Seventeen MINUTES of film this time

Catalog and (relatively) brief analysis of all the random stuff I see when I go through footage.


"How To Make Movies" (1918)

Putting in a jump for once, because this is going to be ridiculously long.

0:00-0:16 Intertitles, so called because they were inserted between sequences of action. Common in silent films, used for providing location and time information, and snips of dialogue. Distinct from subtitles, which are below the picture, and regular titles, which are superimposed on a shot. Font not unknown in 1918, era of Art Nouveau. The picture is suspiciously solid. Film cameras, especially early ones, used a fully-mechanical linkage to yank the film down while the shutter was closed, and the image was consequently not perfectly centered on each frame. There is a small amount of what's called "weave" (the wobble back and forth) leftover, but the overall stability indicates that the frames have been digitally re-registered in the transfer from film to the new master. The sharpness of the letters exceeds that of a good VHS tape, even when bunged through Flash video; this was remastered for SVHS or DVD.

0:17-0:32 Establishing shot. Camera pans from left to right across a vista of foliage with a backdrop of mountain, still a common countryside view in southern California. Not possible to tell exactly what kind of trees those are, but from this distance they look like citrus, which grows goddamn everywhere out there, often whether you want it to or not. (I would imply that the things are weeds, but the orange trees are numerous and bigger than me, and might take offense.) The amount of scratching and general crap on the picture, and the questionable light levels, indicate that this is probably cheap stock footage. 'Stock footage' is literally just lengths of film of various different locations, taken whenever someone had the chance, and filed away in a big stock in the back of the studio somewhere. You need an orange grove, you just call down to the stocks for it, some poor intern finds it on the shelf and runs you a copy of your orange grove, and the messenger carries it up to wherever you're doing the editing. These segments of film were used often and usually cared for pretty cavalierly; there is a very obvious 'stock footage' look to most of them, and it has largely to do with the appalling schmutziness of the picture. You can't clean dirt marks that have been printed into the dupe.

0:33 La Brea Avenue & De Longpre Avenue today. Ninety-four years later, this is smack in the middle of Los Angeles, which like so many other big western cities has slowly oozed outwards to eat what used to be surrounding towns; in 1918, this would have been lightly-populated desert wilderness. It's quite near Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, which themselves became famous because that's where all the studios built their outdoors sets back in the day. And yes, it's the same La Brea as the infamous tar pits.

0:40-0:46 Iris effect. Transitions like this today are done in post as the film is being processed, or digitally over footage. At the time, this would have been an actual iris clipped over the camera lens, which the cinematographer reached out and opened as he rolled. The appearance from the puff of smoke is also a practical effect. I have no idea who the wizard is; the little fellow in the light cap is Chaplin, who is easily recognizable once he starts moving.

0:47-0:50 More intertitles. Capitalization in these is often a bit wonky by modern standards. It seems to be either to make things look typographically nicer, or For A Bit Of Emphasis, as I idiosyncratically use them today.

0:57-1:14 Practicals leading into time-lapse photography. Time-lapse as a technique has been around since the beginning of motion picture photography; the general tactic of stopping the camera and restarting it once something has "appeared" was one of the very earliest special effects, used to the amazement of the audience even in early French cinématographes at the end of the 19th c.

1:15 The "Ye Olde XYZ" joke has been around a long time, apparently.

1:20-1:24 Automobiles were still not terribly commonplace in 1918. Studios typically provided cars and drivers such as these to their valuable stars. In those days it was not seen as a thing you did for rich and important people so much as it was a thing the PR department did in order to showcase how glamorous (and, in theory, desirable) their actors were to the general movie-going public. Actors at that time were not hired per project, but under contract to the studios, who could assign them to whatever picture they wanted while the contract lasted. I don't know if Chaplin owned a car at this point -- probably -- but he did know how to drive; he does so in several early shorts.

1:29 Digs keys out of his left hip pocket, fusses with them in his left hand. The suit is typical of the time, and is very well-tailored. No makeup here, although it doesn't matter much, since the brim of his cap puts half of his face in shadow.

