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A Couple Technical Questions About Older Films


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#1 Darren Weckerle

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Posted 01 May 2013 - 04:24 PM

Hi guys,

 

Lately I've been trying to learn from the old masters and immersing myself as best I can in classic films from before I was born, but I've noticed a few things that I'm curious about.

 

The biggest difference I've noticed between modern films and older (color) films is not so much the slower pacing, more theatrical acting or the different way the film rendered colors, but the fact that everything was always so clearly "lit" with unmotivated theatrically hard lighting (I think of films like Wizard of Oz, Planet of the Apes, Cleopatra, etc). Why was this the case? Surely DPs understood soft light and recognized that the way color films in the 50's-70's were lit didn't look right. As a clear example, I think of how the first Star Wars was shot in that kind of way, but Empire Strikes Back was shot with much more modern soft lighting and motivated light sources in the frame, and it's instantly much more engaging as a visual experience instead of screaming to the subconscious that what I'm watching is all lit and staged. So unless there was some huge technical hurdle overcome in the time between those two films, Empire shows that there wasn't much of a reason for not being able to pull off that kind of more naturalistic lighting during the previous decades.

 

I'm also curious about how movie sound was recorded, especially when shot outside on location during the early days of sound until modern sound recording? One of the other most noticeable things about older movies shot before I was born is the fact that they sound so different from today. When I listen to them, I can't find any technical flaws in their sound (like I do in so many amateur short films on YouTube), but there's still just something not quite "right" about them. It's just like with the lighting of those films... except I can't quite figure out what it is that made those older films sound "off".

 

Thanks, I appreciate it!


Edited by Darren Weckerle, 01 May 2013 - 04:26 PM.

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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 01 May 2013 - 05:51 PM

You're making the false assumption that the primary goal of cinematography, particularly with past cinematographers, was to make things look unlit and completely natural.  Yes, there were also technical reasons for the use of harder lighting but there was also an aesthetic reason.  Also, one generation's notion of realism is not the next generation's, attitudes change. And there's a difference between photographic realism, i.e. the sort of documentary look you get when you only shoot in available light, and creating a look that seems more like how the human eye sees things (and that's rather subjective.) And realism may be only one item on a list of goals for the cinematographer; for example, some may put making the actors look good above making the lighting look completely natural.

 

Also, studios demanded a certain look for their movies, and in the 1960's when drive-ins were popular, there was also a belief that darker images wouldn't play well in drive-in theaters, which had dimmer projection.

 

So a lot of the look of movies evolved over time due to technology (faster film stocks and lenses allowing lower light levels to be used), changes in attitude based on reactions to previous styles (i.e. new trends and fads in cinematography), and finally, the simple fact that for a long time, it was hard to get into the studio system so movies were being made for a long time by people who got their start in the 1930's and didn't stop making films until they retired in the 1970's, allowing new people to finally come along.  Gilbert Taylor, who shot "Star Wars", was born in 1914 (if the IMDB is correct), whereas Peter Suschitzky, who shot "Empire Strikes Back", was born in 1941 -- meaning "Star Wars" was shot by someone who was about 61 and "Empire" was shot by someone who was about 34.  Suschitzky was more in the mode of people who came along in the 1960's like David Watkin, who developed soft light techniques while shooting commercials and who had come from shooting documentaries... as opposed to someone who came up in the old studio system like Taylor, who started out as a camera assistant in 1930.

 

But the problem is looking at an old movie with a modern mindset that says that the modern style is correct and the past one was wrong, and therefore why did people in the past not recognize that they were doing things wrong? You might as well complain that Asian art of the 18th century didn't have the correct understanding of three-point perspective.  

 

The truth is that soft lighting may look or feel more natural but sometimes it's just as artificial and stylized as a hard light would be -- particularly on a spaceship... you look at the huge soft panels that Suschitzsky made for lighting people in "Empire" and you have to ask yourself what source if the room were real would be creating that effect? If you did a wide shot you wouldn't see a large window with an overcast daytime landscape creating that lighting effect in the room on a spaceship, so the cinematographer here is using the soft technique only partially because it feels natural to him, he's also doing it because of aesthetic reasons, because maybe he feels it makes the wardrobe look better (such as a shiny black outfit like Darth Vader's).

