainstream Hollywood. Florey later remade it as the feature Hollywood Boulevard (1936).
Presented at SFSFF 2011 with live music by Alloy Orchestra