Monday, 22 July 2013



KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE (1914, dir. Henry Lehrman)


I believe that the following film is one of the most important ever made, although more for what came later...

"Kid Auto Races at Venice" was made by the Keystone Film Company, whose founder, Mack Sennett, once acted and wrote for the director D.W. Griffith, who would make one of the first feature-length films, "Birth of a Nation," in 1915. At the Biograph Company, from 1908-13, Griffith made around five hundred short films, making whatever story he could, shaping camera shots, acting and playing different stories between scenes, stirring the primordial soup from which film language as we know it has sprung.

To meet the insatiable demand for the one-reel (11-16 minutes) films that was the staple of cinema at the time, Sennett took Griffith's lessons and put them to work. A formula emerged, that could serve well to anyone today that wants to make something to put on YouTube:

Get an idea, and follow the normal sequence until it turns into a chase
Use no more than ten different camera setups
Four types of film - "park films" (a cheap and easy setting); public occasions; a more formal comedy (based in a hallway, with two rooms either side, action building between them); and a combination of interior and exterior shots

If there was a script, one side of A4 would provide an outline, and the rest was improvised from there.

So, apart from paying your actors, that was all there was to making a film before "Birth of a Nation" came along, ad "Kid Auto Races at Venice" follows the above very closely. It is based at a public occasion, an actual soapbox derby race (all the crowds are real people), and it uses only seven camera setups, based at different points along the racetrack.

The "chase" is between the cameraman that is recording the race, and someone that, like those that you occasionally see in the backgrounds of live news reports, and those who used to look at themselves in the TVs in the front window at Currys, feel the need to show themselves off for the camera. The man here walks into shot, struts around, looks at the race, looks at the camera, and gets pushed out of shot by the film director. That is really all the film is, relying on the different ways the man can get into shots, and on the progressively faster cutting between shots. Imagination and improvisation were key.

This is the first appearance of Charlie Chaplin's "tramp" character, looking straight at us, making sure you cannot forget him. Within a year, Chaplin was directing his own films, blowing camera shots wide open with music hall slapstick, then bring it further and further in to show emotion and pathos, making for a more fulfilling cinema experience, and showing where it can go - not bad for what started with a six-minute film shot on a wing and a prayer...

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