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The Great Train Robbery, The Birth of a Nation


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#1 David Sweetman

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Posted 06 September 2006 - 10:10 PM

I'm in film history right now, watching these films. I've seen The Great Train Robbery before, but never Birth of a Nation, of which we are only watching an excerpt. Anyone know what cameras were used to shoot these? It's hard to find any production info on these films. Thanks in advance for any insight
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#2 Dan Goulder

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Posted 06 September 2006 - 10:15 PM

They may have possibly used an Akeley camera.
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#3 Patrick McGowan

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Posted 06 September 2006 - 11:36 PM

I took History of Film last year, so I will attempt to answer this one.

In the really early era of cinema, 1890's to 1920's, there weren't too many options for cameras. I would guess that the Great Trian Robbery either used Edison hand-cranked cameras, or something from Biograph. Edwin S. Porter worked for the Edison Company and Edison had a pretty big control on the market. He would crush competitors like Biograph and the Lumiere brothers through legal battles, so many people were likely to use his cameras.

I don't know how to answer your question because I'm not really sure. Imdb says "Pathe Camera" for The Birth of a Nation.
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#4 Leo Anthony Vale

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Posted 07 September 2006 - 03:26 PM

"In the really early era of cinema, 1890's to 1920's, there weren't too many options for cameras. I would guess that the Great Trian Robbery either used Edison hand-cranked cameras, or something from Biograph. Edwin S. Porter worked for the Edison Company and Edison had a pretty big control on the market. He would crush competitors like Biograph and the Lumiere brothers through legal battles, so many people were likely to use his cameras.

I don't know how to answer your question because I'm not really sure. Imdb says "Pathe Camera" for The Birth of a Nation.


Why would Biograph rent out a camera they were constantly using to Edison who has the patent on 35mm sprocketed film and is trying to monopolize the business?

& why would Edison rent a two ton camera when he had portable 35mm cameras.
The patent for which is suspisciously identical to the Lumieres' French patent.
http://www.soc.org/o...g06_biocam.html

The first Biograph Camera was built by the Marvin and Casler Company of Canastota, NY, who specialized in electric rock drills. The camera weighed, when set up ready to take a picture, with its base stand, turn table, electric motor and storage batteries, more than two thousand pounds. After being set up, and it was found necessary to tilt the camera up a little, it required two men to raise it, one with an iron crow bar, the other with a monkey wrench to tighten the somewhat massive nut screw to hold it in place while he was peeping into the camera at the image on the film.

The General Electric 2-1/2 horse power motor weighed 250 pounds. Its speed was 1,800 revolutions per minute. The pictures were taken at the rate of 320 ft per minute, or 30 pictures per second. The speed of today is but 90 feet per minute and 24 pictures per second (sound), but at that time other motion picture companies made their pictures at the rate of 16 pictures per second, or 50 feet per minute on the standard 35mm film with pictures 3/4 x 1 inch, same as of today.

Biograph raw stock negative film was 2-23/32 in or approximately 2-3/4 inches wide and 2 inches high. The intermittent movement was created by a beater roller which bobbed up and down approximately one 2-3/4 inch space of film each time, but not definitely. The space between the exposures varied considerably, sometimes as much as an eighth of an inch. The film was punched at the instant of exposure with two round holes as it was clamped in its at rest exposure position."

Yes, Bitzer used a Pathe with a 50mm lens on "birth '
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#5 Wendell_Greene

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Posted 07 September 2006 - 03:49 PM

Picture of Pathe 35mm camera

AFAIK, "The Great Train Robbery" was filmed with a Kinetograph.
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#6 Nathan Milford

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Posted 07 September 2006 - 04:10 PM

You should check out Barry Salt's Film Style and Technology.

Salt goes over older film technilogy and style to the present, from the beginning of magic lantern shows and pre-cinema to modern times analyzing style and technology by decade (actually smaller periods of time).

It's a great read. Did you know they were using Kino's (cooper-hewitts) back before they were using tungsten fixtures?
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#7 Jon-Hebert Barto

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Posted 08 September 2006 - 01:26 PM

Cooper-Hewitts were the first (reliable) articial lighting. Billy Blitzer loved 'em.
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#8 Mark Allen

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Posted 08 September 2006 - 01:30 PM

Did you know they were using Kino's (cooper-hewitts) back before they were using tungsten fixtures?


Well now I gotta know... do you know why they switched over to tungsten? was it because they needed more light?