 

So the technical answer is that until 100 ISO motion picture color negative film stock was invented in 1968, it was very difficult to do large interior soft lighting -- not impossible though, and certainly possible in a small set though then large soft lights can be harder to fit into such a space.  You see a few examples of soft lighting done with 50 ISO color film used from 1959 to 1968, particularly in Kubrick's "2001".  David Watkin was doing soft lighting in movies like "Help!" and "Marat-Sade".  But it wasn't easy with such slow film stocks. Plus this was the era of the zoom lens and the anamorphic lens, and worse yet, the anamorphic zoom lens which generally only opened up to an f/5.6.  Not every director was willing to be limited to prime lenses shot at wide apertures so that the lighting could always be soft.  When I look at a movie like "Star Trek: The Motion Picture", where the Enterprise bridge set was generally lit to an f/2.8 on anamorphic prime lenses, I can tell when they had to switch to a zoom lens because of how the room looks at f/5.6.

 

But there is also a stylistic / aesthetic issue.  Many older DP's were trained in b&w -- Gil Taylor was hired for "Star Wars" (when Geoffrey Unsworth was unavailable) because George Lucas admired his b&w work on "Dr. Strangelove", which had a mix of hard and soft light with a semi-documentary look. And Taylor came up from the studio system, like Unsworth, and his lighting style was a mix of old and new, something that worked quite well in b&w and even color when you wanted something both edgy and glossy. Look at Taylor's lovely color work in "The Omen" or "Dracula" -- it's atmospheric, dramatic, moody, romantic... it's not strictly documentary-style realism. The subject matter didn't call for that anyway, and I suspect that he felt that "Star Wars" did not call for that look either.  But this was also a guy who came up using b&w and older color stocks and hard light, and soft light was something he incorporated into his work, but it wasn't like a younger person who started out more or less using soft lighting and who was less interested in classic studio lighting.

 

The 1970's is interesting for cinematography partially because it represents the transition away from the classic studio system and its glossy style, so what you see are movies that have a mix of approaches, from very classic, old-fashioned lighting to hard documentary-style lighting, i.e. hardly any lighting at all.  That clash, that synthesis, is what makes the period interesting visually. Some movies skew more towards the older look and some point the way towards the 1980's and 1990's look that we are still more or less using today.  But the fact that a movie made over 37 years ago looks like it was made over 37 years ago is not a fault or a mistake.


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#3 Brian Drysdale

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Posted 02 May 2013 - 02:31 AM

The basic sound recording technique haven't changed much, although you might find that some exterior scenes in older films are actaully shot in a studio. The quality of the mics has improved and multi track recorders allow more radio microphones to be used. I was speaking to an A list sound recordist the other day and he mentioned that they didn't do much ADR these days.  

 

 The main difference is the level of audio post production used in modern films and that older films had mono soundtracks without any noise reduction, intended to be screened in cinemas with just one speaker behind the screen.


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#4 Mark Dunn

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Posted 02 May 2013 - 03:38 AM

I don't know when you were born, but when watching a film made before I was (1960), you may be listening to an unrestored optical soundtrack with much lower fidelity than magnetic. Indeed when they are restored you often hear things you weren't meant to.


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#5 Darren Weckerle

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Posted 02 May 2013 - 08:09 PM

You're making the false assumption that the primary goal of cinematography, particularly with past cinematographers, was to make things look unlit and completely natural.  Yes, there were also technical reasons for the use of harder lighting but there was also an aesthetic reason.  Also, one generation's notion of realism is not the next generation's, attitudes change. And there's a difference between photographic realism, i.e. the sort of documentary look you get when you only shoot in available light, and creating a look that seems more like how the human eye sees things (and that's rather subjective.) And realism may be only one item on a list of goals for the cinematographer; for example, some may put making the actors look good above making the lighting look completely natural.

 

Also, studios demanded a certain look for their movies, and in the 1960's when drive-ins were popular, there was also a belief that darker images wouldn't play well in drive-in theaters, which had dimmer projection.

