A Chaplin Centennial

Posted by on Feb 02 2014 | Motion Pictures, Other

February 2, 2014 is a significant date in the history of cinema. One hundred years ago on this date, a face that was to become one of the most recognized faces in the world was first illuminated on movie screens. That face was Charlie Chaplin’s, and on February 2, 1914, his first film was released in the United States.

Chaplin’s character of “the Little Tramp” didn’t spring forth on that day fully formed in baggy pants and bowler hat.  Almost, but not quite! The film was Making a Living and Chaplin donned a long frock coat, top hat, and sinister mustache.

Making a Living frame

A mere five days later, though, on February 7, 1914, Chaplin’s second film was released, and in Kid Auto Races at Venice, audiences first saw the character of the Tramp. Filmed at Venice Beach, the Keystone Film Company made use of a local event happening there – kiddy car races – and set up their cameras as if to film the races. The comedy resulted when Chaplin, in character, became a camera hog, wandering into the frame at every opportunity, and angering the director at every turn of the camera crank.

Kid Auto Races frame

Although Kid Auto Races at Venice was the first film in which audiences saw Chaplin in what would become his trademark tramp costume, it was actually for Mabel’s Strange Predicament that he assembled and wore the costume in front of the camera. Mabel’s Strange Predicament was filmed before Kid Auto Races at Venice, but not released until February 9, 1914. Legend has it that Chaplin improvised the costume by selecting various pieces worn by other Keystone contract players, attempting to achieve a costume of contrasts – large pants and small jacket, large shoes and small hat.

Mabel's Strange Predicament

Chaplin worked for the Keystone Film Company for one year, from December 1913 to December 1914. His short films for Keystone were released at a slapstick speed of 3-4 per month, so audiences never had to wait long to see the tramp appear in a new film. (Although it should be noted that Chaplin’s costume still varied from time to time from the tramp costume, depending on his role, whether working in a bakery in Dough and Dynamite or appearing as a woman in A Busy Day.) Chaplin’s popularity gained momentum while at Keystone, and he skyrocketed to cultural phenomenon the following year after he left Keystone to work for the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company.

The Stills, Posters and Paper Collections in the Moving Image Department include some rare and unique items of note related to Charlie Chaplin. The Theodore Huff Collection, which consists of thousands of stills, posters, lobby cards, and music scores and cue sheets for silent films, includes a wealth of Chaplin material. Huff was the author of one of the earliest biographies of Chaplin (Charlie Chaplin, published in 1951) and his collection offers insight into his research and study of Chaplin, such as the research notes and papers he used in writing his book. Pictured here are pages from a small notebook of photo reproductions of frames from Chaplin’s Keystone films that Huff created as a reference in writing about Chaplin’s films. The three frames above were reproduced from this notebook.

Huff notebook

Also in the Moving Image Department is the Douglas Fairbanks Nitrate Still Negatives Collection. This collection includes the original negatives produced by Fairbanks’ production company for his major feature films in the 1920’s such as Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), and The Black Pirate (1926). In addition to the stills shot for specific films, the collection include publicity stills taken around Fairbanks’ studio, showing him posed with notable visitors such as his good friend Chaplin. Their high-spirited friendship is especially evident here as they demonstrate for the camera just how much fun they had together:

Fairbanks-Chaplin 1

Fairbanks-Chaplin 2

Fairbanks-Chaplin 3

Finally, the Moving Image Department has in its collection a rather rare self-caricature, drawn and signed by Chaplin himself:

Autographed caricature

For further study of Chaplin and his films, I highly recommend:

Chaplin at Keystone (dvd set of all of Chaplin’s surviving Keystone films, released by Flicker Alley)
My Life in Pictures by Charles Chaplin
Chaplin by David Robinson
Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema by Jeffrey Vance

Click here to view rare autochromes by Charles C. Zoller on Eastman House’s Tumblr blog Dodge & Burn.

Nancy Kauffman is the Archivist for the Stills, Posters and Paper Collections in the Moving Image Department.

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What is a Digital Negative?

Posted by on Jan 30 2014 | Behind The Scenes, Other, Photography, Tutorials

We’re excited about a new workshop at George Eastman House in February: Digital Negative Making. For years we have taught a growing number of photographers how to make their own photographic negatives on glass using historic processes. Realizing that not everyone is interested in going that route, we decided to look into a new approach for the rest of the world: the “digital” negative.
 
But what is a digital negative? A digital negative is a negative image printed onto a transparency film using an inkjet printer. Once the original image is in your computer it can be edited “to taste” and prepared for lots of really interesting alternative photographic printing processes. The digital negative bridges the gap between 19th and 21st century photographic processes. You can use old glass plate or film negatives, that last bit of type 55 Polariod film you love so much, or even a digital capture from a smart phone.
 
