Growing up in the 21stCentury, children and teenagers are so used to films with brightly coloured scenes, sound effects other than just music and becoming familiar to the voices of the actors/actresses of our day. Looking into the world of 19thand early 20thcentury cinema really helps one travel back in time and see and appreciate how much cinema has transformed since then, how they are exhibited and how, as an audience, we respond to them.
There are many examples of these transformations. Early films consisted of short films that lasted only a couple of minutes or less, for example, Lumière’s ‘L’Arrivée d’un Train’ (1896) lasted only 50 seconds. A few years later, and the duration of a film became longer, for example, Méliès’ ‘Le Voyage dans la Lune’ (1902) lasted just under 13 minutes. Fast-forward to the 1920s, and films were over an hour long, such as ‘The General’ (1926). The advance in film duration is interesting to look at, as today, we are used to films that last around two hours.
1961 was the last year in which the majority of Hollywood films were released in black and white, but before that, colourising films took time as much of it was done by hand, until effective colour film processes were introduced in the 60s.
With films not using sound until 1927, this can pose some kind of challenge for a contemporary audience to recognise and understand the narrative/storyline of a film. Big expressions, slapstick and dialogue titles are certainly helpful, and the music creates mood and atmosphere, especially during tense scenes. In my own experience, I find it interesting how these early silent films are just as entertaining as films today, despite there is no speech and no colour.
Early cinema is quite unknown, and it usually attracts cinephiles and historians mostly. This is understandable, as all the films from this period were silent, black and white (and blue/orange in some cases), repetitive piano music playing on top of it, maybe not even intertitles to follow the story and sometimes there was no story at all. It is a kind of cinema hard to find appealing for most modern audiences. But we have found that there is vast information about this type of cinema, and we have found in our hands objects, such as books and memorabilia, that give us first-hand insight into the early times of the industry. It has helped us understand how these early visionaries made their craft and surprisingly, how in such a small time, they managed to give such big steps, experimenting with the camera, the set, and everything they could get their hands on.