Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Aeroplane and the Motion Picture Camera -- September 1, 2010

This article appeared in the January, 1912 issue of Aeronautics. The comments of the film producers reflect the shift from actualities to dramatic films that was taking place around 1910. Author Israel Ludlow was a lawyer and early flier who lived until 1960. Lieutenant Henry Harley "Hap" Arnold was one of the first Army aviators, became Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II and retired as a five star general. Lochinvar was a character in Walter Scott's "Marmion". Robert G Fowler was an early aviator who managed to live until 1966. Pilot Phillips Ward Page joined Naval Aviation during WWI and died in a crash in 1917.

The Aeroplane and the Motion Picture Camera

DURING the aviation meet at Nassau Boulevard, it became one of my official duties to the corporation, which was promoting the Meet, to dispose of the motion picture rights. In spite of extra efforts, no bid whatever was obtained from any of the various film manufacturers throughout the country. Knowing that such picture rights have been sold in the past, a natural curiosity was excited to discover the reason of the present failure. It was found that the business of taking motion pictures had enormously developed within the past two or three years, and had formed definitely on certain lines from which the manufacturers were unwilling to deviate.

A very profitable market, and practically the only market for the films, were the five and ten cent motion picture theatres throughout the United States. It is reported that there are over ten million people who attend these theatres daily, and this public demands not a scenic or educational picture, but rather a photo play which shall have some dramatic climax, or which shall entertain the spectators by its comedy features. The motion picture manufacturers have grown wealthy catering to the public along these lines; and they declared that a simple picture of one or more aeroplanes flying in the sky attracts no more than a picture of an express train or the race of a fire engine down the street, because the human element is lacking.

The owner of one of the great film factories very frankly told me in detail of this situation, and as a result of the friendship thus formed, he suggested that I write a scenario or two in which the aeroplane played a part, and engage the aviator, and his company would produce it. His offer was a very generous one, and I wrote two scenarios which were enacted before the motion picture camera on the aviation field at Nassau Boulevard, immediately following the Meet. Lieutenant H. H. Arnold, U. S. A., played the leading part; that is, he was the aviator and substituted for the actor when the actual flying was necessary. A leather coat, knickerbockers, puttees, and goggles gave actor and Lieutenant very much the same appearance, and the audience which subsequently saw the pictures projected on the screen, probably never detected the difference.

The plays had strong simple situations. Their titles fully suggest their plots; "The Elopement" was the story of a young Lochinvar who runs away with his lady-love in the aeroplane. "The Military Airscout" was about a brave officer who succeeded in delivering a message to the Commanding General, though his aeroplane was brought down by the aeroplane guns of the enemy, and he was badly hurt in the fall. Other stories: "The Red Cross Nurse", "The Aviator's Success", "Aviator and Automobilist", etc., followed.

Not satisfied entirely with work of this character, and recognizing the scientific possibilities of the combination of the aeroplane and the motion picture camera, the Aviation Film Company was organized. This Company put Robert G. Fowler, the cross-continent aviator, under contract to carry a camera on his aeroplane from Texas to New York. The unique qualities of a motion picture taken from an aeroplane were so striking that little difficulty was experienced in making a contract between this Company and a great film concern, which is a member of one of the big sales organizations that have an exclusive contract for the disposal of films to the exchanges, who in turn deal directly with the exhibitors. Mr. Sexton, and Mr. E. R. Shaw, a camera man, joined Mr. Fowler at Beaumont, Texas, where on December 17th, 1911, the first aeroplane picture in America was made.

Mr. Fowler's contract with us required him to carry Mr. Shaw as passenger, with camera, or in place of Mr. Shaw, an automatic device which would turn the crank of the camera with power transmitted directly from the aeroplane motor. This device was the joint invention of Mr. Robert L. Baird and myself. It was obvious that such a mechanical instrument had economical qualities of great value. It would save the weight of the passenger, and thus gasoline equal in weight could be carried, insuring longer flight, and one life instead of two would be risked.

Mr. John G. Hemment, a professional photographer, Mr. Frank S. Lusk, and the writer went to the Burgess Co. & Curtis' aeroplane factory, where with their assistance, on December 21st, 1911, a mechanism was perfected and successfully tried on a hyrdo-aeroplane, at Marblehead, Mass. The device was the result of ten days' or two weeks' experiments, and its value is so great in our minds that it is being patented in behalf of the Aviation Film Company. The device has its possibilities in connection with making a topographical survey of the country for railroads who may want a map of a route to be covered by a proposed line, and on a scouting expedition the military aviator could carry sufficient film to cover his flight, no matter of what distance (this exceptional length of film being one of our improvements over the ordinary camera) and within a few hours the films can be developed and projected on the screen, greatly magnified. The telephoto lens would probably also be added, enabling the aviator to fly at any height. Photographs can also be made when desired, which will not overlap but which join or abut on each other. Examination of these latter pictures, of course can only be made one at a time, but their value is unquestionably great, for the result of any scouting expedition, even hundreds of miles in length, would be certain and exact.

During the first flights at Marblehead, the camera was operated by hand, but for the continuation of the experiments the camera was geared to and run by the motor. By means of a switch attached to one of the uprights, aviator Phillips W. Page was able to start the film revolving and stop it at the completion of a picture. So far as is known, this was the first time in this country that an aviator has taken motion pictures unassisted.

On the following day Page took up Hemment, who has recently returned from a hunting trip in Africa, with Paul Rainey, adding a new sensation to his list of experiences of pursuing game with his motion camera. Flying over the bay at a height of 150 feet, the aeroplane gave chase to a flock of wild ducks, and, after some maneouvring, the ducks were brought within range of the lens.

Development of the films showed the pictures did not suffer from the motion of the aeroplane.

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