Archive for Segundo de Chomon

The Sunday Intertitle: Bava Lava

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2015 by dcairns

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I’m finally reading Tim Lucas’s magisterial Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. I can’t fault the scholarship — few filmmakers are lucky enough to get books as exhaustive and considered and respectful as this. It’s all the sweeter since Bava was such an underrated artisan in his lifetime.

I wouldn’t dare to contest Lucas’ unparalleled expertise in this subject, but one little bit where I think he’s not quite right gave me an idea for today’s piece.

The book not only examines Bava’s directorial legacy, it probes into his work as cinematographer, and also provides as full an account of the career of his father, Eugenio Bava, cinematographer and visual effects artist of the silent era. Lucas examines the legendary CABIRIA, whose effects are jointly ascribed to Bava Snr. and the great Segundo de Chomon. Chomon usually gets most of the credit, and Lucas thinks this is probably unfair — he claims Chomon’s effects “were usually rooted in the principles of stop-motion animation.” In fact, I think it’s going to be impossible to make any calls on who did what, other than that we are told Bava Snr. built the model Vesuvius. Chomon’s imitations of Georges Melies’ style saw him performing every kind of trick effect known to the age, to which he added the innovation of stop motion, cunningly integrated into live action sequences. I think it’s fair to say than any of the effects in CABIRIA might have been the work of either man.

Lucas goes on to focus on one spectacular shot of the erupting volcano, a composite in which the bubbling miniature shares screen space with a line of fleeing extras and sheep (do the sheep know they’re fleeing? Perhaps they’re just walking). Lucas notes that smoke pots in the foreground, placed near the extras, waft fumes up across the model volcano, which makes him think the shot could not have been achieved as a matte effect. He deduces that the volcano was filmed through a sheet of angled glass, one corner of which was brightly lit to reflect the extras.

I would suggest that the shot is in fact a pure double exposure, with no mattes. The volcano is dark apart from the bright lava. The shot of the extras is also dark apart from the extras, sheep, and smoke. Double exposed on the same negative, the bright parts register and the black parts stay black. Thus the white smoke can drift up through the frame, appearing transparently over both the darkness and the bubbling Bava-lava.

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More examples of this effect: at the end of Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE, two characters fly off into the sky. The highlights on their figures cut through the superimposed cloudscape, but the shadow areas become transparent, phantasmal, in a way I don’t think the filmmakers intended; and in CITIZEN KANE, Welles crossfades slowly into flashback, with Joseph Cotten remaining solidly visible long after his background has disappeared, a trick achieved by fading the lighting down on the set while keeping Cotten brightly lit — no matte was needed, and had Cotten puffed on one of those cigars he was talking about, the smoke could have drifted across the incoming scenery, provided a sidelight picked it out of the darkness.

Lucas’s reflection trick, a kind of Pepper’s Ghost illusion, would have anticipated the more refined Schufftan effect by more than a decade (Eugen Schüfftan used mirrors to combine miniatures with full-scale action within the same, live shot on METROPOLIS) and Lucas suggests that Mario Bava resented this claiming of an invention his father had anticipated, and makes his disapproval known by including a character called Schüftan in his movie KILL, BABY, KILL. Since I don’t believe Eugenio anticipated Eugen in this technique, I think we can say that the use of the name Schüftan for the film’s heroine is more of an affectionate tribute to a great cinematographer, effects artist and a near-namesake of his dad.

Quibbles aside, I repeat: this is an amazing book.

The Sunday Intertitle: Playing War

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , on January 11, 2015 by dcairns

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LA GUERRA E IL SOGNO DI MOMI (1917).

Giovanni Pastrone (CABIRIA) and Segundo de Chomon, the Spanish special effects genius, collaborated on this strange, wondrous and possibly wrongheaded attempt to show the First World War as imagined by a child safe at home while his father is at the front.

Chomon was a pioneer not only of mixing animation with live action, going one better than Melies whose films only SEEM like cartoons, he built the first camera dolly, and this movie features several elegant and beautiful tracking shots, reframing the action and enhancing the emotion.

Pastrone’s battle scenes are exciting and sophisticated in their use of film language (and are all embedded in the action as flashback scenes from a letter home).

The weirdness comes from the juxtaposition of these off elements. The live action war pays lip service to humanism while serving up the typical endangered women and children, ravaging huns, and righteous avengers who put everything right in the end. This was seems to have no real costs.

The animated was is sheer spectacle too, though we’re told that it’s the product of a child’s imagination after he’s been distressed by vivid accounts of warfare, The mass destruction IS kind of disturbing in spite of the funny puppets and Thunderbirds explosions, though. Robbed of the expressivity of human beings, these toy soldiers behave like automata, “only following orders,” their faces masklike and set in inappropriate dopey smiles. I guess the overall effect is as conflicted as you could hope for in a movie made while the war was still stuck in bloody stalemate. It can’t be anti-war because it adopts a simple goodies and baddies perspective, but it manages to avoid being overly enthusiastic about violence.

Its noblest aspect is that it fails as propaganda.

The Earlies

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2013 by dcairns

Strange and beautiful: LA FEE AU PIGEONS (THE PIGEON FAIRY) 1906, Gaston Velle with Segundo de Chomon. From the Corrick Collection.

Pordenone, Italy, early October.

Professor Vanessa Toulmin, director of the National Fairground Archive, was looking forward to one event in particular at Pordenone — the screening of early cinema made using the Joly-Normandin system, which involved five sprocket holes per frame and did not catch on (my favourite early camera is the one Griffith used, which punched sprocket holes in the film as it went, and sounded like a machine gun in consequence). A whole programme of these films, drawn from several collections, was to be shown. As an expert on fairground attractions, freak shows, circuses, music hall and seaside entertainments, the movies she likes best are one shot and forty-five seconds long. Some of her colleagues would go even further, she said: for them, cinema lost everything the moment showmen started projecting it on a screen. “Mutoscope or nothing!” is the cry.

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YouTube is the modern Mutoscope, in a way, and a lot of early cinema is available on it. The short duration of a Lumiere Bros film would seem nicely fitted to the medium… I’d also seen plenty of early cinema on VHS and DVD.

But seeing the Joly-Normandin films, and then a selection from the Corrick Collection, projected big, albeit mostly on digital, was revelatory. Of course, the films triumphed over the penny arcade stuff by virtue of scale, so it’s totally perverse to look at them on a little window on a little monitor — they need to be seen BIG. They are big short films, mostly framed in wide shot so as to cram in as much detail as possible. While I don’t usually enjoy processions and parades as a subject (pageantry is just shit, to me), but one simply view of crowds on a London street decorated for Victoria’s Jubilee revealed something curious and touching, bottom left of frame. As the throng on the pavement shuffled through the camera’s field of vision, each pedestrian glanced up, into its round glass eye, and the same expression flashed across each face. It was partly wariness and partly hope. What did they fear, and what did they hope for, these long-vanished anony-mites? To be shown as they are? To be immortalized, in a way that doesn’t benefit them, but only us?

Then they drift out of frame, to keep their appointments with Death.

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