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Cinematography by Michael Brooke
Introduction Pioneers The Silent Era Formats Aspect Ratios Colour
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Still from The Miller and the Sweep

'The Miller and the Sweep' (1897)
was one of the first films to show
awareness of its final status
as a black and white film

British film pioneers were by definition pioneers in cinematography too, and many key individuals effectively performed both roles. In fact, several Victorian pioneers, including William Friese-Greene (1855-1921), Birt Acres (1854-1918) and Esmé Collings (1859-1936), began their careers as professional photographers. They took a similar approach to their films, which are essentially pictorial, invariably consisting of a single shot whose only cinematic qualities involve the addition of movement. Although this was enough at the time to create audience interest, their films now appear primitive by comparison with what came very soon afterwards.

Their contemporaries had a far greater understanding of the new medium's potential, and the necessary experience with which to exploit it. R.W. Paul (1869-1943) started as an electrical engineer, James Williamson (1855-1933) was a chemist, G.A. Smith (1864-1959) was a stage hypnotist, W.R. Booth (1869-1938) a magician and illusionist, and Cecil Hepworth (1874-1953) was the son of a celebrated exponent of the Victorian magic lantern, cinema's most direct predecessor. They had a far greater interest in the potential of the cinema for theatricality and illusion, and over the medium's first decade would make important discoveries in the art of cinematography.

G.A. Smith's The Miller and the Sweep (1897) is an interesting early example, since it is one of the first films to show a clear awareness of its final projected form. Knowing that it would be screened in black and white, Smith staged a violent encounter between a miller carrying a sack of flour and a sweep with a bag of soot. Additional visual interest is provided by the presence of the windmill in the background, creating a continuous impression of movement. The camera itself doesn't move, but at around this time "phantom rides" began to be popular. These generally involved strapping the camera to the front of a moving vehicle, thus creating the first tracking shots.

By the turn of the century, filmmakers were beginning to experiment with special effects shots. Sometimes they would be achieved through cutting (the jump-cut was a particularly favoured technique, not least because of its simplicity), but R.W. Paul and W.R. Booth created many trick films that used far more complex cinematographic techniques, notably superimpositions (where the film is rewound in the camera and exposed again, the second image appearing on top of the first) and mattes (where part of the image is deliberately blanked off in order to prepare the ground for more sophisticated superimpositions). The Haunted Curiosity Shop and The Magic Sword (both 1901) provide good examples.

G.A. Smith and James Williamson also made trick films using similar effects (Williamson's The Little Match Seller, 1902, is particularly striking as its effects go beyond mere gimmickry to create a powerful emotional impression), but they also experimented with other cinematographic techniques such as the close-up. Smith's Grandma's Reading Glass (1900) features a small boy examining various objects, presented as cutaways filmed using a different lens. In Williamson's The Big Swallow (1901), he achieves the remarkable effect of a man walking towards the camera, his mouth gradually filling the screen, yet still remaining in focus.

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