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On watching movies at home

2012/04/02

Here’s a post I’ve been working on in some form or another since I was on Xanga years ago. It’s kind of fluffy, but I think it’s important as background to my discussion of media. I will focus on movies and television because books and such were always items you took home, so the digital revolution had a lot less of an effect on them. (The printing press was a big deal, but that is before living memory.) Also, my experience with digitally distributed books and comics is far less, though I doubt I would have been able to hack college, or at least my specific major, if I had to rely on card catalogs instead of Google scholar for research.

Like most inventions, film was the refinement and culmination of a bunch of technologies, so it’s hard to say exactly when it started. I can tell you that if you take a class on film history, you’ll typically spend less that one class period talking about zoetropes and such. The excitement starts in the 1880s, when methods were developed to take a series of photographs and play them back in real-time. The earliest films were novelties. They were made in a single take, run less than a minute and document some event. The draw was mainly the fact that projected pictures moved. Below is a well-known example of this type of film:

Around 1900, specialized exhibition houses started springing up and films started being made with plots and rudimentary editing. Most movies from this era no longer survive due to the lifespans of the materials used and the fact hardly anyone understood these things would have value.  The film below, from 1910, was thought lost for several decades until a copy turned up in the hands of a private collector in the 1970s.

Movies these days were stored on reels of celluloid. This is a transparent material with the images represented frame-by-frame along the length. You would run the strip through a projector with a strobe light timed to go off as each frame passed by. Reels could only hold so much and fit into the standard cans and onto projector rigs. Depending how fast you were supposed to feed it through the projector, the maximum was twenty to thirty minutes. This put an upper bound on film length. However, in the 1910s, the concept of a feature film, which was spread over several reels developed. This is still how things are done in analog projection, though the reel changes have been automated. They’re pretty obvious if you know what to look for. A mark appears in the upper right, generally called a cigarette burn, then the screen goes black a few frames during the switch. The narrative potential of movie was greatly enhanced by having four-to-six reels to work with instead of one and this ushered in a model of a feature film preceded by several shorts. Technology existed to record sound, but it could be reliably synced with film playback until 1927. Talkies pretty much took over by 1929. Color developed little-by-little, because color stock was expensive and more difficult to shoot with than black and white. It had been around more than twenty years before Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz solidified it in 1939. It was another twenty-five years or so before black and white disappeared.

In these early days, if you wanted to watch movies at home, you had to essentially build a commercial movie theater in your home. Film prints themselves were bulky as they took several film canisters, so required a good deal of space to store and were expensive as they weren’t exactly trivial to produce and contained a good deal of silver. Prints had to be screened fairly often or at least unwound and rewound so they wouldn’t stick together. The stock was also prone to catching fire. We’ve actually lost quite a few films because one item in a collection spontaneously combusted and started a fire that destroyed all the films nearby. This is how we lost the original copies of all pre-1935 Fox films, for instance. Precautions to minimize the damages also cost a lot of time and money. These factors meant that film collection was the exclusive provenance of wealthy eccentrics, industry types, colleges and museums. Films thought to be lost still occasionally turn up in these collections.

In 1923, 16mm film became available. This used about a quarter as much material as the traditional 35mm film, which reduced costs, but it was still fairly expensive. Since frames were a quarter the size, they held a quarter the detail, so quality was considerably less than you would see at a theater. It’s still a popular format for low-budget movies and movies where 35mm cameras are too large to be practical if the makers don’t want to shoot on video for whatever reason. If you were born before 1984 or so, you probably watched movies on a 16mm projector in school.

8mm film became available in 1932 and was sufficiently low-cost that a middle class family might reasonably purchase it. The film came in cartridges that removed a lot of the technical difficulty of projection as well. You only had to insert a cartridge and crank it, not thread anything. This frame was a quarter the size of even 16 mm and about a sixteenth of what was exhibited in a theater, so quality was fairly low. The cartridges were small in order to make it as practical and inexpensive as possible, so they only held a few minutes of film. This meant you couldn’t watch commercial movies, but highlights were available. (Though without sound until the 1960s.) Like all projection formats, they required a very dark room as the darkest part of the picture can be no darker than the color of the screen. See here for a great story about the importance of this format in the pre-video days.

