Fairy Tales - Early Colour Stencil Films from Pathe

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The official release date is 3rd December 2012

DVD - Region 2 only

Commissioned exclusive work from Fennesz ● Chris Watson ● Oren Ambarchi ● BJNilsen ● Hildur Gudnadottir ● Sarah Nicolls ● Jana Winderen ● Michael Esposito ● Leif Elggren ● Maia Urstad ● Achim Mohné ● Tom Haines & Chris Branch (members of The London Snorkelling Team) ● Pascal Wyse ● Marcus Davidson ● Joachim Nordwall & Henrik Rylander ● Philip Jeck ● Sohrab

Once upon a time, during the belle epoque in turn-of-the-century Paris, a short-lived film form called scenes de feeries, or fairy films, was becoming popular thanks to the Pathe Frerer company. In jewel-like colours the films, made to appeal to young and old alike, recreated the theatrical spectacles of the age with their fantastical settings, dancing girls, mythical beasts, supernatural beings and a plethora of stage tricks enhanced by the techniques of the new medium of film.

Presented here with original hand-colouring, each film is accompanied with a newly commissioned soundtrack by recording artists from the leading experimental music label Touch. Contributions from such acclaimed composers as Chris Watson, BJ Nilsen, Hildur Gudnadottir and Fennesz combine with the beautiful images to create a unique and unforgettable experience.

Extras:

* Barbe-blue (1901, 11 minutes); Georges Melies' telling of the Bluebeard tale with music by SAVX.
* Little Red Riding Hood (1922, 8 minutes): Anson's Dyer animation made for Hepworth Picture Plays with music by Rosy Parlane.
* La Danse du diable (Sint-Lukas versions): nine alternative scores by students from Sint-Lukas Brussels University College of Art and Design.
* Fully illustrated booklet with film notes and credits.

Film notes written by Bryony Dixon. Extra films notes written by Michael Brooke.
Music notes written by Mike Harding.

Disc Production Credits:

Films curated by Bryony Dixon
Music curated by Mark Harding
Producer Upekha Bandaranayake
Artwork manager Marianthi Makra

The BFI would like to acknowledge the enthusiasm and generous help of everyone who contributed to this release. Special thanks to Mike Harding, Bryony Dixon, Michael Brooke and Douglas Weir.
Thanks also to Esha Gupta (re:fine), Stephen Ford and Nikos Tzerbinos (IBF), Ian Vickers (Eureka! Design Consultants)

Reviews:

NitrateVille.com:

Once upon a time, during the belle epoque in turn-of-the-century Paris, a short-lived film form called scenes de feeries, or fairy films, was becoming popular thanks to the Pathe Frerer company. In jewel-like colours the films, made to appeal to young and old alike, recreated the theatrical spectacles of the age with their fantastical settings, dancing girls, mythical beasts, supernatural beings and a plethora of stage tricks enhanced by the techniques of the new medium of film.

Presented here with original hand-colouring, each film is accompanied with a newly commissioned soundtrack by recording artists from the leading experimental music label Touch. Contributions from such acclaimed composers as Chris Watson, B.J. Nilsen, Hildur Gudnadottir and Fennesz combine with the beautiful images to create a unique and unforgettable experience.

cine-vue.com:

Once upon a time, long, long ago, everything - including film - seemed more innocent. A classic example of this are the live action fairytales filmed by the Pathé Frères company at the dawn of 20th century cinema, now rereleased by the BFI. Their plots - if indeed two dancers cavorting in-front of flat scenery as in Valse excentrique (Eccentric Waltz, 1903) constitutes a plot - may appear naive when watched now. However this innocence belies the bizarre beauty of what are often no more than stage productions put on film, where the heroic princes, bewitching maidens and wicked witches which peopled these weird tales come alive in a rainbow of primary colours.

Often involving dancers appearing as beautiful insects, as in Métamorphose du papillon (Metamorphosis of a Butterfly, 1905), or stories which favoured not so bright young men falling foul of an array of evil creatures in hellish settings as in L'Antre de la sorcière (The Bewitched Shepherd, 1906), these celluloid gems mesmerised their audiences through trick photography and elaborate settings. Directed by such pioneers of European cinema as Ferdinand Zecca, the footage was painstakingly hand or stencil coloured by hundreds of women at Pathé Frères' state of the art colouring factory.

Lasting between one and sixteen minutes films like Cendrillon ou La pantoufle merveilleuse (Cinderella, 1907) gave short, sharp shocks to the senses, like vibrant firework displays ending in a blaze of neon glory. Made before advent of the modern rental system, these films were produced in vast quantities and then bought by exhibitors who would play them many times in order to make any kind of profit.

