The Magic Illusion
One of the most telling anecdotes in cinematic history is that of an audience’s reaction to an early, short, black-and-white film. The film depicted a train chugging towards the audience. When it did, the audience shrank back in terror. The people’s nervous systems went wild. They really thought the train was coming right at them (I suppose they thought that it would crash through the screen and flatten them like pancakes). Then…nothing. The people were perfectly safe! It was an illusion (and an effective one at that). And, from that very inception, “moving pictures” were born.
Nearly 130 years of spectacular adventures, steamy romances, spine-chilling horror flicks, gritty explorations of war, mesmerizing excursions under the sea and throughout outer space, and fantastical journeys across mythical universes followed. Producers adapted the works of Shakespeare, Homer, Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Fleming, Alexander Dumas, and so many more into visually and aurally moving pieces of art! Then…there were all the original productions…Citizen Kane, Rear Window, Taxi Driver, Casablanca, An Affair to Remember, When Harry Met Sally, Pulp Fiction, and well…. you get the point. And…how can we not forget the small-screen masterpieces- “The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” “Seinfeld,” “I Love Lucy,” “Succession” … (whatever else you may think of)!
Films and TV shows are some of the finest cultural creations of our modern world (despite whatever objectionable content they may contain), and they provide a solid watermark attesting to humanity’s need for aesthetic expression. But the “dream factory” itself obviously doesn’t exist entirely in a fantastical realm. It takes place in our world…where gravity, hunger, and mortgages dictate how and what we can produce. The “devil is in the details,” as the old expression goes. But…that being the case, let us give the “devil” a cursory, up-close examination. We’ll begin with the most specific and concrete detail that drives the entire industry—the camera.
The Camera and Film
The earliest cameras were known as “camera obscuras,” and they consisted of light-tight boxes with pinholes on the sides.1 The “Magic Lantern,” adopted in the 1850s, projected simple images onto a screen.2 “Magic Discs” followed the “Magic Lantern,” and then came the “Zoetrope,” which William Horner patented in 1834.4 In the 1870s, Californian Edward Muybridge and Frenchman Etienne Jules Marey conducted experiments on cameras. Emile Reynaud developed the “Praxinoscope” in 1877, the same year Thomas Edison invented the phonograph.3
In 1889, George Eastman applied for a patent on photographic film and developed the roll camera. His invention became the Kodak camera (deriving the name for the company from the sound the shutter made when it opened and closed).5 Five years later, Edison invented the Kinetograph, which he developed for private viewing.5 The Kinetograph consisted of at least 50 feet of film that moved continuously through a loop around rollers at the base of the machine (there was no need for rewinding).5 On December 28, 1895 (“cinema’s birthday”), French brothers Louise and Auguste Lumiere publicly displayed their Cinematographe at the Salon Indien in the Grand Café (located along the Boulevard de Capucines in Paris, France).5
The camera is the engine of the film industry. But what would an engine be without its fuel? And in the world of “moving pictures,” that fuel (at least until the digital era) took the form of film strips. Shiny, transparent acetate bases, which support emulsion, comprise physical film strips, as do layers of gelatin that contain light-sensitive material.6 On black-and-white film strips, emulsion occurs between silver halide grains.6 Light strikes the film, triggers a chemical reaction that makes the crystals cluster into tiny specks, and then billions of these specks form on each frame of exposed film.6 Put it all together and the specks create a latent image that corresponds to areas of light and darkness on the filmstrip.6
This chemical process makes latent images visible as a configuration of black grains on a white ground.6 The resulting strips of images become negatives, from which developers can produce their positive counterparts.6 Color film emulsion contains multiple layers, with chemical dyes that are sensitive to the primary colors of red, yellow, and blue.6 Extra layers filter out light from the other colors, and, during the process for color negative film, an image will appear as its opposite/complement (e.g., blue will show up as yellow).6
Back to the camera itself! An old film camera is comprised of various components. The device’s “pull-down mechanism” (also known as the “intermittent motion mechanism”) pushes the film through the camera.8 In the United States, the credit goes to Thomas Armat for inventing the first workable pull-down mechanism (1895).7 In Europe, the Lumiere brothers created something similar, and movie experts/fans have dubbed it the “heart of cinema” because it literally runs the film through the camera. The “Maltese Cross,” a rotating axel that helps drive the perforated film through the pull-down/intermittent motion mechanism and camera, is composed of a drive shaft, pin, and shoulder.8
The drive shaft rotates at a constant speed, and the pin engages the Maltese cross gear (which is connected by a shaft to the sprockets that drive the film). The “Feed and Take-up Reels,” which run continuously, house a separate magazine that cameramen can quickly and easily change.8 The “Cam-Mounted Claw Mechanism” provides the intermittent motion in the machine, and the “Mirrored Shutter,” tilted at 45-degrees, helps the camera operator’s viewfinder “see” what the film “sees.”8 The “Diaphragm” captures the light that enters the film’s camera lenses/aperture, and the “Eyepiece” is what the camera operator peers into while shooting a film. When the camera shutter opens, all light hits the film; when it closes, all light is redirected to the viewfinder.
