It calls itself "the leading silent-film production company in the Midwestern United States, if not the world, today." Even if that's a safe claim to make, Madison's Wisconsin Bioscope Company is still impressive.
It's a mock movie studio that seems frozen in time somewhere between 1907 and 1912. But Wisconsin Bioscope's films are real. They're annually screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, the world's largest silent-film festival, in Pordenone, Italy. The short subjects are also sometimes shown at the Wisconsin Film Festival.
Since 1999 the company has made more than 15 short films, all of them on equipment that is, to put it mildly, antique. Wisconsin Bioscope is led by Dan Fuller, an instructor with the UW-Madison department of communication arts. Once a year, usually in the fall, he takes on about 15 students for a seminar, "Making the Early Silent Film." The students learn by doing, hand-cranking a 1923 Universal camera originally used to make Fox Movietone newsreels. Previously the class used a 1911 Urban Bioscope camera, from which the company takes its name. Similarly, Wisconsin Bioscope's film printer was patented in 1918.
"There's no one else in the world doing it like this," says Fuller. "I think I'd know by now. It's too crazy."
For ease of production, Wisconsin Bioscope purposely looks to the cruder years of the silent era, before World War I and largely before the industry moved to Hollywood. Between The Great Train Robbery in 1903 and Birth of a Nation in 1915, there was a period of wild experimentation.
The problems that plagued early productions are regularly rediscovered by Wisconsin Bioscope; for example, film stock. The average modern disposable camera has a film speed (light sensitivity) of anywhere between 200 and 800 ASA. To be as authentic as possible, Wisconsin Bioscope started with film stock that had an ASA of six, which on an average winter day meant that you had to shoot outside. Under the sun. At noon. Wisconsin Bioscope has since relaxed its rules of authenticity and shoots on the slowest standard Kodak film available, with a still-difficult ASA of 65 to 80.
"Very slow film caused a lot of problems with staging - keeping people apart, far enough away from the camera, compressing the action," says Fuller. "I wish I got film scholars in this course. I think that things they think are stylistic choices in silent film are actually physical necessities."
Wisconsin Bioscope also aims to re-create the tight family atmosphere and creativity of the early studios. Former student Travis Bird says he felt intimidated at first but soon got into the spirit, inspired by early filmmakers who made up the art form as they went. "This made us a lot more willing to dive in and do new things," Bird says.
Wisconsin Bioscope is just finishing its latest miniature epic, telling the story of Brazil's expedition to the moon in 1916; it's essentially a sequel to Georges Méliès' 1902 A Trip to the Moon. The film is expected to be shown, along with hundreds of hours of vintage films from around the world, at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.
At this silent-film festival, says Fuller, "You get a real sense that silent film is alive, for example, in Czechoslovakia, Thailand, Peru and Perth, Australia. It's part of countries' national heritage now. It's something to be proud of."
For more on Wisconsin Bioscope, visit its Web site at mywebspace.wisc.edu/dhfuller/web.