Critic’s Notebook: Exploring the Nuts and Bolts of Filmmaking at the Cinematheque Francaise

Courtesy of Cinematheque Francaise
Roman Polanski on the set of 'Tess' (1979)

'The Cinema Machine: From Melies to 3D,' a fascinating new show at the Cinematheque in Paris, offers visitors the chance to discover a century's worth of filmmaking tools.

The history of cinema has been celebrated many times over, but the history of how the cinema works – the nuts and bolts and scraps of celluloid that actually make it happen – is something that tends to get pushed to the wayside. Certainly, there are a number of decent books detailing the technological advances made over the last 150 years, not to mention a few blogs (such as David Bordwell’s excellent Observations on film art) that discuss cinematic technique as much as narrative content, but generally speaking the practical side of filmmaking is often left to experts and camera buffs, or else to the pages of specialty magazines like American Cinematographer.

In the brilliantly researched new exhibition at the Cinematheque Francaise entitled The Cinema Machine: From Melies to 3D (La Machine cinema: de Melies a la 3D), author and curator Laurent Mannoni attempts a fascinating retelling of movie history that eschews the films themselves in favor of the equipment that created them. It’s a vast, chronologically curated collection of cameras, projectors, sound recorders and other apparatuses dating from some of the earliest known specimens, such as Edison’s Kinetoscope from 1894, to the latest in digital gadgetry, including the Arri Alexa and a 360° virtual reality experience conceived in partnership with Google.  

For newbies who only know the basics, there is much to discover among the machines presented – some of them still in operational mode, such as a massive 35mm projector screening excerpts from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 romantic tragedy Contempt. (The print contains plenty of authentic scratches for those still nostalgic for the days of analog projection.) And for experts looking to either refresh their knowledge or study models of cameras they’ve only seen in photos or textbooks, the magnitude of vintage material – most of it culled from the Cinematheque’s own collection, which is stored in a secret warehouse in Paris – allows for a deeper understanding of the evolution of film in purely technological terms.

Among the goodies on display are the 35mm Mitchell BNC, which became a studio standard in the mid-1930’s and was used by Orson Welles and his cameraman Gregg Toland to shoot Citizen Kane; a version of the Louma camera crane famously used by Roman Polanski on The Tenant (Polanski is serving as the “godfather” of the Cinematheque show); a 1977 prototype for a tiny Aaton camera conceived by Godard and bearing the inscription: “Jean-Luc Godard thought of you. And you?”; and one of the early Steadicam systems designed by Garrett Brown and memorably used for all those roving hallway shots on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

One notable part of the exhibition presents dozens of celluloid strips to chronicle projection formats used over the last century, from the box-like gauges of silent and early sound films (1.33 and the “Academy” 1.37 ratio popular in the 1930’s and ‘40’s) to the various widescreen processes from the 1950’s onwards – CinemaScope, Superscope, VistaVision, Cinerama, Cinerama 70 and IMAX, to name a few – all of them developed to rival the growing dominance of television starting after World War II.

Indeed, as radio, television and now digital devices have proved a constant threat to theatrical moviegoing, the film industry has strived over the years to provide the biggest screen experience possible – what’s known in French as “le cinema integral,” or “total cinema.” Incarnations of total cinema include experimental projection systems such as the Panrama (a precursor to IMAX developed in France) and 3D, which we learn was an invention dating back to the mid-19th century. (A scene from Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is projected at the end of the exhibition to show just how far 3D has come.)

As the French critic Andre Bazin once wrote, total cinema was really a “myth” that inspired pioneers like Edison, the Lumiere Brothers and George Melies (whose first 35mm camera from 1896 opens up the show) to find better and better ways of capturing the world around them. Each new device, from the earliest wooden box cameras to state of the art digital equipment like the Alexa 65 (a 6.5K pixel camera used on The Revenant and the upcoming Rogue One), is meant to bring filmmakers closer to that dream.

In The Cinema Machine, the myth becomes a reality in the tangible sense that you can see – though not touch! – all the inventions that have carried the movies to where they are right now, whether you like that place or not. (Mannoni doesn’t pass judgment on the gradual demise of film in favor of digital, but rather shows digital as yet another technological development in a process that is over 100 years and counting.) And for fans of Godard or Kubrick or Welles or the Lumieres, the show is a chance to study the tools of their favorite artists and to learn how those tools evolved over time. It’s a rare case of being able to switch positions and gaze at the camera, just as the camera gazes at us.

Curator: Laurent Mannoni
Runs: October 5, 2016 – January 29, 2017
Location: Cinematheque Francaise, 51, rue de Bercy, 75012 Paris, France