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Houses of the Moving Image

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The motion picture industry has come a long way in its 120 year history. In the early days it was regarded as an entertainment for the working classes and was sometimes looked down on by the middle and upper class. Many people seeing the potential jumped on the bandwagon and opened houses of the moving image. Converted shops, halls and fairgrounds were some of the places where early animated films were screened. Purpose built cinemas were yet to arrive. The films, which were short were on nitrate stock, which could burst into flames if near a heat source. The projector was often placed in the aisle of a building and was hand cranked by the projectionist. The film would often drop into a basket after running through the machine.

Because of a large number of fires it was decreed that projection equipment needed to be kept away from the public in a fire – proof box. In 1910 it became law that equipment had to be kept separate. Fire shutters were placed above the ports that allowed the projection light through. These had to be dropped in front of the ports at the end of the show – or dropped if there was a fire. For many years the projector was hand cranked at a speed of 16-18 frames per second.

In 1927 the talking picture arrived and projectors had to be motorized. The first talkies were sound on disc. A 16 inch diameter disc would lock with the projector. The downside of this system was if a frame needed to be removed, blank spacing would have to be inserted to keep sync. Also if someone slammed a door the needle could jump, creating a sync problem. Sound on disc did not last long and the soundtrack was put on the film. It was called an optical soundtrack. Sound films were projected at 24 frames per second.

The super cinemas arrived in the 1930s. Many of these were inspired by the large American cinemas. The art deco super cinemas were very luxurious and for many at the time the surroundings alone were a welcome change from their own humble surroundings. They had decorative plaster work in their foyers and auditoriums and had large seating capacity, some having over two thousand seats. For a small charge you could go in and stay as long as you liked. What may seem odd now is that people would go in halfway through the film, so the second half would be seen before the first. Somehow the story could still be followed.

A number of cinema circuits were formed. Big circuits included Odeon and Associated British Cinemas (ABC). There were many independent operators that could not show a film until the big circuits had shown it.

In the 1930s and '40s cinema was big business. In the 1950s many cinemas struggled because of television. Of course, if you enjoyed films the cinema at that time was still the only place to see a new or recent film, so they still had an important role to play. At that time a film could not be seen on TV until it was ten years old. Also TVs were still black and white, so the cinema was the only place to see a color film.

In the 1950s nitrate film stock was replaced with safety base. Also in the '50s larger screens such as cinemascope with 4 magnetic soundtracks and cinerama with a separate reel, carrying six magnetic tracks began to appear. There was also 3D, where two projectors running together were used. The big format 70mm made an appearance carrying six magnetic soundtracks for an all round sound experience. Projection room started to become automated with Projectomatic, a system that would automatically open curtains (tabs), dim the lights and perform several other functions. In the 1960s Odeon cinemas installed a more sophisticated system called Cinema.

Projection room technology kept improving and the non rewind and tower systems were introduced. These allowed a complete feature to be shown without changing reels.

Film stock started to improve and shortly before the digital revolution polyester based stock was introduced. This meant no more film breaks and the calling out of 'put a shilling in the meter'. Polyester was strong enough to pull a projector over.

Today practically all cinemas have digital equipment and the role of the traditional projectionist has disappeared. The equipment is now, in most cases looked after by the management – there is not a frame of film in sight. To me the multiplex of today does not have the drawing power of the old art deco cinemas. We have come a long was in the last 120 years but is the cinematic experience any better?

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Source by DA Ellis

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