1:38-1:48 Random clowning. Chaplin served as lead actor, screenwriter, director, and what we would consider executive producer of his own films. He would have had a proper office and at least one dedicated secretary, although I don't know if this guy is it. Given the general screwballery of the film, it's probably an actor playing the valet's part. Films of 1918 had already incorporated general rules of continuity of motion across jump cuts (if your previous shot had shown someone going in a door, away from the camera, then the next interior shot needs to show them coming out of the door, toward the camera). Furniture arranged rather suspiciously conveniently for the shot; either this is a mocked-up set, or they have shoved everything to the window side of the room for blocking. The curtains stay drawn because full sunlight from the back of the actors would throw everything into shadow. Believe it or not, the filming light is provided by the sun -- Chaplin specifically mentions needing sunlight to film things in his book, as Klieg lights hadn't come along yet.

1:49-1:54 Might be a real secretary who felt like cooperating, might be a lady from the stable of random extras. She's wearing little or no shooting makeup, and that's a very practical dress for the time, rather than a glam thing you'd put on a film star.

2:12-2:29 Chaplin is wearing typical film makeup of the time for the closeups -- not the whiteface of the tramp, but some kohl around the eyes and probably some lip color, to make sure that the camera will pick up his full facial expressions. Sniffing the letter is a reference to a custom that has sadly died out in modern days, that of ladies spritzing their writing paper with their signature perfume. Chaplin was well-known as a lady-killer for most of his life, and if you see him in other behind-the-scenes footage he is an incorrigible flirt. One thing not even Lita Grey (particularly vengeful ex-wife) complained about was infidelity, so I'm guessing the flirting was generally as far as it went. Social mores of the time would have made it unwise to openly flirt with men, but he clowns around a lot for guys -- he seems to just have enjoyed being generally charming.

2:32-2:36 Studio backlot. Hard to see everything that's in the background, but the open rigging in lieu of a ceiling was and is common on sets which are meant to be repeatedly re-dressed for use as different locations. Lights, reflectors, props, effects wires, and backdrops are attached to the grid and flown in as needed. The huge rickety-looking ladder on the left was also common, as the concept of 'safety regulations' hadn't been invented yet. The bright square just beside the ladder is some kind of reflector, either used for bouncing light around or used as a projection screen for viewing 'rushes', or hastily-developed copies of the day's work delivered to the director, so he could check the output at the end of the day. Rushes today are either on VHS tape or done digitally, but in the early days they were proper film, and often done so quickly that the director didn't even get a positive print struck, but reviewed the footage as negatives. The chairs here are pulled to the front of the stage -- not yet a soundstage, as talkies were about a decade away -- for visibility; if that is a screen for rushes, they're probably normally arrayed around that.

2:36 The picture is still remarkably well-restored, but what looks like a single very badly-scratched frame flashes into view here. The scratches are white, indicating that they exist on the positive print of the film (i.e., they have scratched the tinted emulsion off of the clear base). Black scratches would indicate similar damage to the negatives, as areas free of emulsion on the negs translate to the dark parts of the positive. Conversely, white blotches would be dirt on the negatives, and black blotches would be dirt on the print.

2:53-3:01 The fast-forward effect here is achieved by undercranking the camera. Early film cameras did not have a motor; they were operated by some guy who sat there and looked through the viewfinder and very patiently cranked a handle to reel the film past the shutter mechanism. Undercranking refers to turning the crank handle more slowly than usual, so that when the film is projected at the normal speed, everyone looks like they're moving hilariously fast. Normal speed wasn't quite standard yet, but was usually somewhere in the neighborhood of 20fps; Chaplin's shot lists, like those of contemporary directors, often specify what speed the camera should be cranked at for a particular sequence. The practice largely ended when talkies emerged, as it is vital to both shoot and project those at a steady 24fps to get the optical sound track recorded on-set to come out right. Chaplin dragged his feet on the whole sound thing for a very long time, and as a result was one of the last directors to use undercranking regularly as a comedic effect, all the way through Modern Times in 1936.

