What I Demand of Movie Stars – By David W. Griffith (Motion Picture Classic 1916)

Motion Picture Classic Vol.3 1916

What I Demand of Movie Stars

By David W. Griffith

I BELIEVE that the makers of pictures I have, in many ways, already surpassed the art of the speaking-stage! And perfection in Motion Picture drama has by no means been reached, far from it, altho we are advancing with great rapidity. Now, to equal the art of the speaking-stage, a great deal is needed of the people who make these picture-plays, the movie actors and actresses as they are best known. To exceed the art of the speaking-stage, still greater things are needed and demanded of the leaders in the production of a photoplay.

Lillian Gish 3707 cca 1915

Granted that the person has a moving camera face-that is, a person who photographs well-the first thing needed is “soul.” “Soul” sounds rather queer in speaking of a movie actor, does it not? Yet, that is just what I mean. The people of the speaking-stage call it temperament, stage presence, technique, and many other things. But there is such a wide difference between the spoken drama and the Motion Picture drama that the big people in the cast of a movie must. In reality, have “soul.” By that I mean people of great personalities, true emotions, and· the ability to depict them before the camera. Stage emotions will not do; some of the greatest of actors appear stilted and “stalky” in front of. the camera. Every big star in the Movies, whether romantic. tragic or comic, really has a more interesting personality. When they step in front of the camera, they do not have the “over-the-foot-light'” feeling and manner that we see in the actors in the spoken drama. It wouldn’t register well at all. When a really good actor stands before the camera. he puts his soul into it-he isn’t wondering what the people “down front” are thinking of him. He or she knows there is no audience in front, but a grim, cold-blooded, truth-in-detail-telling camera lens which will register every quiver of the facial muscles, every gleam of the eye, every expression of the face, every gesture, just as it is given. The movie actor cannot add to his art a soft voice; rising or falling inflection; a deep, piteous sigh ; a quickly in-taken breath expressing surprise. There can be no gay, rippling laughter, nor solemn tones of warning; no sad, sweet, pleasant tones; no shrieks of fear-not a sound can help the movie actor. He must express every emotion with his face and hands and with general gestures and movement of the body.

Lillian Gish cca 18 years old - theater scene

The actor with the soul enters into the work with all the ardor there is in him. He feels his part, he is living his part, and the result is a good picture. I can get quantities of beautiful, doll-faced girls, but, alas! they have no more soul than a doll; they can smile sadly or faintly, or giggle, and that exhausts their capabilities. For principals I must have people with souls, people who know and feel their parts, and who express every single feeling in the entire gamut of emotions with their muscles! They do not practice and practice to do that. It comes natural!y to them. They practice over and over many stunts, many jumps. dives, and other things, so as to time themselves accurately or so as to learn to do it just right; but when it comes to emotional scenes, whether it is love. hate, joy, sorrow, surprise, chagrin, exultation, or any of the scores of shades of the larger emotions, the best of the actors and actresses just go ahead and do it as tho it were a part of their really and truly experience in life. This is but one thing I demand of movie stars. The first thing I demand, of course, is that they have a movie camera face, and I not only demand that of stars, but of the humblest filler-in. If the person is to appear at all in the picture, that person must be one to photograph well.

Lillian Gish, 1916, I.V.
Lillian Gish, 1916, I.V.

A studio picture is quite different from a Moving Picture portrait. A studio picture has every light and shade diffused and thrown here and there so as to accentuate beauty and to hide defects. The negative is then retouched, until the matron of forty comes out on the print like a woman of twenty-five. We cannot diffuse the light for an interior in the movies, because the people are, naturally, moving. Retouching is out of the question, because one could not retouch a mile or two of film with thousands upon thousands of pictures. Consequently, a director must demand people who take good pictures. Taking a “good” picture does not mean taking a beautiful picture. An old, withered-up woman may take a splendid picture for certain characters. John Bunny did not take a “beautiful” picture, as every one  knows, but he  certainly took a good picture. People with very light hair and light blue eyes are seldom successful before the movie camera, because the eyes look white and wild or startled. Good hair, good eyes, good teeth-these are essential for good movie actor, except with character parts. It takes careful search and study to pick out the right people. A graceful carriage is also necessary and the ability to forget the presence of the camera. This prevents restraint, awkwardness and clumsiness, and all these things must be demanded, especially of movie stars. Somehow, most of the stars who come to us from the regular stage lack sincerity, at least in their earlier efforts before the camera. Mrs. Fiske, in “‘Tess,” was a notable exception. I know she drew from me the tribute of tears. The Comedie Francaise actors, notably Coquelin and Le Bargy, who appeared in some of the French pictures, were wonderful in the breadth and strength of their exquisite character portrayals. On the other hand, some of the most widely advertised and most-admired spectacular pictures from abroad suffered from the defect of mediocre acting. Of what use are magnificent scenes with only puppet-like actors? Here in America we are training a school of silent actors who bid fair to surpass the finest efforts of the Old World schools.

Lillian Gish Diane of The Follies - mid shot C

In the old days we followed the modes of the stage somewhat slavishly. Few of us sensed we were dealing with a new art form. The primitive picture-play was laid out in acts, strict unity of time and place being always observed, the same-sized figures shown in an unvarying time sequence of single action. I remember what a sensation I caused in the old Biograph studios, in Fourteenth Street, when I invented the “close-up” figures.

