Avoiding spoilers: 1977 v 2015

Star Wars Poster

Like a lot of people I spent quite a bit of 2015 both anticipating the new Star Wars movie and trying (successfully as it turns out) to avoid any spoilers.

And it amazes me no end, considering the times we live in, that the film makers managed to keep one of the biggest secrets away from the vast majority of us. (Obviously I won’t say what it is – even thought the film has been out for a couple of weeks, there’ll always be someone who hasn’t seen it – I still lower my voice if ever I mention the big reveal in The Empire Strikes Back).

Compare this with 1977 and the release of the movie that started it all, Star Wars (back then, no ‘Episode IV: A New Hope’ in sight).

The film was previewed at the 34th World Science Fiction Convention and here’s what attendees got to see:

An hour-long slide presentation, made up of 35mm slides of the film’s production artwork and on-set production photos, was narrated live in the Muehlebach’s Imperial Ballroon, the hotel’s largest, to a standing-room-only crowd; this was presented by Lippencott. He outlined in great detail the entire plot of the film from scene one through to the final scene.

An hour! The movie’s only about twice that… Fast forward nearly 40 years and the most you get is a few carefully edited split-second shots.

The Return of Deep Focus? (AKA Shallow Depth Of Field is not the only way…)

Spellbound composite

Filmmakers push technology in certain directions, but technology pushes back at us, too. A breakthrough in one area can hold us back in another; a technology that makes one style of filmmaking easier can impede another. And sometimes, what was seen as a breakthrough with hindsight looks merely like a shift in convention.

In the heyday of movies in the 1940s, a cinematographic breakthrough was proclaimed: deep focus. Most famously pioneered by cinematographer Greg Toland in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, deep focus meant everything on the film set could be in focus at once. No longer did the filmmaker have to decide what was in focus and what was not. Everything was clear and sharp for the eye to discover. Some critics saw this as liberating the audience; rather than being controlled and directed, the viewer was free to make his or her own connections.

Deep focus (or deep depth of field, as we would call it today) was dependent on innovations in technology. Faster filmstock and powerful carbon arc lamps enabled Toland to shoot between f8 and f16 using (mostly) wide-angle lenses. A couple of years earlier none of this would have been possible.

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Rain is sizzling bacon, cars are lions roaring: the art of sound in movies | Jordan Kisner

It is a central principle of sound editing that people hear what they are conditioned to hear, not what they are actually hearing. The sound of rain in movies? Frying bacon. Car engines revving in a chase scene? It’s partly engines, but what gives it that visceral, gut-level grist is lion roars mixed in. To be excellent, a sound editor needs not just a sharp, trained ear, but also a gift for imagining what a sound could do, what someone else might hear.

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Britain on film: thousands of pieces of archive footage go online for first time

Anyone who thought the Edwardians stuffy and polite will be relieved to hear researchers found at least four examples of young boys giving the camera V-signs. There are very serious subjects with unexpected humour. The 1970s mother who lives in one of Britain’s worse slums, in Birmingham’s Balsall Heath, being interviewed holding her baby cheerfully playing with a screwdriver in one hand and plug in the other. Many of the films are bewildering to 21st century eyes; for example, a 1967 film called Paper Fashion declaring you can get almost anything in paper – paper shoes, dresses, bikinis, bedsheets, jewellery, plates, cups, underwear – and what a great thing that is. When you’ve used it, just throw it away! The film concludes reassuringly with paper dresses: “As long as the untreated inflammable ones don’t end up in smoke they should end up with the 218,000 tonnes of household tissue alone which was added to our waste heaps last year.”

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Confessions of a location scout: why the New York beloved of the movies doesn’t exist any more

Take alleyways, for example. From the movies, you’d think Manhattan to be riddled with dank, dangerous, trash-strewn back-alleys, complete with rusting fire escapes and crumbling, graffiti-covered brick walls. So it often comes as a total shock to most directors when we tell them that Manhattan actually has only three or four of these types of alleys (Cortlandt Alley, Great Jones Alley, Broadway Alley, Staple Street), and none are dangerous in the slightest.

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