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“Slow Motion Acting”

I’d been waving a “smoking gun” I’d been alerted to verifying the concept and technique of acting for an undercranked camera for some time when I was alerted to another one. A much earlier one. The one I’d been jumping up and down about was Milton Sills’ article on screen acting for Encyclopedia Britannica, written in 1928. It cemented for me what I’d been seeing in silents when I read it. But an article in “Movie Pictorial” from 14 years prior clinched it for me.

Richard Koszarski told me about the Sills article after I’d given my undercranking talk at the Library of Congress’ annual Mostly Lost film identification workshop. The article was news to me, and I was able to get my hands on it quickly thanks to a Twitter follower who works at Encyclopedia Britannica.

It blew my mind.

Sills laid out from his own experience these basic concepts of performance adjustments I’d seen and could find no other explanation for, except that the actors must have known of the speed-up and figured out a way to make it work.

I’ve searched terms like “feet per minute” and “minutes per reel” and “cranking” et al on the Lantern search engine harnessed to the Media History Digital Library, and had come up with very little. A couple of minor nuggets, which I’ll share – along with the Sills piece – in a future post. But I’d never searched for the term “slow motion acting”. Why would I?

And yet it is one of the topics in an interview with Maurice Costello in the July 25, 1914 issue of Movie Pictorial. Terry Chester Shulman had turned this article up while researching his excellent book Film’s First Family: The Untold Story of the Costellos. And mentioned it to me in a Facebook thread about something else.

Mind blown, again.

The interviewer asked Maurice Costello, regarding his start in motion pictures, “Did you find the motion picture acting at all difficult?”

“If you recall the early days of motion pictures.” Mr. Costello explained, “you’ll remember that the crude cameras and projecting machines of six years ago did not agree with the style of motion picture acting then Is vogue. The acting looked terribly swift, jerky, and unconvincing when It was focused upon the screen. The first time that I saw myself on the films I could have torn out my hair. I kept wondering If I had looked like that through the years that I had been playing in stock. I asked my friends and my family. They were reassuring but the pictures weren’t. I was playing only extra parts with the Vitagraph Company on a summer engagement and I didn’t know much of the mechanics of the business. But I finally figured out that slow movement of the actors would help in giving the correct effects. The first chance I had I used it. When the picture was shown on trial the manager sent for me. I went, thinking that I was to have a reprimand for having introduced the novelty. That would have been the way of a theatrical manager. That’s where I discovered the first advantage of the motion pictures. The Vitagraph Company made me their first leading man. I’ve been with them here ever since.”

Movie Pictorial, July 25, 1914, p. 9, sourced here.

This technique is something Costello became known for and, as Shulman describes in the chapter he quotes this in, was credited for in other publications years later. What’s striking to me is that Costello was describing this in 1914 and mentioning the cameras and projectors “of six years ago” and “the first time I saw myself on the films”. Which means that he noticed this in 1908 and at some point realized there was a way to counteract the speed-up he was seeing in theaters. And that the physicality workaround he took a flier on made his performances in moving pictures land and read properly, thereby allowing his craft and expressiveness to register better than that of his fellow screen performers.

No wonder Vitagraph made him their leading man. The word must have spread. There’s little to no documentation of it doing so, but Maurice Costello isn’t the only Vitagraph player or performer with any other studio who adopted this slow motion technique to their acting and movement.

By the time Milton Sills was writing his article on acting for the screen in 1928, it was second nature to everyone in pictures. We’ll get to Mr. Sills next.

The first post in this series is here.
The previous post (#48) to this one is here.
The next post (#50) to this one is here.

Terry Chester Shulman’s book Film’s First Family: The Untold Story of the Costellos (University of Kentucky Press, 2019) is available from University of Kentucky Press, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and other online retailers.

4 thoughts on ““Slow Motion Acting””

    1. Thanks so much. Discovering this facet of silent film acting, which I believe is part of what the core of what Silent Film is, was a revelation for me and continues to be for people I share it with.

  1. The world seems to be moving so fast these days, and I love Silent Film so much, I think I’ll try this “silent film acting” on my daily life and see what happens. Thanks for the tip, Ben!

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