Many of the transfers were made pre-digital in standard definition, and frequently straight from nitrate copies in order to retain the original stencil colouring. Archivists have purposefully avoided digital clean-up processes to retain the historical importance of the films, and the resulting wear and tear of many prints, including those used by the BFI, is obvious, though this if anything only adds to their appeal.

Set to specially commissioned music by contemporary recording artists such as the Swedish sound artist BJ Nilsen, the eclectic use of everything from underwater microphones to the spoken word adds quirkiness to the freaky fairytales unfolding before your eyes. Typically, the BFI have enhanced the release with a host of extras including a lavishly illustrated booklet that brings depth to the disc's enjoyment. [Cleaver Patterson]

mondo-digital.com:

The salvaging of early treasures from our movie history around the world has produced some miraculous finds in recent years, ranging from a once-lost tinted copy of Georges Méliès' "Trip to the Moon" to a few lucky silent features once thought extinct. If you love seeing how fantastic cinema really began, then you can also add this BFI collection to the list, a frequently dazzling collection of scènes de féeries, or fairy films. These miniature fantasies created in the first decade of the twentieth century run anywhere from one to around seven minutes, translating the spectacles of the theater stage to the movie camera with hand-tinted colors accentuating such elements as magical creatures, transformations from humans into natural elements like butterflies and flowers, and even adaptations of familiar biblical stories and fairy tales.

Theater was obviously the dominant public art form when Pathé commissioned these projects, which often feature startling bits of visual trickery later adapted by other filmmakers (including nifty miniature people in glass bottles, later used to memorable effect by James Whale in Bride of Frankenstein). Strange and beguiling, these are surviving films (some missing little snippets of footage, but you can still get the idea) existing in the BFI archives and collected here to find a new audience. The presentation here is chronological, starting with 1901's "Un drame au fond de la mer" ("Drama at the Bottom of the Sea"), in which two divers descend into a painted depiction of the ocean's depths. 24 more films follow (not counting the extras), many directed by Ferdinand Zecca, Gaston Velle, and Segundo de Chomon. The highlights are many, with the second film being one of the best: "Les sept châteaux du diable" ("The Devil's Seven Castles"), an 11-minute rendition of "Faust" with the devil dragging the hero down to the River Styx. It's a gothic, impressive piece of artistry whose aesthetic is elaborated upon in another short, a 1902 version of "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" complete with wild painted tableaux, posing women, and Arabian-inspired dancing.

"Japonaiseries" is a beguiling little demonstration of a Japanese magic performer, aided by some fun cinematic sleight of hand. The hallucinatory "La danse du diable" (translated overseas as "Weird Fancies" for some reason) features a demon conuring women and star fields in a weird precursor to Busby Berkeley, while the striking "La poule aux oeufs d'or" ("The Hen that Laid Golden Eggs") features wild superimpositions and other in-camera effects to turn the familiar morality story into a freaky 11 minutes complete with a shot of Satan's face emerging from one of the titular eggs. You also get to see actors playing Christians tangling with what look like very real, very dangerous lions in "Martyrs chretiens" ("Christian Martyrs") from 1905, while a bat transforms into a dancing woman in "Loie Fuller" and "L'album merveilleux" ("The Wonderful Album") is a quirky bit of supernatural gimmickry with an enchanted picture book bringing figures to life.

Other highlights include "L'antre de la sorciere" (Anglicized as "The Bewitched Shepherd"), which features a sorceress dazzling a jilted shepherd with visions of skeletons and gender-changing phantasms; the sweet "La fée printemps" ("Fairy of Spring"), about a country couple longing for children during winter time; an expressionistic, 16-minute version of "Cinderella," a nifty 12-minute version of "The Blue Bird" with surprisingly ambitious costumes and effects, and a 14-minute adaptation of "Sleeping Beauty," all offering unique twists on the familiar tales; the ghoulish "Le spectre rouge" ("The Red Spectre") with a skeleton-faced alchemist performing demonic tricks including the aforementioned miniature people in glass bottles; and a really creepy gathering of devils when a girl is lured from a cemetery into the underworld in "La legende du fantome" ("The Black Pearl"). Some of the other shorts are basically fragments or slightly odd dance routines, though they have their points of interest as well, too.