An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish
An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish

“That will never do at all,” objected the proprietors. “The actors look as if they were swimming – you can’t have them float on, without legs or bodies. But I persisted, and had my way, tho it was alleged that the audiences always knocked disapproval with their feet whenever the “‘close-ups”‘ were exhibited. Today the “close-up'” is essential to every motion picture, for the near view of the actors lineaments conveys intimate thought and emotion that can never be conveyed by the crowded scene.

Billy Bitzer Josephine Crowell and DW Griffith
Billy Bitzer Josephine Crowell and DW Griffith

I borrowed cut-back from Charles Dickens. Novelists think nothing of leaving one set of characters in the midst of affairs and going back to deal with earlier events in which another set of characters is involved. I elaborated the “cut-back” to the story within a story and the so-called parallel action. I found that the picture could carry not merely two, but even three or four simultaneous threads of action-all without confusing the spectator. At one point in my latest drama, four actions are represented simultaneously by the device of switching scenes every few moments. Each action heightens the effects of the others – a technique that, so far as I am aware, is absolutely novel in story-telling art. My point is that photographic drama is constantly progressing, and he is indeed foolish who would set arbitrary limits as to what it can or cannot accomplish in the course of its marvelous evolution. For one thing, the telling of history, the education of old and young, may be entirely revolutionized by its strangely new processes. The old schools are coming to us, and appropriating such of our devices as the “cut-back” and the parallel action; and I could name one actress, with a tremendous New York hit of two years to her credit, who built up her justly famous part from close study of the methods of our Los Angeles picture actresses!

griffith david wark_737

Already it is admitted that as to poetic beauty the Motion Picture entertainment is far ahead of the stage-play. Poetry is apparently a lost art in the regular theater, but is the very life and essence of the motion playhouse. We have staged most of Browning’s stories, many of Tennyson’s innumerable Biblical and classical fables. Not only beauty but thought is our goal, for the silent drama is peculiarly the birthplace of ideas. No one can tell what the Motion Picture will become, for we are at present only at the infancy of it.

DW Griffith, Billy Bitzer and Dorothy Gish (background left)
DW Griffith, Billy Bitzer and Dorothy Gish (background left)

I doubt if there ever will be a Shakespeare or Homer of the movies, because the Motion Picture is action, and the fashion of action changes with each age. The stage-work of Forrest, Macready, Kean or Kemble, for example, if it could be accurately reproduced, would appear crude, stiff, awkward to us of today. The acting of today may, similarly, seem unnatural or impossible to the people two hundred years hence. But the immortal stories will be there – the world’s legacy of great characters and great scenes – to be picturized according to the changed ideals of the succeeding generations.

DW Griffith directing Lillian Gish - background Robert Harron
DW Griffith directing Lillian Gish – background Robert Harron

I also demand the ability to work, and to work pleasantly and uncomplainingly. It takes endless work to produce a big Motion Picture. Unless the stars are willing to be human and get right into the work, instead of hanging back and acting like superior beings, we cannot produce a really good play.

The Birth of a Nation 1915 4

There is also endless detail. Let me illustrate by the concrete example of ‘”The Birth of a Nation.” First comes the scenario or written outline of the plot. In this case there was a previous stage-play. If we are wise, we forget as much as we can, for the Motion Picture is a novelizing or story-telling form, not strictly a stage-form; it is epic rather than dramatic; much of the work is of the great outdoors. We have a period of history to cover, the scenes of a wide territory to revivify. Therefore we must prepare the locale as well as the actors, the tasks of the landscape artist, and in some sense of the civil engineer, are before us. For a month the actors rehearse without the camera.

The Birth of a Nation 1915 1

And now South Carolina, in Reconstruction days, is measurably before our eyes. Elsewhere the battle backgrounds of the Civil War are springing into being, helped by expert advice of old “vets” and modern West Pointers. The costumes, settings and documents are laboriously prepared for the facsimile historical scenes, like those of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Appomattox surrender, and the Lincoln assassination. By the way, twenty-four “Lincoln actors” were rehearsed before the right Lincoln was found I This was because I demand “soul” of the movie star, and for this scene Lincoln was the star part. The Blue and the Gray, the Southern white gentry and the colored contingent all have been drilled under their respective leaders. And then the film-making begins.

At an early stage of the work, after the rough outlines have been filled in, the scenario is thrown away. The building and rebuilding of the story, the piecing of intimate bits and the discarding of the useless go right on while we are living the history, so to speak, from day to day. Nearly twenty-eight miles of pictures – one hundred and forty thousand feet of film-are taken. And how much of these are used ? At the finale we discover that we have thrown away eight-tenths of our product; we have remaining twenty-six thousand feet, or, say, five miles of consecutive story. But that is twice too long. We condense. condense, condense. At the end of two months more of hard labor we edited “The Birth of a Nation” to twelve thousand or thirteen thousand feet-two and a half miles-or, theater-wise, two hours and forty-five minutes stage entertainment. Naturally, a director must demand patience and sincerity as well as “soul” of his movie stars.

Lillian Gisg close-up cca 1916 X

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