Monday, January 30, 2017

The Origins of Cinema

Although its basic technical details are clear enough, the origins of cinema are shrouded in doubt, dispute, and even death. As with other media technologies, among the earliest uses of sequential images were in scientific projects, such as those of Marey and Muybridge. The technical problem confronting them both was how to get a series of images in quick, measured sequence. Muybridge used timers and tripwires to obtain sequential images; Marey, more direct, invented a cinematic gun which "fired" a cylinder of small photonegatives; it looked somewhat like a Thompson submachine gun but was limited to 12 exposures. What was really needed was some kind of double movement -- a shutter which would open and close quickly and repeatedly, and a mechanism which would advance the photosensitive material. When the material in question was glass plates, the problem was overwhelming -- but with the invention of celluloid photo "film" by George Eastman, a solution was in sight, and the prize belonged to the inventor who could best employ it.

Louis Augustin Le Prince (above) is my personal favorite among the many candidates for first filmmaker. He had gotten his start working on painted panoramas -- great circular paintings which created a sort of Victorian virtual reality -- where his job was projecting glass plate photos onto the canvas for artists to trace. Arriving in Leeds, England, in the late 1880's, he married into a well-off family, and his father-in-law financed further experiments. Le Prince's first design was a 16-lens camera, using a series of "mutilated gears" to fire off 16 frames in short order on two strips of film. He later designed a single-lens camera, with a mechanical movement using smooth rollers (sprockets not yet having been tried) to advance the film. He planned to stage a grand début in New York City, and had rented a private mansion for his demonstration; his equipment was packed into custom-made crates, and his tickets were purchased for crossing on a luxurious Cunard liner. And yet just then, as he was returning from visiting his brother in Dijon, France, he vanished from the Dijon-Paris express and was never seen again, alive or dead.

As with many early cinematographers, Le Prince's films do not survive. Eastman's celluloid turned out to be volatile; it could disintegrate into a brown powder, burst into flame, or even explode without warning. However, at some point, paper prints were made of three of his films, and these have been reconstructed into short, viewable sequences. The films were made in 1888, earlier than any others. His first film, "Roundhay Garden Scene," shows his family dancing about in his father-in-law's back garden; his second, "Leeds Bridge," shows traffic and pedestrians crossing a bridge in the city where he worked; the third, untitled, shows his young son playing an accordion as he dances upon a set of stairs. The only question is: with what camera were these shot? Distortions and perspective problems with the frames, as well as the fact that there are rarely more than 16 of them, suggest that the 16-lens camera is the most likely source, but some believe he used his single-lens camera for some or all of the films. If so, he was certainly the first person in the world to make what we have come to regard as cinema film.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Earliest Sound Recordings

The history of sound recording was once thought to begin with Thomas Alva Edison's phonograph of 1877. As with many of his inventions, Edison sketched out the idea, and gave it to his engineer, John Kruesi. Tests and improvements occupied most of the year, and the patent was finally filed in December. Legend has it that the first recording was of "Mary Had a Little Lamb," recited by Edison himself. Although Edison made later recordings of the same text, there is no surviving recording of any sound using the Edison system until more than a decade later, with the 1888 recordings of the Handel Festival at London's Crystal Palace (one of which can be heard here).

And yet, it turns out, there are actually sound recording which do survive from nearly 20 years earlier than Edison's invention. These were made using the Phonautograph (shown above) invented by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. His device was not intended to permit the playback of sound; instead, using a sound-sensitive cone which etched its trace on paper coated with a fine layer of charcoal dust, the aim was to produce a visual record of sound. It was only in the twenty-first century that these visual traces were, with the aid of computer models, rendered back into audible sound, and even then there were glitches. The 1860 record of "Claire de Lune," though to be have been sung by a woman, turned out to be of much lower pitch, and sung by Scott himself! This device, indeed was extensively tested and deployed, and rumors circulate as to recordings of famous persons of the day, among them Abraham Lincoln. Such a recording would indeed be a find!

The capitalization of sound recording happened in many phases. Edison's own company, founded in 1878, though it offered the first "talking dolls," failed to find any broader market for its recordings until more than a decade later, when improvements by other inventors -- chiefly Alexander Graham Bell -- rendered the Edison system practical for widespread use. The original system of tinfoil-covered paraffin was discarded in favor of various waxy compounds, which had the advantage that, though soft enough for recording, they could be hardened through baking. Later systems enabled the making of a wax matrix, which could be used to make molds to cast duplicate cylinders, enabling mass production of commercial recordings.

One of the lesser-known aspects of the Edison Cylinder system was that one could buy special "brown wax" cylinders and use them to make home recordings. This made the cylinder the one of the technologies prior to the home reel-to-reel and cassette tape decks in which the end user could make his or her own recordings.

There remained problems with Edison's invention -- the acoustical horn used in recording had trouble picking up fainter sounds (one reason that brass band music and operatic singing were frequent offerings), and the various materials and needles used in reproduction all had problems with surface noise (click here to hear a modern series of recordings made using Edison's original materials) In addition, all of Edison's early discs used "hill and dale" recording, in which the sound waves formed, and later reproduced, impressions by degrees of vertical movement. This system had limited fidelity, and posed many technical hurdles; switching to a lateral (side-to-side) movement offered promise, but was not made commercially practical until Emile Berliner came up with the circular disc as opposed to the cylinder. Cylinder and disc fought it out from the late 1890's through the early 1920's, when Edison finally ceased cylinder production.

