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  • James Stranahan

The Generations in Movie Making

The first movie, so far as anyone can tell, was from 1888, a short, black-and-white film of less than 3 seconds. Made by French inventor Louis Le Prince, it’s interesting not because of its riveting plot (a few people walk around in a courtyard) but because you can sense how excited the cameraman, presumably the director, is to be capturing movement on film. We’ll never know how it all played out, unfortunately, but I like to think that the director was so excited to yell “Action!” (whatever that is in French) for the first time in movie history that he got goosebumps. I also imagine that kids and adults alike were entranced by the sight of people coming to life in a film instead of being frozen for eternity in photographs.


In 1903, the public was treated to The Great Train Robbery, a 12-minute Western produced by Thomas Edison. As you would expect, a gang of 4 nefarious criminals rob a train’s passengers of their belongings and take off for the hills, confident of their escape. Hot on their heels, though, are our heroes, a posse that (spoiler alert!) catches up with the bandits and kills them in a shootout. The film was novel in its way because the tradition at the time was to stay just on one set. For this movie, the cast and crew went to ten locations, all in the quest for a director’s Holy Grail: realism.


Not too much later, Charlie Chaplin hit the scene. One of his most famous films, The Kid, came to theaters in 1921. It was his directing debut, and he played his famous role, The Tramp. It’s a silent movie, but Chaplin had no trouble conveying his emotions when he finds an abandoned baby and takes him home after it becomes clear that no one else will help him. Audiences were enthusiastic and made it the second-highest grossing movie of the year.


The 1940s may well have been one of the greatest decades Hollywood has had. The age of color and sound was well-underway, and films like Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon (cool name, by the way), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Fantasia, and Dumbo all graced theaters, bringing audiences movies with class, intrigue, romance, and imagination. Movie producers and directors alike worked hard to continue to develop their craft and to pass the baton to their future peers so that films would continue to evolve.


I still think that the 1970s gave us some of the greatest films out there. Who will ever be able to forget A Clockwork Orange, The Last Picture Show, The French Connection, or Star Wars? The age of New Hollywood was here, pushing out the time of musicals and old-fashioned acting. Instead, we had gritty plots (okay, maybe not in all movies, I’ll give you that), space battles and Wookies, and monsters that burst from people’s chests (go Alien!). Yes, while their special effects might not have always been up to par, the films from the 1970s left an indelible mark on the minds of movie goers and our culture.


As a film producer, what’s interesting to me is that each of those pictures was made by someone just like me: a person who loved what they did and who was doing everything they could to go beyond the limitations of current technology just a little more. I don’t think I am really so different from them. I spend my days coordinating hundreds of people and a dozen departments, managing an ever-shifting schedule, and trying my best to bring it all together so that the audience will be entertained by the vision I have in my mind. I suspect that my peers from movies past would understand exactly what I do and be excited to see how technology has evolved since their passing.


Every once in a while, I catch myself wishing that I could shake Charlie Chaplin’s hand or thank the director of The Maltese Falcon for taking our industry to a higher level. Then, I think, I would promise them that while it’s my turn to make movies, I’ll work as hard as they did to take our craft a little bit higher before I pass my own baton to the next generation of movie producers just like they did.



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