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Why William Wellman will always have Paris

The silent movie revival (© 2011) takes many, many different forms. A few months back, in February, I noticed a clip from a silent movie popping up in my Facebook feed a lot. Not a long clip, just a short one – a single tracking shot from a well-known movie. The Facebook page that shared this video so successfully had rendered the name of the film in English and French – “Wings (Les Ailes, 1927) an avant-garde film.” A colleague of mine, one of the brainiest in the building, sent me the link, telling me that he had seen a clip from a really special silent film and he thought I would like it. He was a bit miffed, somehow, when I told him that it was a Hollywood movie, a Top Gun style film, which won the first ever Best Picture Oscar.

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That was a bit harsh of me, I shouldn’t have been so blunt and I think I rained on his parade a little. Lots of people don’t think they like Hollywood films, especially the kind that win Oscars. Although lots more do, surely. And French avant-garde films are much cooler than Top Gun – I probably agree with that. I did wonder how many people thought that they were sharing an obscure example of le septième art rather than slick Hollywood film-making, when they pushed that nightclub tracking shot around Facebook.

Today, I saw the clip was back – transformed into a very smooth gif by the twitter account @silentmoviegifs and going great guns for shares and likes. This time it was more accurately credited. Wow, People really love Wings! Or at least this part of it.

This animated 2015 piece about the cinematography in Wings puts the tracking shot above the flying sequences, and this may be where the gif first took off. My clever colleague had read on Facebook that the smooth camera movement was achieved by splitting the tables in half as the camera moved forward. Now that is quite bizarre, although this shot was quite tricky to achieve. This YouTube video explains how it really worked:

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