The Gimmicks That Changed Cinema: Part 1

James Cameron promises Avatar will be the next step in a fully-immersive, 3-D movie experience -- but will it have the impact of these?


James Cameron's Avatar is almost here, and if it's anything like the director's been promising -- a new way to experience immersive 3-D movies, whatever that means -- then the industry could be about to enter a new phase of technology.

So to mark the release of the latest revolution in film technology, we took a look back -- way back -- at the ones that have come before it. In the first of our two-part series about the technological advances that changed the movie industry forever, we look at the gimmicks that are now part of the standard moviegoing experience. Tomorrow, we look at the ones that weren't so fortunate.



Color

Hand tinting of black-and-white shorts started at the birth of cinema, but it wasn't until 1906 that the first color process, the additive red-green format called Kinemacolor, was developed in the UK. The Brits can also lay claim to the world's first color feature film, with 1914's five-reel Kinemacolor melodrama The World, The Flesh and The Devil. Kinemacolor flicks had to be projected on special equipment at double speed, which was hell on prints, but, even so, hundreds of cinemas in Britain, Japan and the US installed the technology to play the film. Hollywood's first color feature, 1922's Technicolor The Toll of the Sea, was also the first to not require special projectors. While most were amazed, some were sceptical. Screenwriter Rupert Hughes told Popular Science Monthly in 1923: "For general use the single-tone pictures will enormously prevail." Writing later in The Guardian in 1929, a commentator named "R.H." confessed: "I view the prospect of colour with more alarm that I ever did the advent of sound... There will be so little left to imagine."




Sound

Motion-picture pioneers Thomas Edison and Eadweard Muybridge apparently met to discuss the prospect of synchronized sound for the movies in 1888 -- seven years before the first publicly projected films! Film with sound -- that is, projected images accompanied by music, songs or dialogue on a phonograph recording -- began in 1896 in Berlin. And it was in the same German city in 1922 that the first sound-on-film dramatic talkie, The Arsonist, was screened for the public. Most famously, the first feature film with partial talking was The Jazz Singer, which opened in the US in October 1927 and featured two dialogue sequences totalling 354 words. While perfect for the occasion, Al Jolson's "You ain't heard nothin' yet" was actually an ad-lib of a line he frequently used on stage. But Lights of New York, released in 1928, was the first all-talking flick, with Time magazine noting, "as an experiment, like the first hot-dog sandwich, it is a palpable hit." But even as sound took off, critics carped. In 1930, David Belasco, who'd been a leading Broadway playwright, director and producer for decades, said cinemagoers had tired of the sound novelty, which was like "an exhausted toy, ready to be cast aside." Meanwhile, influential British film historian Paul Rotha reckoned sound movies were "absolutely contrary to the aims of cinema". Alfred Hitchcock was also initially sceptical -- until he made 1929's Blackmail, the first successful European all-talking picture.




3-D

Like sound and color, 3-D's conception coincided with the earliest days of film, with British cinematography pioneer William Friese Greene experimenting with stereoscopic moving images in the early 1890s. The first 3-D film presentation for a paying audience was at New York's Astor Theater in 1915, with a triple-bill program of one-reel travelogues, while the first 3-D feature, Power of Love, debuted in Los Angeles in 1922. The first color 3-D feature was the 1947 Soviet film Robinson Crusoe, but it was the first American color 3-D film, 1952's low-budget Bwana Devil, that kicked off the three-dimensional movie fad. Independent writer-producer-director Arch Obeler filmed Bwana Devil in "NaturalVision" that required audiences to don special polarized glasses. Promoted with the tagline "The Miracle of The Age!!! A LION in your lap! A LOVER in your arms!", the movie was a hit, smashing attendance records and grossing $95,000 on two Los Angeles screens before United Artists acquired it for roll-out across the country. Critics reached for the obvious: "Even in 3-D, Bwana Devil is a singularly flat adventure yarn," opined Time. But other studios took note of the grosses and jumped on the bandwagon, with Columbia releasing the first studio-produced 3-D feature, Man in the Dark, in 1953, beating Warner Bros. better-remembered House of Wax into cinemas by two days. The 3-D craze burned bright that year, with 27 movies made and released. In 1954, there were 16, but by 1955 just one 3-D flick hit screens. The next major revival of the format was in the early 1980s, with the likes of Comin' At Ya, Parasite, Space Hunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone and Jaws 3-D. Now, thanks to the digital cinematography and projection and computer imaging processes used in Avatar, it seems 3-D's here to stay. But then again, that's what they always say.




