|Scientific American, 02-September-1916|
THE audience is tense with excitement as the hero in the film play struggles frantically with the control apparatus of a submarine that is fast sinking to the ocean bottom, because of the constantly rising water in its hold. And as he struggles at his post the water pours in on him through an ugly gash made in the conning tower of the craft by an enemy destroyer. Perhaps it is the climax in a gripping drama; then again, it may be the big scene or “punch" in a hilarious comedy. But however that may be, the realism of the scene has had the desired effect on the audience. What dangers these motion picture folks incur in their daily work! is the general comment of the public.
Several months ago the scene in question was acted, not, as might be supposed, in the interior of a submarine, but in a quiet corner of a motion picture studio. The “submarine” was an elaborate structure of wood, metal, and plenty of paint, life-sized to be sure, but only of a sufficient length or depth to represent the particular compartment portrayed in the picture story.
For weeks the artisans of the studio workshops had worked in building this pseudo submarine; and before the camera crank was turned the technical director had gone over every detail of its construction to make sure that it emulated successfully the interior of a modern submarine. Then the studio hands built a tank around the scenery. The “set,” as the scenery for a studio scene is called, was now ready for the director.
The director, being unable to carry out his program of photographing certain outdoor or “location” scenes on a certain day because of rain or poor light, decided to stay at the studio and photograph the interior scenes called for in the scenario or working plan of his picture. After rehearsing the action of this particular scene several times, the lamps flashed up and the cameraman took his place by the side of his camera. At the command of the director one of the stage hands climbed up on the deck of the “submarine,” pulling a heavy hose after him, which he placed in the opening of the conning tower. The water was turned on, and it flowed through the hose and passed down upon the back of the actor playing the part of the hero-sailor struggling with the control mechanism of an underwater craft. The water, bounded on all sides by the improvised tank of wood and rubberized canvas, slowly arose in the “submarine" interior. The camera, which all the while was recording the action, was naturally so focused as to take in only the desired portion of the setting—the sides of the tank did not show in the film. The scene was a success.
Typical of the striving of all American producers for realism is the foregoing instance. A half dozen years ago the audience of the average picture house was not as critical as the audience of to-day. Formerly, a director depended solely upon a good story and fair acting to make a film production a success; whereas to-day the director strives to reinforce these two essentials with utmost realism of scenery. It is imperative, claim the producers, that the pictures should be replete with realism: the audience must not be permitted for a single moment to recall the fact that after all the scenes are but improvised backgrounds and the necessary pieces of furniture taken from the stock room or property room of the studio. In brief, the audience must be made to forget the mechanical end of picture production; and to this end every effort is made to have even the most insignificant details accurate and confidence-inspiring.
Jacks -- and Masters -- of All Trades
No motion picture studio would be complete without its carpenter shop and staff of expert workmen. There are so many things that must be built especially for the pictures that a complete equipment of woodworking and metalworking machines and a skilled gathering of artisans are an absolute necessity.
It would be impossible to describe with any pretense to thoroughness the range of work turned out by the studio workshops. It is only by offering a few examples of what they do regularly that a general idea of the scope of their toil can be gained. One day they may be building a safe of light wood or compressed paper, accurately made even to the bolt mechanism, which may bring forth roars of laughter from an audience, months hence, when it is dropped on the head of one of the comedians in a film play. They may be called upon to build an aeroplane, closely following the lines of a genuine machine that is to be used in the scenes of actual flying. The workmen may perhaps put in one or two weeks' work in building the aeroplane, exercising much ingenuity in its construction. As likely as not the tires of the landing gear may be made from short lengths of rubber hose or canvas tube, filled with sawdust. And the same degree of ingenuity may be repeated a dozen times or more in the construction of the machine; all this work to appear for a few seconds on the screen, and probably doomed to be blown to pieces or burned to ashes. The men may turn to the construction of a mirth-provoking hose-cart or fire-wagon for the fire department of some imaginary rural community. Again, historical or period plays usually mean much work for the studio artisans, for it is often necessary to construct all manner of things that cannot be purchased in the open market. It is no uncommon occurrence, therefore, for them to turn out a replica of the first steam-boat, an old-time stage coach, even a Roman catapult. All these things are in the day's work.