3:04-3:22 Evidently a secure storeroom. It's not a mockup, as the rods on the inside of the door indicate an actual safe-like locking mechanism of some sort. The vent slats on the wall are from some sort of central ventilation or HVAC system. Electrical air conditioners began to go into private homes in 1906 or so, and the studio buildings, as fancifully depicted in the time-lapse sequence, were new and built specifically for Chaplin. I don't know if they had central HVAC, but they indubitably had a furnace and central heating. It may be climate control for whatever is normally in the room -- film stores would certainly have benefited from temperature and humidity control.

3:22 They are probably not quite kidding about 'greatest treasures' part. Props which are absolutely necessary -- which those shoes are, for the tramp -- always have duplicates about somewhere, in case the originals somehow die. They also tend to be kept under lock and key, just to make extra-special sure that the propmaster can find them when they're needed.

3:33 Picks up the shoes left-handed.

3:45 Tugs his hat down with left hand on the brim -- typically done with the dominant hand. The getting-a-normal-person-to-show-up-on-camera makeup is very apparent here. Full eyeliner, lip color, and he's filled his eyebrows in.

3:55 Says just what the intertitle does. Yay lip-reading. Chaplin is damned easy to get compared to some people. The lemon tree does not surprise me; those things are all over the southwest. Most people know better than to just bite into the things, but to each his own. He hunts for his absent handkerchief left-handed, too.

4:49-5:12 More clowning. Chaplin was pretty prone to performing like this whenever anyone else was around to watch, whether it was staged or not. In other candid photos and set footage, you can see him busy giving direction, notice whoever was watching and do something silly to let them know he knew they were there, and then go back to work. He was much more comfortable with the idea that people crowded around to see his work or his character antics than he was with the idea that people lined the streets just to see him; habitually performing may have been some attempt to reconcile the two.

5:34-6:34 These guys aren't wearing any camera makeup, and are wearing rubber aprons and gloves, so I think it's safe to say that they are the real developing technicians. Quite a dandy little tutorial on how film was developed before the days of 1-hour photomats. The idea behind film is that a solution of silver halide applied to a gelatin base -- the actual film -- is run through a camera whose aperture lets in light. Silver halide crystals change their structure when struck by photons, converting from a silver halide crystal to a pair of stable metallic silver crystals when struck by sufficient reflected light. Once the film is exposed, it's wound onto the large frames you see here, and dunked into a vat of chemicals that serves to sort of 'loosen' the silver halide crystals from the gelatin backing, working fastest on those which have been struck by the fewest photons. There's some timing involved in this; the chemicals that convert the silver halide crystals will loosen progressively more and more as you soak the stuff, which means you have to keep an eye out that your developer doesn't eat away your entire picture. The reaction is stopped by dunking the film strips in a dilute acid and then into stuff called 'fixer', which washes away the loosened halide crystals and leaves behind the fixed metallic ones. There are a couple of different fixers, but all the ones I know of involve the word 'thiosulfate', which means they smell appalling if you get too close. The heated drums also required a bit of care; in 1918, the most common film base was nitrocellulose plasticized with camphor, which many of you may recognize as "explosive guncotton" made into gelatin strips with "flammable plant resin". This was exactly as good an idea as you'd think. After a lot of very large studio fires, the industry switched over in the 1940s to acetate film, which also isn't great but at least only destroys itself when it starts to disintegrate.

6:36 No period in 'Mr', which means that said Mr. Chaplin, being the only englischer around, was probably either responsible for typsetting the titles or for hanging over the shoulder of whoever was.


6:39-6:56 They are not kidding here. Chaplin was no less finicky about the editing than he was about the rest of his work. I gather he had physical help while cutting things together; he hated scripts and almost never had a complete shooting anything, and kept all the continuity squirreled away inside his head. Typed edit sheets for cutting the negatives to conform to his workprint do exist for a number of his projects, and he talks about other people being in on it when he spent several sleepless days cutting together a picture in a hotel room somewhere in Las Vegas, having fled California with the film cans a couple of days before a particularly vengeful soon-to-be-ex-wife demanded everything short of his goddamn teeth in the divorce. He doesn't go into huge amounts of detail in his autobiography, but he makes lots of comments in passing that lead me to believe he really did go poking his nose into the mechanical guts of the film industry even while he was working in front of the camera.

