Classical Hollywood as an Epistemological Network


Session Title:

  • From Still to Moving Image

Presentation Title:

  • Classical Hollywood as an Epistemological Network




  • The technics of silent cinema and its ties to other media (photography, theatre, magic) have been discussed extensively as an intermedia construct over the last decades (Brownlow, Gunning, Robinson et al.). Early film theorists’ quest for the essence of their subject has made it difficult to describe film as a self-sufficient phenomenon. In order to study mature cinema I take an approach that amends film analysis with methods of science and technology studies by means of looking at processes rather than results.

    The proposed paper concretely focuses on the development of optical effects in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s. What makes looking at effects within film production worthwhile is that they are not prerequisite but sought-after for various reasons and by various participants of cinema as a network. Not looking at film’s more or less solid core (camera, projector) like apparatus theory in the 1970s did, but studying its periphery -i.e. techniques that ‘come along’- enables a perspective that is neither essencialistic nor relativistic.

    While silent film effects borrowed a good many of their techniques (glass shots, mirrors) from predecessors, the apparent hermeticism of the studio system found its equivalence in the self-referentiality of optical printing and process shots in the 1930s. Both of these techniques were couplings of the essential devices camera and projector but in closed circuit setups that carry out more copying and modifying than recording actions. Thereby film in its self-reliance turned effectively into image engineering and animation.

    In my paper I will discuss structures, machines, people, and institutions than built this network. This includes namely the visual effects cinematographer Linwood G. Dunn, RKO Radio Pictures, the Acme Tool and Manufacturing Company, the United States Navy, and others. This research is part of my current PhD thesis Aesthetics and Techniques of Cinematic Composite Images at the University of Zurich, Institute of Art History. Coming from the field of media art myself I clearly regard this as a prologue to contemporary image media.

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