Widescreen

While the first all-widescreen feature was 1929's Fox Movietone Follies, the format didn't catch on until the early 1950s when, like 3-D, it was viewed as a defense against the spread of TV. It was then that studios looked to the CinemaScope and Cinerama formats. The former was created by French inventor Henri Chretien as an evolution of his 1927 Hypergonar system. Fox bought the patent and in September 1953 unleashed Biblical blockbuster The Robe in the new 2.55:1 ratio, throwing in a revolutionary four-track stereo sound mix for further "wow" factor. Taking on not only TV but also 3-D, it was billed as "the modern miracle you see without glasses". The gamble paid off handsomely, with the $5m feature grossing $36m which, adjusted for inflation, is $470m. Two months later, How To Marry A Millionaire, which was the first film to be shot in CinemaScope, was released and grossed a tidy $7.3m. Cinerama, meanwhile, was devised by American inventor Frederick Waller and utilized three 35mm projectors each projecting one-third of a movie image, creating a massive, curved 146-degree "panorama" which gave audiences the illusion of depth. The process had its public premiere in New York in September 1952 with the feature This Is Cinerama. Due to the cost of production and exhibition, few true Cinerama movies were produced, with the most famous being How The West Was Won. However it morphed into various single-camera big-image 70mm formats, which was the format used for the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ice Station Zebra. The massive screen idea would evolve into IMAX, which was first demonstrated at Expo '70 in Japan, in advance of the first permanent IMAX venue, established in Toronto in 1971.




Serials and Cliffhangers

The Harry Potter "bridging" instalments are but the latest big-budget, feature-length versions of an idea that's nearly 100 years old: the serial, with or without cliffhanging ending. What better way to keep audiences coming back than by not quite finishing the story they've paid to see? Back in the silent days, the movie serial -- shown one chapter per week -- was one of the most popular entertainment forms on the planet. The first of these was 1912's What Happened To Mary. Made by Edison's people and consisting of 12 one-reel episodes, it followed the action adventures of the title gal, played by Mary Fuller. In an early instance of the media cross promotion we now take for granted, each episode was released to coincide with an instalment of the story in McLure's Ladies World magazine. While Mary was the first serial, it wasn't the first cliffhanger. That honor went to 1913's The Adventures of Kathlyn - also printed as a Chicago Tribune newspaper serial -- which did end each instalment on a suspenseful and perilous note. Ironically, the most famous "cliffhanger" series, 1914's The Perils of Pauline, didn't actually feature such endings.




Air conditioning

While summer is now the blockbuster season, for the first two decades of the movie business the hottest months were a dead loss. That changed in 1925 when Willis Carrier, inventor of air-conditioning, persuaded Paramount Pictures to install his technology in the Rivoli Theater, which was under construction in New York's Times Square. The new cinema, promoted as offering "cool comfort", opened its doors on Memorial Day, but a hiccup with the air-conditioning system meant that the crowd of 2000 sat fanning themselves and grumbling. Finally the a/c started working, the chill descended, the hand-fans were lowered and movie-going was forever changed. The most important audience member, Adolph Zukor, head of Paramount, was impressed, declaring, "Yes, the people are going to like it". Carrier rolled out his air-conditioning to cinemas across the country and by 1928 Time magazine listed "To keep cool" as the number-one reason people went to the movies.


Click here to read Part 2.


Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro Zombies: A Film Critic's Year-Long Quest to Find the Worst Movie Ever Made (It Books/HarperCollins), Michael Adams' pop-culture memoir about his search for the world's worst movie, is in book stores next month. Read a chapter of it for free here.

Comments

pierce g.

pierce gibson

I'm surprised there wasnt any of mention of Hitchcocks Psycho. ..From what I understood(i could be wrong), up until that point films were more of a television-like pastime for crowd goers-more casual come and go- until he made it a policy not to admit after the first 8 mins.
After which people started watching films front-to-back as we do today ( unless walking out is neccesary)

Dec 9 - 06:28 PM

Andrew W.

Andrew Whitefield

You mentioned Hitchcock, which got me to think about a camera technique he used in Vertigo. I think it was Hitchcock first, that used a process of pulling the camera back while changing the viewing angle from wide to tight, or vice-verse. Its hard to explain in text, but you see it in a lot of movies, and it creates a very distorting effect.

Dec 10 - 10:11 AM

James L.

James Likeness

It's called a "dolly zoom."

Dec 10 - 10:49 AM

screwhead100

Ben Wellick

wow, thats really interesting to see what the critics in the early 20th century had to say about color and sound......i had no idea they were both panned early on like how 3D has been......

Dec 9 - 06:30 PM

Stepping Razor

Stepping Razor

Most people never change in that they don't embrace change.

