Sight and Angle in the Cinema of Latvia: Widescreen in the 1950 and 1960s

By Agnese Surkova

© Agnese Surkova, 2012

Introduction

Widescreen is one of the most important technical innovations that were introduced to cinema in the middle of the 20th century. Producers, directors of photography, critics and theoreticians—filmmakers as well as film buffs all over the world—were looking forward to it both with doubt and incredulity, big hopes and expectations. Opinions differed considerably: some claimed that the only value of widescreen was a sensational one, that it was self evidently inartistic (Barr 1963: 4),whereas others saw it as a harbinger of new cinematic aesthetics, amplifying filmic language and expression. In the long run, widescreen proved to be more convenient and economically expedient than other inventions—3D and Cinerama—that were also introduced in mid-1950s; Peter Lev marks out that widescreen technology patented by Fox was an “attempt to create 3D without glasses and Cinerama without high costs” (Lev 2003: 116).

In the USSR widescreen become one of the most important goals in the technological competition with film manufacturers in the West; in late 1950s the USSR had finally set out its ambition in terms of quantity: to reach the indices that were already achieved and boasted of in the West where the widescreen films comprised about a half of the film repertoire. Therefore, in order to achieve the goal, widescreen facilities were supplied in the national film studios all over the USSR.

In the context of Latvian cinema, among all notable technical innovations of the 20th century in filmmaking—sound, color and widescreen—the most important changes and individual aesthetics were brought by the latter. Widescreen in Latvia is, primarily, an important and inherent means of visual expression in the so far only school developed in this region, the Riga School of Poetic Documentary Cinema. It is a rather important factor for the Riga Film Studio, where most cinematographers gained their first experiences and skills in documentary cinema, and made use of their experience to create the language and visual style of their own in fiction film.

The Tradition of Visual Aesthetics in Latvia

fishermans sonThere are signs of common aesthetics in the visuals of pre-war Latvian films. Most of the Latvian pre-war cinematographers were trained as still photographers (respectively – proficient as masters of portraits and lighting, as well as landscape framing), so the visuality of this period stems from fine arts, portrait and landscape photography. Taking the screen version of Vilis Lācis’ novel Fisherman’s Son (Zvejnieka dēls, 1940, Vilis Lapenieks) as an example, we see the work of the well-known Latvian portrait photographer Alfrēds Pole and recognize the aesthetics and techniques of still photography. Most of the shots are static and classically composed, with depth of field, a relation between foreground and background and other characteristic traits of photography in mind. The dominating camera movement in the film is an illustrative pan.

fishermans sonMāris Rudzītis, the prolific Latvian cinematographer and film director, author of a number of theoretical articles on film, argues that, up until the late 1950s, it is impossible to talk about a persistent aesthetic tradition or a rooted school of cinematography in Latvia. According to his comments, the skill of cinematography is a specific art, closely related to dramaturgy and screenwriting: “Searching for the roots of the culture tradition of the images captured by Latvian cinematographers, it is hard to find them at home. Not because Latvian fine arts lack an interesting history and manifold achievements. Simply the specific skill of a cinematographer does not derive from fine arts” (Rudzītis 1968: 25-26).

The impact of painting on the visual aesthetics of Latvian-made films continued in the first post-war years, the decade in Latvian film history that is commonly called “cine-anemia” (Līce 1995: 39).At that time the visuality of film was directly influenced by the Soviet school—by VGIK (All-Union State Institute of Cinematography) graduates who had mastered the mandatory aesthetic canons, coming from the examples and clichés of 19th century painting. Also the front cameramen, bringing the spontaneous documentality of front-line into the visual expressivity of fiction films, had their impact on the visual aesthetics of the 50s.

