Six with staying power

Despite the consensus that the digital revolution has taken over Hollywood, there are definite signs that a few industry antiques have resisted the blitz of technology. For the nostalgic, here are a few timeless relics of the past that are still considered solid workhorses in Hollywood:

  • The Moviola: “It’s an old friend,” says Michael Kahn, Steven Spielberg’s ace editor for 23 years. Kahn’s referring to the Moviola, the illuminated viewer that runs film backward or forward at various speeds and has been around since the 1920s. A sound head and an electric motor were later added, and the color changed from black to green, but otherwise, the Moviola is pretty much the same workhorse now as 70 years ago.

    The high-tech efficiency of Avid, Lightworks, and D-Vision notwithstanding , few industry veterans refuse to abandon their old friend. Kahn cut “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” on a Moviola because, he says, Spielberg prefers to watch his dailies on a big screen. “When he shoots on film, he wants to see it on film,” Kahn explains. “The beauty of the Moviola is that you have a closer relationship with your assistants. It’s more labor intensive.”

  • The Scenic Backdrop: “Everybody was afraid the computer would put us out of business,” says Ed Strang, lead scenic artist for Paramount’s forthcoming “The Flood,” starring Christian Slater and Morgan Freeman. Indeed, the scenic backdrop, or backing, has been around longer than the movie business itself. Hand-painted backdrops previously appeared in theaters, where they added realism through windows or balconies and gave the illusion of an actual location.

    Today’s scenic artists employ the same techniques: They still hand-paint (with acrylic vinyl colors) those photorealistic locations on durable muslin material. Strang explains that the backing for “The Flood” is the biggest ever: It’s 75 feet high by 2,000 feet long and took 15 to 18 scenic artists nearly four months to complete.

    Obviously, a computer-made backdrop would save more time and manpower. But Strang’s not impressed. “A computer (backing) has dots up close, but our hand-painted stuff is clean,” he says. “You have more control by hand.”

  • The Solarspot: Those powerful Solarspots have been lighting movie sets since 1935, when the Mole Richardson Co. replaced the bulky plano-convex glass on studio spotlights with a thinner, flatter lens known as fresnels. The Solarspot was more portable and compact, and its concentric lens rings allowed better control of the light’s intensity and direction.

    While earlier spotlights took 15 to 20 minutes to heat before their “noise” would stop, Mole Richardson’s solarspots contained enough ventilation and shielding to keep them quiet — a real blessing for early sound operators. Besides, good ventilation meant the hot lights would cool down faster.

    Says Mike Parker, vice president of operations at the Mole Richardson Co. and grandson of co-founder Perter Mole: “The lenses used in 1935 basically and almost identically are the same as what we use in 1997.”

  • The Sound Boom: “It has lasted the test of time,” says Dennis Knopf, general manager of the J.L. Fisher Co., which manufactures lightweight sound booms. Back in 1950, James L. Fisher was working in Republic’s sound department and noticed that Mole Richardson’s booms were too heavy and cumbersome to easily maneuver. So Fisher got hold of some of those bulky Moles and made them more portable and lightweight. The result: a boom that was quieter, more durable, and better balanced.

    Other studios soon joined in the boom competition, but Fisher’s outlasted them all. “Fisher’s original booms built in the ’50s are still working today,” Knopf says.

  • The Popcorn Popper: Fresh, buttered popcorn has been a good friend of filmgoers for more than a century now. The machines that heat the kernels and mix the oil, butter and salt have been popping corn since 1893, when inventor Charles (C.C.) Cretors first exhibited his steam-driven popcorn wagon at the Chicago World’s Fair. Previously, vendors popped corn by holding a wire basket over an open flame, until C.C. developed a steam-powered engine that did the job uniformly and in its own seasonings.

    C.C.’s original popper hasn’t changed much, except that electricity replaced the steam engine and the sidewalk hand-driven wagon eventually gave way to the lobby’s steel-framed bins.

    What’s the secret behind the popper’s longevity? “In a word, dependability,” says Charles D. Cretors, president of the Chicago-based C. Creators & Co. “For four generations, the theater industry has depended on Cretors equipment to be running when they needed it on Friday evenings.”

  • The Animation Disc: Without it, Bugs Bunny might get lost in the shuffle. The animation disc allows cartoonists to relate one sequential drawing to another and keep their layers of illustration firmly in place. Winsor McCay used an early prototype back in the teens for “Little Nemo” and “Gertie the Dinosaur,” and animators still rely upon it today.

    The metal animation disc contains a rectangular glass window, which fits snugly into the light table’s circular hole. Three registration pegs hold the various drawings secure. Earlier animation discs were rectangular; later, they became round so that animators could easily rotate them while they drew.

    Dan McLaughlin, professor of animation at UCLA’s film and television department, explains that the animation disc is indispensable for drawing extremes and in-betweens. “The relationship of one drawing to another and the movement is always kept. Otherwise, you might have drawings all over the place,” he says.

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