Chapter XXIX


Making the Movies by Ernest A. Dench
New York, The Macmillan company, published 1915 (now in the Public Domain)

pp. 124-130

Who has not marvelled at the films often seen at the better class of motion picture theaters, in particular the films revealing some of the hidden secrets of nature, -- laying open the activities of microbe and insect life? Films of this sort are as genuinely entertaining as comedy or drama.

It is easy for some learned professor to write a book on insect life, but the man from Missouri spirit is deep within us, and when we can be shown these things we find them doubly interesting. In saying this I do not infer that books are of no use. That is foreign to my thought. They undoubtedly add to our store of knowledge, but when we can see the things before our own eyes we come to a fuller understanding of the subject presented.

Professors find that writing books or delivering lectures as the outcome of their personal observations and experiments are easy tasks in comparison with getting microbes, germs and insects to pose specially for the motion picture camera.

The leading worker in this end of the film industry in America is Professor Raymond L. Ditmars, Curator of Reptiles at the New York Zoological Park. His great film, "The Book of Nature," has commanded widespread attention, and deservedly so.

But let us begin at the bottom of the ladder and commence with films dealing with germs and microbes. These, in a disinterested kind of way, tell us to be on the lookout for diseases. They are so realistic that they are often used by surgeons and physicians to assist them in their work, thus serving a two-fold purpose.

Well, the question is: how does the modern wizard -- the motion picture producer -- "capture" them when we ordinary mortals are denied seeing them?

To satisfy your natural curiousity, I may say right now that the lens of the motion picture camera is focussed through a microscope which magnifies objects from two thousand to seven-six million times. The French companies who make a specialty of the work have fully equipped laboratories in which trained scientists prepare subjects for the film. Their work necessitates plenty of research, while much patience is involved in taking the films themselves.

The most exasperating thing about germs and microbes is that they persist in moving about in groups and have no respect for the limited area covered by the camera's lens.

The photographer, to avoid this, generally contrives to have them appear against a black background. The light at the sides is of two thousand candle power and this is of only just sufficient strength for photographic purposes. To make it stronger would kill all of the objects. The rays of this light are conveyed to the lens of the microscope.

It is extremely hard to catch a spider in the act of weaving a web, so when the producer locates a suitable female he places her for a few days in a specially constructed box, painted black. That period suffices to get her used to her surroundings. When her young have been hatched she guards her nursery. This is the time for the director to wreck her painstaking work. The mother plainly shows her grief, and to comfort her frantic babies she commences to weave an even better web. During all the time she is working so industriously, the camera is only a few inches away, recording her actions for the benefit of the outside world.

Ants make bad motion picture actors, for they are so intent upon having their own way that they refuse to do things naturally when they spot the camera at work. This is attributed to their high degree of intelligence. The director has to track them unawares to one of their tiny hills. Here he places a throbbing motor engine. A few days of this serves to put them off their guard, when the motor is used to turn the crank of the camera. They then pay no attention to the perpetual clicking.

Once a producer tested whether grasshoppers were emotional or not. He proved that they were when listening to strains of ragtime, for one was so deeply affected that he fell ill and died.

Professor Ditmars once attempted to show the Katydid's peculiar method of singing. To realise the difficulties which he had to combat, it must be understood that this insect only indulges in music at night, that if he sees a light, his song ceases right then.

This difficult problem was solved by freeing a score of more katydids in a group of oak trees. The camera was then placed on a tall tripod and equipped with a long focussed lens. It was therefore comparatively easy to concentrate filming operations on a low hanging branch of the middle tree from a good distance away.

The insect, however keen detective he was, couldn't detect the operator, for the crank was turned by a distant motor engine.

Ah! What about the light? The camera man used a powerful searchlight focussed on the spreading branches of the tree.

The wisdom of distributing a group of the insects in the trees was then shown, for those in darkness sang lustily.

The king of all, upon whom the whole results depended, hesitated as to the course he should pursue. Evidently his companions prompted him to sing under the limelight, for before long his wings moved in musical order and the "Katydid, katydid" chorus was duly recorded. The pity was that the notes could not be heard by those who saw the film, but to SEE one sing was a privilege indeed.

Fancy filming a dragon fly in full flight! Impossible, you wil assert, but a French invention, the electro-stero-chronophotograph, has rendered it an accomplished reality. Motion pictures, in the ordinary way, are taken at the rate of sixteen per second, but by this device the reate was increased to two thousand on one occasion.

The camera man let the flies undertake the actual filming on their own account, a shutter contrivance making the feat possible.

It was imperative to gauge the speed of flight, so a tuning fork which doubly vibrated fifty times per second was employed. Each double vibration set a magnetic signal in motion, so all the photographer had to do to detect the speed of flight was to total up the pictures taken during each double vibration of the fork.

Underwater insects have also been filmed. These are usually captured by placing an observation chamber in a pond or river. The top of this projects a trifle above the surface and the operator enters the chamber. After this he sees that the top is covered so that the light is prevented from entering. He then places his camera against the plate glass windows at the side.

The insects, by this device, are completely thrown off their guard, for the see nothing but a black patch, and the cinematographer, therefore, gets pictures that are perfectly natural.

Making the Movies - Contents ... Back to Chapter XXVIII ... On to Chapter XXX

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