In the current war play, “The Fall of a Nation,” four huge siege guns figure conspicuously in the battle scenes between defenders and invaders. Each gun is a faithful reproduction of the famous Krupp 28-millimeter siege howitzer mounted on caterpillar wheels. On the screen even a military man would be apt to mistake the guns for their counterpart busily engaged on European battlefields. As a matter of fact, however, these “guns" are made of wood and present perhaps one of the most intricate pieces of work yet turned out by the film artisans. They are a faithful copy of the actual pieces, even down to the oil cylinders which actually work. It is stated that the guns cost the producers of the film some $10,000 each, and although the amount appears rather high, nevertheless it serves to accentuate the great amount of preliminary research work and designing that had to be carried out before the actual construction began. And here again the producers insisted that if the guns were to be used at all, they must be accurate enough to pass before the most critical audience without arousing undue suspicions.
The producer of a submarine story which, in its main essentials, closely follows the theme of Jules Verne's “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” recently endeavored to secure the loan of a United States submarine from the Navy without success, so the story goes. Whereupon he set out to build a submarine of sheet iron, with a length of over 100 feet, a beam of 15 feet, and a draft of 4 feet. The shell had to be of sufficient strength to withstand a submergence of 40 feet deep. By means of tanks the submarine could take on water in order to settle down beneath the waves, while compressed air tanks permitted of blowing out the water ballast when the craft was to be brought up to the surface again. The submarine was fitted with a torpedo tube capable of discharging a regulation torpedo. In all, six months' time was expended in the building of this submarine, which closely followed the lines of the Nautilus, the famous craft of Capt. Nemo; indeed, the Navy submarines were hardly suitable to represent the Nautilus, which may be one reason why the producer decided to construct a special submersible, fitted with a lock in its bottom through which divers in self-contained suits could pass out to any desired level of the ocean bottom.
In a certain production, “The World and the Woman,” there was to be a garden scene during a thunder storm. One of the features of the scene was a driving rain, while another was a flash of lightning. Whereupon the studio workmen set about to produce the effect desired on the roof of the studio.
An aeroplane propeller was mounted on a substantial base, and to it was applied the power of an electric motor through belting. An artificial garden set was soon arranged and housed in a suitable shelter to make it dark—the photographing took place on a perfect day. Above the set was arranged a trough, perforated with many holes to allow water to drop below. When everything was ready, the electric motor was started, causing the aeroplane propeller to blow up a veritable hurricane through the set. Stage hands, with watering cans, then poured water into the trough, which fell down in the form of rain only to be driven at an angle across the setting. At the propitious moment another stage hand set off a flashlight, giving the desired flash of lightning effect.
All of which bespeaks well of the skill of the artisans of the films. Most of their work is done in wood, although occasionally they resort to metal, as witness the submarine already mentioned. Papier maché, plaster of paris, compressed fiber, and clay are also used in profusion, especially in the making of statues, ornate panels, and other work of a similar nature, forming part of elaborate sets.
The equipment of most motion picture studios is usually such as would do justice to a thriving woodworking shop and machine shop combined. A typical comedy-producing studio in southern California, for instance, has over $2,000 worth of woodworking equipment for its carpenter shop, while the lumber constantly at hand and other items are said to bring the total up to $4,000. The concern employs regularly over 75 carpenters.
Building Interiors to Fit the Story
The interior settings of a film story play require the closest attention on the part of the producers. For here again the constant demand for accuracy and realism is paramount. The smallest details must be watched. If the director calls for a tenement house scene, the stage carpenter, must build him a dilapidated hall all stairs, and small, squalid rooms. The scene must appear much the worse from wear -— the steps must look worn, the wall, must be marred with here and there a hole in the plaster, and there must be dit aplenty. Again, if the director calls for the home of a rich man, it is necessary that he state what kind of a rich man the film author had in mind. Is he a wealthy man from a family of long standing, or a nouveau riche? If he belong to the former class, the furnishings are to be of a quiet, harmonious design, with the paintings and other ornamentation typifying good taste; while if he belong to the latter, the furnishings must be of a garish design. In that way does the motion picture producer endeavor to amplify the type of man whose home is represented.