6:59-7:16 This thing with the shadowed corners is called 'vignetting'. A vignette was originally a vine-like decorative border in an illuminated book; when applied to photography, it refers to a loss of clarity and usually brightness from the center to the edges of a frame. It can be desirable as an artistic effect -- hipsters love the fuck out of it, judging from Instagram -- but can also be a bear to deal with if it's an inherent property of the camera, as it tended to be on old Super 8 home movie jobbies. Used here, it gives the impression of zeroing in on the actors as the camera pans from right to left.

7:16-8:56 Another case of 'funny because it's true', apparently. Chaplin evidently kept a mental running list of very specific points he wanted in every shot, and, being a pantomime artist, the easiest way to get them out of his brain and into the brains of the cast was to walk over and physically demonstrate what he wanted. Other people, in describing what it was like to work with him, comment that he was strikingly good at giving the impression of the movement he was asking for, be it blocking he wanted from a gentlewoman, an old man, or an enormous ugly brute. (Given how fussy he was, if he were less good at it, he probably would have gotten his clock cleaned several times, getting on the wrong side of a large angry actor.) All of the gags, as the overenthusiastic throttling he gives as a demonstration, were gaffed on-set as they are here. A lot of early comedians were of the mind that in order to look like you were getting knocked about on camera, you actually had to get knocked about on camera; it seems to have been a point of pride with Chaplin that once they put him in charge, everything was rigged so that no one got hurt. It helped that Chaplin tended to give himself the more dangerous gags, and was physically tougher than he looked; he probably could have gotten the lady off her feet at 7:52, though being that short I'm not sure how long he could have kept her off the floor. He also has the tramp's cane here. The whangee cane was the only part of the costume that belonged to Chaplin in the first place; whangee (sometimes also rendered 'pongee', from the Chinese name huang yi) is a kind of bamboo, and although it makes for a lousy hiking stick, it makes for a great comedy prop. Its lack of mass and tendency to bow dramatically when you shove things with the foot mean you can put a lot of force behind what you're doing, and the elasticity of the cane will absorb much of the blow.

[Reel change! The first one goes on for a bit, but it overlaps the beginning of part 2, starting with the intertitle for "The Art of Make-up". Easier to just change over here.]


0:01-0:11
 Chaplin painting up an actress. I have no idea who she is. Given the velvet dress she wears and the lack of frilly girly bits, she looks like she's costumed up to play a vamp. He fusses with his left again. Makeup, like drawing, is done with the dominant hand -- if you have ever put makeup on yourself or someone else, you know half the 'fun' is trying to get your eyes symmetrical when you get to do one holding the eyeliner like a pencil, and the other one with your gripping hand turned upside down and backwards, bumping your wrist on your nose. Makeup was and still is a unisex skill in the theater. Many small productions don't have a dedicated makeup artist, or have one only for complex effects makeup, and the actors are left to put their own faces on. This was doubly true in the nineteen-teens. You can see faint echoes of the tramp's performing persona in the way Chaplin shifts back and forth, from foot to foot; as far as I can tell, that's genuinely his own body language there. He does it pretty constantly even in candid footage, where someone has pointed a camera at him while he's doing director-things behind the scenes. Charlie the tramp evolved from Charlie the actor, Charlie the actor isn't borrowing from Charlie the tramp to show off.

0:12-0:33 Starts with stuffing a hairpin in his mouth. (What you think are hairpins are actually bobby pins. Those came into vogue with bobbed hair, sensibly enough, which won't happen for another few years here. The thing he's working with is a proper hairpin, a length of springy wire shaped not unlike a cotter pin. The closest thing you can get nowadays are stainless steel roller clips, theoretically used for holding big curlers on. They're about four inches long and much heavier than bobby pins.) People who don't do a lot of hairdressing invariably go, "Ewwww, you put those in your mouth?" People who do a lot of hairdressing go, "Of course you do, unless you have an extra hand or two that I don't know about." He's also handling the hairpins with his left -- he jabs the poor girl when he tries to twist his wrist around and stick one in from the right. I don't know if he was always that prone to screwing around with sausage curls, but she turns around and looks at him like she's quite used to him behaving like a complete goober; the apology is in pantomime, made larger than normal so the camera can catch it while he's still turned mostly away.

