Key to Understanding Early Cinema

There was a point in film history when cinema was nothing more than a compilation of still-frame, silent videos. The characteristics of these films changed rapidly over the course of a few decades to what’s considered modern theatrics, starting as just still pictures shown in succession to one another. These pictures begun to morph as technology advanced. For instance: the first batch of what’s now considered “motion pictures” were mainly shorts that captured the everyday lives of people; there was no semblance of narrative structure. The Great Primitives (1894-1905), a collection of shorts from the beginning of “motion pictures,” are a great example to examine. Take Thomas Edison’s Sandow Flexing His Muscles (1894): a bodybuilder who flexes in front of a camera. This level of simplicity is key to understanding early cinema.

Edison welcomed this simplicity, as many of his films were shot, on location, at what was called the Black Maria, in New Jersey. These projects often included the use of mirrors for additional studio lighting with a black background, shifting the focus of every film to what was happening in the center of the screen. There were limited angles, and often, these shorts were considered experimental in nature; consisting of one singular frame, held for short a short time and typically left the audience viewing only a couple people on screen at a time. Theatre audiences weren’t expected to engage with the cinema for more than several minutes at one time.

These norms would slightly alter with films by The Lumière Brothers, like La Sortie des Usines (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory) (1895), in which the concept of deep focus was utilized. It’s easy to see every face from the front of the stage to the very back of it. It should be noted that while considered a film, La Sortie des Usines’s actors don’t portray a character; instead, they are just themselves leaving work for the day. Many of these people glance at the camera and often gaze in amazement, and what appears to be possible confusion, at different points during the footage. The Lumière Brothers captured slightly different angles, as well. Instead of the common center-focus shot, there was a bit of nuance in their filmmaking. In L’Arrivee d’un Train (1895), the focus is on the left side of the train as it rolls into the station; scaring audiences with the use of varying angles.

Alice Guy-Blaché, who’s considered the world’s first female director paved the way for narrative storytelling in La Fée aux Choux (The Fairy of the Cabbages) (1896). Not only did she weave plot into her films, but she also was influential in supporting cinema involving women, children, and people of color; creating several hundred films over the course of two decades. Two notable films from Guy include: A Fool and his Money (1912), which cast only black actors, and The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ (1906), in which the cast mostly comprised of women and children. Guy- Blaché made a particularly positive impact on cinema in the early days, even though she’s mostly forgotten by a male-dominated industry.

Then, shortly after Guy, George Méliès introduced narrative structure into his films. Les Voyages Dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902) also introduced audiences to the genre of science fiction. This created the need for more complex sets and special effects than previously thought. However, the simplicity of the camera angles remains prevalent until Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1905), which features the first camera pan as the robbers jump from the top of a train to escape into the wild. Porter’s train film was considered very violent for the time in which it was made but served as a template for Buster Keaton’s The General (1927).

The General, in return, took some of the previous concepts, specifically from something like The Great Trian Robbery, and made a feature-length movie. Keaton gave the audience an entertaining performance, mostly relying on slapstick comedy. All stunts were performed by Keaton as well, showing the amount of dedication some of early actors/directors had to the process of authenticity. Even without sound he managed to construct an engaging plot. One that in hindsight, seems a bit meticulous for the times; as the train goes from point A to point B and then back to point A. This was an accomplishment on many levels, as audiences weren’t previously subjected to longer flicks in the past decade. The strong direction of Keaton, in terms of quick cuts to enhance the amount of tension in each sequence, tracking shots that followed the characters in mid-sequence, and practical sets allowed for a certain level of believability.

During the same year as The General, Fritz Lang was busy releasing a monumental accomplishment in the science fiction genre, Metropolis (1927). Audiences hadn’t been subjected to this level of immersion or world-building before. This was a future that seemed far out of alignment with where society stood back in the late 20s. The mechanical nature of the world drew upon influences of the industrial revolution, how society had evolved, but was able to twist the perception of normality on its head. Those practical sets aided the eyes of everyone watching; plenty real enough to seem tangible. Of course, not everything could be done practical, but the miniature sets and matte paintings seamlessly blended into any background or foreground. The miniatures were useful when creating massive skyscrapers and cityscapes. An incredible amount of work was put into the city; featuring some use of stop-motion animation, which takes several weeks of work to create just one sequence.

Lang took countless risks during production. These risks ranged from the editing style, where he used transitional wipes and dissolves to progress the plot at a faster pace, to even quicker cuts than something like Keaton’s The General. It’s a fast watch, even at 2 hours and 33 minutes, due to the variation of camera angles in addition to different camera operation techniques. Metropolis was the first film to feature the use of a movie camera in the position of the character. In one POV shot, a hand is shown in front of the camera and thus creating the illusion that the camera is, in fact, the character. This required the camera operator to remove the camera from its tripod.

While it may not be the first to use the POV technique, it was the sharpest at transitioning from POV shots, to wide angle, and back to extreme close-ups. There were also numerous occasions where the camera would track the actors while they were performing simple tasks, such as walking. The frequency of shots like these increased from previous films. There are several out-of-focus shots mixed with frames of silhouettes, emphasizing certain film aspects; mainly the characters.

