Monday, 8 May 2017

Deutches Filmmuseum - Creating the Illusion

The thing with film is that it changes the way that the story is told, and the way the narrative can be produced. The thing is that even in a western industrialised country, not everybody is literate, which means that not everybody is able to read and enjoy a good book. Okay, there are probably a lot more people out there who can read, it is just that reading takes time and effort, neither of which many are willing to invest, so simply don't do it. However, it hasn't always been the case that people have been as literate as they are now, and there was a time, even after the invention of the printing press, that books were only in the possession of the wealthy, the church, and the upper class. As such, there has always been a need to be able to allow those who aren't able to, or aren't willing to, read to enjoy the story and understand the narrative.

The Ancient Athenians worked this out by inventing theatre, however theatre was simply an extension of what we would know as a poetry reading. Back in those day bards would travel the lands, visit a village or town, and in return for food and shelter would tell stories of times past - this is how the Illiad and the Odyssey, the stories of the Trojan War, came down to us. However, the theatre came about when some bright spark (we believe it was a guy named Thespis), decided that instead of having a single person recite a story, to add a second person who would interact with this first person - thus we have the first actors, and the first play.

The First Theatre

The other way of being able to tell the narrative beyond the written word is through art and sculpture. Walk into a European church - most notably the Catholic ones - and you will see a building that is bursting full of paintings and images, the most common one being the story of Christ's crucifixion, and in particular the stations of the cross. Along with these paintings you will also find statues representing the apostles, and also images reflecting the other stories of the Bible, though the most common ones are the story of the fall, and of Christ's death and resurrection.

And of course The Last Judgement

However, this isn't a post on the history of film, or even the history of the narrative - that was in my previous post on the Deutches Film Museum. Rather, this post will explore how the movie is created, as that was what we learnt when we visited the second floor of the Film Museum.

Birth of the Cinema

Okay, I probably should say a few things about the beginnings of Cinema, namely because I didn't really touch too much on it in my previous post. While there has always been this fascination with capturing images, and even making them move, the development of cinema didn't suddenly see huge and extravagant movies appear in the screen. In fact at first it was really only a bit of a fad which involved short films in traveling carnivals - the modern movie cinema didn't come until much later. Further, the types of films were either comedy, namely slapstick, or naughty (which isn't at all that surprising that one of the first films that came about involved naked people, usually women, running about). However, it wasn't until around 1915 that the first full length feature films appeared, particularly birth of a nation.

However sound didn't come about until much later, namely the 1930s. Initially the films would have somebody in the cinema playing the piano, and the music that you actually hear on the modern renditions aren't necessarily the scores that were originally played - even though films started to be distributed with musical scores, that didn't necessarily mean that the cinema would actually play that particular score. The 1920s was generally seen as the golden years of the silent film with directors such as Fritz Lang and Sergi Einstein and actor directors such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. This of course fed into the Golden Age of Hollywood, which lasted until 1960, with the rise of television, and also the anti-trust suits which began to break apart the Hollywood Monopoly.

Anyway, enough of the history and instead let us look at what goes into the films (and since this is a German museum I'll also use the German names).

Acting - Schauspiel 

Ahh, yes, the actors - people, as was described by James Franco in 'This is the End', who when thrown into the real world actually have no ability, or worth, to be able to function, but do an incredible job of pretending to be something that they are not. Actually, this is probably being a bit harsh because a number of actors have gone on to become politicians, but then again people would probably point out that politicians also belong to a class of people who have absolutely no clue with how to function in the real world and can only survive thanks to an army of advisors helping them out. 

These days acting seems to be incredibly glamorous, but that is because the successful ones tend to be front an centre of our culture. Sure, many actors come and go, and it is quite possible that one wrong word, and one disasterous night out, can completely destroy a career. Still, some of these actors (such as Robert Downey Jnr) manage to survive these periods of indiscretion, and others have built up such a safety net that they can survive outside of Hollywood stardom.

I was intitially going to suggest that it is only in the modern era that the cult of celebrity has raised the actor from humble beginnings to the idols that we worship today, however acting has always been one of those professions that has a make it or break it aspect about it. Just as the struggling Hollywood actor trying to make it in Los Angeles has become a modern stereotype, the band of players that wandered the land in the days of Shakespeare lived a similar existence. While the band of players in Hamlet neglects the actors and playwrights that lived upon the patronage of the king and the nobles, our modern world sees onto the handful of successful actors and seems to ignore the amateurs that toil away on stage in community halls, and those attempting to break into the scene by snapping up whatever opportunity might come their way.

While the actors tend to take centre stage in the production, it is not so much the actor that we focus on but the character that the actor plays. This can be difficult, especially when we have some actors that tend to be type cast. The main reason for this is because when we watch the film we don't see the character, we see the actor - Jason Stratham is a prime example of this. However, there are other actors, such as the aforementioned Robert Downey Jnr, who is able to disappear behind the character that he is portraying. In one sense this has something to do with the actor's ability, and in other ways with aspects above and beyond the actor, such as costume design and script writing.

Beyond the Actor

In a way the scripting and the costume go as much into defining the character as does the actor, though it is interesting that stage acting and film acting are two completely different styles. Actually, as I think about it that isn't all that surprising, particularly since stage acting requires the actor to remember a lot more, and also they need to be able to exaggerate themselves much more due to the live audience, particularly in a large theatre. However, since mistakes in film and be cut and refilmed, the necessity of remembering lines is much less. Mind you, another thing about film acting is improvisation actually occurs a lot more, and there are even suggestions that there are some films where most of the lines are improvised.

