Hooked on History – The Magical Movie Machines

Toronto, October 16th, 2013.
Hooked on History – The Magical Movie Machines

Would you buy a used car from this man?

Would you buy a used car from this man?

Last Wednesday was Movie Night at the PHSC meeting, complete with free popcorn. President Mark Singer brought his VHS recorder and showed a really interesting old video.  The VHS print was recorded on a simple blank cassette and wrapped with a plain black and white paper sleeve. While the resolution was lousy – typical VHS TV quality, the correct aspect ratio and adequate lighting made the viewing comfortable with modern day technology even though the colour was over saturated.

Wes Lambert from Video

Wes Lambert from Video

The video is based on a hardware collection by Wes Lambert of California. Wes and his collection were written up back on March 10, 1994 by Pancho Doll, a writer for the Los Angeles Times.


Leif Engeswick

The narrator (and likely source of the old silent movie clips) is Leif Engeswick of Ventura, California, an early cinema historian back when this video was created by Peter Kuehn of California in his spare time. The movie is directed by Peter Kuehn and Deborah Mills. Engeswick and his interest in silent movies was written up in the Los Angeles Times by Leo Smith  October 11, 1990. In the article Engeswick mentions “A friend of mine in Camarillo collects antique cameras and projection equipment”. Engeswick went on to fix old music machines back in Ventura, California as noted in the local Ventura newspaper on August 27, 2007.


Ad for the Zoetrope

The video uses Lambert’s collection to demonstrate the history and mechanics of these early machines. Engeswick (looks like Engcswick in the movie) began by showing a few simple optical toys to illustrate human persistence of vision – a characteristic of our eyes and brain which makes movies possible. It should be noted that the toys chosen were familiar to many PHSC members who saw originals during presentations by the late Robert Gutteridge, or at the various fairs featuring portions of his extensive collection (Ed Warner of the PHSC repaired many of these ancient devices for Mr Gutteridge, restoring them to working order).


The Prestwich movement

The pre-cinema toys were followed by a section of the video describing the six or seven transport mechanisms which made it possible to take and show movies. Each mechanism was cleverly demonstrated using machines from Lambert’s collection. The use of the collection was interspersed with rare clips of old movies and advertisements to demonstrate how well the various mechanisms worked. Shown here is the Prestwich movement (on its back). The two fingers at left engage the sprocket holes and pull down (i.e. to the right) to pull the film down one frame. The device is over a century old today.


Movie camera gears

As movie cameras became more sophisticated, features were added to make their use easier for the early cinematographers such as rudimentary variable shutters to control lighting, special filters to capture colour, better quality view finders, etc. For example the Akfify camera of 1914 used a viewfinder that remained at the cinematographer’s eye level while the camera was smoothly rotated up and down to follow the scene. Many cameras switched the viewfinder as they switched the lens from wide angle to long focus.

Early attempts to record in colour used two filters in the shutter wheel so alternate film frames were exposed through coloured filters of red or green. The black and white images were then projected through a similar shutter giving the appearance of colour.


Early Wide frame size

Engeswick moved on to the variety of film formats used in the early days, noting that the only world wide standard was the humble sprocketed 35mm film used for a century and well known by everyone in the audience. The example strips were often sealed in plastic as the material itself was a fire hazard (the very transparent examples shown were made from Nitrocellulose which was replaced in movies by so called safety film in the 1940s).

Engeswick went on to discuss early amateur cameras and then projectors which in early versions could be quickly switched back to show lantern slides. The movie ended at that point after covering machines from the pre-cinema optical toys era to the 1930s when the whole movie industry had taken off and 16mm film became the standard for wealthy amateur cinematographers.

It was a pleasant evening – finished off by many of us in a local pub, just down the road.
– Bob Carter







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