The film The Clouds Pass by like White Swans (Kā gulbji balti padebeši iet, 1956, Pāvels Armands) shows the typical signs of the film aesthetics of the 50s—properly lit portraits, precise compositions, use of the depth of field, dramaturgically justified dynamics, achieved by movements within a frame as well as by textures and graphic elements. The chosen camera angles are representative and carry a conventional message, as for example, in the episode where a crowd of working women listens to an allocution, the disposition of the characters within the frame hint at their hierarchical relationship. This manner of story-telling does not offer psychological portraits—the characters embody general concepts, not individualities. Significantly, in the films of 1950s a greater emphasis has been placed on the spoken text: information.

Historically, the discourse on the work of Latvian cinematographers and the development of national cinema begins when an organized and regular process of filmmaking is launched, and the first professionally educated cinematographers start their work. This process is marked by the second half of the 50s, when Māris Rudzītis and Varis Krūmiņš graduated from VGIK in 1956, becoming the first Latvians with a professional degree in filmmaking.

The Implementation of Widescreen Technology and its Visual Aesthetics

The influence of technology on the artistic expression in film as a separate and specific form of visual art was not a topical issue among the documentary and fiction cinematographers of the Riga Film Studios until the 1960s. Māris Rudzītis remembers that at the time the aesthetic taste of a cinematographer was measured by the “instilled concepts of long-shot, medium-shot and close-up, and the inner balance of a shot” (Rudzītis 1968: 88-89). In the 50s, a cinematographer was expected to deliver a schematic (and schematized) presentation of life events; therefore neither his artistic qualities, nor his ability to create a cinematic image played a decisive role. The only criteria applied in order to evaluate the artistic qualities of a cinematographer’s work were those categories known since the dawn of painting and named by Māris Rudzītis.

All in all, in the period between 1956 and 1959 the rate of film production in the Soviet Union rose significantly: a range of novel technological equipment and devices were created, introduced and brought into regular use. In the field of cinema the Soviet Union took pride in several technological achievements: the technology of magnetic recording of sound was introduced, and a novel type of color film was created. However, the most important and significant technological innovation was the wide screen, which was brought into use at the same time as in the West.

In the 1950s and 1960s widescreen technologies used in the USSR and the West were not identical: in the USSR only the anamorphot system was used, whereas in the West the masked (flat) widescreen technology had gained popularity, i.e. the negative was shot exposing the Academy Ratio, but the top and bottom of the picture was hidden (masked off) by a metal aperture plate, whether during shooting or projection (Eglītis 2003: 35). While only a part of the negative was used to capture the image, a loss of quality (when compared to anamorphot system) was experienced by mechanically expanding the image during projection. The most common proportions used with the masked widescreen technology were 1:1,66 and 1:1,85.

Although the initial reason for using the widescreen technology in Soviet film studios was not a choice dictated by visual style and aesthetics, but rather a technological competition with Western manufacturers, it still became a significant means of visual expression and an element of cinematic language that, with its specific qualities, had a great influence on the visual style of that time.

By the end of the 50s widescreen films in the West made up more than 50 per cent of the cinema repertoire; however, in the USSR this number could barely measure up to the mark of 5-7 per cent. At the Riga Film Studios, where the anamorphot technology was introduced in the early 1960s, the transition to the new system happened quickly and in one go.

In 1964 the first widescreen fiction films were shot at Riga Film Studios, and three out of four full-length films completed that year were shot in this format. In the coming years, the amount of widescreen films completed in Riga remained stable or grew. From 1968 onwards, five widescreen full-length fiction films were completed each year, and in 1977—the year of the anniversary of the Revolution—seven new widescreen films reached the screens. The topicality of the singular technological competition receded only in the 1980s, when the number of widescreen films shot in Latvia fell. In 1984 only one out of eight films completed at the Riga Film Studios was a widescreen production (Soloist Wanted / Vajadzīga soliste, directed by Gennadi Zemel).

