Cinema setting the standards — again

EVER since the pioneering Lumiere Brothers sent audiences diving for cover in the 1890s when they screened their groundbreaking film of a train entering a station, cinema has been looking for bigger and better ways of providing audiences with breath-taking thrills.

While the theatre tells its stories primarily with words, cinema is more about image. Cinema is very much a visual medium. A lot has changed over the past century and a half but until very recently the one constant factor that linked the present with the past was that a spool of film went through a projector at 24 frames per second.

In the beginning there was the hand-cranked projector – often housed in a tent as part of a carnival or circus sideshow. As the 20th century dawned, projectors were given motors and moved into purpose-built buildings which became known as picturehouses or cinemas.

Documentary scenes of daily life – workers leaving factories and newsreel footage of national events – gave way to the creation of fictional stories: plays on film. In America, DW Griffith gave film its narrative structure and a sense of visual grammar when he created his groundbreaking feature-length Birth of A Nation.

As with many groundbreaking films, it is difficult at this distance to judge just how amazing the film is, because so much of what it introduced is now commonplace. Griffith created a vocabulary for film-makers which included the notions of wide shots, medium shots, close-ups and reaction shots. He introduced rules about editing to keep the action moving and to provide the audience with information about the story that is unknown to the hero.

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This visual language was swiftly adopted by film-makers across the globe. France, Britain and Germany were, at this time, on a par with Hollywood. Cinema was becoming more than a circus attraction; it was becoming a truly international art form. In Britain a young Alfred Hitchcock was learning his trade as an apprentice at Gainsborough Studios in north London, while in Germany Fritz Lang was creating his dark expressionist extravaganzas and Josef Von Sterberg was making a star out of Marlene Dietrich.

In Sweden Greta Garbo was making a name for herself, while in France Jean Renoir moved away from his father’s love of painting to kick-start the French film industry.

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As film was advancing artistically it was also developing on a technological level. There were experiments with, at first, two-strip and then three-strip Technicolor, the invention of the camera dolly which made film cameras mobile, and then, in 1927, Al Jolson declared to the world “You ain’t heard nuthin’ yet!” in The Jazz Singer and ushered in synchronised sound, which has since been immortalised in the MGM musical Singin’ In The Rain.

And yet, for all the developments, film was still rattling through the projector at 24 frames per second. The introduction of colour and sound were accommodated on to existing film stock. Technology made cameras more adaptable and mobile – freed them from the confines of the studio and allowed them to go out on location.

Meanwhile, cinemas continue to evolve from little more than village halls into glorious picture palaces. The world had fallen in love with the movies. Film-makers continued to replicate the wow factor that greeted the Lumiere Brothers’ screening of L’arriv�e d’un train en gare de La Ciotat.

Film-makers continue to manufacture thrills to keep audiences coming back for more. This was what allowed cinema to overcome the threat from television in the 1950s and 1960s. Television, a small wooden box in the corner of the room, transmitting small, flickering black and white images, was threatening to steal audiences. So what did cinema do? It made the movies bigger and more colourful. It created widescreen, it created Cinemascope and it re-invented the epic movie.

Silent classics like Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments were remade in glorious Technicolor and on a grand scale. History was raided for its greatest spectacles. El Cid brought the crusades to life, Cleopatra set a classic love affair against the biggest sets ever constructed, How The West Was Won charted the exploration of America while The Longest Day celebrated the heroism and sacrifices that made D-Day one of the most important campaigns of World War II.

These were movies that couldn’t be seen on television. These were movies that couldn’t be truly experienced on the big screen – in Cinemascope and in Technicolor.

Television wasn’t to be put off and soon introduced larger screens and then colour. Cinema responded with stereo sound, then Dolby sound and currently with multi-channel surround sound.

For 50 years cinema and television have been locked in an audio-visual arms race. Cinema leads and television responds. It is interesting to note that cinema has even dictated the shape of modern televisions. They have moved from the traditional 4:3 Academy ratio to the widescreen format, and home cinema systems are seeking to ape the sound of cinema.

And still film goes through the projector at 24 frames per second – or it did until earlier this year, when most cinemas were fully converted to digital projection. Cinema is still looking to keep one step ahead.

In Ipswich, not only is the 11-screen Cineworld multiplex fully digital now – they no longer have any need for traditional projection staff at all – they are in the process of installing their first Imax screen for immersive, high-definition digital screenings in 2-D and 3-D.

Ipswich Cineworld operations manager Matt Shaw and audio-visual team member Andrew Boswell took me round their projection suite and explained that cinema in the 21st century arrives not in film cans but on portable hard-drives downloaded on to computer servers in the cinema.

Cinema managers can then direct the films to the most suitable screens and even double up screens if demand is high.

I ask if there is a danger of losing some of the romance of cinema but Matt is sure that as far as the paying public is concerned sharp pictures, saturated colours and crystal clear sound make up for the notional loss of film passing through a projector.

“Our feedback from audiences is that they like films which are not scratched or cut about and are perfect every time they are screened. Imax will be a huge step forward and will allow audiences in Ipswich and the surrounding area to experience blockbusters like the new James Bond film, Skyfall, and the forthcoming Hobbitt films from Peter Jackson in the best possible format.”

He said that at present local audiences were having to travel to London to see films like The Dark Knight Rises on an Imax screen. Imax presents films on the largest possible curved screens, which fill audiences’ fields of vision to create an immersive cinematic experience.

Film as a physical entity may be dead but cinema as a communal, thrilling experience is still alive. Long Live Cinema!

See page 17 for more information on the I-Max screen

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