People thought movies would destroy radio, and that TV would destroy movies. Still hasn't happened yet. Radio, movies, TV all still here.

I don't see what's wrong with 3D so long as it fits the movie it's used for and not just used for the heck of it.

It seems nowadays people are adverse to good storylines, good acting and "dull" moments, as in moments without CGI, car chases, explosions, sci-fi dogfights or robots boxing each other. :)

Dec 9 - 09:19 PM

tomwaitsjrHAPPYICONOCLAST

Greg Guro

I wouldn't exactly call it a "gimmick." But CITIZEN KANE came up with DEEP FOCUS. . .

and if I remember right, it was one of the first films where you actually see a ceiling.

Dec 9 - 06:34 PM

manwithoutfear19

Daniel Raimondi

first 3D feature was in 1922?

i learned something today LOL!

Dec 9 - 06:50 PM

bondfreak

Jay Rog

hmm cool stuff, i wonder what theyll touch on next

Dec 9 - 07:06 PM

JUDGE DREDD

idle one kenobi

Just potted that it said part 1...

I was going to say, bit of short artical oherwise, so many more gimmicks you missed out.

from matte paintings, star wars creating ilm and blue screen etc, dragonslayer and go motion, jurassic park and green screen, phantom menace for digital matte paintings and multiple crowd/armies (young indy being the dummy run) Sooo many more, T2, King Kong, wow, this could go on a bit!

Dec 9 - 07:09 PM

August M.

Agustin Macias

These are good gimmicks. And yes, Citizen Kane is the first movie to show a celling and be filmed on location than on a stage.

Dec 9 - 07:27 PM

King Crunk

King Crunk

I think it is funny how people never change. Back in the early days of cinema, color and sound were seen as gimmicks that added no value to the movie, and now 3d is being treated the same way. People just do not like things that are new, they hate change. How ironic it is that everyone has a list of things they want to change in the world though. Lol.

Dec 9 - 07:58 PM

Rerunofmyself

Bob Roberts

3D has been around for just about as long as sound and color, and it is still a gimmick. It may be better today than it was in the 50's and 80's, but that doesn't change the fact that it still muddies the image and is headache inducing. I'm willing to give Avatar a try in 3D, but honestly from what I've seen so far I'd say it is absolutely a gimmick and really should in no way become a standard.

Dec 9 - 10:04 PM

slackermonkey

alvin kang

It's interesting that color and sound were considered gimmicks even though that's how we perceive things in everyday life...and the same goes with 3D. It's how we see things in real life. I do think however many movies utilize 3D in a very gimmicky way by throwing things at the viewer as if to say "Hey! It's coming at you! OOOH AAAH!" which I find actually detracts from the immersion effect. Hopefully as 3D is used more and more film makers will realize that subtlety goes a long way just as it does with the use of color and sound.

Dec 9 - 08:10 PM

Brandon M.

Brandon Mitchell

I wonder what the next big revolution will be? holograms where the audience is surrounded by the movie?? crazy stuff aaaand does that picture for the soud section have a guy in blackface??? wow, I know that was used in cinema back than but maybe they could have found a less controversial picture? haha

Dec 9 - 08:25 PM

Andy K

Andy Taylor

Yah well that's the Jazz Singer. It was the first big movie with sound. That's why they used it.

Dec 10 - 06:07 AM

Gareth of Texas

Gareth Callenby

Sound, color and 3d are all great, but when will feelies come out?

And that's The Jazz Singer. No one would recognize it if they took one of the non-blackface stills. Both racist and very iconic.

Dec 9 - 09:15 PM

Stepping Razor

Stepping Razor

Most people never change in that they don't embrace change.

People thought movies would destroy radio, and that TV would destroy movies. Still hasn't happened yet. Radio, movies, TV all still here.

I don't see what's wrong with 3D so long as it fits the movie it's used for and not just used for the heck of it.

It seems nowadays people are adverse to good storylines, good acting and "dull" moments, as in moments without CGI, car chases, explosions, sci-fi dogfights or robots boxing each other. :)

Dec 9 - 09:19 PM

Rerunofmyself

Bob Roberts

3D has been around for just about as long as sound and color, and it is still a gimmick. It may be better today than it was in the 50's and 80's, but that doesn't change the fact that it still muddies the image and is headache inducing. I'm willing to give Avatar a try in 3D, but honestly from what I've seen so far I'd say it is absolutely a gimmick and really should in no way become a standard.

Dec 9 - 10:04 PM

blattman

Mike Greenblatt

Of course now we have the 4D experience with movies. There is a theatre in Las Vegas that can show movies with moving seats and 3D for films like Fast and Furious.

