Saturday, January 12, 2019

WWI Camouflage, Motion Pictures and Surrealism

Charlie Chaplin disguised as tree trunk in Shoulder Arms (1918)
Above Screen grab from Charles Chaplin's famous film, Shoulder Arms (1918) about the surrealist dimension of being a doughboy during World War I , in the process of which he disguises himself as a tree trunk. In fact, it wasn't entirely absurd, since it was not unheard of to make use of steel-lined imitation tree trunks as elevated observation posts (see close-up below).

Phony tree trunk observation post (c1918)

Camouflage has everything to do with film-making, from costumes and make-up, to camera work and scenic design. Elsewhere we have talked about a few of the contributions made by Hollywood-based special effects designers, but there are many (many) more points of connection (in both World Wars), the majority of which are waiting to be documented.

Speaking of Surrealism (which I tend to think of as Dada + Freud, thanks to André Breton), the German-born American photographer and designer Erwin Blumenfeld (1897-1969) once made a Dada-inspired photo collage portrait of Chaplin (below), in which he appears to be wearing an image-adorned WWI trench helmet. The image on the helmet is from a well-known Dadaist poster from 1922.

Erwin Blumenfeld, collage portrait of Charlie Chaplin


Melvin W. Riddle, CAMOUFLAGE! Concerning One of the Major Arts of Motion Pictures. The Atlanta Constitution. Sunday, October 24, 1920—

A new word—coined during the great war by the French, to denote an art which was highly developed during the war. A new word, but an age-old art—old as war itself, older than mankind, for even Nature made use of it as a means of protection for animals and plants. Truly, an age-old idea, but only in the last few years has it been developed by mankind to that state of perfection wherein it might be called an art.

Camouflage saved from distruction during the war innumerable lives and properties of inestimable value. Now that the war is over, one might think that the word and the art would temporarily become passé and useless until another war should come along to revive them. But such is not the case, for camouflage is an art without a knowledge of which, one of the greatest industries of today—the motion picture industry—could hardly exist.

Camouflage and the Movies
The art of camouflage is a vital factor—in fact, it might be said, almost a prime factor in the production of motion pictures, and it is with that phase of camouflage that this article is concerned.

It is the general impression, perhaps, that the war itself first developed the art of camouflage. This impression, however, is erroneous. For long before the war began, the art had been developed to a high degree by the industry of motion picture production, but as developed by this industry, it was an unidentified art because it was an art without a name. The truth of this assertion is proven by the fact that when America entered the war, men from the motion pictures studios, who had gained a knowledge of the art of scenic deception, formed an important part of the ranks of special camouflage corps which were sent over there. This was because these men had already a practical knowledge of this great study and had only to adapt this knowledge to the particular requirements of defense in war.

The one great difference between camouflage as practiced in motion pictures and as practiced in war is that war camouflage, although deceiving to the human optics, is readily detected by the camera, while in motion pictures the camouflage is especially arranged and prepared to deceive the eye of the camera, although it sometimes also deceives the human eye, unless a very close-up view is obtained. Primarily, it is the camera lens upon which the deception is practiced, however, for the eye of the camera is ultimately the eyes of the motion picture audience.

Vital Necessity
Motion pictures, before the beginning of the war, did more and are now doing more to develop the art of camouflage on a large scale than any other industry or even possibly could do. Camouflage is the very life of a motion picture—a vital necessity. Of course, the art has been employed from time immemorial in the theatrical profession—in the dressings of stage settings for legitimate productions, but camouflage, as used on a stage, is very limited in its scope, and is admittedly camouflage, for this reason loses its very effectiveness. It is when camouflage is mistaken for the genuine and the delusion is unquestioned, that it really serves the purpose for which it is intended.

Examples of some of the numerous instances where camouflage is employed in motion pictures might be of interst. At the Lasky studio, for instance, which is one of the largest of west coast film plants, one might see on every hand the evidences of this great art.

To begin with, the very make-up of the players is often the most perfect camouflage. The feeble-looking old man or the dissipated, rum-soaked hobo might be, in reality, one of the most gentle and best-appearing young men on the lot, hiding his real identity under a skillful application of camouflage.…

Even the most conscientious, exacting and painstaking producers, who fairly dote on realism in their productions and always secure it whenever possible, are never slow to admit the importance and the value of the art of camouflage, and the great frequency and regularity with which it is employed in the production of motion pictures.