In 1939, when three of my grandparents were in diapers and one wasn’t born yet, television hit the market, but it cost the modern equivalent of $10,000. There wasn’t really anything to watch, either. Top-of-the-line consumer TVs today are only about $3000. This got you twelve-inch screen (you could get this down to about $3,000 in modern money with a five-inch screen). All televisions at the time were blurry, black-and-white affairs and since only a few hundred people owned one, even in the largest markets, there wasn’t much to watch. While film was a way of taking, then playing back traditional photographs, television was quite different. It used a cathode-ray tube where magnet inside directed electrons to hit a phosphorescent coating on the back of a sheet of glass and make it glow. There was no good way to record this, only broadcast live from video cameras. Most early surviving TV is in kinescope format, where you aimed a film camera at a TV monitor, which looks awful

Early adopters got screwed because the NTSC system got adopted in the US in 1941, making all early television obsolete and effectively expensive pieces of furniture. The FCC wanted to avoid this happening again, so insisted on making color television backward compatible. A color standard was adopted in 1953. This is around the time TV started to take off, though many people couldn’t afford color sets. Practical video tape hit the market in 1956. It was way too expensive for home use, but it was a practical way to record programming and ended such kluges as pointing a video camera at a projected film.

This is the situation my parents grew up in. If you wanted to see a film, you went to the theater (which my mom’s church didn’t allow until well into the 1980s). If you missed it, you’d have to wait for a revival, which only happened to the most popular movies, or wait for it to turn up on television. A television presentation would likely be edited for length or content, you’d have to be in front of your TV at the appointed time and it would look and sound much worse than it would in any theater, especially since movies switched to widescreen in 1957, the year my dad was born, meaning they would be cropped or have extra area exposed.

In 1978, laserdisc and the various tape formats started hitting the market. This meant a consumer could buy a device to hook to their television and either buy or rent their favorite movie to watch whenever they wanted. This was the first time such a thing was possible for people who weren’t fabulously wealthy. It also killed the 8mm packaged movies market dead. Such devices were still pretty pricy, though. I was born in 1980. One of my dad’s friend’s had an 8mm projector, but I didn’t see a VCR until I was six because one of my friends had a dentist dad who brought in plenty of money and liked movies. Luckily, my dad was a software engineer, so my family followed soon after. The industry panicked that people would just record movies off television and stop spending money. My parents do, in fact, have hundreds of movies they saved this way. Due to the relatively low quality of these recordings and the fact that it was a lot of trouble, this didn’t destroy the market. In fact, it created a market that had barely existed before for consumers and rental outlets to buy movies for home viewing. When people were given the option to watch movies at home, they started watching a lot more.

I’ll get into the improvements in the technology itself tomorrow, but the ability to watch movies whenever we wanted with little per-viewing overhead changed how we experienced film. In the early days of film criticism, you had to watch the film once, try to take notes without missing anything, then write your piece. Even if you had a private screening room and controlled the projector, you couldn’t pause and advance frame-by-frame (the film would melt) and rewinding was difficult. Legendary film critic Pauline Kael bragged she never watched a film more than once. When she started back in 1951, doing so was hardly even an option and she developed a process around what was possible at the time. I took a class about the history of the western at the University of Iowa a few years ago. We watched DVDs of various films, with clips during the lecture. The clips could be repeated as many times as necessary. I asked my professor about film was taught in the pre-home-video days. He was only a couple of years older than me, so he had to go by what he had heard, but your film selection was limited by what the university owned or could borrow and you had to just watch a screening, then try to remember it. He pointed out that a lot of film criticism in the 1960s contains factual errors. One of the pieces we read in fact talked about the last shot in a movie and actually described a shot that was near, but not at, the end. Many essays also had a bit of equivocation about a description of something in the film, because they couldn’t go back and check.

I don’t know how I could have handled such an environment. When I wrote my midterm paper on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, I watched it four times completed through, often backed it up to watch shots I wanted to write about over and over and left it paused while I wrote about one scene for an hour at a time before I was ready to move onto the next. Our whole method of watching had changed and consequently, we see things differently than out predecessors. Tune in tomorrow when I talk about how the development of home video technology has changed things as well.

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