The widescreen format was organic to the visual aesthetics of Soviet cinema. On the one hand, it reinforced the dominance of horizon and monumental compositions, and amplified the traditional eyeshot of the 4:3 format landscape known from painting and photography. On the other hand, it mimicked the angle of human eyesight more than the Academy Ratio could ever do, thus enabling a more realistic image of reality, serving as a visual medium between audiences and the screen world. If a landscape could be defined as a complex structure of objects and their interaction, then this definition is also applicable when talking about the widescreen frame, where the visible objects stand in the same plane of time, interact and retain equal importance. The visual aesthetics of the 1960’s cinema are characterized by the following mise-en-scène of the screen, initiated by the scale of a widescreen frame: a medium shot that shows two or three equally important figures simultaneously, or one figure and the surrounding environment; furthermore, the space of the frame (or the social context) around a human being plays a role that is as important as the human being inserted into it.

white bellsIn the early 1960s when anamorphot systems appeared at the Riga Film Studios, the first filmmakers to use it were those with the closest connection with everyday reality: documentalists. Director and cinematographer Uldis Brauns remembers that it all started with the film Beginning (Sākums, 1961). However, the symbolic title is just a coincidence: once, while having a smoke by the elevator of the studio, director Ivars Kraulītis came up with it, helping out the cinematographer of his diploma film White Bells (Baltie zvaniņi, 1961), who was in anguish over a title for his debut film (Seleckis 2005).

There were two widescreen cameras at the Riga Film Studios yet “nobody had the guts to touch them” (Seleckis 2005), even though five years had passed since the introduction of the new format in the Soviet Union. Cinematographer Uldis Brauns got the brand new, still unwrapped machine just because the more experienced documentalists did not show any interest in the matter. This was a crucial point in the development of the poetic language of cinema: the young cinematographers of the Riga Film Studios were the first to start shooting widescreen films at the documentary film section of their studio, hence obtaining a characteristic means of expression and making it an original sign of the Riga school of poetic documentary cinema. In 1968 Māris Rudzītis described the widescreen technology as an important means of expression in a cinematographer’s arsenal:

Now it is beyond debate: with the wide screen, the role of a cinematographer as a dramatist in creating a film, has grown considerably. In a single unit of filmic time, the wide screen holds more substance, provides more information on the filmed environment and does not struggle to isolate the character from it—that is how we could formulate the nature of widescreen. Still, we have not yet managed to grasp its possibilities: formal changes of the screen are too fresh in our consciousness. It is clear that the search for self-ambitious pulchritude will soon be as dead as a dodo; for decades the regular screen embodied the outspoken dimensions of a “bull’s-eye,” a “viewfinder.” However, the widescreen can be considered a medium between nature and film print, between film print and viewer. Although it might sound peculiar, the change in dimensions of the screen embraces a deep meaning common to all mankind, and it has not yet been fully interpreted and appreciated. (Rudzītis 1968: 90).

In order to reach this conclusion, cinematographers at the Riga Film Studios had been practically worming out and creatively experimenting with the widescreen format for seven years. The younger generation of the Riga Film Studios’ cinematographers, just coming from VGIK, showed the most interesting and remarkable results in the search for a new cinematic language and an individual handwriting of Latvian national cinema.

The Visual Aesthetics of Widescreen Films in the 1960s

captain zero The first widescreen fiction film completed at the Riga Film Studios was Captain Zero (Kapteinis Nulle, 1964, Leonīds Leimanis). It serves as a graphic illustration to the impact of technology on cinematic visuality. In this case the technology has been dominant over the aesthetics – the novel, specific and yet not adopted format become a major challenge for the cinematographer Miks Zvirbulis, a VGIK graduate of 1961. Aesthetically, the film reveals both the advantages of the widescreen technology and its main flaws.