Obviously, it would not do to leave the selection of furnishings and their proper arrangement to stage hands and carpenters; and accordingly the demand for accuracy and realism has brought into existence a new type of executive in the film industry—the technical director or art director as he is sometimes called. To him falls the task of reading through the synopsis or scenario of a story that is to be produced, and the supervision of the erection of sets. He is responsible for the arrangement of all sets, even in the smallest details, as well as for costuming of the players, and other details. However, he is not responsible for the action part of a scene; that remains as ever, the work of the director.
The technical director must be a veritable human encyclopaedia-a man of remarkably broad experience. He must be well read; and what he does not know he must be able to “dig up" at short notice. Here is how his knowledge is applied: If a scene is laid in a certain country and the time is of a different century, he must know what garments the players are to wear, the accoutrements of the soldiers, the etiquette of the period and country, the furnishings for the interiors, the headdress of the women, and a thousand and one other details.
Perhaps actual incidents are most convincing in illustrating how the directors strive for accuracy, and how the absence of technical direction may be fatal to an otherwise perfect production. The story is told of how Irvin Cobb, the noted writer, was visiting a prominent Los Angeles studio. A director was rehearsing a scene of a war play in which a regiment of German soldiers were marching through a Belgian village. To add a touch of comfort and naturalism the director had the men leave their coats unbuttoned. Mr. Cobb, only recently arrived from the war zone, was horrified at this gross misrepresentation of facts. He did not hesitate to tell the director that at no time do the Germans have their coats unbuttoned while actually on duty. The director was grateful for the tip, for he realized the humiliation that might been his if the otherwise perfect scene were held up to ridicule by the better-informed of the millions who would ultimately view the picture. At the same time the author also commented on the wearing of the Iron Cross decoration, which the director had insisted the men should wear conspicuously, whereas it is usually tucked away with only its ribbon showing. Can there be any doubt of the necessity of the technical director?
To return to interior settings: These represent one of the big items of expense in the production of a film. One reason is that the average set can only be used in one production, after which it must be destroyed. In the earlier days the audience might not have commented on seeing the same furniture used several times; but to-day they will soon detect any attempt to use the same lamp, settee, or other furnishings repeatedly. Repetition has got to be avoided by the producers. And as in the case of the garments worn by the players, the furniture must be in keeping with the last word in interior furnishings. Every studio maintains a large room or several rooms in which an almost endless variety of furnishings is stored.
The walls of an interior set are generally built of compressed paper or board, backed up by framework and props, to facilitate the work of erection and destruction. Tremendous quantities of the necessary materials are employed annually, as witness some 50,000 feet or more of compressed paper board used by a leading comedy producer, together with over 500,000 feet of lumber. The same concern spends over $1,800 for some 15,000 rolls of wallpaper each year, with which to decorate the walls of the sets.
The cost of even the most modest set runs up into the hundreds of dollars, for it must be remembered that practically each set must be built and decorated to order, and filled with the necessary furniture which may not be used again for a long time to come. Elaborate scenes run up into the thousands of dollars; for instance, a good restaurant or cabaret scene may cost from $2,000 to $5,000, depending on its elaborateness and size. It is said that the café set in the comedy “His Pride and Shame,” with the comedian Ford Sterling, cost $4,000. In the recent production of “Macbeth,” starring Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the witches' scene alone cost upward of $10,000, owing to the intricate electric lighting equipment for producing the weird fire effects.