Once you’ve decided on a printing process, like salted paper, platinum, or gum printing, a series of test prints are made to create a “printing curve.” This curve will be applied to the file before printing to help optimize the negative for the selected processes. The printing curve is a layer in Photoshop that has been adjusted for the specific paper printing process you’ve chosen. The curve allows the print to have smooth continuous mid tones while still keeping strong black tones and clean white tones. Once these tests are completed you never have to look back as the final steps are a check list of settings which once set, can be saved and applied the same way every time.
 
Here are some examples of Digital Negative Making in action:
 

Two hand made salted paper prints. The negative used to print these were created from Instagram files from a smart phone.

Two hand made salted paper prints. The negative used to print these were created from Instagram files from a smart phone.


 
A digital negative printing on ink press transparency film, the green cast is added to help give the negative spectral density.

A digital negative printing on ink press transparency film, the green cast is added to help give the negative spectral density.


 
An albumen print from a digital negative. The original 4x5 negative was created using a hand made gelatin dry plate.

An albumen print from a digital negative. The original 4×5 negative was created using a hand made gelatin dry plate.


 
 Two hand made salted paper prints and the original digital file on the phone that captured it.

Two hand made salted paper prints and the original digital file on the phone that captured it.

Digital Negative Making is a technique that photographers could have only dreamed of in the past. Now we can easily combine the precision editing and tonal control of digital with the beauty and magic of alternative photographic printing processes. All this and more will be covered in our very first digital negative making workshop at the George Eastman House Museum next month. Sign up today! Hope to see you there!
 

Nick Brandreth is the Historic Process Specialist at George Eastman House.

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Crash Course: The Art of Film Stuntwork by Turner Classic Movie’s Scott McGee

Posted by on Jan 27 2014 | Guest Blog, Motion Pictures

Guest blog by Turner Classic Movie’s Scott McGee. McGee will be in person at the Dryden Theatre on Saturday, February 1 to introduce the film BULLITT (1968) and the importance of this film to the history of stuntmen, and particularly stunt driving.

Stunt work in film is a fascinating story of former cowboys, rodeo stars, circus performers, acrobats, daredevils, World War I pilots, wrestlers, athletes and racecar drivers becoming an integral part of film history. Stunting has been a part of cinema since cinema began. The thrill audiences got from seeing someone hang precariously off a window ledge, or gallop on a horse at reckless speeds through the woods on the way to a last-second rescue, fed the same basic need that we have today: to see human beings do something seemingly impossible, or at the very least, the human body in extraordinary motion. As moviegoers, our appreciation of stuntwork taps the same part of our cerebral cortex, that part of our brain that gives us pleasure by simply watching human beings move through defined space. We get a similar rush from choreographed song and dance. But as a filmmaking tool, skill set or profession, the artistry of stunting has been minimized. It could be assumed that there’s really only a finite number of ways a stuntman could fall from an established height into an airbag. But a fall is not just a fall, not when a director, cameraman, producer, the star and the entire crew is expecting that stunt performer to interpret the screenplay to the best of his or her ability, to stay in character, to do the gag quickly and efficiently—and to try not get killed.

 

In the winter of 2002, I had a chance to travel to Los Angeles for a three-day interview shoot with several veteran stuntmen. This was for an on-air tribute to stuntmen in the movies that aired in the summer of that same year on Turner Classic Movies. While there, I had a chance to talk to some gentlemen who represented some of the great movie stunt work of any generation: Terry Leonard, the guy who was dragged underneath the truck in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); Bob Herron, doubling Ernest Borgnine, jumped a car through a billboard, then through the roof of a barn and landed some 150 feet away for Sam Peckinpah’s otherwise forgettable Convoy (1978); Loren Janes, Steve McQueen’s long-time stunt double in The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Getaway (1972), The Hunter (1980), etc.; and others, including Rick Seaman, Jack Williams, Bobby Hoy, Tony Brubaker, and Chuck Bail. Then in 2013, I invited Mr. Janes, Jeannie Epper, and Conrad Palmisano for an hour-long conversation at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles. What occurred to me during the ‘02 production and my ’13 interview was that these stuntmen and stuntwomen, in terms of the way they related to each other and spoke of the job, were not unlike firefighters, cops or any other vocation that entails a great deal of risk at pretty much every turn. What was lacking though was an awareness that they were more than just skilled professionals doing a job of work. They didn’t think or speak like artists, but skilled workers, old pros. That is an admirable quality, entirely in keeping with the humble ethic passed down from the first generation of stuntmen who came to Hollywood as out-of-work cowboys.