I remember that there was a time in the earliest cinema where sets were made without roofs so that they could use the sunlight - but I don't remember the era or specific movies - just a vague memory from a film history book like 15 years ago.
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#9 David Sweetman

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Posted 08 September 2006 - 01:38 PM

You should check out Barry Salt's Film Style and Technology

Thanks, I just ordered it.
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#10 Leo Anthony Vale

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Posted 08 September 2006 - 01:59 PM

Well now I gotta know... do you know why they switched over to tungsten? was it because they needed more light?


The switch to panchromatic film and sound.

Arcs are noisy. though they are brighter than tungsten.

Changes in lighting style. The cooper-hewitts were large soft light sources. Big fill.
Panchromatic was softer than ortho film.
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#11 Jon-Hebert Barto

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Posted 08 September 2006 - 03:03 PM

They also used mercury-vapor :blink: bank lights! Health issue, anyone? I'm pretty sure thats why the early crews on these films wore lab coats and goggles. Imagine working around that....

Mark, you are very correct. I read stuios in newyork had glass cielings and used muslin as diffusion.
The Black Maria was built on a lazy-susan type platform so the set could rotate with the sun, keeping the shadows in place....

Leo, wasn't the early film restricted in their sensitivity of the red spectrum?
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#12 Nathan Milford

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Posted 08 September 2006 - 03:44 PM

Orthochrmatic B&W film isn't very red-sensitive so tungsten (Mazda) lamps weren't a viable option, even though they'd give off more lumens per watt than the cooper-hewitts. Arc lights were highly used, but were noisy, so with the advent of sound they became a problem. Not to mention you need a lampman to continually operate Carbon Arcs. Once panchromatic B&W film (additionally sensitive to red wavelengths) became commerically viable, the use of the more efficient, quiet and safe mazda/tungsten units became more commonplace.
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#13 Chris Keth

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Posted 09 September 2006 - 11:04 AM

Orthochrmatic B&W film isn't very red-sensitive so tungsten (Mazda) lamps weren't a viable option, even though they'd give off more lumens per watt than the cooper-hewitts. Arc lights were highly used, but were noisy, so with the advent of sound they became a problem. Not to mention you need a lampman to continually operate Carbon Arcs. Once panchromatic B&W film (additionally sensitive to red wavelengths) became commerically viable, the use of the more efficient, quiet and safe mazda/tungsten units became more commonplace.



As an addendum to this, you can usually tell when ortho film was used by looking at women and the sky. Women's lips tend to look very dark on ortho due to the low red sensitivity and the sky tends often to be blown out because the lens had to be opened extra to account for the selective sensitivity. This can obviously be tricked with a blue filter over the lens with panchromatic film, but it's a good way to start.
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#14 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 09 September 2006 - 11:30 AM

As an addendum to this, you can usually tell when ortho film was used by looking at women and the sky. Women's lips tend to look very dark on ortho due to the low red sensitivity and the sky tends often to be blown out because the lens had to be opened extra to account for the selective sensitivity. This can obviously be tricked with a blue filter over the lens with panchromatic film, but it's a good way to start.


This was why silent actors wore white-ish make-up & brown lipstick so that the skin would have light enough tonal values on ortho film, which underexposed reds.
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#15 Leo Anthony Vale

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Posted 09 September 2006 - 11:35 AM

[quote name='Jon-Hebert Barto' date='Sep 8 2006, 04:03 PM' post='126027'

Leo, wasn't the early film restricted in their sensitivity of the red spectrum?
[/quote]

---They had no red sensitivity. The earliest was UV and blue sensitive. Orthochromatic added green to the mix.

Fleshtones came out very dark. Hollywood films would use clown white makeup to lighten the faces.

Recently watched Dr.Fanck's 'The White Hell of Piz Palu' mit Gustav Diessl und Leni Riefenstahl.
Parts are on panchro with an orange or red filter to darken skies and bring out clouds.
So faces in those shots are quite light. Most of the the rest is ortho, so the faces are really deark.

Incidentally there's an amazing night scene lit entirely by skiers holding photo flares.
They ski in formation across a glacier and descend into an ice crevess.
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#16 James Steven Beverly

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Posted 10 September 2006 - 06:34 PM

I'd want to see it just for that scene! That sounds like something that would be really cool to reproduce in a film.
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#17 Daniel Stigler

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Posted 11 September 2006 - 06:07 PM

Thanks for the link Wendell! The site's interesting to read.
In the very very early stages of cinema it was common that cameramen built their own cameras.

Edited by Daniel Stigler, 11 September 2006 - 06:09 PM.

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