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Friday, May 10, 2013

Invitation to Voyage

Documentary and fiction film alike engage the imagination. And travelogue films with their evocation of imaginary landscapes seem to exist somewhere between the real and the imagined. Popular on film screens from the first days of cinema and with origins extending even earlier to lantern slides and illustrated travel lectures, travelogue filmmaking has proven to be one of cinema’s most versatile and enduring forms.  With its ready-made narrative structure (“the journey”), the travelogue easily lends itself to first person accounts ranging from banal tourist observations to the gently subversive film essays of Jonas Mekas or Chris Marker. The Human Studies Film Archives has a number of fine examples of travelogue films. The century old ON THE WAY FROM KANDY TO COLOMBO (HSFA 89.9.1) is a four minute film documenting a scenic train trip through the countryside of Sri Lanka (Ceylon).

The HSFA acquired a 35mm nitrate print with polychrome tinting of this film in 1989 through the efforts of the American Film Institute’s National Center for Film and Video Preservation.  This organization had been alerted by the National Film and Sound Archives Australia of a large store of nitrate films that had been left in their country by numerous film distributors during the silent film era. Travel shorts were common on film programs at that time and were often assembled together for theatrical projection. This film arrived at the HSFA on the same reel as a second travelogue entitled GLIMPSES OF CEYLON.  The only production history we have for the film is provided by its opening credit: ECLAIR COLORIS.  The French company Éclair had opened a studio in Fort Lee, NJ during this period and along with other French producers, they were competing vigorously against American companies for a share of the international film market. 
Novelty in cinema, then as now, remains a big draw and French film producers had pioneered and mastered the craft of stencil coloring for their films.  The HSFA preserved the color of the applied dyes on this B&W film stock by creating a 35mm color intermediate negative as the preservation master.  The video shown above was generated from this preservation master. The subtlety of the coloring may be lost when viewed on a computer screen, but the video master retains a fair record of the soft hues.

The nearly constant motion of the camera in this 1913 film is perhaps even more unusual than the polychrome tinting. The steady gliding motion together with artificial color creates a travel reverie which at times has the feel of enveloping the viewer. In general, early silent films were shot using a stationary camera.  The bulky hand-cranked motion picture cameras required a sturdy and well-stabilized tripod to achieve optimal image quality. Most films made before the 1920s rarely included more than an occasional tilt or panoramic shot from a fixed position as camera movement. There were exceptions of course, and rail travel, whether street cars, trains or even subways, seems to have provided an ideal combination of stability and smooth movement to make truly moving images a possibility for film viewers. The earliest camera “dollies” most likely utilized tracks laid down inside of the film studios. A practice which gave rise to the term “tracking shot” still in use today to indicate virtually any travelling camera movement.

The DC area will have a rare opportunity next month to see a wonderfully comic reversal of travelogue and ethnographic film conventions when the National Gallery of Art screens French filmmaker Jean Rouch’s Petit a petit (1970) as part of its regular weekend film programming.

Mark White
Human Studies Film Archives

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