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  • Insight and AxiomsHarold G. Brown and the Identification of Early Films
  • Sabine Lenk (bio)

You cannot—and I’ve tried—re-create the original titles, even when you translate them. You can’t get back to the originals.


[End Page 35]

The early period of the film industry was shaped by a large number of film pioneers working in different countries all over the world. They produced in their own gauge, aspect ratio, and perforations, using their particular camera technology, which could make distribution and exhibition of these prints difficult. It was only in 1909 that a congress, under the direction of Georges Méliès, was organized, which settled the question of width of the filmstrip, length and height of the image, the shape of perforations, and the number of holes. The congress, attended by international companies such as Gaumont, Pathé, Cinès, Vitagraph, Selig, Biograph, and Edison, agreed on standards that are still in use today. In the mid-1930s, when film archives started collecting films and film-related material, they concentrated on feature films. General knowledge about these early nonstandard film formats and other technical details slowly faded out. By then, the films of the first generation of directors were all but forgotten.

Approximately fifty years later, the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) Congress in Brighton in 1978 functioned as an eye-opener for film archivists and film scholars. Until this event, only a handful of them were interested in early cinema.1 One of these was Harold G. Brown, born on August 15, 1919, in Walthamstow, United Kingdom, who passed away on November 14, 2008.2 He worked as an employee (later preservation officer) at the National Film Archive (NFA; today the National Film and Television Archive) from May 1935, when the archive started, until his retirement in August 1984 and was mainly occupied at the laboratories in Aston Clinton and Berkhamsted near London. This article presents his studies on marks left by filming and printing technology in the early years of the moving image, stresses the importance of Brown’s discoveries for film preservation and film history, and gives some ideas about the impact a theoretical approach can and should have on film identification. Last, but not least, I propose a project to continue his efforts to unravel the origins of unidentified film material and learn more about production conditions during the first two decades of cinematography.


Until the recognition that, during its two first decades, film had its specific characteristics and its particular aesthetic values by what is today called “new film history,” early film prints were generally neglected by film archives,3 with the exception of some incunabula of 1892–96, produced, among others, by Émile Reynaud, the Skladanowsky brothers, and the Lumière company. It was probably with the latter that Harold Godart Brown started his “inquiries.” He had to copy Lumière films with their couples of round perforations [End Page 36] onto normal 35mm negative film. In the 1950s, he created the Mark IV, a printer made of Meccano,4 rubber, wood, and “bits of a 1905 Gaumont projector”5 that allowed a careful frame-by-frame printing of the precious French documentaries.

The NFA vault was full of prints from the prewar period, so he started to examine them meticulously, fully supported by his boss, Ernest Lindgren, curator of the NFA.6 He set parameters to describe technical specificities of early prints at different stages of their production and exploitation; he went from marks on negatives left by raw film producers and cameramen to those created by the teams that took care of printing, assembling, coloring, and distributing films. He looked at the size of the frame; the roundness or angularity of the corners of the exposed image; the thickness of the frame line; the shape, size, and position of the perforation holes; the form of trademarks, and so on. As a member of FIAF’s Technical Commission (then Preservation Committee), he was invited by Herbert Volkmann, director of Staatliches Filmarchiv der DDR and then chairman of the...


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