News on the Screen

News on the Screen

The development o f the “ News-reel ” has been one of the most marked of recent developments in the film world. Sound has considerably increased its interest until to-day there are theatres devoted entirely to news pictures. The fascinating history of the rise of the news-reel is told in this article.

by J. Smith-Ross

Although organized efforts to keep the public supplied with news-films could not be made until the cinema was established as a place of amusement, the news-film itself began its career soon after the motion picture camera was invented. One of the earliest subjects to be covered by a screen reporter was Queen Victoria’s funeral. This film, in common with others of the time, had to depend for its sales on peep-shows and one or two enterprising music-halls. It was nothing more than a badly-produced stunt and could be run through in a little over three minutes.

People did not then expect the popularity of films to last. Everyone said they were just a novelty. Financiers and business men, who might have placed the industry on a sound footing, at first ignored it entirely. The progress of the news-films had thus to depend on the effort of a few showmen who took them when and how they could and invariably for their own side-shows. There was no fixed object or policy in the minds of those pioneers ; if their films dealt with news at all, it was only because the means provided them with a cheap method of showing spectacular scenes.

The first company to devote the whole of its activities to the making of news-films was Pathe Freres, founded in 1910. At first this company had all its reels developed and printed in France, and films depicting British news could not be shown to audiences in this country until about three weeks after the events. Such news-films, however, proved an instant success with cinema-goers, many of whom had by then developed the habit of paying a weekly visit to their nearest cinema.

For technical developments the news-reel has depended largely on other branches of the industry, but in questions of celerity it has had to learn its own lessons. Its first achievement in this direction was the release of a weekly news-reel. Later, two editions a week were sent out and, finally, events of national interest, such as the Derby, were filmed and shown the same day.

The introduction of sound greatly enhanced the fascination and scope of the news-film ; it brought greater reality to the screen, introduced cinema-goers to the voices and views of world-renowned men, lent greater emphasis

News on the Screen

to the old adage “ the camera cannot lie,” and captured local colour in a way which the sound film had never been able to do.

The first company to adopt this new medium was British Movietone News, formed in 1929. One of the initial problems that confronted this company was the question of fast transport. The talkie equipment, which then weighed well over a ton, had to be moved slowly, and was installed with great precision and much waste of time. It limited their output; and their first films consisted of only two items, the Trooping of the Colours and the Derby. It was not until the whole equipment was packed neatly into a fast-moving vehicle that a news editor could send his screen reporters anywhere at any time. Some indication of the progress which has been made in this direction is given by the fact that the sound newsreel has now equalled all the records of the silent film, and such events as the Grand National and Cup Final are heard and seen at the principal cinemas some three hours after they take place.

There is no very great dissimilarity between the routine of the news cameraman and the newspaper reporter, except that one creates his impressions with a pen, and the other with a camera. Scoops and exclusive stories mean the same to both, for they are both sent on their errands by editors who, in turn, get their information from the same sources.

Time is just as important to the screen reporter as it is to the newspaper man. If the latter has to fly in the air for his story, the former can follow to-day with almost equal facility. In many instances the screen man uses a hand-camera and adapts the sound later. The outdoor staff of the news-reel company generally consists of about a dozen men. Three or four fast sound-trucks or vans are in constant use, and twenty subjects a week are invariably covered. Of these the editor chooses six, and having linked them together, sends the finished film to the laboratories to be reproduced. Generally 200 copies are made, each of which is shown at about 5 cinemas, and then scrapped (with the exception of one copy which is carefully preserved in a library). The cost of renting a film for its first three days' run is about £10, the value diminishing as the subject grows older. Thus on the third week, the cinema need pay as little as £3 for a news-reel.

No review of this subject would be complete without some reference to the ever-growing popularity of cinemas which devote their programmes entirely to news-films. One of these, with a seating capacity of 500, recently reported that over 2,000,000 people had paid for admission in the course of two years. As with most other films the news-reel makes entertainment its principal object, but it is impossible to overlook its historical and educational value. Recently this aspect was brought home very vividly by Pathe Pictures, Ltd. (formerly Pathe Freres), who marked the occasion of their twenty-first birthday by showing a film consisting of cuttings from news-reels taken during the company’s long and eventful career. Among the subjects it portrayed were the Coronation of King George V. and the Investiture of the Prince of Wales. It was as though by some miraculous effort the clock had been reversed and we were travelling back over the roads of yesterday. It had its romantic qualities, of course, but it was as a true historian that the film earned its highest praise.

The world film encyclopedia, 1933

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