Considering the age and history of these films, the BFI DVD is a welcome treat for almost all of them. Only a tiny handful are taken from black and white prints, as most of them have the original color tinting and look pretty great. The constant barrage of wild, stylized hues is an intense experience after a few minutes, and it's a bit surprising that someone in the late '60s didn't think to stitch some of these together into a feature, slap on some psychedelic music, and market it to teens looking for another state of consciousness. The shorts have soundtracks composed by a variety of different Touch artists, some of whom have appeared on other BFI releases, including Philip Jeck, Fennesz, Chris Watson, Jana Winderen, Marcus Davidson, Leif Elggren, Sarah Nicholls, Maia Urstad, BJ Nilsen, Sohrab, and the London Snorkelling Team, among others. The disc also features a handful of additional shorts from other studios: "Au pays de l'or" ("In the Land of the Gold Mines"), a vignette about dwarves hoarding gold underground much to the surprise of an interloping maiden; " Georges Méliès' eerie 11-minute adaptation of the macabre "Bluebeard' fairy tale, complete with an avant garde score by SAVX; and a British 1922 take on "Little Red Riding Hood" from Anson Dyer. "La danse du diable" also features multiple score options for a string of very different viewing experiences. The liner notes booklet is especially useful here as Bryony Dixon contributes a thorough essay about the history of these films and their cultural influences, while Mike Harding offers a write up called "Scoring the Past" about the process of creating accompaniment for these films. Each film also gets a brief written set of notes which help identify the recurring filmmakers, producers, and visual motifs running through multiple titles. Perhaps the main essay sums the entire fascinating disc best with a few choice final words: "Very pretty - and a bit weird."

The Quietus (UK):

The abiding image of the silent movie accompanist is that of the lone pianist improvising on the spot to a flickering projection. This is the picture which we've encountered time and again, whether it be on the cinema screen, in documentary recreations or perhaps even in real life. And yet it's also one that is slowly slipping away. The art form remains – Neil Brand and John Sweeney being among those who continue to play at silent film festivals and Southbank screenings in such a fashion – but the parameters are widening. Think of any major silent-era presentations from the past couple of decades and it's more than likely that they'll be high profile affairs involving contemporary performers. In 1993, for example, the National Film Theatre played host to Nick Cave, who had teamed with Dirty Three for the occasion, as he accompanied Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. In 2004, at a free concert in Trafalgar Square, the Pet Shop Boys unveiled their brand new score for Battleship Potemkin with the aid of a full symphony orchestra. Last year Air did much the same at the Cannes Film Festival, although the film this time around was George Méliès' A Trip to the Moon.

The Air soundtrack is an interesting case insofar as their score became as much a news event as the silent classic it accompanied. The Méliès film was a big deal, having recently undergone an 11-year restoration process which, frame-by-frame, had preserved an original hand-painted print. A Trip to the Moon hadn't looked this lovely in over a century, and yet you could be forgiven for thinking it a mere afterthought. In some quarters the press coverage was heavily centred on Air, while those of us here in the UK wishing to own the film on DVD without going down the import route had just a single option: to buy the attendant LP where it appeared on a bonus disc, a move which only seemed to reinforce its relative standing. (A standalone release did eventually emerge, but that was a mere fortnight ago; the Air album has been available since February.)

Air came to A Trip to the Moon having previously scored an entire feature – Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides – in 1999. Such a transition has become increasingly common over the years with a number of well-known composers making the switch. Michael Nyman, after numerous Peter Greenaway collaborations and that very famous score for The Piano, approached Dziga Vertov's experimental tour de force Man with a Movie Camera in 2002. Simon Fisher Turner took a longer route, starting out in Derek Jarman features before slowly transitioning into Jean Genet's Un Chant d'amour (a film which, despite being made in 1950, was shot silent and never had an official soundtrack) and the recent, highly prestigious gig of scoring The Great White Silence, a major restoration project for the British Film Institute's National Archive.

Speaking of the BFI, they've been instructive in commissioning so many of these pairings, whether it be Nitin Sawhney on the recent re-release of Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger (Sawhney having previously scored a number of television documentaries as well as Mira Nair's The Namesake) or James Bernard – the man responsible for all of the truly great Hammer horrors with their soundtracks – bringing his distinctive touch to one of the absolute classics of the genre, FW Murnau's Nosferatu. Furthermore, the BFI's DVD label has often supplemented these high-profile affairs with their own comparatively low-key, but arguably all the more leftfield offerings.

In truth the more unlikely collaborations make up just a portion of the BFI's silent movie output on disc. As well as releasing the majority of the projects already mentioned (the Nyman, the two Fisher Turners, the Bernard), they have also served up a number of conventional affairs. Indeed, when it came to issuing the complete surviving works of British early cinema pioneer RW Paul, the lone pianist (embodied in this case by Stephen Horne) made for the perfect choice. Similarly, the big names have a tendency to put in regular appearances: Neil Brand accompanying Charles Dickens adaptations or the experimental colour films of Claude Friese-Greene; Carl Davis playing along to Chaplin. Sheffield outfit In the Nursery have also arguably entered the mainstream after finding themselves in charge of Electric Edwardians, a touring programme and subsequent DVD devoted to the turn-of-the-century actualities of Mitchell & Kenyon, one of the major film finds of recent memory.