Dec 9 - 10:28 PM

Kellen F.

Kellen Frost

@ JUDGE DREDD, I wouldn't call those on your list gimmicks, I'd call them techniques. They to me were the special effects of the day, not gimmicks. For that matter, I wouldn't really call sound and color a gimmick; I wouldn't even call 3d a gimmick in the old days. back then the were merely trying to accomplish what we naturally see with the normal eye or hear: color, sound, three dimensions.

I'm not sure any of the topics on the list were "gimmicks". sure when 3d became a means to build a story around, that was a "gimmick". and continued through the blue and red glasses days.

But today I wouldn't call the new advanced version of 3d a gimmick, the imagery genuinely does look better in three dimensions. The only time it really becomes a gimmick is when things are supposed to pop out at you on the screen and the movie sells that feature.

It's a gimmick when they sell 3d as a thing that will pop out at you and that's why it's worth watching. I just recently watched A Christmas Carol, and the depth of the three dimensions looked great, but the idea that zemeckis was creating some 3d roller coaster ride was just simply not the case. Those scenes didn't really work ( while not bad, just not overly necessary). However I still found that movie great, as well as UP and Cloudy With A Chance Of Meat Balls.

I have faith that 3D will actually become an evolution for film. just like color and sound, it won't immediately take over, but will gradually become very common. and why not, the depth is what's impressive, not a yo-yo flying at my face.


Dec 9 - 10:55 PM

Kellen F.

Kellen Frost

@ Slacker monkey. I agree as seen above. Not sure the word "gimmick" in the article applies to color, sound, or general 3d. crazy fly in your face, yes.

Dec 9 - 11:09 PM

Gordon Franklin Terry Sr

Gordon Terry

Thanks Mike for this article, and congratulations on your BOOK . . . I'll be stuck here in cyberspace and will not see print.

The WORST FILM EVER MADE is entirely subjective to one's taste.

PAUL BLART: MALL COP is my "WORST FILM" and that's what got me started "haunting" ROTTEN TOMATOES . . . I don't see how anyone had the audacity to make a film as dumb as PAUL BLART MALL COP and that people actually sit, watch, and are entertained by it.

Imagination seems totally squelched by movies like MALL COP and reality TV shows;

GREAT RESEARCH ON THIS ARTICLE man!
(hand tinting . . . greeeaaattt . . .at least no one said GONE WITH THE WIND was the first color film or something.

these days people WILL say something like GWTW being the first color film without a doubt.

Dec 10 - 05:48 AM

MAdams

Michael Adams

Thank you, sir. Paul Blart? Oh, yes, nasty -- but there are worse in my experience.

I hope you enjoy Pt 2 of the article -- some crazy gimmickry in there.

Dec 10 - 10:12 AM

Andy K

Andy Taylor

Yah well that's the Jazz Singer. It was the first big movie with sound. That's why they used it.

Dec 10 - 06:07 AM

Sinister Minister

larry mcmichael

What about the bullet time photography technique? Hack!

Dec 10 - 06:16 AM

MADDAZ

Darren Anderson

The bullet time photography is pretty awesome. Its always interesting to see articles like this. My favourite is air conditioning. How the hell did people sit through a stinky hot cinema in L.A. on a hot summer night. Who knows whats next.

Dec 11 - 12:19 PM

James L.

James Likeness

This one isn't as big as some of the others, but how about Shaky Cam? I've noticed just in the past 10 years how much it's grown in popularity, especially in action movies. 15-year-old movies already look pretty dated by their lack of Shaky Cam. Take T2 for example. That movie was definitely ahead of its time effects-wise. When you watch it today, it could definitely pass for a current movie. Except for the fact that there's hardly any Shaky Cam in it. If some handheld cameras had been used on that one, it could easily fit in with today's films.

And yeah, people might hate Shaky Cam. For sure, it's used a little too much in several films. But I'd say it's definitely a gimmick, and it's definitely here to stay.

Dec 10 - 06:29 AM

Robert K.

Robert Kimberlin

I will never watch a movie with shaky cam. I don't watch the office because of the horrible camera movements. Keep the fuccing camera still you dummy. Movies don't date because that's the way things were at that time.

Dec 10 - 10:20 AM

James L.

James Likeness

It's pretty hard to avoid at this point. Did you see District 9? How about Star Trek? Transformers? Anything action-related in the past few years? Shaky cam is all over the place! I think it's used best when it's not as obvious as the action movies, though. It can be very subtle, and when used correctly, it makes the scene feel a little bit more natural, even if you don't notice it.

Dec 10 - 10:53 AM

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