 

So a lot of the look of movies evolved over time due to technology (faster film stocks and lenses allowing lower light levels to be used), changes in attitude based on reactions to previous styles (i.e. new trends and fads in cinematography), and finally, the simple fact that for a long time, it was hard to get into the studio system so movies were being made for a long time by people who got their start in the 1930's and didn't stop making films until they retired in the 1970's, allowing new people to finally come along.  Gilbert Taylor, who shot "Star Wars", was born in 1914 (if the IMDB is correct), whereas Peter Suschitzky, who shot "Empire Strikes Back", was born in 1941 -- meaning "Star Wars" was shot by someone who was about 61 and "Empire" was shot by someone who was about 34.  Suschitzky was more in the mode of people who came along in the 1960's like David Watkin, who developed soft light techniques while shooting commercials and who had come from shooting documentaries... as opposed to someone who came up in the old studio system like Taylor, who started out as a camera assistant in 1930.

 

But the problem is looking at an old movie with a modern mindset that says that the modern style is correct and the past one was wrong, and therefore why did people in the past not recognize that they were doing things wrong? You might as well complain that Asian art of the 18th century didn't have the correct understanding of three-point perspective.  

 

The truth is that soft lighting may look or feel more natural but sometimes it's just as artificial and stylized as a hard light would be -- particularly on a spaceship... you look at the huge soft panels that Suschitzsky made for lighting people in "Empire" and you have to ask yourself what source if the room were real would be creating that effect? If you did a wide shot you wouldn't see a large window with an overcast daytime landscape creating that lighting effect in the room on a spaceship, so the cinematographer here is using the soft technique only partially because it feels natural to him, he's also doing it because of aesthetic reasons, because maybe he feels it makes the wardrobe look better (such as a shiny black outfit like Darth Vader's).

 

So the technical answer is that until 100 ISO motion picture color negative film stock was invented in 1968, it was very difficult to do large interior soft lighting -- not impossible though, and certainly possible in a small set though then large soft lights can be harder to fit into such a space.  You see a few examples of soft lighting done with 50 ISO color film used from 1959 to 1968, particularly in Kubrick's "2001".  David Watkin was doing soft lighting in movies like "Help!" and "Marat-Sade".  But it wasn't easy with such slow film stocks. Plus this was the era of the zoom lens and the anamorphic lens, and worse yet, the anamorphic zoom lens which generally only opened up to an f/5.6.  Not every director was willing to be limited to prime lenses shot at wide apertures so that the lighting could always be soft.  When I look at a movie like "Star Trek: The Motion Picture", where the Enterprise bridge set was generally lit to an f/2.8 on anamorphic prime lenses, I can tell when they had to switch to a zoom lens because of how the room looks at f/5.6.

 

But there is also a stylistic / aesthetic issue.  Many older DP's were trained in b&w -- Gil Taylor was hired for "Star Wars" (when Geoffrey Unsworth was unavailable) because George Lucas admired his b&w work on "Dr. Strangelove", which had a mix of hard and soft light with a semi-documentary look. And Taylor came up from the studio system, like Unsworth, and his lighting style was a mix of old and new, something that worked quite well in b&w and even color when you wanted something both edgy and glossy. Look at Taylor's lovely color work in "The Omen" or "Dracula" -- it's atmospheric, dramatic, moody, romantic... it's not strictly documentary-style realism. The subject matter didn't call for that anyway, and I suspect that he felt that "Star Wars" did not call for that look either.  But this was also a guy who came up using b&w and older color stocks and hard light, and soft light was something he incorporated into his work, but it wasn't like a younger person who started out more or less using soft lighting and who was less interested in classic studio lighting.

 

The 1970's is interesting for cinematography partially because it represents the transition away from the classic studio system and its glossy style, so what you see are movies that have a mix of approaches, from very classic, old-fashioned lighting to hard documentary-style lighting, i.e. hardly any lighting at all.  That clash, that synthesis, is what makes the period interesting visually. Some movies skew more towards the older look and some point the way towards the 1980's and 1990's look that we are still more or less using today.  But the fact that a movie made over 37 years ago looks like it was made over 37 years ago is not a fault or a mistake.

