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The Scenic Background - Motion Pictures

By HUGO DAWN, Artist and Director

DURING the past few years motion picture producers have given the subject of sets and settings their serious consideration. They have employed men skilled in architecture, in effects of light and shade, in the disposition of masses of color and in suitability.

The producer now realizes the value of color—the simplified background—the balance of wall and window space. Today the actor's work is less difficult to follow. His skill is not confused by screaming designs, by inappropriate and misapplied ornateness.

Thousands of Drawings

Courtesy Bray

Thousands of drawings must be made for an animated cartoon of average length. Cartoonists, animators, camera boys labor 30 days to produce a film that can be shown in 10 minutes. In the illustration we see the overhead camera trained on the frame that holds sheets of drawings arranged in scenes. The pressure of a foot pedal exposes the lens. This operation is repeated until all the sheets are photographed, and the film is ready for the projector.

Early motion pictures representedwhat the man that dressed the set considered refined luxury, and what the dramatic director was willing to accept as background. The average director still has a powerful fancy for flamboyant walls and furnishings; some have been converted from this grotesque sort of decoration, We have progressed, but still have before us a lengthy course. The development of beauty travels a snail's pace.

The producer is rapidly learning that a good story is materially aided by good backgrounds and light effects. The public has grown to understand composition, it knows better sets, it supports better stories. The public may not be able to analyze the why and wherefore, but the old form of decoration is peeling from the canvas and disintegrating. A setting is of little service to the rama if the drama does not dominate. The action is paramount, but can be so only if the background is not obtrusive.

Perfect sets have never made a drama. The audience follows story. The story can be explained by settings. Settings are dramatic rhetoric. They should be indicative of breeding. When settings receive uncommon notice the drama is defective. When they are not noticed they are badly thought out.

Settings are the photographer's hope. A good setting helps reduce the number of subtitles—the aim of all idealistic directors. A good background often elevates the achievement of the player. A bad setting has never elevated anything. A good set can be spoiled by bad lighting — a bad set can be saved by good lighting.

An Antique Italian Room

Courtesy Goldwyn

Reproduced by an artist-director who believes that truth is beauty, and follows his creed.

Lighting is motion picture composition. "Shaft lighting" gives a semblance of parallax (an apparent displacement of L an object due to an 17" observer's position). A motion picture has no parallax. The apparent shifting of an object, or the ability to see around an object, is caused by double sight, or the vision of two eyes.

A lens represents one eye, it may be the right or the left. Therefore it is important in sets to get depth, not width. The depth of a motion picture is infinite, its width is finite,—it has limits. An audience knows two reactions in relation to a set—it is pleasing or it is not.

Kipling's Stories Have Reached The Screen

Courtesy Pathe

The sets for "Without Benefit of Clergy," the first of Kipling's short story classics to be filmed, were designed according to the author's own suggestions.

A man does not readily believe in a thing he does not see or know. There is no greater mission for the art director than to concoct a picture that bears the semblance of composite truth. Motion pictures must tell the truth to be convincing. Beauty affects us by association. Sometimes when the association is forgotten the memory of beauty remains.

The impress of great beauty is an expurgated meirory of things we have enjoyed. True art is simple—simple beauty. Most motion picture backgrounds are not simple. The average picture suffers from a superabundance of complications, and this applies to both sets and acting.

A Studio Carpenter Shop

Courtesy Lasky

A Studio Carpenter Shop is equipped to build anything from chariots to churches.

When an audience realizes that a background is artificial,—has been constructed for the play, the production suffers. As long as a set suggests the studio it fails in its mission.

The prime mission of the screen is to entertain. The most astute of latter-day producers recognize the commercial worth of taste and judgment, an understanding of proportions, of rhythm and tempo, of, the finer values of drama, of good acting, design and composition.

A Studio Property Room

From "Behind the Motion Picture Screen." Scientific American Pub, Co.

A fascinating department to be found in moving picture establishments.

It is vital to make beauty clear, and more important to make it affect the imagination. It is this latter development that artists and directors look for, but we cannot venture too far on this ground until we know that the public, the ultimate arbiter of our destinies, gives us unstinted approval and applause.

Designing and Printing Titles

This work engages the talent of experienced artists

A Studio Within A Studio

Trained sculptors and castmen make to order whatever is required by the art director.

Drying The Negative

Courtesy Educational Films

The film is wound on revolving drums when it comes from the developing room.

In The Cutting Room

From "Behind the Motion Picture Screen," Scientific American Pub. Co.

In the cutting room, miles of printed celluloid ribbons are handled in assembling a complete picture. Sometimes a "cutter" becomes so expert in arranging scenes that his director leaves most of the job to him.

Source: THE MENTOR, Volume 9, Number 6, July 1, 1921, Pages 22-27

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