Sunday, July 1, 2012

Accompanying a "slow motion" picture

Last weekend I had the privilege of accompanying an unusual ancestor to motion pictures. It was a moving picture, yes, but one that was created back in 1851, or about a half-century before movies as we know them came about. And rather than the usual rate of 24 frames per second, this one was shown at a rate that was closer to 24 frames per hour. Call it a "slow motion" picture.

This amazing artifact, presented after years of restoration, was the "Moving Panorama of Pilgrim's Progress," an 800-foot-long painting that depicted scenes from John Bunyan's classic book. With images eight feet high and designed by noted artist Frederic Edwin Church and others, the massive stage-filling panorama was designed to be scrolled from left to right as a narrator described the story.

So it was a movie from the time before movies. And yes, there was music, although no one seems to know exactly what might have been played for a panorama presentation 150 years ago. So we settled for an improvised accompaniment done in the style of American composers of the period, with an emphasis on Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

And so the 'Pilgrim's Progress' moving panorama, restored over the past few years by the Saco (Maine) Museum, received its world re-premiere (and its first known presentation in at least 140 years) on Saturday, June 23 at Saco Town Hall.

About 100 people were on hand for the show, which included a narrator in period costume and yours truly doing the music live.

So much about this presentation amazed me, it's hard to know where to begin. How about the panoramas image's, which are vivid and colorful illustrations that look like something you'd see on a church ceiling? How about the way the story leapt to life when you put all the pieces in place -- the images, the narration, the audience, and the music? (It's very much like silent film in that sense.)

How about the incredible home-built mechanism used to present the panorama, which resembled a giant two-story film camera made of plywood? And how about the improbable survival of this particular panorama, which lay forgotten in storage for more than a century prior to rediscovery? (Most original panoramas are long gone.)

The reason I was on hand was that the Saco Museum had commissioned a video presentation of the panorama as part of its exhibition, and filmmaker Bill Millios asked me to provide music for that. No problem! Bill did a great job, and the result is online at the museum's Web site.

And I thought that was that. But then museum director Jessica Skwire Routhier asked if I could do the music live for the panorama's "re-premiere" at Saco Town Hall. Up until then, I didn't realize they were actually going to attempt to show the thing to an audience. But of course -- just a film does not exist when sitting in a can, a panorama does not truly come to life unless it is actually presented.

One obstacle was that they couldn't show the now-delicate 19th century original. But as part of the restoration, the museum had every bit of the panorama photographed at high resolution. These images were then brilliantly transferred to a new roll of fabric and -- hey presto! -- a working "print" of the panorama was ready for the rigors of showtime.

But how to show it? Panoramas were in vogue for only a short time prior to the Civil War, and remarkably little info exists about the mechanics of presenting them. Entrepreneurs would commission a panorama on some popular or significant story, then haul it around the countryside, staging shows at town halls or churches. But how?

Well, without anything to go on, a volunteer crew led by an energetic gentleman named Peter Morelli instead used a heavy dose of Yankee ingenuity to construct a remarkable wood-framed (and very low tech) contraption that presented the panorama in the same way a traditional camera moves film. With its heavy wooden timber framing, it wouldn't have looked out of place in some of Bunyan's medieval visions.

The panorama would be rolled up onto a giant reel, which would then be hung vertically. The fabric would then be threaded through the viewing panel, which kept it stretched taut so it looked good while on display. It would then be fed onto a take-up reel on the other end. At showtime, the panorama could be moved one scene at a time as the story progressed!

It was an ingenious home-brewed solution, but not without limitations. For one thing, it was big and heavy, and could not easily be moved, leaving me to still wonder how the original panorama presenters did it. (One theory I heard was that the original panoramas hung by rings from a rail, which I think of as the 'shower curtain' theory.) Also, the rolled panorama was too big to fit on the take-up reels, and so had to be presented in two parts, which necessitated an intermission.

And also, like anything new and untried, the "panorama presentation engine" in practice was prone to glitches and jamming, so much so that tinkering went on right up until curtain time. Thankfully, the show went off without a hitch, though I was prepared to improvise for as long it took to get the thing literally back on track.

About 100 people turned out for the first showing, and I immediately felt that "live performance" vibe you get when something special is happening and it's not in a home entertainment center. We were all collaborating on something special, to bring to life something that hadn't been truly seen as intended for more than a century.

And it worked! Narrator Dean Smalley, dressed in period costume and elegant top hat, did a great job. The panorama rolled from scene to scene without a glitch. And I developed a way of sneaking in music underneath Dean's narration so that when it came time for the scene to change (a process that might take 15 seconds), I could grow it into a musical transition that seemed to fit naturally.

I built extensively on some "walking music" I had created (in the style of Gottschalk) for the video, and also through in a lot of passages from some of the composer's salon works. The virtuoso pieces such as "Bamboula" are beyond me, and need a real grand piano anyway to sound right, I think.

The only big adjustment we had to make was that I had to really back off during the narration so as not to cover it. But still, there was an excitement and energy in the air that you get when everything comes together, and it certainly did for the first showing of "Moving Panorama of Pilgrim's Progress" in more than a century.

What was interesting to me, as an outsider showing up at the last minute, was the sense of pre-show jitters that was palpable on the part of everyone involved, some of whom had been working on this for months and even years. It was the equal of any pre-opening night Broadway nerves, as there was truly no way to know if it would work until you actually did it.

Museum director Jessica Skwire Routhier (left) chats with a panorama aficionado following last Saturday's live presentation.

I was so pleased that all their efforts were rewarded with an immensely successful show! You could see how something like a panorama would have been an extremely popular way to tell a story with pictures and music, especially at a time when not everyone was literate.

At our performance, the audience was so intrigued that virtually everyone went backstage to view the mechanism for showing it. Peter Morelli was like a proud papa, explaining to everyone how things worked backstage.

And yes, things went so well that two additional showings of the moving panorama have been scheduled: on Friday, Aug. 3 and again on Friday, Aug. 31, both at 6:30 p.m. at the handsome Saco Town Hall, which looks like this:

If you're interested in vintage cinema or popular culture (or even just history in general), I urge you to attend one of these rare live performances of this vanished form of popular art.

And the restored original panorama itself, all 800 feet of it, is currently on display for public viewing through Nov. 10. A portion is at the Saco Museum, but the majority of it is hung at the sprawling Pepperell Mill Campus in Saco, which has enough wall space for this massive artifact. For more information, visit the museum online at

I haven't seen the real thing yet, but I'm looking forward to it, especially after last week's live performance. Like all good museum exhibits, it makes one think. In this day of viewing movies on cell phones, could massive moving panoramas come back into vogue? Wouldn't it be great to commission panoramas on more contemporary themes, such as Watergate, the Gulf War, or Bernie Madoff? (Or, more seriously, 9/11?)

As someone who works a lot with silent film, I often see how what's old can seem completely new. Stranger things have happened.

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