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Cinematography by Michael Brooke
Introduction Pioneers The Silent Era Formats Aspect Ratios Colour
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The Silent Era
Still from The Ring

Cinematographer Jack Cox
and director Alfred Hitchcock shooting
'The Ring' (1927)

One of the most important of the early pioneers, Cecil Hepworth, was also one of the few whose career ran well into the silent era as a whole. Though he began with the usual run of actualities and trick films, he had an unusual interest in the aesthetics of cinematography. Though this rarely went any further than the creation of self-consciously "beautiful" images (good examples can be seen in either version of Comin' Thro' the Rye, 1916/23), he did at least make genuine efforts in that direction at a time when many British filmmakers preferred narrative efficiency.

There was little development in the art of British cinematography during the war years, but things improved noticeably in the 1920s, thanks both to superior equipment and the influence of both Hollywood and the German cinema. There were also more foreign cinematographers working in Britain, applying techniques learned abroad far more directly. Films such as Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger (1926) were important because they began to use lighting and camera angles to explore specific psychological effects, as opposed to the pictorialism of the Hepworth style.

Hitchcock's contribution to the art of British cinematography arguably outstripped that of any other director of the period. Unusually for a director of the time, he had an unusual understanding of technical matters, and had also gained crucial experience working in German studios, where many of the most innovative cinematographic techniques were being developed. His first three films - The Pleasure Garden (1925), the now-lost The Mountain Eagle and The Lodger (both 1926) - were shot by the Italian Baron Ventimiglia, whose most outstanding work was in the last-named title. Daringly experimental for a mainstream British film (so much so that its production company nearly threatened to shelve it), The Lodger makes strong use of German Expressionist techniques, with a particularly memorable use of shadows.

Most of Hitchcock's silent films were shot by Jack Cox, an unusually resourceful British cinematographer with a refreshing willingness to experiment. Their first collaboration, The Ring (1927), was one of Hitchcock's most visually inventive, making much use of in-camera tricks such as double exposure, as well as deliberately blurred images. Despite being Britain's first sound film, with all the technical restrictions that that implies, Blackmail (1929) is also cinematographically impressive, though it is worth comparing the imaginative Expressionism of the silent version of the famous "knife!" scene with the more prosaic visual staging of the sound version.

But Hitchcock was not the only British silent director who made important advances in cinematography. From his first film, Anthony Asquith (whose silent films are far more visually rich than his better-known sound efforts) showed a precocious grasp of the aesthetics of cinematography, with Shooting Stars (1928) not only offering a witty behind-the-scenes glimpse of the filmmaking process but also an object lesson in how to use elaborate lighting and camera movement to create effects far more powerful than a title card could possibly convey. The lighting designer - an unusual job description for the time - was Karl Fischer. Asquith's next films, Underground (1928) and especially A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929), both shot by Stanley Rodwell, made similar advances - some prints of the latter even included a flash of pure red to heighten the impact of a character's near-death experience, a simple but incredibly effective technique. None of Asquith's sound films would show anything like the same visual flair.

Asquith had been strongly influenced by the German filmmaker E.A.Dupont, whose film Varieté (Germany, 1925) had made his international reputation. Dupont himself moved to Britain in the late 1920s, and his Piccadilly (1929) is one of the pinnacles of the art of silent British cinematography. Working closely with cinematographer Werner Brandes and art director Alfred Junge, Dupont uses purely visual means to transform the melodramatic story into something extraordinary.

Given the huge advances being made in British cinematography at the end of the 1920s, the coming of sound was poorly timed, to say the least. The demands of sound recording forced the cameras, so recently liberated, back onto a fixed tripod and the entire art form took a significant step backwards.

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