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Chapter XVII

FILMING EARTHQUAKES -- BEFORE AND
AFTER

Making the Movies by Ernest A. Dench
New York, The Macmillan company, published 1915 (now in the Public Domain)


pp. 70-74

Exactly a week after the recent earthquake occurred in Italy, a film man in this country unearthed a copy of a picture depicting the Messina earthquake of a few years ago. He offered it to exhibitors as portraying the latest disaster, but any one with a grain of common sense must have realised it was a fake, for it would have taken at least a fortnight to get the genuine film over from Italy. You may be sure, however, that there were exhibitors who were not above accepting the fakir's offer.

Cinematographers have even had the nerve to go inside volcanos in actual eruption. Not so long ago a plucky Italian ventured up Mount Etna at a time of its activity, going within a few feet of the edge of the great crater. Added to the eruption was a fierce wind, and in order to get out of the path of the ashes, the camera man took up his position on the windward side. This was the first occasion on which an active crater has been filmed inside. The film showed the stream of lava, the dense volumes of smoke coming up and the volcanic explosions.

Frederick Burlingham, a motion picture photographer with several perilous undertakings to his credit, managed to descend Mount Vesuvius to a depth of twelve hundred and twelve feet, reaching the bottom of the cone and a point within two feet of the abyss, which is two miles deep with a temperature of sixty degrees centigrade. New avalanches were impending and the bottom of the cave, covered with fresh lava, gave signs of a new explosion.

On the way down, this operator, when at a depth of five hundred feet, was almost smothered with the main current of smoke. Not only were there sulphur fumes to contend with, but there were also dense clouds of corrosive hydrochloric acid. As a protection from these, he lay down as still as he could and refrained from breathing until he could no longer hold out. Then he used several thicknesses of cloth as a respirator. He stood this ordeal for twenty minutes, and finding the situation getting desperate, he decided to turn back and abandon the camera. On second thought, however, he was convinced that the further he penetrated the thinner would be the smoke. After feeling his way past the sulphur fumaroles and main column of chloric acid his conviction proved correct.

The purveyor of thrills -- otherwise the motion picture director -- is not above reconstructing earthquakes, which are about the hardest things of all to devise. One was put on in California not so long ago. To produce this nine tons of Judson and black gunpowder was used to mine an area of eight hundred and eighty square feet to a depth of four yards. At the distance of a foot between each two "coyote holes" were dug, in which was placed gunpowder. The herculean nature of the task may be appreciated from the fact that four expert quarrymen had to be employed for ten days so as to place the wires and fill the holes.

The camera men were stationed in various positions at the bottom in order to cover the incident from all vantages. Their tiny steel enclosed huts protected them from injury, daylight itself being admitted to them through but two holes, one of which was for the lens of the camera, the other for observation purposes. When all was ready the buttons were pressed and the wires attached to the galvanic battery performed their good work. Then the hill exploded with one accord, and for a whole minute volumes of rock and small stones poured down the hill. The clouds of smoke raised by the explosion did not entirely disappear for fully two hours after. At times the players were placed in danger, but happily received no injury more serious than a few bruises. The explosion was so gigantic that people eighteen miles away were terrified and thought that they were going to have a repetition of the 1906 disaster.

The Lubin Company produced a film along similar lines recently, but only employed a ton of dynamite. Four of the eight cameras were worked by electric motors, the operators setting them to work from a point half a mile away.

This company, when producing "When the Earth Trembled," which dealt with the horrors of the San Francisco earthquake, went to the great trouble and expense of erecting the interiors of some of the buildings. This took the stage carpenters weeks, for the rooms had to be built to collapse gradually, in a natural manner. Each set was built in small sections with a wire attached to each. These wires were then pulled one by one, and the illusion was well nigh perfect.

In the Domino photoplay, "The Wrath of the Gods," the director went further in his efforts for realism. In this molten lava poured down the side of the mountain. This effect, however, was secured by using gallons of some chemical preparation. The story dealt with the volcanic eruption which almost wiped out the Isle of Sakura. The Japanese leading woman in this picture lost all of her relations in the calamity. The director, discovering that she was determined to return to her native country, consoled her by re-constructing the eruption and its after effects on the film. Thus does the motion picture director accomplish the impossible.


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