Compared to the other films mentioned, Lang’s goal was to have audiences sympathize with his characters. Casting two incredibly talented actors like Gustav Fröhlich (Freder) and Brigitte Helm (Maria) would make his goal easier, but Lang went aimed for more than just sympathy. The effective use of color tinting would be the most helpful tool to achieve the overall goal; the scene changing colors to reflect certain moods and atmosphere. This guided audiences through their experience with a film that, at the time, was radical. They no longer just saw the character, they saw the character’s emotions and feelings as they interacted with the world around them. Religious undertones were heavy throughout the film, both visually and sub-textually; giving audiences another reason to find a connection with the film, no matter how far in the future the plot takes place.

Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), still a part of the silent era, was exploring new ways to emphasize differences is class, personalities, and gender. Joan, for instance, is shot at different angles for longer periods of time while the male characters have vaguely similar shots. There are a lot of tracking shots that get close to the actors and retreat to create a spatial illusion. The set is sparse to center the focus on the camera on the human faces; even going so far as to add an iris effect to the reel, as if the audience was meant to endure the torture with Joan. The varying angles exaggerate the German expressionistic architecture in the background. Quick intercuts are found to be useful for adding tension and providing reactions to the drama. Dutch angles are used to signify how crooked the judges are. While Joan is shown at more steady angles, the clergy is shown moving about and entering frames at rapid paces. Sometimes portions of their faces are cut from the screen, such as foreheads or mouths signaling that they are not whole people. Joan’s whole face is shown typically, except for a couple instances where her full body is shown.

Facial expressions help to understand the plot without needing the inter-titles. In a part of the trail, one of the judges asks Joan a question about grace and during her process of thinking the camera remains focused on her face to give the audience a deep visualization of her train of thought. Dreyer does this for the priests as well but doesn’t focus nearly as long on them; they aren’t the ones suffering. Just in case the point wasn’t made clear, Joan is taken to the torture chamber; where abstract objects are shown for short frames. There are implications of bondage and how the men of the clergy have put Joan in chains. As the tension rises, the music crescendos and intercuts become more aggressive.

Joan suffers greatly. Countless shots show her hands reaching for the judges as they pull away, or in one instance, take her ring from her finger. The camera spins in a whirling motion, indicating the level of disorientation that Joan endures; she’s been lied to many times. Yet she finds the strength to confess that she has lied during the forced confession, knowing it will bring her death. The real tears from theatre actress, Maria Falconetti enhance the film’s sense of realism. Dreyer shot each scene in succession to one another, enabling Falconetti to truly be a part of her character. As she accepts her fate at the stake, Joan looks upon all her aspirations; including a child being nursed by a mother. Birds flock in the air as her soul leaves her body and the camera tracks across the commoners as they are gathered to watch the execution. The intercutting increases while Joan’s body is being burned and chaos ensues between the guards and the people to emphasize the violence during the trail.

W.S. Van Dyke’s adult comedy, The Thin Man (1934), just managed to scrape by under the nose of the Hays Code, which came crashing down on the industry. Adult humor and themes are present immediately, setting the tone for the rest of the film. Dyke’s powerful use of shadows creates appealing visuals. Shadow play, by DP James Wang Howe, works well with the noir aspect of the detective storyline. There’s a mix of extreme-close ups and center-focused shots, revealing different emotions for every character. Shots are mainly static, panning to reveal different portions of a set; to keep the pacing up. Although there are a few tracking sequences, mainly during the external scenes, outdoors. The intercuts are sharp, and transitions often use a dissolve or a wipe effect; scenes flow together well with the use of sound.

Nearly every scene involves some level of improvisation between the actors; including the “Christmas morning” scene. Dyke was famous for only filming one take; there’s some dialogue cues that are missed, or words that are flubbed, but that adds to the authenticity of everything. Even the drinks are real, and those are practically attached to the characters’ hip. Without cutting, the camera often pans back and forth between two characters to show the interplay between them and enhance the immersion in the comedic dialogue. Supporting characters are given a lot to do within several scenes. Without being named, they leave an impression through stich comedy.

Even the costuming provides insight into the status of the characters. Dark and light colors separate the main cast from the supporting characters. The sets also establish similar concepts, specifically through interior designs of the houses and apartments. It’s clear that status is important to the overarching narrative: as the upper class indulges themselves with liquor and play. In scenes with lower class members, those characters don’t often have the same lack of seriousness that our main characters have.

The seriousness does, indeed, take over during a pivotal moment. An investigation of a building leads to a differing atmosphere. After a body is found, Detective Nick Charles (William Powell) changes his mind about his level of involvement and even his attitude during his investigation. As he quietly walks through the shop, the use of light and sound become organic or practical. No musical accompaniment. The main source of light come from Charles’ flashlight and lamps; no overhead lighting structure, which went against what MGM had previously required. These early films proved that cinema can constantly shift or evolve for different time periods, all while evoking similar reactions from all audiences.

Author: Jared Charles

I am the owner of The Burrow Reviews. Currently studying Film, English, Political Science, and Gender Studies.

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