The lens is the camera’s pinhole.6 Light travels at different speeds through different mediums, and the lens focuses that light.6 The “Focal Length” is the distance from the plane of the film to the surface of the lens, and, for photographers/cinematographers, there are usually three types of lenses they’ll use: “Normal” (35 mm), which closely mimics the human eye, “Wide Angle” (below 35 mm), which greatly emphasizes the perception of depth and distorts linear perspective, and “Telephoto” (50 mm and above), which acts like a telescope and magnifies distant objects.6 A Telephoto lens has a narrow angle of view and sometimes suppresses depth (but it is grounded in a linear perspective).6
The “Zoom” lens (which developers created in the 1950s and popularized in the 1960s) allows for changes in focal lengths during and between shots.6 The standard frame of 35mm is slightly more than one half a square inch, and the 16mm frame is slightly half as wide as the 35mm frame.6 Project a 35mm film onto a 40-foot-wide screen and the image will cover an area 350,000 times its size.6
To vary the amount of light that enters the camera, photographers/cinematographers will interpose light-absorbing materials (such as filters) in the path of the light rays, change the exposure time (shutter speed), or change the aperture (which the diaphragm controls).6 Apertures– holes in the lenses that dilate or contract by movable “pivots” — are measured in F-stops (a division of the length of a particular lens by the effective aperture, or the length of the lens to its width). The lower the F-stop numbers, the more light will enter.6 The higher the F-stop numbers, the less light will enter. The F-stop numbers and their corresponding shutter speeds (measured in fractions of a second) are as follows: F1-1/1000, F4-1/500, F2-1/250, F2.8-1/125, F4-1/60, F5.6-1/30, F8-1/15, F11-1/8, and F16-1/4.
Outside of the camera, though, filmmakers will also use a wide range of accessories in their “dream factory” process. “Tripods” (comprised of three retractable legs and carefully machined plates and ball-bearings) stabilize cameras for steady shots. “Steadicams,” which Garrett Brown and Cinema Products, Inc. developed in the 1970s, balance cameras for hand-held moving shots. “Steadicam” operators wear a vest that distributes the weight of the camera to their hips. A spring-loaded arm dampens the motions of the camera, and a video monitor frees the operator from peering into the eyepiece (and thus, they can further control the handheld walking shot).
“Sky-Cams” and “Spider Cams” orient aerial views (either stationary or moving), and “Louma” cranes (which French filmmakers Jean-Marie Lavalou and Alain Masseron developed in the mid-1970s) provide similar maneuverability as the “Sky-Cams”. “Dollies” enable cameramen to stabilize “tracking shots” that follow a specific path, and drones, well, drones have pretty much become the everyday person’s “Spider Cam.” We can create beautiful home videos and social media clips in which we soar over rivers, canyons, buildings, and forests.
The Language of Light and Shadow
Our up-close examination of the “devil” is far from complete. The number of specific devices, details, and logistical responsibilities could fill an entire (cinematic) encyclopedia. There are the mixing boards, EQs, microphones, staging lights, green screens, blue screens, plane reflectors, boom mics, and, well, let’s not forget the entire army of different roles (assistant director, producer, gaffer, production assistant, wrangler, makeup artist, visual effects supervisor, editor, etc., etc., etc.) that supports the eventual packages that play out before us across the big and small screens. It’s no wonder many of the biggest productions can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. For an industry that produces works in which people “play around” and explore the human condition, the industry itself doesn’t play around!
But, for the rest of us (whose lives and needs to keep a roof over our heads and food on our tables don’t depend directly on Hollywood), we can appreciate the full aesthetic energy and output of all these epic productions! And…what’s more…we can even do so in a specific way…soaking in all the details without the “devil” attached to them. We can peer “under the hood.”
Maybe the lighting is soft with very little contrast (as in a sexy romantic scene) …or maybe the lighting is crisp and neatly defined, with deep contrast and heavy shadows (as is the case with many hardboiled detective flicks). Sometimes the light will emanate from above, signaling redemption (as in the rays of heaven), or from below, signaling malevolence (filmmakers famously used “underlighting” for Frankenstein’s monster in the eponymous 1931 film). Shots can be long, wide, and panoramic, or extremely, microscopically close-up.