The widescreen format has served well to the visuality of Captain Zero, providing it with spectacular, interesting and thought-out long-shots. Also, the dynamic camera movements are rather impressive, and therefore the marine landscapes and the manifold nature of the sea remains in viewers’ memory. Yet there are only a few original close-ups that have been so characteristic to director Leonīds Leimanis’ style in his previous films; the mise-en-scènes of the screen seem to be too schematic, and episodes consist of uniformly composed shots. In those episodes it becomes evident that cinematographer Miks Zvirbulis saw the main disadvantages of anamorphot system: the unhandy equipment, the off-grade optics and the need for different planning of shot compositions, especially when it comes to close-ups. The cinematographer Mārtiņš Kleins claims that anamorphot optics distorted margins of the frame and only allowed for a rather shallow focus. Moreover, in order to work with the wonted aperture of 5,6 a stronger than usual lighting was required, which added inconveniences: the heat in the studio and the need for artificial lighting and electric generators when filming on location, which caused a high level of engine noise and made direct sound recording impossible. In addition, the anamorphot optics was almost twice the size of the regular optics—more heavy and unhandy, and pushed the cinematographers to invent their own adjuvants and shoulder rigs. [1]

captain zeroThe initial attitude to composition that a cinematographer had to note when filming in this system was to keep the camera back from the actors (Salt 1992: 246) (in order to avoid distorted close-ups, while the image seems to be a little poky), to set compositions that are centered around the middle of the frame (to lessen the conspicuous distortion on the edges) and to keep in mind that compositions in a widescreen frame might sometimes lack height and leave disproportionally much empty space around figures in close-ups.

It is common to think that, with the introduction of anamorphot, the average length of shots increased (Salt 1992: 246). This tendency can be explained with the urge, and quite often also with a necessity dictated by the plot, to show the mise-en-scènes in detail. Because of the characteristics of the anamorphic optics, the depth of field in a shot was rather shallow and part of the shot was always out of focus. In order to keep the viewer informed on the location of action, whether long takes and a moving camera or long takes and moving actors, a respective shift of focus was needed; another frequent option was to make a cut in the film.

It took time to discover and learn the aesthetic possibilities of widescreen, and even more time to fix its imperfections, until the cinematographers mastered various optical methods, including the light and color accentuation that by the 1970s had become an integral part of visual aesthetics.

twoOne of the most interesting and exciting examples is the short film Two (Divi), directed by Michail Bogin and completed at the Riga Film Studios in 1965. It displays most of the means of visual expression characteristic for widescreen. Cinematographers Rihards Pīks and Heinrihs Pilipsons joined the crew with the experience of documentary cinema and made use of the widescreen with confidence and understanding of both composition and movement. Interestingly, in spite of their documentary film experience, documentary stylistics can not be found among the visual images of Two, and the use of technical equipment characteristic for fiction films—crane and dolly—is proficient and well-grounded.

Widescreen functioning as an imitator of human eyesight and angle, or as characterized by Francois Truffaut “demolishing the arbitrary boundaries of the screen and replacing them with the almost ideal—panoramic vision,” (Truffaut 1985: 273) expresses itself already in the prologue of the film. The eye of the camera is pointed at a building, and it travels from one open window to another in horizontal, vertical and diagonal pans, until a bunch of young people exit the door and head into the park across the street. The introduction, captured in a single shot and lasting one and a half minutes, confirms widescreen as a powerful tool in creating the impression of space and in abating the need for editing.

Unostentatious yet visually significant is the first encounter of the main characters—a boy and a girl. While walking the street he accidently barges into her shoulder, walks beside her and then continues following her a few steps behind; the camera imitates his actions to a nicety: it lets the main characters come closer to the lens, frames them in a closer shot, then follows them until they leave the frame. In the next long shot the camera continues to follow them with a horizontal pan. The last mise-en-scène of this tiny etude is built in a very shallow space, on a pavement; from one side it is limited by a curtained window-case, from the other by the passers-by. Although this staging is minute, the mise-en-scène does not become claustrophobic, mostly because of the screen ratio and the horizontal pan. Jacques Rivette once, analyzing a film, saw that the sign of maturity and mastery is not hidden in the depth of staging; he claimed that “extreme use of the breadth of the screen, the physical separation of the characters, empty spaces distended by fear or desire, like lateral movements all seem to be [...] the language of true filmmakers” (Rivette 1985: 278).

