Neil Oliver films a scene from The Mayor of Casterbridge using an antique camera, to reveal how pioneers in Brighton made movies long before Hollywood.
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Brighton, officially the city of Brighton and Hove,
was in the 1820s the main terminal for ferry travel to France.
Before the railways, it was the quickest route from London to Paris,
which may explain its early attraction
to a bohemian crowd of artists and free-thinkers.
At the turn of the 20th century, they were joined by another group, pioneers in a brand new field.
They invented something so fundamental that we use it all the time while making Coast.
In fact, we used it just now,
These pioneers were Britain's early film-makers
and they helped to create the modern movie, because they invented, among other things, the close-up.
In the late 1890s, when Hollywood was little more than a citrus grove on the West Coast of America,
the South Coast of England was a hotbed of movie-making.
Long hours of summer daylight made it ideal,
but the very first films were pretty static by modern standards.
Simple records of daily life,
these early films were known as "animated photographs".
They captured events as they unfolded in one continuous un-edited shot.
But George Albert Smith, a Brighton showman turned film-maker, had some new ideas.
Frustrated by these single-shot films, he was about to transform this infant medium.
Film historian Frank Gray is showing me how.
What Smith did was to begin to imagine you could build a film sequence.
Instead of conceiving of a single shot like the frame, you could move
from that and you could look at what I'm seeing now of you,
how you're looking at me, and also too the sense in which the sea,
the sky, the shingle and then the kind of wider space in which we're in.
'Just as we move OUR camera to get different shots,
Smith did the same thing,
'except he was the first to think of it.'
And in this early film he shows another first, the close-up.
So does this approach enable the director to trick the audience?
All the time, film's always about trickery.
You're working with a set of shots which create the illusion
of a continuity of time and space, and I think that's why we love the medium.
Strange to think THIS is where the modern movie was created, around 1900.
'It can't have been without its problems.'
Moving the big hand-cranked cameras.
Working with actors instead of just recording life as it happened.
To understand the challenges they faced, we're going to try making
a movie, using only the equipment available to those early film-makers.
Our drama will re-create this production from 1920, an adaptation
of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor Of Casterbridge,
made by the ambitious-sounding Progress Film Company.
They were based in Shoreham, a few miles up the coast from Brighton.
We're also using one of their original locations, an old fort.
Shoreham was a rather heady place in the 1920s.
Glamorous London actors spent their summers here,
a ready-made cast of luvvies for the Progress Film Company.
'But what was it like to make films here?
'Gillian Gregg's grandfather actually ran the Progress Studios and her mum was a child star.'
-This is my mum.
-And what age is she there?
Only 16. She acted under the name of Mavis Claire.
And it's The Mayor Of Casterbridge, so this is a still taken during the filming.
Now, if this scene here is being shot in a studio,
where were those buildings in relation to where we are?
Well, the best evidence I have of that is in this other album.
This was the glasshouse where they did a lot of the filming because of all the natural light.
The glasshouse was just down there on the shingle,
and the studio rest and the bungalows were all along the shingle along here.
So there was a Hollywood by the sea.
-Yes, I think it was.
-What did your mum talk about when you got her onto the subject?
She talked a little bit about The Mayor Of Casterbridge, and they
went over to Dorchester to meet Thomas Hardy who watched the set.
Really?! Thomas Hardy?
-Yes, Thomas Hardy.
I wonder how he felt, seeing his book being adapted.
I think he was pretty pleased with it, and about my mum he said, "Mavis Claire, she is my Elizabeth."
-So he named-checked her personally?
Most of the Progress Company's features have been lost, but luckily
The Mayor Of Casterbridge has survived.
And as an added bonus, I've got Gillian's mum's copy
of the original script, complete with director's notes. Look at that!
Thomas Hardy handled this script, and now I'VE got it!
But, for our film-making experiment, the first thing I need to get to grips with is the camera.
This looks more like a piece of furniture than a camera, John.
Yes, this goes back to the 1920s.
'Early cinema enthusiast John Adderley is going to help me.'
It's the gauge that Edison patented. For lining up, what you do is you pull it around to that position
and you can see there's a viewing system, and you can actually look through the lens.
And it's upside down.
Yes, yes. And you can see that's all the gubbins in here.
so gorgeous, though, look at it!
We've assembled our cast of local actors,
but there'll be no relaxing in the Winnebago for them.
Just as in 1920, we've no electric lights, so we must make the most of the daylight.
All we need now is a director.
That would be me.
OK, everyone, silence please.
We're going to do a scene now.
First positions, please.
Mr Henchard, sitting down, thank you.
That's good, keep going.
'I have to get the cranking just right, a constant 16 frames a second,
'otherwise the action will appear jerky, unlike the original.'
We're burning daylight here, you know.
And if you're wondering about the bizarre make-up, so am I.
The film was autochromatic, it wasn't sensitive to reds. It's more sensitive to blue, so blue comes out
quite light, but red goes absolutely black. So that's why we put the blue on the lips, and around the eyes.
So, in an autochromatic film, they were look a good deal more lifelike and realistic
than they do to naked eye?
Yes, yes, hopefully.
We're moving the camera.
Haven't got all day.
'It's time to put George Smith's ideas into action, and get a new angle on the scene.
'It's an involved process, setting up a new shot.
'I can see why many early film-makers didn't move the camera at all.'
-A bit faster.
'But on the plus side, as this is a silent movie, I don't have to be.'
Susie, step into the gap...
That was good, yeah. Yeah, cos you let it...
That's the first time you've said that.
HE SIGHS There we go, wrapped my first movie, great fun.
'The most satisfying part was that it was hand-cranked, you got a real sense of the moment being recorded.'
It's definitely the future for me.
We've rushed the film to the labs for developing, and at the end
of the day, like the early pioneers, we nervously check our rushes.
Only, the whole of Brighton seems to have been invited along.
Look at that close-up, look!
The cranking seems to have worked as the action is smooth. The light's good, too.
And that autochromatic film has made the blue make-up look almost natural.
'80 years on from the original, it's still a crowd puller.'
Neil Oliver becomes a silent movie director as he films a scene from The Mayor of Casterbridge using an antique camera, to reveal how pioneers in Brighton taught the world to make movies long before Hollywood shot a frame.