Sometimes—maybe once in a lifetime—we get the chance to do something enjoyable and fun that we thought we’d never be able to do again, simply because technology had taken its place. Thanks to an old friend, I’ve been given that chance.
by Chaz DeSimone
Joe Rinaudo, founder of Silent Cinema Society, has given me a golden (black and white, actually) opportunity to recapture a romance from the past: real hand lettering with pen and brush, and fine typography when wood and metal characters were set by hand. That, combined with replicating the layouts and artistic styles of yesteryear, is what I never thought I’d do again. But as synchronicity between two old friends would have it, I am once again thriving at my passion.
We’re talking—er, we’re silent—about hand-lettering title cards for the silent cinema era of the early 1900s, when cameras and projectors were cranked by hand, and when actors had no speaking lines. Along with elaborate main title artwork, all the dialogue and narrative text was printed or hand-lettered on title cards, called inter-titles, photographed and spliced into the film. The film titles and credits were most often elaborately hand-lettered with embellishments, but sometimes simply typeset, then photographed as still images.
Back to my black-and-white opportunity:
Who knew two best friends would be so valuable to each other nearly fifty years after meeting in seventh grade?
I’m restoring the missing parts to his films and he’s restoring my passion for lettering and typography. I have enjoyed rendering titles for Joe for several years now, and I even get to see them projected on the silver screen in silent comedies and dramas accompanied by the Mighty Wurlitzer. (Twice a year Joe brings his itinerant show to the Nethercutt Museum in Sylmar, California. A calender of events and details about the shows are on their website. He presents itinerant shows elsewhere in California, too. Subscribe to the Silent Cinema Society Newsreel for announcements.)
Much of my work for these titles is cleaning up scanned images of the original negatives. Sometimes I have to “chop up” letters to replace parts of those which are badly deteriorated. When titles are missing entirely (usually due to splicing after splicing of these nearly hundred-year-old films) I have the most fun! Drawing upon my skill of hand lettering (which I did before computers could set a nice script or a modify a typestyle) and knowledge of period type styles, I create new title cards from scratch, based on existing footage and artistic styling of the era. Most of the lettering and effects I accomplish with Photoshop, but once in awhile I still need to use a real pen or brush with real ink to get just the right swing or flair.
You might be wondering, how is it possible that if all the scenes are intact on these films, just the titles and intertitles are missing? I wondered the same thing. Joe explains that much of the live action footage is indeed missing on these old films, but the remaining footage still carries the story. However, if a dialog or narrative intertitle is absent, the plot is hard to follow. So the new intertitles are inserted and the film seems complete, even with several live action frames missing. Most of the lettering I recreate for Joe is taken from the exact text in the films’ original manuscripts.
However, when a restoration is created from segments of several prints of the same film — for instance, where some reels contain rare footage which is missing from others — Joe assembles a “complete” version, for which he meticulously analyzes the original narrative and dialogue, then writes appropriate text for recreated title cards. He is thus rendering a fully-restored version that replicates as much as possible of the original.
Such is the case with Joe Rinaudo’s restoration of The Phantom of the Opera. He is planning an article for this website which documents each step of the process, including restoration of the original 2-strip Technicolor segments of the film.
TITLE CARD GALLERY
Here are some titles I’ve either cleaned up or created from scratch, replicating the originals, on a blank sheet of poster board (either Strathmore with ink or Photoshop with pixels) which were then photographed and inserted into the restored films:
GLASS LANTERN SLIDES
See authentic glass lantern slides from Joe Rinaudo’s collection.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY STUBBY
Joe Rinaudo chopped off the tip of his finger in a metal shear the day before his birthday a few years ago (it miraculously grew back just like new), so I created this “film title” as his birthday card.
Hey, humor was crude back in the 1920’s.