Interesting Stuff About Movies

Some strange things have happened in the movie industry over the years and this article explores several of them.Find Bill Allin at


Interesting Stuff About Movies

No, despite what many believe, Thomas Edison did not invent the movie projector. He "bought" invention rights.

The first celluloid roll film came into being at the hand of Episcopalian minister Hannibal Goodwin, of Newark, New Jersey, USA. His great idea didn't go far because he couldn't figure out what to do with it.

Edison's company developed the first movie camera, the Kinetograph, which had the ability to make use of Goodwin's invention, in 1891. But the company and Edison himself still could not project images from the film so that a mass audience could see them. They tried to invent a machine to play back what had been recorded on film, but had no success.

Being the enterprising fellow he was, Edison bought the manufacturing rights to a machine called the Vitascope. An interesting clause to the deal gave Edison the right to claim that he had invented it. By the way, Edison didn't invent the light bulb either, he just took someone else's invention and developed a commercially viable bulb.

The Vitascope and its successors found a ready market at fairs and certain commercial establishments where customers lined up to pay to peer into a visor device where they could see the first early movies, still without sound. To make what customers saw more attractive, the movies often included what were known at the time as "cooch" dancers, creating what thereafter was known as a "peep show," as peeping Toms watched scantily clad women strut their stuff.

Another film loop (the projectors didn't need a projectionist--the films were short, from 30 seconds to three minutes) showed the reenactment of the execution by decapitation of Mary Queen of Scots, arguably the first horror film.

Peep shows on the Kinetoscopes in movie parlours ended in 1908 after complaints in New York City about indecency. Having developed a taste for seeing women without their bustles and long dresses, the Peeping Toms moved elsewhere, thus providing another example where politically correct advocates caused laws to pass which resulted in development of an industry of Blue Movies. We know them today as porn movies.

Sound came along later with a film short showing two men dancing as creator William Kennedy Laurie Dickson played a violin. Dickson synchronized the sound with the film, arguably creating the first sound movie. The first widely recognized "talkie" came three decades later with a full length feature, The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson in a 1925 Broadway musical released on film in 1927. George Jessel had signed to play the role until he learned he would have to sing on film. The "talkies" ended Jessel's film career the way it ended other silent movie careers of such greats as Rudolf Valentino.

Sound movies required so many different sounds not required in live theatre that new techniques had to be devised to have some sounds simulate other sounds. Radio, the most popular entertainment of the day, benefited from sound effects as well for their dramas. Need the sound of crunchy snow? A boot pushed into ice layered with corn starch did the trick. Flapping leather gloves provided the sound of birds in flight.

Sound effects people had no end of tricks for creating the illusions they needed. A horror movie needing a human head being squished had the sound man squashing the frozen head of lettuce behind the scenes. Sometimes a sound effect worked simply because it went with the visual presentation and viewers believed what they wanted to believe. How many coconuts died in the cause of making the sound of galloping horses in cowboy films?

Some sounds need the real thing as no substitutes work. People talking in crowds, for example. "Walla" is the term for crowd murmur. A few people standing well back from a microphone, each saying "walla, walla, walla," sounds like a crowd. So does repetition of "rhubarb." However, this is not as simple as it sounds. People must say their own "walla, walla, walla" at a different rate than everyone else or it turns into a chant. People naturally synchronize their voices with those of others, given the chance, resulting in a choir-like chant of "walla, walla, walla."

Of course black and white film came first, with the much more expensive colour film only becoming popular when movie budgets became much larger. One early attempt at colour simulation, Kinemacolor, had a black and white movie played through rotating green and red filters. As artificial as it sounds, remember that people's brains will fill in the blanks or correct what they believe are errors in their own visual clues coming from their eyes.

Film creators have become masters of illusion. In The Ten Commandments, for example, movie makers filmed water pouring into a huge tank, then reversed the film to give the effect of the waters of the Red Sea parting for Moses. With digital effects, more illusion than ever is possible. In The American President, for example, the scene with the Michael Douglas character entering the House of Representatives to deliver the State of the Union address showed the president shaking hands with members of Congress. The scene was shot with extras in place, clapping with the arrival of their leader, then the faces of the extras were replaced digitally with the faces of real congressmen. Crowd scenes and battle scenes can be shot with a handful of real people.

Some things about modern movies can be a tad too real. When the movie Earthquake, with bone-rattling Sensurround, premiered the seats shook so much that one patron cracked a rib.

Shaking may not be the worst thing in a movie theatre. Pick yourself up a large popcorn with butter and you could pack in 1,600 calories in a single serving. Diet cola with its heavy dose of aspartame (its long term effects on disease risk and possible genetic impact are under study) may not be the best choice of beverage.


Action films often depend on fire scenes (cars loaded with gasoline exploded, buildings bombed) for effect. For stunt actors, fire protection can be a chilly job. They coat their skin first with a fire retardant gel--a chilling experience in itself--then add layers of Nomex underwear saturated with the same gel. The top layer consists of flammable rubber cement (they have to appear to burn, remember).

Fire scenes are usually shot in as few takes as possible. The risk of getting singed by flames all over their bodies aside, inhaling rubber cement fumes ranks right up there with the most unhealthy parts of their job.

Funny things happen in making movies. At least they're funny after the problems are solved. In Jaws, for example, the mechanical shark did its own share of acting up. At one point its hydraulics had rusted so badly from the salt water that director Stephen Spielberg had to adapt quickly or waste a fortune on lost time. He chose to shoot the remaining shark scenes from the shark's point of view.

Four enterprising young Canadians aspiring to be film moguls had great ideas for the IMAX concept, but insufficient cash. After inviting Japanese investors to a meeting in their "offices," they quickly rented office space, furnished it in classy style with rented stuff, then entertained as if they had everything they needed. it worked. The Japanese wanted in. Fuji Bank bankrolled the whole venture.

Then the boys had to put their ideas to the test. They created a system with film ten times the size of 35 mm celluloid and camera(s) and projectors to boot, enough to fill a screen six stories high. With a screen that curves around the sides slightly, IMAX movie goers quite rightly have the feeling of being "in the movie."

The IMAX projector weighs as much as a male hippo, costs about $5 million. It's bulb is so bright that if pointed toward the sky it could be seen by astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station.

Speaking of the ISS, what sorts of movies do they have for the viewing pleasure of the space dwellers and their $10 million a shot civilian visitors? As you might expect, Apollo 13 and Armageddon are available. Around the World in 80 Days as well.

And So I Married an Axe Murderer too. Do we really want to know who chose that one?

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for parents and teachers who want to know what kids need to learn and when, not just what ivory tower curriculum writers think teachers should teach.
Learn more at


[Primary source: Discover, June 2009]