The role of the director in early french cinema
December 14, 2010 9:31 AM   Subscribe

What did early (1900-1920) french film directors actually do? I get the sense from my research that early film directors in France were more like what one associates with producers nowadays. The "director" chose the script, chose the actors and the budget, and then left the execution to a cameraman who basically filmed everything as if he were recording live theater. This explains how someone like Louis Feuillade could "direct" hundreds of films each year. Is this assumption correct?

I'm writing an article on the topic, in particular on film serials such as Fantomas and Les Vampires. I've gone through a couple of books on Alice Guy, Feuillade, and early cinema (The Ciné Goes to Town) but the descriptions on what anyone did on a film set of that era are extremely vague and general.

Any further sources/bibliography that could help me clear up and clarify the matter would be appreciated. A source with the description of the proceedings of an actual production would also be incredibly helpful.
posted by Omon Ra to Media & Arts (7 answers total)
I have nothing to back this up, but I believe the director has always been personally responsible for blocking.
posted by griphus at 9:36 AM on December 14, 2010

Best answer: Have you read The ciné goes to town: French cinema, 1896-1914
By Richard Abel and the sequel, French cinema: the first wave, 1915-1929? Directors were on the set, working in what was called the "director-unit" method of production.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:41 AM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just a guess: why a director's work at that time had to be so different from what it is today? Looking at biographies, it looks that many directors had a traditional stage acting, stage directing or set design background, all skills that would naturally be useful in directing movies. They had to be on the set talking to actors, choosing the lighting and the camera position etc. Why directors would have left this complex work to cameramen? In any case, some of these early directors, like Méliès, were jack-of-all-trades and did a lot of the work themselves. Which does not mean that they were not involved in production, but this is still the case today.
This explains how someone like Louis Feuillade could "direct" hundreds of films each year
Keep in mind that most of these movies were very short (the 90 episodes of Feuillade's "Bout de Zan" series are about 10 minute long each) and not very sophisticated, with few actors and few (easily recyclable) sets.
posted by elgilito at 3:56 PM on December 15, 2010

I agree with elgilito ... how would a cameraman film 'as if it were a piece of live theatre', if there was nobody directing the piece of live theatre?

It seems far more logical to assume the director's role was broadly similar to a film director's role today.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 4:50 PM on December 15, 2010

Response by poster: It seemed different to me because of a couple of reasons:

1. I read somewhere (the source escapes me) that the director wasn't on the set all the time.

2. A lot of the shots are very static, full shots of a kind of proscenium stage. There are thrilling chases in Les Vampires and proto close-ups, but in a large number of scenes what we see is just a basic shot of a room, which doesn't seem very directed.

3. The aforementioned workload. Feuillade and Alice Guy were not only directors, but also the general managers of Gaumont at one point, yet they managed to make over 800 films each in less than a decade.

4. There is the french tradition of the Lumiere Brothers who shot a few films themselves, but delegated the rest to assistants.

5. A lot of the directors didn't come from theater backgrounds. Making films was still seen a something a little bit low. Alice Guy started out as a secretary, Feuillade was a novelist, Renoir was an aviator, etc.
posted by Omon Ra at 9:44 PM on December 15, 2010

Best answer: Here's a link to a description of Feuillade's way of directing and it looks like he was on set "bellowing orders and using a drillmaster's whistle to synchronize players gestures". Here's a page about Alice Guy shooting phonoscènes. She wrote well-known memoirs, so there may be more information there about how hands on/hands off she was as a director.
In any case there's no doubt they were using assistants but again that's the still case today.
Renoir was an aviator: well, he was indeed in WWI (as a reco pilot with experience in photography) but he was Auguste Renoir's son and the younger brother of a stage actor, so no stranger to the art world.
posted by elgilito at 4:16 AM on December 16, 2010

Response by poster: elgilito, of course Renoir was more than aviator (he also did some pottery work before the war) I was just using him as an example of someone who also didn't come from the theater who got into movies early on. [I love each and every frame from his movies, btw :-)]
posted by Omon Ra at 9:53 AM on December 16, 2010

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