 

But stuntwork is an art, as meaningful, varied and integral to filmmaking as cinematography, acting, art direction, or scoring. Great stuntwork, like other great filmmaking disciplines, can be appreciated on multiple levels, from varying points of view. There’s bad stuntwork, to be sure, so not every fist thrown, stirrup drag, crashed car, and belly-flopped biplane should automatically be considered to have some artistic merit. The impressive 40 minute car chase that concludes the 1974 cult favorite Gone in 60 Seconds has plenty of stuntwork, but the lackluster direction and editing can not bring the film or its stunts far enough from its low-budget, drive-in parameters. However, the two car chases that director John Frankenheimer and stunt coordinator Jean-Claude Lagniez staged in Nice and the streets of Paris for Ronin (1998)? Exceptional. These sequences served the story, built characters, and created tension and suspense that help to make the entire film a modern classic. It’s not enough to just do the gag. It has to mesh with the film, with the narrative, or build the star.

 

There’s nothing inherently wrong about enjoying a stunt for its spectacle, no more than it’s wrong to enjoy Royal Wedding (1951) only for Fred Astaire’s famed dance around a revolving room. Seeing great stuntwork in film elicits a considerable “wow” factor. If it doesn’t, then the filmmakers have failed in creating the most basic response from an audience: a gasp at something they haven’t seen before. As spectacle, we acknowledge the power and the sheer enjoyment of seeing great movie stunts performed, recognizing how our emotional interpretation and enjoyment of a film is shaped by the stunts. That’s what made Bullitt (1968) such an important turning point in stunt work. Director Peter Yates and his stuntmen—Carey Loftin as stunt coordinator, Bill Hickman, Bud Ekins and Steve McQueen himself as stunt drivers (with an assist from McQueen’s frequent double, Loren Janes)—created a chase scene that was so wholly original, it stood apart from the rest of the film, and yet, is also elevated the reception of the film story itself. Critics at the time praised the film, and made a conscious call-out to the nearly 12-minute chase spectacle, while also noting Steve McQueen’s cool cop character, an assessment that was always within the context of how he and his double, Bud Ekins, performed the chase.

 


 

No film craft works independently of others. The very nature of the medium is a collaborative form. The study of film acting must take into account the power of editing, for example. Similarly, for a stunt to work fully, in order for it to have the greatest effect on the photoplay, it must reconcile itself with other disciplines, including editing, but also the way the stunt is shot by the 2nd unit director, how it is framed by the cinematographer, and the like. But within this collaborative medium, the work of the stunt performer is worthy of genuine critical appreciation.

 

But this praise does not come easy. While the romantic idea of the life of the stuntman has been the subject of films (The Lost Squadron, Lucky Devils, Hooper, The Stunt Man) and television series (The Fall Guy), the assessment of what he or she does for filmmaking has been mired in a prejudice against certain genres, namely Westerns and action films. Stuntwork is an essential ingredient of both of those genres, and because of that, stuntwork is often dismissed as the domain of brainless action. Anyone can fall off a horse or crash a car, right? But there’s so much more to stunting than simple allowing gravity to do its work. There is a vast difference between Carey Loftin driving a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T through the American Southwest in Vanishing Point (1971) and the cartoonish shenanigans that take place in The Cannonball Run (1980). But in general terms, films that have a lot of stunts in them, such as Westerns and action pictures, are not often considered serious films. And as such, they don’t often receive high praise from the industry, like the Oscar. Veterans of the stunt business have lobbied the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for years to have a stunt category created for Oscar consideration. So far, the Academy has refused. To be fair, they have good reasons for not creating a new category and they are at least being consistent; the category for Best Makeup wasn’t created until 1981. Regardless of whether or not stunt performers will ever get an Oscar category, two of their own have been given honorary statuettes: Yakima Canutt in 1967 and Hal Needham in 2012. But the need to look again at the work of the unknown stuntman remains. To be dragged underneath a team of horses (Yakima Canutt, Stagecoach)…crashing a plane on cue (Dick Grace, Lilac Time)…hurtling a car through New York City (Bill Hickman, The French Connection)…jumping a motorcycle onto a moving freight train (Michelle Yeoh, Supercop)…or coordinating an action sequence in such a way that allows an international film star to actually ride atop a speeding train (Sean Connery in The Great Train Robbery) or leap out of the world’s tallest building (Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol)…surely there’s an art to that.

Rachel Pikus is the Manager of Online Engagement at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.

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Évocateur Film Premiere // Dryden Trivia

Posted by on Jan 16 2014 | contest, Motion Pictures, Other

Win this poster!

