MovieChat Forums > Show Boat (1936) Discussion > Question about Camera Work in 'Old Man R...

Question about Camera Work in 'Old Man River'


The shot of Robeson singing the first verse starts with him between the camera and the shore. It then pivots around him 180 degrees until it's on the water's edge facing him, and moves towards him.

My question is: how did they manage the camera movement? The shore seems a bit uneven, and the camera movement too stable, to be hand-held (for that matter, could handheld cameras produce studio-quality film back then?). If the shot used a dolly, did I miss the track? Did it use a crane, with some sort of bracket for the camera and cameraman suspended off of it?

Am I overreacting to this shot, or was it as technically challenging as it appeared to be?

Thanks.

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It seems a rather technical question best left to a professional who knows how this sort of thing is done. I did like the close up of Robeson, and the entire rendtion of the 1936 film.

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That sequence was very smoothly filmed. With the huge size of mid-1930s motion picture cameras, I doubt anything then could have been "hand-held". A crane seems most likely.

Crews at Universal produced very smooth camera crane images in their "horror" films, which added to the "spookiness" of any story.


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A dolly-mounted crane would be my guess, although the camera most likely used, a Mitchell BNC (utilized by roughly 80% of American films of the period) was neither particularly huge nor heavy. Un-blimped, which was probably the case for such a scene, it would have been no more than 60 lbs, I believe.


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Thanks for the information, Doghouse. Do you work in the motion picture industry? What does the term, "blimped" mean?

Cinematography was always an interest of mine, since I was a kid watching movies. I thought the job was most cool. Over the years, I learned that the cinematographer had to know so much more about film-making than just operating a camera to be successful in the craft.

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A "blimp" was an insulated, sound-deadening metal casing, into which the entire camera and film magazine fit, that was developed not long after talkies came in.

You've seen those windowed booths - into which the noisy cameras, along with the operator, were sealed in the earliest days of talkies - humorously depicted in Singin' In the Rain. As they severely limited camera mobility, other means of muffling camera noise (including blankets) were tried, and the "blimp" was soon invented.

It's ironic that the shooting of a silent film was actually a very noisy procedure. In addition to the whirr and clatter of cameras, there was a director shouting instructions, often a phonograph or even a small band providing mood music, and multiple other units might be shooting on adjacent sets only feet away. As satiric as their intent was, such depictions in Singin' In the Rain were also accurate.

In a scene like "Ol' Man River," where a pre-recorded orchestral and vocal track would have been employed for both performers' lip-synching as well as the final combined track heard in the film, no blimp would have been necessary on-set, and the take was most likely done "MOS." Industry lore has it that "MOS" - the term for any take done without on-set sound recording - was coined by an early sound engineer with a German accent ("mitout sound"). Apocryphal or not, that's the story - and the terminology - that stuck.

Incidentally, it was at Universal, the same studio, that an incorporated dolly/crane was first used. Designed (and built, if memory serves, for 30 grand) by director Paul Fejos for his 1929, all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing, all-Technicolor mega-production, Broadway, Universal was so proud of it, the device was even featured in the film's advertizing.

I've been out of the business for about 25 years, but by that time, modern cameras like the Panaflex and Arriflex had incorporated the sound-muffling properties of the "blimp" into the housings of the cameras and film magazines themselves.

It is true that Technicolor cameras of the mid-'30s (and beyond) were huge and heavy affairs, owing to the complex mechanics incorporating light-splitting prisms and synchronized movements for three separate negatives.

I know that's way more info than you asked for, and much of it you probably already knew. All this stuff has always fascinated me, and you, as a devotee of the art of cinematography, must see - if you haven't already - a wonderful 1992 documentary called Visions Of Light.


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I have a VHS tape of Visions of Light. It's wonderful seeing and hearing the famous cinematographers who rarely get the spotlight, but make the magic..

Universal seemed to have fairly smooth camera tracking, even in their very early horror films. While, classy MGM often had the most unexpected herky-jerky close-ups, which didn't seem to lower its reputation for classiness. Think Rosalie (1937).

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Rosalie: good example. Lotta bounce in those dolly and crane shots.


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A book about MGM had a full page still of that soundstage and camera for Rosalie. That building was huge, and that frantic moving close-up of Eleanor Powell looked like the dolly must have had square wheels. But it did have a great distance to cover in a short time.

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