However, the costumes also play an incredibly important role, namely because the character's clothes go a long way to being able to define the character. Characters that wear ordinary clothes tend not to stand out as much as characters whose clothes are unique. However, costuming goes a long way beyond the clothes that the actor wears, particularly when we are looking at characters that aren't necessarily human, or are younger, or older, than the actor (though I do get this feeling that some actors seem to spend an awful lot of money on plastic surgery).

But as we consider costumes let us move beyond costumes a bit to the role of animation. As computers have become much more powerful it has become much easier to not only manipulate the images of the actors, but also create entities that didn't actually exist. Mind you, animation has been around for as long as film has been around, however as technology has developed animation has become much more sophisticated. In a sense the physical character of the actor suddenly disappears to be replaced by what is in effect the costume, whether it is an image that has been altered by the computer, a clay model pasted into the film during editing, or simply the film itself.

The Soundtrack

The term soundtrack actually comes from a little strip that runs along the side of the film where the sound was encoded. The original film would shine a light through this strip (along with the rest of the film) which will fall onto a photovoltaic cell, and turn this light into sound. Of course film is rarely used these days, since most films are produced on laser disc and made using extensive computer imaging, unless of course you are somebody like Quentin Tarrantino (and there are still cinemas scattered about the place that still have film projectors, though don't expect to find them in your modern megaplex).
However there is actually a lot more to sound than simply having the actors being able to talk. In fact sound effects can be just as sophisticated as visual effects, with sounds being produced to create the illusion of something that isn't necessarily there. A classic example of this, as is seen in Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail, is the use of coconut shells to produce the illusion of horses galloping. Actually the sound, like much of the film, is actually added during the post-production stage, so the sounds that you hear in the film isn't necessarily the sound that the actors hear, which is similar to many of the visuals. For instance that machinegun that Rambo appears to be firing actually isn't firing anything at all.

The other aspect of sound is the mood - this is not just songs that are played in the background, but also a musical score. This isn't necessarily the loud musical scores that were played along with the silent movies, but it is a much softer score that helps generate the atmosphere (such as the famous theme that was played when Jaws was sneaking up on the boat). In fact I suspect that many of the big budget films have very little, if any, part of them that is completely silent - I suspect that there is at least some sound playing in the background.

Visual Effects

Yes, the good old blue screen. I remember watching a show in primary school about how the blue screen worked. Well, coming into this museum we actually got to play around with a similar device, though instead of using blue it was using green. Basically what the editor does is that it erases all of a specific colour from the film and then replaces it with a different film, such as an alien planet where you are being chased down by a giant insectoid creature, much like the one that we played around with here.

Yet there is much, much more to visual effects than the use of the blue/green screen, to it is used in quite a lot of films these days (namely because it tends to be much cheaper than building a set, though if you are planning on regularly using the set, such as a living room in a sitcom, then it is probably much cheaper just building the set - or a town in a western such as Westword). Another way of creating sets on the cheap is through the use of matte painting, where the image is painted on the screen and placed on the back way, and the use of lights and shadows (as well as computer effects) make it appear more real. Further we have the use of models, though in some sense models, matte paintings, and the blue screen are all used together.

However the use of shadows and lights, as well as manipulating the image, are also used to generate mood. For instance horror movies and thrillers tend to always be set in dark and gloomy settings, while romances are set in bright and happy settings. However the creators will change the mood depending on the stage of the film - at the start of Alien, before they had entered the ship, the atmosphere was much brighter, however in a romance, where the protagonists are having a fight, it is likely to be much more sombre (and even raining).

One thing I wish to touch on before I finish off is the use of the camera. When I was younger I did a six-week video production course and one thing we were taught was to make use of the camera, and the edge of the screen. Basically the television is bound by a frame, and we cannot see anything beyond the frame (unless the camera moves). As such we can do a lot in creating the illusion simply through the use of the frame. One trick I did back then was the POV (point of view) shoot, where the entire film was shot from the point of view of the main character, in this case a monster - the nature of the monster was shown not so much by the monster but rather by the reaction of other characters to the monster.

The Editing Suite

Back when I was in university I had the privilege of producing videos for the church, and I also had the privilege of having access to an editing suite. Mind you this was back in the days that video cameras were huge and we still filmed using video tapes - in fact mobile phones were pretty much in their infancy and digital cameras simply were not readily available, or even cheap. Anyway, editing basically consisted on having two (or more) video recorders and you would cut and past the footage from one video tape onto another. The reason that you do that is because films are rarely, if ever, filmed in chronological order.

However the editing suite, as I have indicated above, is much more than just cutting and pasting the various scenes together - it is in here that the film comes out in its final form. Here the sounds and visual effects come together, and the images are placed onto the film. In a way this is probably the most complicated part of the production, though not necessarily the most expensive since the actors, especially big name actors that can command a lot of money, don't come cheap.

Anyway, it is probably time to finish off, but I will do so with another classic of the silent era - Buster Keaton's The General.

Creative Commons License

Deutches Filmmuseum - Creating the Illusion by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me


  1. This whole series is fascinating. I may need to put this museum on my list. My first experience with the Greenscreen was as a kid at Universal Studios. This was back in the day before it became a franchise of theme parks. Back then, there were no rides - you rode around the back lot on a tram and saw the sets they used. And you got to go on a sound stage and volunteers would do the greenscreen in realtime. Other ones I remember particularly where the sets where they did Moses crossing the Red Sea and the Jaws robot.

    Interesting that you mentioned Birth of a Nation. Something kind of fitting (to this American, particularly) that it was smut and KKK propaganda that were crucial in the early history of film. :/

  2. I actually visited the Universal Studios in Singapore and was quite disappointed that they didn't have Jaws there. However, I always thought it was a theme park, but its old incarnation sounds like it would have been much more interesting.