Screen shot 2014-01-15 at 5.59.13 PM

Before shock jocks, Jerry Springer, and Fox News, one man ravaged the talk show format and delivered his own brand of confrontation and in-your-face antics. His name was Morton Downey Jr., and he turned political debate into shouting matches, occasional fistfights, and downright mayhem.

Featuring interviews with Herman Cain, Pat Buchanan, Chris Elliot, and Gloria Allred, the new documentary Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie probes the methods and motivations of not only Downey’s controversial television persona, but the man he was when the cameras were turned off.



The Dryden Theatre will be host to the Rochester Premiere of Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie on Saturday, January 18 at 8 p.m., and we’re thrilled to welcome the Director of the film, Seth Kramer, as our special guest for the evening.

How well do you know your Morton Downey Jr. trivia? For each correct answer your name will be entered to win a pair of tickets to the screening and one lucky person will win a signed poster! Winners announced Friday, January 17 at 4 p.m. ET.

1. Which of these guests did not appear on the Morton Downey Jr. Show? A. Timothy Leary B. Abbey Hoffman C. Meir Kahane D. Yasser Arafat.

2. What famous surf tune is Morton Downey Jr. incorrectly credited with writing?

3. What talk show guest guest was at the center violent outbreaks on both the Morton Downey Jr. Show and the Geraldo Rivera Show?

Leave your answers in the comment section.

 
 

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Rachel Pikus is the Manager of Online Engagement at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.

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Q&A with Lisa Hostetler – Part II

Posted by on Dec 27 2013 | Behind The Scenes, Photography

This month, Lisa Hostetler, PhD, joined the Eastman House staff as Curator-in-Charge of the Department of Photography. This is Part II of a recent conversation with Hostetler about the current state of photography, her interests in the medium, and her plans for working with the Eastman House collection. Click here to read Part 1!

LisaH

GEH: Which artists’ or era’s photography have been most formative in the way you approach (or consider) the medium?
LH: I’ve always been particularly intrigued by street photography of the 1940s and ’50s. I wrote my dissertation on Louis Faurer, and the exhibition and book Street Seen: The Psychological Gesture in American Photography, 1940–1959 grew out of my research on that project.

Street Seen focused on the work of six artists—Faurer, Lisette Model, Saul Leiter, Ted Croner, William Klein, and Robert Frank—whose work conveyed the subjective edge that sliced through American art during the war and immediate postwar years. The raw power of their images is unforgettable, and the unique combination of brashness and vulnerability that characterized the best postwar street photography spoke volumes about the anxieties and aspirations that pervaded society during that period. The way that those photographers’ work conveyed a personal vision of the world while collectively suggesting something fundamental about the nature of everyday life in the 1940s and ’50s taught me a lot. It showed me that photography can be a private aesthetic journey and a socially significant activity at the same time, and that paying attention to both aspects of a photographer’s work is a profoundly rewarding way to consider his or her accomplishments.

William Klein (American, b. 1928). Gun 2, near the Bowery, New York, 1955, printed 1985. Gelatin silver print. George Eastman House. Museum purchase: Lila Acheson Wallace Fund.

William Klein (American, b. 1928). Gun 2, near the Bowery, New York, 1955, printed 1985. Gelatin silver print. George Eastman House. Museum purchase: Lila Acheson Wallace Fund.

GEH: What photograph or body of work have you experienced recently that surprised you, and in what way?
LH: Lately, I’ve been noticing that traditional photographic processes seem to be attracting a number of young photographers, who experiment with materials as they explore what is gained and what might be lost in the transition from analog to digital photography. I’m very excited about this work and look forward to seeing how this trend continues to develop.

GEH: To what extent do you see cinema and photography as reciprocal media? How do they influence each other?
LH: I see photography and cinema as related media in that they both have complex relationships to realism and to narrative. My favorite photographers and filmmakers often confound popular assumptions about their medium, especially when those assumptions involve the expectation of documentary truth or linear storytelling. That said, I think the urge to believe what we see in a photograph is practically a part of human nature by now, and the desire for a film to tell a story is equally strong. There is value in satisfying those instincts as well as in questioning them.

Photographers and filmmakers have been influenced by each other throughout history. I look forward to collaborating with my colleagues in the motion picture department to explore those connections and tease out their broader significance.

GEH: What aspects of the George Eastman House collections are you most looking forward to bringing to the public?
LH: At this point, I’m still looking forward to learning what all is in the collection! With over 400,000 objects, I have a lot of looking to do and many plans to make. I can’t wait to share what I find with the public. Also, I will be working with museum staff to make our entire photography collection searchable online, so that people can make their own discoveries as well.

 

Rachel Pikus is the Manager of Online Engagement at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.

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