Friday, August 14, 2009

When Effects Are Unnecessary Noises

This 1911 article by W. Stephen Bush argues for a much more limited use of effects. In fact, Bush's suggestions, especially that effects be used only if they "have a psychological bearing on the situation," is quite similar to recommendations that he and other writers were making for music at the time.

Originally based in Philadelphia, Bush broke into the business as a lecturer and wrote frequently for Moving Picture World especially on the topics of lecturing, music and ways to improve the cultural standing of the entertainment. He has strong ideas about the aesthetic possibilities of cinema, and I have always found him to be one of the most insightful writers of the period. Besides the many essays he contributed to the paper, he wrote many reviews and later became a contributing editor. He left at the end of 1916 to become the founding editor of Exhibitor's Trade Review.

As a friend of the moving picture and jealous of its reputation with the public, I confess I stand in fear of the average "effects man." Zeal is a most admirable quality, but in the case of the man behind the screen it needs to be tempered with judgment and discretion. As a matter of fact, such tempering of enthusiasm with common sense is rare in the extreme. While the general opinion among intelligent exhibitors holds that the effects were made for the picture, the worker behind the screen believes, that the picture was made for the effects. His desire is, above all things, to be heard, to make as much noise as possible. If the picture shows a man in the throes of death on his bed, he rises to the occasion by making the bed creak. If by any chance, a horse appears on the screen he feels in duty bound to make us believe that a troop of cavalry is riding at full gallop over a hundred blocks of macadamized pavement. At the sight of water, no matter how quiet, he at once lets go of the Niagara Falls effect.

Now effects to help the picture must be few, simple and well rehearsed for each separate and particular picture. The idea, that a set of mechanical contrivances for the production of a limited number of sounds, can be made to fit most pictures or even a small percentage of them, is utterly absurd. The moment an effect is repeated too often, it becomes monotonous, then tires one and at last is ridiculous. Each picture must be studied by itself and only such effects introduced as have a psychological bearing on the situation as depicted on the screen. The imitation of common and obvious sounds has long ago been abandoned by nine out of every ten exhibitors, who, quite wisely will rather dispense with effects altogether than risk monotonous or misplaced or ill-judged effects.

Nevertheless, it is an undoubted fact, that the introduction of suitable effects will at times help a picture immensely. There are scores of pictures that without effects are dull, insipid and meaningless and with effects, thrill, delight and please an audience. Powerful effects may be introduced with equal success in comic or dramatic pictures, even in scenic and educational subjects. At all times, effects must be original, novel, simple, quickly understood and appreciated by the audience. The proper moment for introducing them must be judged from picture to picture and no set of stereotyped rules can be laid down. The dramatic instinct, which resides in the heart of every man and woman, must be the guide and determining factor.

When once a good opportunity for a powerful effect has been discovered, the effect must be carefully rehearsed. A trained monkey can “work” the machine-made effects, but it takes a man with some intelligence to secure correctness and accuracy in original and special effects.

A few examples may help to make my meaning clearer. Let us assume, that we are dealing with a scene immediately preceding a dramatic climax. The climax depends on the coming of a certain hour. Anxiety and suspense are the dominant emotions of the central figure in the scene. At such a moment the slow and measured ticking of a clock may send a thrill or a shudder through the blood of the spectator. It is a very simple thing, an apparent trifle and yet its effect may be overpowering. The sound of musical instruments, played with a special meaning, connected with the action on the screen, may always be imitated with great advantage.

On occasions the fall of a human body or a heavy object may be indicated by proper effects back of the screen, but not every such fall is to be thus marked. Discrimination should be the saving grace of the man with the effects and if he lacks discrimination, as he often does, he should be held strictly subject to orders and given no latitude whatever. Obvious effects, such as shooting, thunder, rain, etc., are, except on rare occasions, to be omitted. The public is tired of them.

Greater license may be given to effects in comic reels, but the vulgarity, which is especially in vogue in New York, should be carefully avoided.

I conclude with a notable contrast between a proper and improper effect and select as an example two scenes from the Milano production of Dante’s Inferno. No scene in that remarkable film is more impressive than the meeting of Cerberus, the three-throated monster by the poets, Dante and Virgil. “Not a limb of him, but trembled,” say Dante in his masterfully descriptive way. Now, to make this mysterious monster bark like a dog in a backyard is laughable and betrays a deplorable lack of the sense of the fitting. The moment the “effects man” converts the fear-inspiring creation of Dante into a common bow-wow, every illusion is destroyed and the thin line, dividing the sublime from the ridiculous is crossed amidst the justly derisive laughter of the audience. Contrast this with an effect in the scene, where the poets enter the circle of the giants, the first of whom is Nimrod, the mighty hunter. In the poem, the sound of a horn is described, as the poets near the circle. If such an effect is introduced, if a horn is sounded, just before the title, introducing the giants is ended, the effect is suitable and impressive, as in the next moment the huge body of Nimrod with a hunting horn around his waist, becomes visible.

There is but one general rule that may be followed with uniform advantage in the matter of effects.

To paraphrase the immortal bard: “Discrimination is the best part of strenuousness.”
Source: W. Stephen Bush, “When ‘Effects’ Are Unnecessary Noises,” Moving Picture World 9 September 1911, 690.