Movie magic through the ages

Motion pictures have come a long way from the earliest black-and-white silent films to today’s computer-generated masterpieces. Here are 10 technological advances that have changed movie history.

1. Moving images

Imagine the thrill of sitting in the Grand Café Paris on 28 December, 1895, and seeing an approaching steam train projected onto a flat canvas, seemingly break out of the screen and rush straight into the audience. The 50-second documentary Arrival of a Train at a Station caused a stir at the world’s first commercial cinema show, arranged by Auguste and Louis Lumière. The French brothers who popularized “motion pictures” as an entertainment mass medium were indebted to technological innovators like Thomas Edison and William K. Dickson (who shot three short films around 1889). Incredibly, the Lumières regarded cinema as a novelty and left the business in 1905! 

In Scandinavia: Photographer Peter Elfelt documented Danish daily life on film from 1897. In 1903, he directed a fictional short, Capital Execution. Norway’s first dramatic short, now lost, was made sometime between 1906 and 1908, while Sweden began producing fiction films in 1910.

2. Color film

Shades of gray filled the world’s cinema screens for many years. Color processes gradually supplanted black-and-­white film stock from the 1930s to 60s, although color tests were made as early as 1902. In England, meanwhile, a few silent features were shot in ­Kinemacolor between 1912 and 1914. The Technicolor process later became the standard for lush saturated hues in big-budget Hollywood classics, such as Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz (both 1939), although some filmmakers still preferred black and white for smaller-scale dramas. Today, monochrome is used mostly for artistic purposes or visual ­experiments, such as the digitally ­color-­ drained black-and-chrome version of Mad Max: Fury Road. 

In Scandinavia: The Tinderbox (1946), based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, was the first Danish color feature. Sweden’s The Bells in Old Town appeared the same year. Norway made the leap to color with Smugglers in Dinner-Jacket (1957).

3. Handmade animation

Newspaper cartoonists figured out that they could make their ­drawings move by photographing one image at a time and then projecting them at a speed of 24 frames per minute. American J. Stuart Blackton animated chalk drawings on a blackboard in 1906. Another short made concurrently, by Danish humorist Storm P., is sadly lost, however. German filmmaker Lotte Reiniger created her feature The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) by moving silhouetted cardboard cutouts frame by frame. The Walt Disney Studio’s full-length sensation Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which meticulously hand-painted onto celluloid sheets, eventually set the benchmark in 1937. Newer highlights include Japanese anime maestro Hayao Miyazaki’s lyrical, imaginative masterpieces, such as Spirited Away, the charming claymation duo Wallace & Gromit from British studio Aardman and Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer’s adult stop-motion satires. 

In Scandinavia: Denmark’s first animated feature was 1946’s The Tinderbox, while among later hits are Valhalla and Jannik Hastrup’s Circleen series. In the 70s, Sweden’s Per Åhlin scored with Dunderklumpen! and local TV’s perennial Christopher’s Christmas Mission. In Norway, stop-motion puppeteer Ivo Caprino’s Pinchcliffe Grand Prix from 1975 is still the most widely seen Norwegian film of all time.

Swedish breakthrough Dunderklumpen!

4. Synchronized sound

For almost 30 years, every line of dialogue mouthed by the actors on screen had to be conveyed through written intertitles and emphatic gesturing. Playing specially-recorded 78rpm discs alongside the film proved too cumbersome, but by printing sound waveforms directly onto the celluloid film strip as optical soundtracks, perfect synchronization could be achieved. From The Jazz Singer (1927) and the Mickey Mouse short Steamboat Willie (1928) onwards, “talkies” were all the rage, putting many European-accented Hollywood actors and cinema musicians out of work. Fun fact – in the early talkies, poor recording technology required the microphones to be placed as close to the actors as possible. Thus, performers were often seen talking into potted plants and lamp shades that hid the mics from the cameras. Today, tiny wireless mics and post-production dubbing takes care of most sound issues in film and TV – except for mumbling method actors. 

In Scandinavia: Sweden switched from silent to sound film with The Dream Waltz in 1929, followed a year later by the Norwegian-­Danish melodrama Eskimo.

5. Widescreen formats

Most feature lms up until 1953 were shot and projected in the as- pect ratio 1.375:1 (an image 1.375 times as long as it is high). The arrival of television, which brought smaller, similarly boxy 4:3 images into audiences’ homes, forced the Hollywood studios to go big – or rather, wide. CinemaScope opened up the screen horizontally to 2.55:1, envel- oping the viewer in a way that TV could not. The letterbox-shaped for- mat, originally favored by historical epics (Cleopatra, Ben Hur), was recently adopted by the musical smash La La Land. Amusingly, in Jean-Luc Godard’s Scope lm Contempt, fellow director Fritz Lang laments that the format is “only t for snakes and funerals.” Later inno- vations such as IMAX and the wraparound OMNIMAX pushed the big screen experience even further.

