TCM Classic Film Festival: Night of the hand-cranked 'Dream Machine'

TCM Classic Film Festival re-creates the early movie-going experience with 'Return of the Dream Machine'

When cinema was in its infancy, films were screened with a hand-cranked projector. And projectionists were an integral part of the movie-going experience.

TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood is turning the clock back a century Saturday with “Return of the Dream Machine: Hand-Cranked Films From 1902-1913,” a two-hour program featuring classic silent short films screened with a 106-year-old projector, live narration and music at the TCL Chinese Theatre.

“The thing that was way cool about the early nickelodeon days is that the projectionist was a showman,” said Randy Haberkamp, managing director for programming, education and preservation for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which is presenting “Return of the Dream Machine.”  

“You were aware of that person in the room. You were aware of the clickety-clack of the machine. You were aware that between each reel, they would stop and show slides.  The human element is really fun.”

Bringing these movies to life will be Joe Rinaudo, who will operate his 1909 hand-crank Power’s  Model 6 cameragraph motion picture machine. Galen Wiles will play pre-show music on a 1908 Edison Phonograph and Michael Mortilla will provide live music accompaniment to the films.

During the early days of cinema, said Rinaudo, the projectionist would be situated in the theater far back from the screen. “There were people who could sit next to the projectionist and watch the projectionists and change reels.”

The projector, Rinaudo noted, also has a magic lantern slide attachment. “That’s for when I run out of film. While I feverishly change reels, my assistant Gary Gibson will perform a glass lantern slide show.”

Haberkamp believes there is a purity and simplicity to hand-cranked movies. “The thing that’s amazing about Joe is he can literally look at the screen and tell what kind of rhythm the cameraman was using 100 years ago.”

“The cameramen had different techniques for timing their film speed,” explained Rinaudo. “In a battle scene or a comedy chase, I try to focus on one person in the action and try to keep that person flowing naturally. There is something else to consider. Some directors like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton liked their films to be projected at different [speeds]. You have to kind of interpret while you are cranking.”

Among the films Rinaudo will be projecting are Georges Melies' seminal 1903 fantasy “A Trip to the Moon,” Edwin S. Porter’s influential western “The Great Train Robbery,” D.W. Griffith’s 1909 drama “A Corner in Wheat” and Lois Weber’s 1913 thriller “Suspense.”

“This is kind of the greatest hits of the era,” noted Haberkamp. “Each film has been chosen because it’s a different genre of film.  You see the technical changes, the editing changes, the stylistic changes and storytelling genre development in a very fun and entertaining way. These are all films that after more than 100 years later still really work.”

For more information go to filmfestival.tcm.com.

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