0:33 The phrase 'camera test' was already in use at this point. It refers to putting an actor in full costume, including hair and makeup, and then plonking them in front of a camera to make sure everything looks the way you want it on film. This is not always as easy as you'd think, especially in black and white. Red tends to show up dead black, whereas a pale minty hospital green often looks whiter than real white. Introducing color makes things exponentially worse. On the original Star Trek, for example, Kirk's regular tunic and the wraparound V-neck were actually the same apple green, but the former was velour knit and the latter a woven silk; they reflected completely differently under studio conditions at Paramount, and the velour came out looking mustard gold. Here, the problems are mostly a matter of contrast. Actresses tended to be heavily powdered, and Chaplin himself wore clownface white as the tramp.

0:34-1:10 More physical demonstrations of the expressions he wants. Either Chaplin was not good at turning off the subtitles on whatever he said, or he didn't like doing it, particularly for a camera; you can almost follow his directing from here, a hundred years later and without any sound. After he gets her to give a come-hither look, he drops partway into character as the tramp to answer her in kind. This isn't a rehearsal, but a shared joke. I make much of how a lot of the tramp's mannerisms are things Chaplin borrowed from himself, but I personally find it easy to tell when he's in character and when he's not. Most other behind-the-scenes stuff is of him working as a director during rehearsals or between takes of scene's he's in, and he switches between Boss Man Director and his on-screen persona as necessary when he's windmilling his arms around explaining things. Here, he's flickering on and off, checking the actress and the camera for an instant here and there to make sure this is actually funny. You see people do this a lot when launching into an unplanned, unrehearsed impersonation, or an extended passage in deadpan; because the payoff on those is watching other people react as it's happening, rather than after a punchline has been delivered, it's easy to give in to any lingering insecurity and stall the joke a few times before you finally manage to get it into gear. It's another one of those things that reads as paradoxically shy but not uncomfortable, to me. He is very aware of how other people are reacting, and very very invested in getting them to see him as charming, but he lacks that sort of paralyzing fear of doing something wrong that makes most very shy people lock up and want to crawl away to die. It may well be a learned behavior; it is possible to eventually make the paralyzing fear go away if you learn how to bluff like a mad bluffing thing and talk anyway. He says outright in his book that he was never prone to what most people call 'stage fright', but he made up for it by being a giant frantic ball of mortal terror and nerves before the show, up until the instant he went on, at which point he was just fine. Tallies well enough with my personal experience.

1:11 A small note, but the kind of thing that has a tendency to get interesting, in the aggregate: When he calls the other actress over for makeup, he takes her by the hand. I don't know who she is either, but the fact that he doesn't specifically do it in full view of the camera suggests that it was pretty normal behavior. He uses his off hand, which he also does when walking arm-in-arm with a lady while in character; I can't decide whether that's technically right or technically wrong. Traditionally, the lady is always supposed to walk on the left, but that tradition arose in the first place because the man was supposed to have his fightin' arm free, and that was the right arm for almost everyone.

1:16-2:21  Early special effects, plus fanservice! This is a dissolve from the shot of the girls in their dresses to the shot of them in their bathing costumes. There are a variety of ways to do this with physical film, each with their own special aggravations; one way is to shoot the first shot fading out to black and the second shot fading in from black and overlap the two segments of the negative when striking the positive print. These gals are the bathing beauties of their day, in some rather revealing swimming costumes; it's no wonder the guys come crawling out of the woodwork, almost literally, to follow them to the pool. The pool is there in the first place because if you need an excuse to put scantily-clad women in your films, it's easiest to just have a swimming pool somewhere on the lot, ready and waiting. Later on, it was not uncommon for there to be a giant above-ground pool with great glass windows in the sides, for shooting underwater sequences. The biggest studios had water tanks suitable for staging small naval battles in.

