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Motion Pictures - Titles

( Originally Published 1924 )

THE popularity of the autographic Kodak has proved that the photographer is prone to forget. All pictures should have a title and a date. These are valuable in later years. In like manner, the most modest photo-playlet should at least be identified as to incident, place, date and actors.

Recently professional cinematographers have been producing very complex "Art" titles, some so much so that there is far more "Art" than title. These add to the effect of a great photo-drama when not overworked, but they are unnecessary for the amateur. However, these titles are not difficult to make, if the operator desires them, being simple double exposure work, but to my mind the most legible and artistic title is a plain white letter on a black ground, surrounded by a simple border.

The perfect photo-drama should require no titles beyond the introduction, but unfortunately we have not yet reached perfection and titles must be used. As they are auxiliary and incidental, they should possess one characteristic above all else. That is legibility. They must be read in the shortest possible time, and should therefore, be clearly defined on a contrasting, monotone ground. They should be brief, concise, to the point, and above all, legible. Some art-cinematographers have said that too much contrast spoils the effect! I do not agree. So long as the body of the letter, the lines which compose it and the border are drawn in a style which is rather slender, with clean cut edges and all "fancy-work" eliminated, the more contrast the better the title! The whiter the letter and the blacker the ground, the more legible is the title, always provided halation has been avoided. Broad, heavy lettering spreads too much light over the screen, giving an effect of halation even though there is none on the film. In this case the clean cut edge is lacking and the legibility lessened.

It is presumed that most of the films which my readers make will be printed but one or two times. In that case, there is a trick used in studios for temporary titles which will be valuable. This method is not adapted to the Vitalux or other non-standard form of film, nor is it adapted to the reversal process, in which process, however, nothing would be gained by using it.

Draw your title card about 10 x 12 inches. Instead of following the usual procedure and drawing white letters on a black ground, this procedure is reversed and black letters are drawn upon a white ground. Fill the camera with positive film. The emulsion on positive stock is more contrasty than that used on negative stock, and also lacks the gradation. Positive emulsion may be compared to the emulsion used on process plates. This procedure makes it easy to obtain a good, sharp title, just as process plates are the best for line copies.

Photograph the title card and develop the film. The resulting negative will show white letters on a black ground, and this title strip can be cut directly into the body of the film without having to print it. In doing this, care must be taken to see that the celluloid side of the title film corresponds to the emulsion side of the print. This will make the wording read correctly. If the usual patch were employed, the lettering would be reversed. The difference in the focus of the two emulsions will not be noticed on a small screen. On large screens, however, the slight thickness of the film will necessitate a refocus for titles, so the process is adaptable only for home and temporary studio use.

The production of good titles is only possible by the use of some kind of a title stand. If I know the amateurs of this country, few will follow my design, but I offer it as a basis upon which the individual designs may be developed. The most radical change I am familiar with is the vertical stand, similar to the cartoon stand. This bears the same relation to the stand described that the vertical enlarger bears to the horizontal model.

A title stand should incorporate an easel which may be moved in both directions perpendicular to the lens axis, and which may be set at various distances from the camera. These adjustments permit the easy centering of the card and the use of different sizes of cards. A support for the camera is also necessary, which will ensure the correct relation between lens axis and easel. The whole stand must be as rigid as possible. Any vibration of either camera or easel, which does not affect both alike will produce a title which dances on the screen, than which there are few things more annoying.

The stand I use is made as follows: Procure a quantity of good hardwood, say six pieces of dressed two-by-four, eight feet long. Bore these and clamp together with half-inch bolts in such a way that the four inch sides are together. This is similar to the manner in which the floors of bowling alleys are laid. This will give a good solid bed four inches thick, a foot wide and eight feet long. Attach the legs to set obliquely, so that the floor space occupied is about three by ten feet. Cross-brace the legs midway between the floor and the top of the bed. Make all fastenings with large screws and bolts. Do not use nails! The accompanying cut gives an idea of the finished table.

We are now ready for the easel. The body of the easel is a square made of two-by-fours, measuring one foot on each side. This will resemble a box a foot square and four inches deep, but with neither top nor bottom. This is now cross-braced on the side which will be toward the back.

