Ever since school I’ve had a creative streak. My mother used to say “you’re just like your Uncle Henry”. I never really knew what that meant until I started researching him a few years ago.
Henry was born in the East End of London in 1899 and grew up in the early part of the last century.
Now you may not realise it, but back then it was London - not Hollywood - that was the film capital of the world. And it held this dominant position because the film industry really began in Europe; the UK, Germany & France to be precise, at the start of the 1900’s.
And there was a young, impressionable boy - born in 1899, my Great Uncle Henry in fact, who was so mesmerised, so fascinated by the incredible stories you can tell that he left school at 14 and started to work in the film business.
Now think about it for a moment. You’ve seen The Crown, right. Think about the huge social and cultural changes taking place in the UK and all over the world at the start of the last century. Hardly any houses had electricity let alone telephones - so you can imagine just how cutting edge those early black and white movies were.
What an impression they made on the people who can experience them.
You can just go back now and imagine the impact you can make on the people around you when you get those stories right.
So he started in the film business. But hold on - making films was hardly a business in the beginning.
I mean, no one knew anything at all about how to make films back then. Narrative, composition, lighting, exposure, editing… It was all new. No one had any experience ‘cos experience means you’ve done it before, right? The industry was so new, Henry and the people around him had to figure it all out for themselves.
They really were pioneers.
But they were also craftsmen and artisans. It was their job to create stories and make magic for people who came to see them - the movies I mean. Make magic with flare, style, panache and just a little bit of cinematic trickery.
To do what it takes. I mean, that’s why we go to the movies, right? Isn’t it?
And they did it by hand. There was no CGI back then, no Pixar Studios or Power Macs. If they even needed a simple dissolve, they had to physically wind the film back in the camera.
So when the Director of Hamlet said to Henry - who by now was Head of Special Effects - “I need a ghost”, Henry was faced with a challenge. By now, you see, cinema-goers needed spectacle and extravaganza because frankly, audiences were getting a bit jaded. They needed something new. I mean, how many times can you go to see the same movie?
Back in 1899 it was OK to scare the pants off people just by showing them footage of a steam train, but by 1948 they were smart, savvy audiences.They knew what to expect in the cinema.
So for Henry it wasn’t enough just to do the same as every other filmmaker out there.
Henry though to himself “How can I do that? How can I deliver that experience? How can I create a ghost, a ghost so realistic, so scary that it’s going to send a shiver right up and down peoples spines?”