The more surprising commissions have run in parallel to these releases and tended to catch the viewer completely unawares. While the pairing of Davis with Chaplin, say, is hardly going to raise any eyebrows, the same cannot be said for some of the more recent DVDs. When the BFI brought Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali's L'Age d'or and Un Chien Andalou to Blu-ray last year, the latter was accompanied by an exclusive Mordant Music soundtrack. Buñuel had originally intended his surrealist short to be screened alongside a pair of tangos and excerpts from Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. Now it came with sampled animal noises and moments of sheer intensity; the visual assault on the senses finding its aural match. Just as confrontational were The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome. Their maker had previously screened them to friends while playing Miles Davis or James Brown records, but for this release the BFI opted for the talents of Cyclobe's Stephen Thrower and Zombi's Steve Moore, in doing so finding unexpected bedfellows. Sometimes the BFI discs have surprised simply because such instances crop up in strange places. Saint Etienne, for example, can be found nestled in a compilation of documentaries from the Central Office of Information. Magazine's Dave Formula, meanwhile, was brought in to score a number of silent sex education shorts.

The latest offering from the BFI is certainly among the most idiosyncratic yet. Entitled Fairy Tales: Early Colour Stencil Films from Pathé, this new DVD takes 25 short films from the early 1900s and pairs each of them with one of the recording artists on Touch Records' impressive roster. Thus Chris Watson accompanies Métamorphose du papillon (Metamorphosis of a Butterfly), a two-minute piece of dance and primitive special effects. We also find Philip Jeck performing live to a 1907 adaptation of the Cinderella story; Christian Fennesz scoring La Peine du talion (Tit for Tat), a cautionary tale involving vengeful butterflies; Marcus Davidson taking on a brief record of the once-famous ballroom dancers Boldoni and Solinski, and so forth.

As Touch's Mike Harding makes clear in his liner notes, some of these choices were natural fits. Davidson, to name just one, works in ballet so it was easy to allocate him two of the dance-based shorts. Yet such options can only last so long meaning that, across the 25 titles, some less serendipitous pairings had to take place. Furthermore, the scope of both the films themselves (though all, to a greater or lesser extent, contain fantastical elements as the Fairy Tales moniker no doubt suggests) and the various musicians and composers results in an incredible sense of variety. The performers differ wildly in terms of their training, their backgrounds, their nationality, their influences, and so on, and with that comes a much more apparent sense of surprise. After all, when you commission a single artist to compose a new soundtrack you know roughly how the end results will sound based on their previous works. But when you commission an entire record label you're opening up these films to a much broader spectrum of possibilities.

The BFI's sole remit before handing the films over to Touch was simply that the integrity of the original works be respected. Other than that the various composers could create their own rules. Part of the pleasure in viewing Fairy Tales comes from discerning the quirks and influences at play, in detecting those elements which seemingly gave birth to the soundscapes on offer. Few of the artists foreground melody – only experimental pianist Sarah Nicholls seems to favour this route – instead opting for less immediate solutions. The primal noises throughout Leif Elggren's offering, Ali Baba et les quarante voleurs (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves), would appear to recall those of a cave opening to the command of ‘open sesame'. One of Harding's own contribution, for Le Spectre rouge (The Red Spectre) and in partnership with Michael Esposito, makes use of period projectors to create a kind of mock-diegetic environment. Jana Winderen went as far as to record her soundtrack for Un Drame au fond de la mer (Drama at the Bottom of the Sea) underwater.

The Winderen piece is as good an example as any as to how these compositions can really make their stamp on the material. Though barely a minute in length, it manages to create the kind of mood in which we are drawn to the more uncanny elements such as the corpse in the corner of the screen. This effect is repeated time and again throughout Fairy Tales in terms of making aspects of early filmmaking techniques which once seemed so quaint – all those dancing girls, disappearing acts and rudimentary make-up effects – now appear decidedly strange. When placed in the hands of a pair such as Joachim Nordwall and Henrik Rylander we are given the soundtrack to an ever-worsening nightmare or a ritual akin to Kenneth Anger's Invocation of My Demon Brother (which famously came with an improvised synth soundtrack courtesy of Mick Jagger) and that can be a fascinating experience. Of course, such elements have to exist in the original films in order for us to detect them, but oftentimes it is as though they've lain dormant for more than a century.

Had these Fairy Tales come with the lone pianist as their accompanist would we be saying the same thing? And how will casual buyers and silent movie purists react to having been lured in by the safe title and understandable expectations for the quaint? Some of these soundtracks infuriate rather than fascinate, but that is surely an unavoidable side effect of mounting such a project in this manner – and I strongly suspect that the infuriate/fascinate split is entirely subjective. Importantly, this new release has us asking these questions and looking at these films in a different light. Of course, the naysayers can always turn down the volume, but in doing so they're also turning down the challenge. [Anthony Nield]



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Fairy Tales - Early Colour Stencil Films from Pathe





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