Silent Movie Bookshelf: Amateur Movie Making by Herbert McKay

Today I am going to review yet another volume from the New York Institute of Photography’s silent movie how-to series. This book is a little different from the other works reviewed. While the previous books in the series focused on a specific skill (acting, writing, directing, photography), this book teaches the reader how to make an entire silent movie for their own amusement.

I think that of all the books in the series so far, this volume is the most immediately useful to the modern reader. Oh, the technology has changed. But this book contains fascinating advice for amateur movie makers and film students hoping to capture the look of the silent film or to learn a little something from the past.

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is in the public domain and can be read for free online. I got my copy from Alibris. It was a little more difficult to locate than the other books in the series but not impossible. Most copies run $15-30. The book was published in 1928, at the height of silent film technique and the twilight of its popularity.

What is it?: A complete guide to making motion pictures at home. It covers everything from lighting and camera work to scenario and direction. There are sections about lenses, camera tricks, editing… Pretty much everything you would need in 1928. The book is over 450 pages and is surprisingly technical for something aimed at amateurs. I guess they meant serious amateurs.

Pictures: Not as generous as previous volumes. There are photos and technical sketches but no glossy plates.

Favorite advice: On selecting backgrounds for title cards:

The background covered with a uniform, conventional design, such as a tapestry design, is widely used by both professionals and amateurs. Many amateurs use wallpaper for this purpose and if a little care is used in the selection of the design it works very well indeed.

In selecting wallpaper for title work, remember that colors have quite different values when photographed than when seen by the eye. It is a very good idea to make use of the monotone filter in making the selection. The filter will give the approximate photographic tonal value of any design, and is far more reliable than the unaided eye.

On writing those title cards:

With a full list of titles, numbered in their proper consecutive order, the composition begins. In the first place, the English is to be improved to the fullest extent of the writer’s ability. This usually means the lengthening of the title. But that may be disregarded at this stage. The title is written in a style to correspond with the spirit of the film. You would hardly make use of sonorous and dignified language in titling a comedy, nor would you, I trust, title a serious or even tragic film in the vernacular of the day. Thus the second step is the adaptation of the language used to the character of the film itself.

With these points established, the length of the title is examined. It will usually be found that the title can be cut down perhaps 50% without injuring it in the least, and often with the result that it is remarkably improved. When this third step is complete, we have the title ready for the more technical phases of inserting it into the film.

Finally, the reasons why home movie making is so popularity. And with Youtube (and dozens of other videos sites) firmly established, these reasons have never been more true:

The home movie has come to stay. There will probably never be a pastime, a sport or a hobby which will attain the popularity which the movies have gained recently. There is a very sound reason for this. The movies provide the opportunity for the creative instinct, they are independent of external circumstances, they are personal in character and have a permanent, ever increasing value. Let us compare the movies with radio, which ranks next to them in popularity. The radio only transmits to us the creations of others, our part in radio is passive. The radio is impersonal, it appeals to us through our sense of hearing, and it has only. a passing interest. A composition is played, we hear it and it is gone ! With the movies our part is active, we create the film according to our own ideas and ability. The films which we produce are personal, they appeal to us through the medium of our principal sense, sight, and they are permanent, being a record of passing action which is captured, recorded and made available for reproduction at any future time. In fact, with the passage of time, the value of our films grows in geometric proportion.