2:24-2:53 Trimming the infamous mustache. Scissors are something that a lot of southpaws use right-handed. Because of the way the blades cross, scissors are inherently chiral; getting a clean cut requires the inner surfaces of the blades to scrape against one another as they come together. Using a standard (right-handed) pair of scissors left-handed exerts pressure in the wrong direction, forcing the blades apart. I don't know when someone came up with the notion of selling left-handed scissors to the 10% of the population that could use them, but they're a pain in the nevermind to get and keep track of even today, with the result that 90% of that 10% of the population has just given the hell up and learned to work with their off-hand. Note also that Chaplin's apparently dressing in his office. Stars under contract often had permanent dressing rooms on the lot; using trailers for private office space was something that came about after contracts died, when you never quite knew who would be in your next picture or where you'd have to set up.

3:04-3:34 The golf course set indicates that they're shooting scenes for The Idle Class. The current short has a release date of 1918, whereas The Idle Class indicates it was released in 1921; three years was an awfully long time even for Chaplin, so I expect there was an intervening crisis or divorce or business disaster or something. Chaplin holds all the clubs left-handed -- the dominant hand is the back one, providing power, while the off-hand is in front providing control -- and does more screwing around with the equipment than actual golfing, which is probably a good thing, since he hated the game.

3:48 Just you try that with an actual golf bag, and see if you aren't impressed that he didn't manage to whack himself in the hand and send the ball rolling off into east hyperspace.

3:50 "Labor" is spelled the American way here. Historically, the -or/-our orthographical differences came about because, during the American Revolution, the colonists thought that shooting wasn't pissing the British off enough, and sought to add insult to injury by insisting that they were spelling everything wrong. As far as I know, if "Labor in Vain" is quoting anything it's the KJV Bible, which would have seen it spelled either way depending on what side of the pond you were on. This might have been a "correction" by someone else setting the intertitles, or by a secretary who typed up Chaplin's slapdash notes for the printers, or Chaplin may have already started picking up Americanisms. He wasn't a particularly enthusiastic student or voracious reader until the second time he fetched up in New York, when he decided that he was grown up now and it was time to sit down and cram stuff into his brain for a while. After staring at enough American editions of things, the spelling may just have stuck.

5:20-5:30 Being coordinated in mirror-image to the other nine-tenths of humanity is weirdly helpful sometimes when it comes to blocking. When one of your actors is left-handed and one is right-handed, it's easy to set up shots where they're facing one another over something they're examining, and not worry that either one of them will have to poke it awkwardly with the wrong hand or move their forward shoulder into a position that obstructs the camera's view. (The BBC's Sherlock does it a lot, in fact; Martin Freeman is left-handed.) In this case, it's also weirdly helpful when it comes to comedy. The other golfer is right-handed, and so when he swings wild, it's into the open space behind him, where he expects that there's no reason for anyone to stand. The tramp swings left-handed, equally convinced that no one would ever stand behind an over-enthusiastic amateur golfer -- but since he's coming at the ball from the other side, the wooden sign is at his back, and it's a tempting target for someone who wants to keep his golf bag off the ground and lean on something to watch. "No one would ever stand behind me," collides with, "That sign looks like an attractive place to plant myself," and golf club consequently collides with head.

5:52-6:09 Old-fashioned shoes! A tiny hammer is traditionally one of the symbols of a cobbler, because once upon a time, nice shoes had their soles held to the uppers with tiny nails. You can see the heads all around the edge of the tramp's boots when Chaplin points the soles at the camera. Shoes today are disposable things held together with stitching and glue, which is why it's much rarer for people to have things resoled rather than just replacing them -- it's a pain in the ass to pull apart something that's potted in epoxy. If the shoe is nailed together, however, you just pry the upper off the old sole and attach it to the new one. You can even reuse most of the nails, if you're lucky.

6:22-6:29 Chaplin keeps ducking -- the mirror must be across the room, out of view, and at that height probably attached to a dressing table.

6:58 The Roman numerals at the end say 1982.

That all takes at least an order of magnitude longer to type than it does to think about, which is why I don't do the full thing very often.

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