All these systems were mechanical -- the actual sound waves moved the needle, and the needle physically reproduced them. The next step was what was called "electrical recording," using microphones to capture the sound, and relaying the signal to an electromagnetic cutting stylus. Mechanical systems could only be used with fairly loud instruments and voices; the ordinary spoken voice, or quieter instruments such as the guitar or banjo, could scarcely be recorded. Electrical recording, thanks to amplification, could be much more sensitive in the studio -- and much louder on playback.

Such a system did not come into wide use until 1927, at which time record companies made enormous efforts to send out "field recording" vans which used this new technology to capture popular forms of music -- country blues, jug bands, fiddlers, and banjoists -- whose talents could now be cheaply recorded and mass produced. The substate -- a mixture of shellac, carbon black, and clay -- still had a problem with surface noise (for a sample of what a record of this era would have sounded like without this issue, listen to these Louis Armstrong recordings recovered from metal masters).

 The Great Depression put an end to most of these efforts, and it wasn't until after World War II that the recording "industry" began its greatest epoch. Cheap players and cheaper records -- the constant-value cost of a 45 rpm single was a fraction of a 78 rpm record -- along with the rise of radio as a promotional tool, turned the record business into a global, multi-billion dollar behemoth. The arrival of digital CD's at first only extended and multiplied this vast empire, in part because people bought the same music again in the new format.

And yet, with the advent of the internet and audio compression paradigms such as MP3, the industry began to fizzle; its old bargain of turning the ephemeral -- music performance -- into the physical -- a disc or cylinder or tape -- was undone, as MP3's were almost as ephemeral, and as readily copied and transported, as the music itself. In the 2000's, the CD business has essentially collapsed into a small specialty market, and even online sales have fallen below the pace (due in part to unpaid downloads, and in part to users transferring their older recordings to the new format). Music is, once again, in the hands of the people.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Writing as Technology

We are accustomed to think of books, and print in general, as old and familiar things. To us, books are the "real" which may or may not be supplanted by the "virtual" -- Kindles, Nooks, and Google e-books. This makes it a bit difficult for us to recover the sense that the book, like the scroll before it, and the clay tablet before that, is a technical development, one which initially seemed strange to a world which had not known any means of preserving words and keeping them "stored" for another day. There's a video, which I like to call "Book 1.0" on YouTube that illustrates this perfectly. The book is no more a "natural" object than is a smartphone or an automobile; it has simply been around so long that we have gotten used to it, and now begin to fear that we may "miss" it.

Walter J. Ong, the brilliant Jesuit scholar and pupil of Marshall McLuhan, was one of the first scholars to realize and emphasize the technological status of writing. For Ong, writing not only changes our practical lives, it actually restructures our consciousness. This happens in a number of ways; our tendency to think of knowledge as persistent, as capable of being stored elsewhere -- and with it our sense that we ourselves don't have to precisely remember anything -- is one key effect. Beyond this, though, our whole sense that by naming, cataloging, and finding form in things that we are in fact re-figuring the world; that our mental abstractions seem to have shape and permanence; that there can even be a thing such as "capitalism," "Marxism," or "psychology" are also after-effects of writing and print. Print, by making massive amounts of text cheap to make, distribute, and preserve, accelerated these changes; with the dawn of the internet, this process has taken another enormous leap. The disappearance of objects -- the book, the music CD, the videocassette or DVD -- and their replacement by the mere making available of media streamed from somewhere else, is one notable result of this accelerating process.

At the same time, Ong emphasized the complexity and sophistication of the non-literate mind (he disliked the term "pre-literate" at it presumes a progression toward writing as inevitable). The ancient Irish bards had to memorize hundreds of lengthy poems; in the 1920's in Yugoslavia, Ong's mentor Walter Lord found pairs of men who could, by singing interlocked lines back and forth between each other, reproduce an epic poem of tens of thousands of lines. Such poems are as ancient as speech itself, and a few -- the Elder Edda, Beowulf, the Kalevala, and Homer's Iliad and Odyssey -- survived into the manuscript era, the print era, and are now downloadable as e-books. And yet, in this disposable era, when computers and cellphones complete the circuit from shiny new tech devices to e-rubbish in a landfill in a few short years, the old belief -- that writing something down preserves it -- may yet be reversed.

Some say that E-books aren't proper books at all. Some point to events such as Amazon's silent deletion of copies of George Orwell's Animal Farm from Kindle readers as a cautionary tale. The Pew Charitable Trust recently completed a survey of e-books and readers, and some of its findings are quite unexpected.

So where do we go from here? Will e-readers be the death of the book? Will a dusty old paperback become a sort of weird antique, joining 78 rpm records, 16 mm film, and Betamax cassettes in the dead media junkpile? Or will we always, whatever else we have with them, have books?

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Welcome to Media Culture I

Welcome to the blog and resource page for Media Culture I here at Rhode Island College. This will be, for some of you, your first course in the M.A. program, and I want to be sure that you can get all the information you need about the class here at one place on the Web.

In the early days of this class, and the M.A. program, I used to say that online resources would "supplement" the text -- but it's soon reaching the point where it's the online resources that are the main course, and the book which has become a sort of index or guidebook for them. You'll find the main links at the top right-hand side of the blog; as we progress, additional readings will be posted on the blog which will contain the other links to texts, images, and sounds you'll need. The links will be dynamic, and as additional resources, online articles, or projects become available, I'll post links to them at the side; be aware that the list will change over time, and you may need to look again to find newly added links.

If you have any questions about the class, or comments on the materials, or would like to comment on other students' postings, this is the place to do it. I look forward to meeting each of you at our first class.