Thank you so much David for your insightful perspective. I really appreciate it.


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#6 Darren Weckerle

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Posted 02 May 2013 - 08:12 PM

In regards to sound though, what's been mentioned makes sense to me. But I guess what I'm also wondering is: how was the sound actually recorded? Now it passes through an ADC and becomes digitized, before that I assume it was all recorded to magnetic tape, but what about before that? Or was sound always recorded to magnetic tape from 1926-2000's?

 

And how did they edit the sound back before computers? For example, how did editors deal with background noise/hiss during takes, the discontinuity that occurs between cuts, and the general sound mixing that's all done through EQ-ing today?

 

Extra thanks!


Edited by Darren Weckerle, 02 May 2013 - 08:17 PM.

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#7 Brian Drysdale

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Posted 03 May 2013 - 07:45 AM

Film sound was edited using 35mm or 16mm magnetic film, basically film coated with a magnetic coating. They used this mag film to build up tracks in precisely the same way as you do on a NLE, except it's done physically in the cutting room, with film spacing between each piece of audio.  The tracks are laid by the editor(s) and mixed in the dubbing theatre, any EQ work etc is done there. The theatre has mag film players that can rock and rolll the sound during the mixing. Sitting In a mixing theatre today you wouldn't notice a huge difference, the most noticeable thing would a screen display of all the tracks rather than the paper version of the track mixing cues.

 

Looking at your NLE timeline, it's basically similar to magnetic film sound cue sheets in  appearance. The difference is you can edit the audio in the timeline, rather than just having a representation. The process is similar, just the method  has changed.

 

It's a large subject and you should check out these links http://filmsound.org...-sound-history/

 

http://www.cinematec.../dion sound.pdf

 

http://en.wikipedia....ound_production


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#8 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 03 May 2013 - 08:41 AM

Of course, it was even harder before magnetic tape recording started in the 1950's, sound was recorded onto a separate roll of 35mm b&w film itself in the form of an optical track, which was played back and mixed with other optical tracks to create the final optical track... which is why recording sound outside the studios was so hard.


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#9 Darren Weckerle

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Posted 03 May 2013 - 01:46 PM

Ah, all very interesting! Thanks.

 

But I just realized something I've never thought of before: in a movie theatre projecting a film with an optical soundtrack, the soundtrack is technically offset from the frames it corresponds to, right? But even so, as the film is pulled through the projector by the intermittent mechanism, that means that the film is starting and stopping 24 times a second, rather than moving in one continuous motion. This is obviously necessary to achieve the illusion of motion without having the sequence of frames all blurring together. But what just occurred to me is the fact that, while starting and stopping is necessary to see a moving image, sound is different and if it's not played from a continuous feed we would hear the discontinuities from all the starting and stopping, right? This is obviously not a problem for sound followers and theatres that play the audio off of a separate piece of continuously moving film, tape, disc or hard drive... but how is this problem solved when the audio is played from the same piece of film used to project the image?


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#10 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 03 May 2013 - 01:56 PM

The film is only intermittent in the gate, the sound is moving continuously past the reader, 21 frames after the gate:

http://en.wikipedia....g_Optical_Sound


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#11 Darren Weckerle

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Posted 03 May 2013 - 02:39 PM

But it's all a single strip of film, so if it's intermittent at the gate, it's also intermittent after it, no?


Edited by Darren Weckerle, 03 May 2013 - 02:39 PM.

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#12 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 03 May 2013 - 02:40 PM

That's why you have loops; it allow the film to constantly move, despite being "paused" in the gate. The loops give a certain room for flex, or think, buildup to happen.

It's extra film which can be constantly pulled on without ever "stopping." unless the whole thing stops.


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#13 Darren Weckerle

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Posted 03 May 2013 - 05:07 PM

That's why you have loops; it allow the film to constantly move, despite being "paused" in the gate. The loops give a certain room for flex, or think, buildup to happen.

It's extra film which can be constantly pulled on without ever "stopping." unless the whole thing stops.

Ah, brilliant! I didn't know about that, but it makes sense and it probably helps prevent too much tension on the film too. Thanks.


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