Next, procure four pieces of matched material, that is, with tongue and grooves, similar to flooring. Get this in good hardwood, with uniform tongue and groove so that one piece will slide against the other, without binding. Ripsaw these, which will give four pieces with a tongue and four with a groove. Fasten two grooved pieces horizontally across the uprights of the easel, about eight inches apart, taking care that they are exactly parallel. Set two tongued pieces against these so that the tongues engage the grooves, and tack strips to the tongued pieces so that their relative positions may be maintained. Remove these pieces and lay them upon a table. Place the other pair of tongued pieces across them at right angles, also about eight inches apart and exactly parallel. Screw the four pieces firmly together, taking care not to disturb the relative positions, and then remove the temporary braces from the first pair.

Now obtain a flat board about fourteen by eighteen inches in size. Place the double cross in its slides on the uprights of the easel support. Stand the easel board in front of this and mark its position. Now remove both board and double cross and lay them upon the table, placing the double cross in the position indicated by the marks. Now take the remaining grooved pieces and engage them with the tongued strips which lie next to the board. Screw the grooved pieces to the board and the easel is ready for the assembly. Take board and double cross and slide into the grooved supports on the easel uprights. You will now find that the board can be moved sidewise or up and down.

The easel will be unstable, so a base must be provided. Remove the easel board. To the bottom of the frame screw two pieces, 1 x 4 x 12, extending backward from the frame six inches and forward two inches. Brace at the back with diagonal braces. Now screw to each side of the frame a piece of one by six, which will drop over the edge of the bed two inches. These aprons will allow a free forward and backward movement but will prevent any rotation around a vertical axis, thus maintaining parallelism between board and focal plane.

You are now ready for the camera support. Raise the easel board, or the easel as I shall now call it, about four inches from its low limit, and measure the distance from the bed to the center of the board. This may be about eleven inches. That will do for illustration at any rate. Now measure the distance from the bottom of your camera to the center of the lens. Suppose this distance is five inches. It follows that the camera must be raised six inches above the bed of the title stand to bring the lens opposite the center of the board with the latter in a medium position.

The support must be most firm. In this case, screw a block six by six by two to the bed at one end, keeping the block in the lateral center of the bed. Now screw to it another block of like dimensions and upon this a third. You will now have a support six inches square which is to all intents and purposes integral with the bed. Now bore a half inch hole vertically through the center of this block.

Procure a half inch rod and have one end threaded to fit the tripod socket of the camera, with a lathe cut of the same size a half inch long, or else have the threads extend a full inch. The distance from the bottom of the bed to the top of the block is ten inches. Ten and a quarter inches from the threaded end of the rod have a two inch collar pinned on, and two inches below this a cross rod one-quarter of an inch diameter and six inches long passed through the rod. Now thrust this through the hole and engage the screw with the socket of the camera. When it is tightened up the collar will prevent its passing through the hole and as force is exerted the camera will be firmly clamped to the table. Make sure that the axis of your optical system is parallel to the center of the table and you are ready for work. This applies to cameras with lenses in the center of the box. In cameras having the lens at one side of the front of the camera box, the hole through the block should be offset to bring the lens immediately above the center of the table.

The lighting of titles is quite an art, but one which can be mastered with a little practice. If the title stand be outdoors, two soft reflectors, one on each side will provide sufficient illumination. After setting the reflectors, step back and see if both sides are receiving equal illumination. If not, readjust the reflectors until the lighting is uniform. However, outdoor lighting is not the most advisable for titles, owing to its lack of uniformity from time to time. The lights which I shall describe are very good for title work and will also serve for photographing indoor subjects.

First, a standard must be provided which may or may not be adjustable as to height. I shall describe the adjustable stand. Make a stand similar to the old-fashioned hall tree, with three feet and a standard two inches square. This standard should be four feet high and have a small hole bored through it every two inches, from its top to a point one foot from the floor. The second standard is of like dimensions with a small hole bored at a point two inches above its bottom. Metal straps, three or four in number, are now screwed to this piece. These straps are of such size that the first standard will just slip into them. Thus, the two portions may be adjusted in the same manner as a surveyor's sighting rod. A nail thrust through the small hole and through some corresponding hole in the lower standard will maintain any desired height. The standard is now ready for the lamp box.

