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Flicker Alley presents
Discovering Cinema (2003, 2004)

"However spectacular, these visions of light still lacked the dimension that would grant them equal footing with the reality of the world at large. That dimension was sound."
- Narrator

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: October 09, 2007

Stars: Stephen Herbert, Paolo Cherchi Usaï
Director: Eric Lange

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:44m:21s
Release Date: September 25, 2007
UPC: 617311673399
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Although motion pictures emerged in the 1890s, they were for the most part in black and white, and didn't have sound, keeping them quite a bit short from being the true simulcarum of life they aspired to be. Numerous inventors and entrepreneurs over the years attempted to create synchronized sound and lifelike color presentations of their films, but it wasn't until the late 1920s and the mid 1930s that they actually managed to reliably do so. This pair of documentaries by Eric Lange and Serge Bromberg traces the history of sound and color in the movies from the earliest days to maturity.

Learning to Talk (2003) looks at the audio dimension, from the earliest days of sound recording, unrelated to motion pictures. The earliest eras feature the standard silent live accompaniment, with various ingenious additions such as a specified live singer or sound effects performed at the appropriate moments, or the Notofilm, which ran the melody line of the intended score across the bottom of the screen to guide a performer. But with Edison's invention of the phonograph, it was clear that recording of some kind would be the future. The problem was how to synchronize the sound with the pictures, though Edison managed some primitive achievements in this area as early as 1902.

There were two dueling formats of sound, one utilizing disc (which would evolve into the Vitagraph sound system, used by The Jazz Singer), and the optical format used by the Fox Movietone shorts, and which would eventually triumph as the method of choice for sound films. The narrative is reasonably clear, although it does tend to meander a bit from topic to topic. Because there were so many competing formats, however, that approach is probably unavoidable. The documentary depicts most of these versions in quality excerpts, with clips that demonstrate the systems and their limitations with clarity.

The accompanying documentary, Movies Dream in Color (2004), similarly tracks the evolution of color from painstaking hand-painting of individual frames to the gorgeous results of three-strip Technicolor in the 1930s. Before color could be represented directly on film as photographed, a great many dead ends were attempted, such as Kinemacolor, which gets surprisingly effective results from alternating red and green frames with the appropriate filters. There's also a good description of the tinting and toning processes, clarifying the often confusing differences and pointing out that both could be used at once, depending on the film.

Even when there is a determination to have film-based color, the approach was not clear. Most abortive attempts used an additive process, layering colors to an impractical extent. It wasn't until quite a bit later that a subtractive filtering process was arrived at to simplify the color photography system. Even then, there were a number of difficulties before Technicolor was ready to take the world by storm. And the differences in color quality are certainly striking enough; the specimens are highly variable in their effectiveness, though many of the primitive versions are surprisingly colorful. The two documentaries together tell a tale of struggle to arrive at verisimilitude, and they're well done. The one objection I have is that a significant chunk of both, dealing with the early magic lantern era, utilizes the same examples, and they're thus a bit repetitive when seen together.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Rationo

Image Transfer Review: The original full frame picture generally is reasonably attractive, with the color sequences coming across well. The ancient film specimens are variable in their quality, though for the most part they're well-preserved. Black levels are good, though shadow detail is somewhat plugged up. The program, being European in origin, was converted from PAL to NTSC format, resulting in some minor but unobtrusive ghosting. Unfortunately, La Cucaracha in the extras is given a slipshod PAL/NTSC conversion, so that the rapid motion of the dancing is well-nigh unwatchable. That's tragic considering how eye-poppingly gorgeous the short is, both in the three-strip Technicolor and its exemplary condition.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The audio of the documentary is an undistinguished 2.0 mono; while clean, it doesn't attract any particular attention. The early sound films are obviously going to be noisy, and no detraction is intended for their iffy quality.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 10 cues and remote access
3 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: Gladiator style 2-pack
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. 33 short films
Extras Review: The real joy of this set lies in the extras section. Each disc includes substantial quantities of short films demonstrating the evolution of color and sound, though it would be nice if there were some additional production notes regarding them. The sound disc features four examples of live sound (including two optional karaoke versions!) accompaniments. The sound on disc examples include Caruso in an excerpt of Lucia di Lammermoor, plus several other opera excerpts from before 1915. There's also the lengthy trailer for The Jazz Singer, with footage of the premiere and a few (non-talking) excerpts from the film itself. Several early optical sound films are included, such as the legendary Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake music shorts from 1923 and a 1924 interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as he talks about the origins of Sherlock Holmes and his interest in spiritualism. And of course, there's Gus Visser and his duck, singing Ma, he's making eyes at me (1924).

The disc relating to color also provides examples of applied color, including five hand-colored shorts, and three Pathé stencilled-color films, ranging from 1895 to 1926. There's a selection of shorts using both additive and subtractive color techniques, including Cinecolor and Technicolor, rounded out by the trailers for The King of Jazz and Becky Sharp, the latter being the first three-strip Technicolor full-length feature. As noted above, the promotional Technicolor short La Cucaracha is amazingly colorful and did its job well in selling the characteristics of the process; it's too bad that it was handled so badly in bringing it to disc: combing and ghosting plague it throughout.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

While the stories of sound and color are certainly fascinating, and many may be surprised by how far back sound and color actually go, the action is in the ample and wonderful extras. Recommended to fans of early film.


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