27 April 2010

Comparing video games to films - 2/4

You can read the first, second, third and fourth parts of this article.

The game industry has been buzzing a lot about the Citizen Kane of games. Because Citizen Kane was released in 1941, the history given here stops in 1941. Although Citizen Kane is a drama film, I have chosen to study the gothic horror genre history. I simply enjoy more watching old monster movies than old drama movies. I think the technical and conceptual improvements observed in the monster movie genre can be generalized to the overall film industry.

Silent films

Silent films (as art pieces and not simply proof-of-concepts) emerged in the 1890's. 1890's movies lasted in general less than 3 minutes (although Jeanne d'Arc by Méliès in 1899 was 10-minute long). Monster movies of the early 20th century were often inspired by novels. Translated into today's game jargon, this means they did not create any original IP. But there were several smart features and prowesses. To my mind, these early prowesses are characteristic of art. For instance, silent films had no spoken dialogs or sound effects but only a background music. The stories featured young heroes in love, a main bad guy, suspense, fear and even an awareness of the audience: the dialog slides stay long enough for everyone to have enough time to read them.

Frankenstein in 1910 lasted approximately 12 minutes and was shot in three days, which was a little longer than usual. Interesting techniques are already used. Around 7:40, for example, the scene takes place in the room of Frankenstein. On the left, a chair and a table where Frankenstein sits. On the right, a mirror pointing towards the entrance of the room. Thanks to the mirror, the spectator is the first to see the monster entering the room. This scene is also the time when the monster sees himself in a mirror and despises his creator for his ugliness. Positioning the mirror this way (presumably tried to) put the spectator in the place of the monster. This mirror play is actually repeated later in the movie (11:20) to bring dramatic effects. When looking in the mirror, Frankenstein sees his evil creation instead of his own image. Interestingly, this mirror effect is often used in Citizen Kane ...

Nosferatu was realized in 1922 and lasts 94 minutes. Some kind of special effects happen, such as around 1:01 when Nosferatu disappears inside the barn, the shadow projection of Nosferatu at 1:19, or Nosferatu's death at 1:22. The film conveys an atmosphere. One could argue that Frankenstein (1910) mentioned above was a simple theater play recorded thanks to a film camera. Nosferatu is unarguably a movie, and it represents well the Gothic horror movie genre.

Sound films

Sound films were invented in 1900, but they started to be seen commercially only in the late 1920's. Thanks to sound films, musical films could emerge as a movie genre. Sound films also gave voice to actors. This additional task meant actors could be in trouble if they could not perform well vocally. I could not check the source personally, but actors such as Anny Ondra in Blackmail (1929) have experienced contrasting consequences of these technologies. She had a lot of success in the Hollywood silent movies, but her Czech accent was felt unsuitable for the film. But let us go back to Gothic horror movies...

Unlike the 1910 Frankenstein, the 1931 Frankenstein's story did not follow the original novel. In the novel, the monster is smart, able to speak and only starts to be violent when his creator refuses to create a wife for him. Frankenstein is a student and has worked alone on his creature. How Frankenstein makes his creature is not mentioned explicitly. In the 1931 movie, a limping assistant helps Frankenstein, now professor, to make his creature. The spectator watches Frankenstein collecting dead flesh from graves and giving birth to the monster electrically using thunder. The monster is completely mute except for grunts and growls and his violence comes from the "criminal brain" that was used to make him. Undoubtedly, the 1931 Frankenstein sound movie convey the creature growls more efficiently than the 1910 version. However, the actor roles have been oversimplified, maybe to reach a more mainstream audience?

Dracula (1931) is considered as a classic of the era and of its genre. Bela Lugosi, playing Dracula, seems to have been instrumental in the film success. Although the audience can hear the actors' voices and sound effects, there is no background music (except during the credits). Other films of 1931 such as the Bollywood Alam Ara used songs extensively. Hence, it becomes clear that not all technical features available at the time were being used in Dracula. Hence, the movie's success had, apparently, not much to do with technological improvements. The special effects stay relatively minor. For instance, the transformation of Dracula into a bat is always done off screen, there is no smoke effect. Considering Nosferatu had special effects a decade before, this lack of special effects in Dracula might have been disappointing for the audience.

Read the third part.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting article. I love the look of the Stalker-games, and I would really love to see the GSC-team do a Fallout-game. They do post-apocalyptic right.

    I think video games can be art, and further, we're in the studio system of video game development. There are a couple of rock star name brand designers for video games, Sid Meier and Wil Wright amongst them, who can sell a game on their name alone, but that's probably where films were circa 1930


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