Make a hollow frame of one by six inch material, eighteen inches square. Mount three electric sockets on the inner side of each side. Connect these sockets to one pair of wires and connect a standard plug to these wires. The extension cord should be about ten feet long, although this will be governed by the position of available feed sockets. Now cover a piece of wall board with tinfoil and nail it, tinfoil side into the back of the frame. Finally, insert in each socket a sixty or one hundred watt blue bulb. The result will be a lamp of seven hundred and twenty or twelve hundred watts. It will be well to determine whether your house circuit will stand a drain of twenty-four hundred watts, or approximately tweny-four amperes before you connect these lights. The usual house fuses are six to ten amperes only.

These lights are good for titles, and will also render possible the making of indoor cinematograph scenes where only a small area is to be included. They will also serve to supplement daylight indoors, thus rendering unnecessary a great expenditure for arc lights. Another desirable feature is that when a bulb burns out the replacement cost is comparatively low.

It must be remembered in using the Vitalux camera that all titles must be photographed in their proper sequence for cutting is not practical. In using the sixteen millimeter film it must also be remembered that titles must be white on black, for this film is reversed in development so the use of negative titles is unnecessary and undesirable.

Some standard of length for titles must be used. The ordinary professional usage is to allow one foot per word for the first ten words and one-half foot per word for all succeeding words, with a minimum of five feet for any title. Caution! This is computed for standard gauge film. It would be better to substitute the word second for the word foot, and in this case the rule applies to any film.

The wording of titles is an art. Suppose that in our domestic playlet Johnny has cut his finger and runs to tell Mother. The producer who is blindly groping for high art and who has to pad his film to make up sufficient footage would use something like this :

"Urged by the incomprehensible promptings of care-free youth, Johnny, the idolized son of a doting mother, while seeking the family cleanser, finds his father's razor. Thinking to enter man's estate, he determines to perform a tonsorial operation upon himself, but in opening the ugly blade he wounds himself. Life having swerved in an instant from joy to tragedy, he hurries to that eternal haven of childhood, his mother's arms."

For forty seconds we have to look at this, and one-twentieth of the reel has been used. You are all familiar with such titles. It means that forty feet of film have been used to pad the film. On the contrary, the amateur is likely to try to conserve film, so he inserts this title and gives it two seconds :

"Johnny and Mother"

Two seconds is a mere flash, and practically no one unfamiliar with the film can read it at all. Such a title requires the minimum of five seconds, and the full five words, or a few more might as well be used, for if we use titles at all they must fulfill their purpose. To be of any value at all, such a title should read some-thing like this :

"Johnny Has An Accident"

The action shows that his finger is cut, and that he is showing it to his mother. Our film is interested in the maternal solicitude, so the origin of the cut is of little moment. We all know mothers and children. The child naturally seeks its Mother in times of trouble. The title serves to draw the attention of the audience to the fact that something has happened and the general nature of the occurrence, that is all that is necessary. Don't tell your story in titles, it is not only an insult to the intelligence of your audience, it is an admission on your part that you have not the ability to present a story in pantomime. Don't be too obvious, that is on a par with the bore who repeats a story two or three times, and then laboriously explains the subtle (?) point involved. Let your audience use their minds. Your purpose is but to direct the general flow of thought.

Many large studios make use of typewritten titles for editing and other temporary uses. Type the title you require and photograph it on the title stand. The easel will have to be much nearer the lens than when using 8 x 10 or larger cards. The resulting title if fully processed will be black on white, or if negative titles are used they will be white on black. Although not attractive these titles serve their purpose.

Every film should have an introductory title, which is really the title of the film, as well as subtitles which are explanatory in character. A suggestion for an opening title would be :


Mother Mrs. Mary Brown
The Infant James Brown, Jr.
The Dog Rover Brown

Second title :

The Brown Mansion, Pikeville, Iowa

September 1st, 1924

The suggestion of professional form in the titles will give the simple little domestic playlet a certain savor which will make it, like wine—or should I say, in these dry days, like violins—improve with age. The stilted effect adds a piquancy somewhat comparable to that given the minuet by the quaint formalities of a byegone day.

Other titles should be short and infrequent. You must remember that people now-a-days go into their libraries to read, but when they sit and watch the magic screen, they do so that they may see drama enacted before their eyes. Your first efforts will probably be half reels, or eight minute runs. Try to avoid more than eight subtitles in this amount of film.

It is well, unless your playlet has perfect dramatic form, to add at the end of the run about five seconds of this title:


It carries an unmistakable air of finality, which is well—otherwise your audience might think the film had broken and sit waiting patiently for further developments. Do not let this discourage you, many commercial producers find it necessary.

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