By the early 1970s, the term “studio system” had become synonymous with an institutional form of artistic repression, intent on sucking the lifeblood from auteurist projects in favor of safer, commercially viable fare. Just ask George Lucas, whose experience working with Warner Bros. on THX 1138 made him so angry that he swore off studio films for good. Of course, then Star Wars inaugurated the concept of big budget, globalized franchising, axed most remaining personal visions produced within studio confines, revved up synergistic media practice, and turned “Weekend Box Office” into a household term.
Cut to West Orange, New Jersey in 1893, where W.K.L. Dickson has just finished building the Black Maria, the world’s first film studio. An open-air establishment with a retractable roof and rotation capabilities, it became responsible for cultivating what Brian R. Jacobson calls a “framed aesthetic,” committed to the “enframing of light and objects” within the closed space. In Studios Before the System: Architecture, Technology, and the Emergence of Cinematic Space, Jacobson examines such pre-system spaces within the United States and France in order to better comprehend the “formal genealogy” and “importance for theorizing film space” offered by these prototypical studios. Rather than simply celebrating early film pioneers for their innovations, Jacobson rigorously examines the architectural, industrial, and artistic logic that drove filmmakers out of the daylight and into enclosed structures that became “a technological form of environmental regulation” and proffered cinema as “a broad reformation of the relationship between nature and technology in the late nineteenth century.”
Dickson’s design for the Black Maria resulted from a partnership with Thomas Edison during the preceding years at Edison’s laboratory, where motion picture experiments consumed the bulk of their efforts. In fact, as Jacobson argues, the studio was an attempt to establish “a controlled space for experimentation,” a phrasing which evidences Jacobson’s keen perceptions regarding the implicit contradictions necessitated for cinematic production. Moreover, Jacobson discusses architectural formations as inextricable from their industrial and artistic capabilities; the Black Maria added rotational functionality as a means to regulate space, so that an “ordered, artificial reproduction of the material environment” became possible, but the decision served both a practical and aesthetic function, enlivening cinematic aesthetics while bolstering the men’s economic infrastructure.
In France, Georges Méliès developed a studio known as the “Glass House,” which Jacobson claims moved cinematic aesthetics away from the “framed” sort produced within the Black Maria, to a form of plasticity. Historian Elie Faure termed these developments “cineplastics,” primarily due to Méliès’s movement toward an embrace of the studio set’s artificiality, where influences from photography studios and his own theatrical experiences informed his cinematic output. Jacobson’s interest isn’t simply a recounting of chronology, but a plea to understand these architectural developments and their effects on film form. As such, when Méliès dramatized technological disaster in 1904’s The Impossible Voyage and 1906’s The Merry Frolics of Satan, his films were formations of the “pervasive experience of technological danger in urban modernity,” but they also spoke to the “fluidity, plasticity, and artificiality that defined architecture” during the period.
In a particularly compelling chapter, Jacobson explains the complicated links between cinematic development and the electrical industry; at Pathè, for example, “patterns of industrial development that shaped Paris’s eastern suburbs” were critical in conditioning their “infrastructural foundation.” Jacobson’s historical interventions are reminders that aesthetics cannot be divorced from political economy, lest a complex understanding of undergirding influences be lost.
The book’s tour de force is a fifth and final chapter entitled “The Studio Beyond the Studio,” which reexamines why California became the locus for stateside film production. The conventional answer, regarding the state’s picturesque sites and temperate weather, dissatisfies Jacobson because of the “massive investment in studio infrastructure.” After all, the California studios largely reproduced the artificial conditions of the earlier studios on the East Coast, with preferences for electrical lighting and light-regulating glass over natural sunlight. Moreover, the high expectations for studio output demanded settings where light could be regulated on a consistent basis, especially since spring rains and cloudy morning skies would have prevented productions from getting under way. Thus, California’s idyllic climate sounded good as a marketing ploy to draw talent out West, but the location had significantly more to do with technological and economic factors.
Such questions of light and darkness recall Jacobson’s earlier discussion of the Black Maria; when first erected in the late 19th century, observers remarked on its cavernous appearance and that it resembled a coffin. Ironic, then, that such a darkened space was giving birth to a form of light and vision that would come to capture the public imagination for over a century and counting. It’s what historian Lewis Mumford would later call the “specific art of the machine,” a concept that all subsequent worldwide studios have had to embrace in order to thrive within the most complex of artistic (and industrial) mediums.
Brian R. Jacobson’s Studios Before the System: Architecture, Technology, and the Emergence of Cinematic Space is now available from Columbia University Press; to purchase it, click here.