We can view the scene from a high angle, a low angle, an eyelevel angle, or even a “Dutch” angle (slanted). The camera can tilt, pan, or track its subjects, or it can zoom in and out. The “Vertigo” shot (named for Hitchcock’s famous thriller) simultaneously zooms in one direction and tracks in the other (creating a sense of apprehension or despair). Jaws, Scarface, and Goodfellas all used this technique.
Editing is its own complex world. Shots must flow in a visually fluid manner. They must not confuse or disorient the viewer (unless that is intentional), and each shot must be timed perfectly in relationship to the shot before and after it. They must drive the story forward with whatever urgency is required, and the editor must adjust any shots that are to appear simultaneously. Sometimes one will appear atop the other. “Double exposure” occurs in the beginning of Apocalypse Now (1979), when helicopters napalming a forest appear over a spinning hotel ceiling fan. Sometimes the shots will appear alongside one another, as in Timecode (2000) or the nightmarish prom scene in Carrie (1976). Shots can crosscut against or bounce back between one another. Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) visits the same narrative from multiple perspectives (Ridley Scott’s 2021 film, The Last Duel, pays homage to it).
Then there’s the whole world of sound…the score, the dialogue, the soundtrack, and all the everyday noises. A famous and whimsically ingenious process known as the “Foley Method” is broadly responsible for many of the sounds we hear in films and TV shows. How did director William Friedkin create the sound of Reagan’s neck spinning all the way around in The Exorcist (1973)? The artists cut up credit cards. Driving a car over balloons will mimic the sound of fireworks. Pushing a mop up and down inside a water-filled bucket will mimic the sounds of elephants walking through a muddy marsh. Stomping coconuts on an old rag will mimic the sounds of horses’ hooves, crumpling up a potato chip bag will mimic the sound of a bonfire crackling, and frying bacon will mimic the sound of rain.
Dreams Made Manifest
Now we’ve peered “under the hood.” We’ve gotten a snapshot (no pun intended) of what transpires inside the “Dream Factory.” The term “dream factory” itself, though, is quite intriguing. A factory is a place of supreme order…of robotic devices, assembly lines, and thousands of cogs, wheels, and other pieces of equipment that all move like clockwork. Think of the famous factory, for example, that produced Ford automobiles. A “dream”, though, seems to be something entirely different. Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) was all about dreams, and, at the heart of his story dreams became an analogue for filmmaking (and vice versa). Dreams are visual. We experience them. They follow a narrative arc (even if the arc in question seems completely random). They can produce intense emotions. Films are the exact same. Or…are they?
Dreams emerge inside our heads while we sleep. Like all consciousness itself, what it’s like for any of us to have the dreams we have is only privy to us. Everyone else can only speculate on and interpret our experiences based upon what we tell them. With films, though, all our forever-separated consciousnesses can converge upon a single entity. We can sit in the theater or on the couch and watch these “dreams” at the same time and in the same place! The “dreams” can leap across time and space, and they can toggle between the various orientations within time and space that the characters occupy (hence, first and third person perspectives).
Films can vary in length, style, and genre. The Shining (1980) couldn’t be more different in tone from Duck Soup (1933)or Happy Gilmore (1996), which themselves couldn’t be any more different in tone from The Wizard of Oz (1939) or Casino (1995). Styles and genres can blend (sometimes gracefully, sometimes awkwardly). Parasite (2019) shifted brilliantly from comedy to gruesome thriller halfway through. The Cabin in the Woods (2012) deliberately played with categories…moving in a Wes Craven manner from slasher horror to meta-aware science-fiction dark comedy. And…how could we possibly forget Titanic (1997), the epic drama that transitions from schmaltzy teenage romance to historical disaster with one single collision?!
The best films (and TV shows, for that matter) all elegantly amalgamate what gives our most memorable dreams vibrancy and life. There’s a close dance…a marriage between the specific and the comprehensive. A coalescence between a hundred thousand single frames- each comprised of a hundred thousand tightly packed pixels- and their relationship to what the Germans would call the “gestalt” (the whole thing…the story at large…the entirety of the film and everything it impresses upon us). Every angle…every reflection…every shadow…every visual arrangement…every noise…. each deliberately constructed to move the vehicle of the story forward. Isn’t it enlightening to know what is situated “under the hood”?!
 “Introduction to the Camera Obscura”. National Science and Media Museum. 28 January 2011. Archived from the original on 11 November 2021. Retrieved 17 September 2019.
 Pfragner, Julius. “An Optician Looks for Work”. The Motion Picture: From Magic Lantern to Sound. Great Britain: Bailey Brothers and Swinfen Ltd. 9-21. Print.
 Prince, Stephen (2010). “Through the Looking Glass: Philosophical Toys and Digital Visual Effects” (PDF). Projections. Berghahn Journals. 4 (2). doi:10.3167/proj.2010.040203. ISSN 1934-9688.
 The London and Edinburgh Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science. 1834. p. 36.