In Scandinavia: The Swedish 1956 jungle adventure Gorilla and Norway’s horror mystery Lake of the Dead (1958) were both shot in Agascope. The Danes had to wait until 1976 (Hearts are Trump). Now- adays, widescreen processes are common in Nordic cinema (such as the Børning and Department Q lm series).

6. Stereoscopic 3-D

3-D was another Hollywood ploy to lure audiences away from their TV sets. The technique of stereoscopy (invented in 1838) creates an illusion of depth by showing two slightly displaced images to each eye. When viewed through special 3-D glasses with colored lters, the dual images are combined in the brain’s visual cortex to appear three- dimensional. Boasting the tagline, “A lion in your lap!” 1952’s Bwana Devil ushered in a brief wave of 3-D lms that quickly exhausted the e ect of hurling assorted objects towards the camera and “breaking through” the screen. The headache-inducing anaglyph process (with red and blue glasses) was eventually replaced by much improved digi- tal 3-D, seen to great advantage in Avatar (2009), which immersed audiences in a fantasy world, and Hugo (2011), for which Martin Scors- ese playfully recreated Arrival of a Train at a Station in 3-D (see #1).

In Scandinavia: The use of stereoscopic 3-D has so far been tenta- tive, starting with Denmark’s The Olsen Gang Gets Polished (2010), Norway’s Magic Silver 2 (2011) and Sweden’s Beyond Beyond (2014), respectively. 

Photo: Shutterstock

7. Handheld cameras

Early film cameras were bulky, tripod-mounted behemoths, ­although Edison developed a portable prototype as far back as 1896. Hand-cranked Parvo 35mm cameras were used throughout the 1920s, but the real revolution happened in the early 60s, as lightweight 16mm cameras with synchronized sound enabled small crews to go out into the streets and shoot from the hip. French new wave directors, direct cinema documentarists and independent filmmakers like John Cassavetes all pioneered the modern, intimate use of handheld. Portable video cameras have since democratized filmmaking to an unprecedented degree (see also #9). 

In Scandinavia: Although by no means the first Nordic use of handheld, Danish Dogme film Celebration (1998), shot on a cheap DV camcorder, is arguably the most influential example.

8. Computer-generated imagery and animation

In 1976’s aptly named Futureworld, a digitally-rendered hand and face heralded the advent of three-dimensional computer-generated imagery, or CGI, in motion pictures. Over the next decades, films such as Tron, Willow, The Abyss and Terminator 2 raised the bar for what could be simulated with CGI, peaking with the landmark Jurassic Park (1993) in which effects company ILM convincingly brought dinosaurs back to life. The Pixar Studio broke new ground with Toy Story (1995), the first feature fully animated on computers, and a fine one, too. Since then, CG animation has proven hugely profitable (Dreamworks’ Shrek franchise, Illumination’s Despicable Me), rapidly outpacing traditional hand-drawn 2-D ­animation. 

In Scandinavia: Denmark’s cheap and cheeky CG feature ­Terkel in Trouble led the way in 2004, followed by Norway’s Free Jimmy (2006) and Sweden’s Gnomes & Trolls: The Secret Chamber (2009).

9. Digital film production and projection

George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) was the first blockbuster to be shot exclusively in high-definition digital video (DV). Not only does filming on DV lend itself well to postproduction tinkering and effects work, the cost-effectiveness of DV compared to 35mm celluloid film stock also yields a lot more footage for the same price or less. Rapid technological advances keep improving the DV ­image quality and the ubiquitous, easy-to-use digital cameras have even led to feature films shot entirely on iPhones. The concurrent phasing-in of digital cinema projection, with computer files replacing physical film reels, has also reduced the costs of distribution.

In Scandinavia: Norway became the first country in the world to complete a full nationwide conversion to digital cinemas (2011).

10. Motion capture performance

Originally developed for use in computer games, motion capture (MoCap) or performance capture (Pcap) tracks actors’ movements and facial expressions and stores them as digital data. This is then transferred onto virtual CG characters, blurring the line between animation and physical acting. British actor Andy Serkis’ MoCap work as the loathsome Gollum in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) was a game changer. He has since impressed as King Kong and the talking chimp Caesar in the Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy. Serkis-free touchstones include 2004’s all-MoCapped The Polar ­Express, Avatar (again) and Disney’s Jungle Book remake (which was marketed as live action, even though all the characters, bar one, were digitally rendered). 

In Scandinavia: The murderous scarecrow in Denmark’s Island of Lost Souls (2007), some of the trolls in Troll Hunter (2010) in Norway, and Sweden’s eponymous Monky (2017) were made with the aid of ­MoCap.

Last edited: December 12, 2017

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