In the Land of Two-Dimensioned Structures
The film artisan finds his biggest field of endeavor in the outdoor sets, for under the open skies the undertakings are not hindered by space limitations and can therefore assume the most gigantic proportions. Here again, the striving for realism is the first consideration; here the technical director must exercise his knowledge of architectural design covering every period of history and every part of the world.
Perhaps the greatest set that has ever been constructed appears as the heading illustration of this article. On the front of this huge setting—the side that faced the camera—are gigantic walls painted to simulate stone, 100 feet high and adorned with reliefs of strange winged creatures and elephants, suggestive of the architecture of ancient Babylon. The towers of the set stand 135 feet high, and the various structures cover a ten-acre tract of land in Hollywood, California, just outside Los Angeles. For more than six months the carpenters, masons, concrete workers, and painters were busied with the set, and the cost of the work is reported to have been in excess of $50,000. The setting has been used for a production entitled “Intolerance,” produced under the direction of D. W. Griffith. In the number of people employed the film is said to outrival the American classic production "The Birth of a Nation" which was produced by the same master director.
But slightly less pretentious was the set erected at an approximate cost of $35,000 by Director Thomas H. Ince, who is a leading advocate of elaborate, realistic settings. This set represents the palace, the house of parliament, prison, royal court and adjacent buildings in a mythical country. The first spadeful of earth in preparation for the erection of the set was turned in May, 1915. The completed set was ready for use in November of the year. Into its construction went 30 carloads or approximately 600,000 feet of lumber. Glass valued at a total of $4,000 was necessary for the several hundred windows while tons upon tons of cement and plaster were used as the other principal materials. For the steps of the largest building alone ten tons of cement were used. The sidewalks with their curbings, measured some 1,200 feet, and 20 men were employed for three months laying them out and arranging the parkings between them. Trees, shrubbery, and lamps were among the ornaments placed within the boundaries of the set. Covering an area of over six and one half acres, the set still stands atop one of the hills in southern California, enduring the elements successfully as though it were intended as a permanent structure. At this very moment the films for which it has served its purpose, the photoplay “Civilization,” is being shown to audiences throughout the country.
It is principally in portraying foreign scenes that the film artisans are called upon to build elaborate sets. Years ago, before the industry had reached its present high state of development, companies traveled abroad in order to produce the plays at the actual locations called for in the scenarios. To-day, in marked contrast, the producers find it easier to bring the foreign or distant spots to the studio, literally speaking. Accuracy enables them to convince the audience that the scenes are laid in the country called for by the story. All parts of the world have been brought to the foothills of California, the shores of Florida, and the edge of the Palisades of New Jersey, where the producers have better laboratory facilities, understand the light better, can secure experienced players—and save time.
Typical instances of foreign sets are the barracks of Delhi, India, and a street in a village of a mythical country, recently erected and used by a Western producer. The former consisted of seven individual structures and entailed an expenditure of $3,000; the latter represented a street scene, lined with houses of solid construction, being made of plaster-covered timbers, while the stone walls and trees were handled with great care to obtain correctness of detail. The entire set required about six weeks to build and involved an outlay of perhaps $5,000.
There is practically no end to the elaborate outdoor sets erected by moving picture producers. In the production of “Ramona” it is claimed that over 1,800 sets were especially built for the play. The picturesque Spanish monastery for one of the sets is said to have cost $10,000.
A commendable piece of work is the set representing the temple of an Aztec monarch in the sixteenth century, which was used in the production “The Captive God.” Its framework was built of timbers, but the body was of plaster plaques. About 7,000 of these plaques were required, and the total cost of the set is said to have been $3,000.
A set representing a border town on the line separating Mexico from the United States, for use in a typical Western drama, was recently constructed at a cost of $1,500. It consisted of about 15 buildings, each entirely of frame construction. While the cost of the village was not great, it is regarded by film men as one of the most remarkably realistic sets ever built for the screen.
All of which means that the production of motion pictures is a costly enterprise if realism is to be had. Also, there is to be found no more skilled and ingenious artisan than the artisan of the screen, whose work plays so conspicuous a part in the remarkable productions of to-day.