I’ve been taking a deep dive into the world of early film-making in New York. It’s the backdrop for a large part of my work in progress, and something I really had no idea about before.
I didn’t know, for instance, that D.W. Griffith’s first films were made in the New York area, that his studio was based near 14th street.
I also didn’t know that most of the movies were made outdoors for the sake of the light, that filming indoors required resources most small studios didn’t have. That meant that acting in moving pictures was a seasonal job, and actors had to do other things—perform on stage in clubs and theaters, for instance—in order to make a livable income.
The fact that actors weren’t identified by name until 1910 came as a surprise to me, too. In the end, the studios couldn’t avoid the cult of celebrity, which they knew would lead to having to pay well-known actors much more. Florence Turner, The Vitagraph Girl, wasn’t credited by name until 1910, despite having started with the studio several years earlier. Her salary was a princely $22 a week. She was contracted to be an actress and a seamstress at first. Of course, the men were paid more then as now.
Most interesting of all to me was discovering that one of the early pioneers of narrative filmmaking was a woman: Alice Guy Blaché, who worked for the Gaumont company in France, and then came to New York and started her own studio. My story doesn’t neatly work into her life, but I’m making her presence felt as best I can.
Biggest frustrations: Trying to find out technical information about how the movie cameras worked, the editing process, how films were duplicated, aside from the obvious, and what the inside of a nickelodeon looked like.
But I’ll keep digging as I write.