In order to illustrate what David Bordwell has named widescreen’s ability to “contribute to producing symbolic and expressive meaning” (Bordwell 1985: 20), another episode of the film Two would serve well. This etude, by means of visual elements, shows an attempt and a resignation: the boy continues to follow the girl trying to start a conversation while she moves forward, without paying any attention to her follower. In a medium shot, the camera on dolly has dynamically captured their walk through a bus terminal; in this unedited episode, thanks to the screen gauge, the boy freely moves from the right side of the image where the pylon of a pavilion stands as a vertical barrier between him and the girl to the left side, closer to the object of his interest.

Before widescreen was introduced, margins of a frame served as limitating barriers, as confines creating a narrow viewfinder to the filmic reality. With the new format the cinematic frame suddenly gained both its physical gauge (the characters in it, the freedom of movement) and a symbolic, notional amplification for an additional point. Eric Rohmer pointed out that in the era of Academy Ratio only the great filmmakers had managed to loosen the screen by a certain obscure magic; the introduction of widescreen gave cinema the only palpable element it lacked: “the air, the divine ether of the poets” (Rohmer 1985: 280). In the late 1950s and early 60s this ‘air’, the symbolic and notional amplification of the screen, turned out to be of importance to the young artists on the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain; the Thaw generation showed an inclination in its creative work to suppress the stereotypes and traditionalism of art, offering an utmost authentic and subjective view on the real-life comings and goings.

Over time, the anamorphot system was replaced by the already-mentioned masked widescreen technology. While the anamorphot system was known for its heavy and bulky cameras, off-grade optics and distorted images, and the fact that the image in the viewfinder only gave a rough impression of what really stood in front of the lens, the cinematographers’ work became easier again. Mārtiņš Kleins remembers: “I got used to the images of incredibly tall and thin people in the viewfinder, still the compositions were not easy to weight.” [2] By taking over the masked widescreen technology, one could return to the regular devices, with the only difference being the aperture plate confining the frame.

The widescreen system, which was introduced at the Riga Film Studios in early 1960s, not only created a momentary perplexity among the filmmakers, but also became one of the trademarks and inherent means of visual expression of the Riga school of poetic documentary cinema, and inspired many filmmakers for further search in the visual aesthetics of fiction films.



Notes

1] Author’s conversation with Mārtiņš Kleins (June 2010)

2] Author’s conversation with Mārtiņš Kleins (June 2010)


Bibliography

Barr, C. (1963) “CinemaScope: Before and After,” Film Quarterly 16.4, pp. 4-24.

Bordwell, D. (1985) “Widescreen Aesthetics and Mise en Scene Criticism,” The Velvet Light Trap 21, pp. 18-25.

Eglītis, V. (2003) Gribu uzņemt filmu! Rīga: Jumava, pp. 33-40.

Lev, P. (2003) Transforming the Screen 1950-1959 (History of American Cinema, Vol. 7), pp. 115-118.

Līce, S. (1995) Viņi veidoja latviešu mākslas filmu vizuālo tēlu, Rīga: Zinātne, pp. 33-50.

Rivette, J. (1985) “The Age of metteurs en scene” in Cahiers du Cinema: the 1950s. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 275-279

Rohmer, E. (1985) “The Cardinal Virtues of CinemaScope,” in Cahiers du Cinema: the 1950s. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 280-283.

Rudzītis, M. (1968) “Ekrāns un mākslinieka iedvesma,” in Runā kinematogrāfisti, Rīga: Liesma, pp. 64-92.

Rudzītis, M. (1974) “Cilvēki un tradīcijas,” in Runā kinematogrāfisti, Rīga: Liesma, pp. 24-27.

Salt, B. (1992) “Film Style and Technology in the Fifties,” in Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis, London: Starword, pp. 241-250.

Seleckis, Ivars (2005) Conversation with Uldis Brauns, Video (Archives of film studio “Ģilde”).

Truffaut, F. (1985) “A Full View,” in Cahiers du Cinema: the 1950s, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 273-274.

 

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