Silent Movie Bookshelf: Motion Picture Photography by Carl Louis Gregory

By now we have covered acting, screenwriting and directing of the silent motion picture. What’s left? The shooting, of course! How were motion pictures photographed during the silent era? This book answers all your questions. In fact, it is by far the most technical (and thickest!) volume in the series.

Precise chemical formulas for tinting and toning film? Check! How kilowatts are required to light rooms of various sizes? Check! And just what filters do you use when engaging in motion picture photography from an airplane? This book will tell you.

Like the other volumes in this series, this book is in the public domain and can be read for free online. You can pick up copies pretty easily. Once again, I got this book from Alibris. I am reviewing the 1927 second edition. The first edition was published in 1920.

What is it?: Everything (and I mean everything) you ever wanted to know about working the movie camera for a silent era movie. Lighting, film developing, editing, lenses… this book is amazingly thorough. At a generous 400+ pages, this book is an incredibly technical introduction to the subject.

Pictures: Quite a few glossy picture plates of cameramen at work. There are also technical diagrams and photographs of equipment.


Favorite advice: How to create ghostly figures:

Ghost or spirit figures are often required. First take the regular scene and then rewind to the beginning. Now have all objects in the set covered with black cloth. Velvet is best. See that camera is not disturbed in the slightest or moved even the slightest particle. A black drop is used to hide the background. In other words everything is black. The actor portraying the ghost now enters the scene and the film is run through again. This actor should not be dressed in black or he will not show. Ghosts are always to wear something light otherwise only their faces would be visible against the black ground.

On when to use title cards:

1. To explain the purpose or indicate the main theme of the picture.

2. To give the picture coherency. They are links which join the scenes and help to carry the thread of the story.

3. To name and characterize the principle roles portrayed to identify setting or location, and sometimes to fix the time of the story or any of its parts.

4. To illuminate and interpret the picture or any of its situations by conveying ideas which the action does not or cannot register.

5. To inject comedy, pathos, or other sentiments which may be entirely arbitrary, into the picture.

6. To indicate lapses of time, or cover jumps in the continuity.

7. To economize footage or save production costs by substituting for scenes not shown.


And on the use of spoken word titles:

Often spoken titles present many difficulties. Witness the mushy, inane speeches put into the mouths of some characters in love scenes — speeches such as one would never make. The effort should be to write spoken titles that will seem natural and at the same time be in keeping with the character. A speech that may sound all right when actually spoken, with the advantage of inflection and emphasis, may seem very flat when thrown upon the screen.

Dialect-spoken titles are tricky and should be used sparingly. They are usually difficult to read and often fail to impress. Very few people can write any dialect with great success, especially for pictures. Probably no one can write all dialects satisfactorily.

Long spoken titles should be avoided as much as possible.

Better to have two or three short ones than a single long speech, provided the scene will carry more than one. As a rule it is better to have one sentence, worded, punctuated, and spaced to read as smoothly as possible. Many spoken titles containing two or more sentences could be condensed into one by a little thought and study. But brevity may be overdone. It is often easier to catch the sense of a well-rounded sentence than one which has been clipped too short.

I could not agree more about the dialect titles!