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One of the best documentaries made about the technical side of film is Turner's Glorious Technicolor, an entertaining look at a legendary color process few people understand. Flicker Alley's new Discovering Cinema 2-disc set goes even earlier into film history. Learning to Talk and Movies Dream in Color are French television shows on the genesis of sound and color in filmmaking. Illustrated with full examples, the shows begin long before the 1895 debut of the Kinematograph, amazing us with the ingenuity of movie-mad inventors.
Learning to Talk (Les premiers pas du cinéma - À la recherche du son) begins with experiments in the 1860s to study audio signals. The show traces three completely different approaches to the problem. Live sound Accompaniments began as a karaoke-like process with people playing music and sound effects to match what was on the screen. We see weird early examples of the 'bouncing ball' sing-along technique, with a conductor's baton and even an entire conductor matted into the image. Various Sound On Disc technologies are introduced, with dozens of ideas abandoned for the lack of a method to synchronize separate audio and film machines. To get around having a large microphone or horn in the scene with the actor, movies are made where the performers lip-synch to existing tracks, thus proving that audio playback dubbing was not invented by Cosmo Brown in Singin' in the Rain. The Sound On Film approach requires more complex inventions with selenium sound readers, and is held up by the inability to amplify audio. That hurdle is passed during WW1, when advances are made in communications and wireless technology.
Even though Fox's Sound On Film Movietone apparatus is 'the better mousetrap', Warners beats them to the punch in 1926 with part-talkies filmed in its disc-based Vitaphone system. Like Beta and VHS or HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, the two systems would be in competition until 1930 or so, when Sound On Film became the standard. As a parting joke, Learning to Talk shows us that the modern DTS theatrical system relies on compact discs for its audio playback. Everything old is new again.
The show's film clips are nothing short of amazing. We see good examples for most every attempt at making the movies speak, even an animated set of 1870s photographs designed to teach lip-reading for the deaf. Mussolini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle speak to America in 1920s newsreels. An early short subject has a vaudeville performer sing "Mama, she's making eyes at me" accompanied by a performing duck. (It quacks.)
The second show, Movies Dream in Color (Les premiers pas du cinéma - Un rêve en couleur) does much the same thing for color systems, showing the obvious examples like hand tinted prints that eventually are produced on an assembly line. The inventors try everything from weird lenticular systems that cause eyestrain, to emulsions impregnated with thousands of little 'lenses' that produce fuzzy, grainy pictures. Photochemical processes blending two hues get off to a slow start, while Technicolor works almost twenty years perfecting a full-color process that people will accept.
The examples given are fascinating. Some two-color processes are more colorful than some of today's artistic attempts at desaturated images. Anna May Wong shows up in the first Technicolor feature Toll of the Sea from 1922. As in the sound docu, some of the most interesting images are actually from pre-movie technologies, showing how complicated shadow puppets and projected slide shows almost reached the level of animated cartoons.
Flicker Alley and Blackhawk's 2-disc Discovering Cinema set is a beautiful encoding of the original French TV shows with an English-language narration. All of the clips are in excellent condition, allowing us to judge both audio and picture quality as we see it. Each show runs about 52 minutes. For an extra, the discs add galleries of short films and excerpts from the examples in the shows. We see operas sung in 1900 and glimpses of color processes that range from headache-inducing to quite good. The singing duck featurette is included in its entirety.
Nowadays we can whip out a mini-HD camera and record sparkling images and clear sound almost instantaneously. Working in the pre-electronic world of optics, physics and chemistry, the accomplishments of the movie pioneers were nothing less than epic.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Discovering Cinema rates:
Supplements: Many clips and complete short films demonstrating early sound processes and color systems.
Packaging: 2 discs in Keep case
Reviewed: September 25, 2007
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