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The Development of Film's Narrative Language
film narrative language
the development of
the history of
By: Michael Moroney
Narrative film has a specific, visual language of all its own. The modern film makes use of various techniques, which are the staple of this language, to illustrate the stories they are trying to convey. The movies we have all come to know and love are chock full of quick cuts, intense action, multiple and simultaneous storylines, intellectual depth, emotional performances, stylistic dominance, impressive special effects, and most tragically unappreciated, a strong sense of continuity. This was not always the case, however. The early history of cinema was humble and very much unlike how it is today.
It is the common opinion that it is necessary to understand the context of something in order to fully grasp the importance of it. So before we get into the development of cinema’s visual narrative dialogue, let us get into some brief context, shall we?
One of the precursors to film was the zoopraxiscope. Eadweard Muybridge, its’ inventor, used his creation to display moving images while he lectured animal locomotion at the Chicago 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in the Zoopraxographical Hall, making it the first commercial film theater. A zoopraxigraph example can be seen here below (Ex A). As movies progressed in popularity, minute long shorts of everyday life, shot in only singular scenes were displayed in storefront spaces or traveling exhibitions. The movies during the era were best described as “... scenes from real life having the novelty of motion...“ (Britannica.) This was common in films of the time. They contained no cinematic technique whatsoever, as seen below (Ex B). As you can clearly see, they were only basic shots of life as it happens. However, with the passing of the Victorian Era, all of this would change forever.
Modern moviegoers have the immense, gargantuan and widely unknown need to thank Georges
, Edwin S. Porter, D.W. Griffith and Orson Welles: The four undisputed pioneers of film. Through the course of their careers, they utilized their inventive minds and creative wit to develop new and exciting ways of telling a story. Most of their developments still hold their place as the very basics of movie making. These four men paved the way movies are made today and developed cinema’s visual narrative language.
Méliès: the father of cinema. An magician by trade, he aimed his life towards moviemaking after viewing the
Lumière brother’s films (seen in the previous link) in Paris in 1895, as he automatically knew he could do better.
Méliès believed that narrative film, or films with a story, had great potential.
He acquired a camera, a set, and some actors and began to create his illusionist films. Le Voyage dans la lune (1902; “A Trip to the Moon”) is perhaps his most famous and notable work. It’s a silent film with no dialogue, and tells the story of a group of astronomers who travel to the moon and come face-to-face with its inhabitants. It is made up of fourteen scenes, each comprised of a single shot. Film scholar
Ken Dancyger described the film as
... no more than a series of amusing shots, each a scene unto itself. The shots tell a story, but not in the manner to which we are accustomed. It was not until the work of American Edwin S. Porter that editing became more purposeful.” However, beyond the impressive special effects, the most important aspect of this movie is displayed during the ship landing scene. First, the shuttle is shown to land in the moon’s eye, which for some reason has a face. Then in the following shot, the ship is shown to land again, but in a more literal and up-close way. This overlapping of action was rarely, if even ever, done before. Showing the same action twice from two points of view, in order to reveal more narrative information, is a technique still widely used today. The entire film is available to watch below (Ex A).
Méliès’s career also brought about other various developments. In his lifetime, he made over 400 movies and also invented various special effect techniques. Some of these tricks include stop motion, slow motion, dissolve, fade-out,
superimposition, and double exposure. Another trick he accidentally discovered is what is known as the “stop-trick,” as best exemplified in his 1899 film, “The Conjurer”, which is available to watch down below (Ex B). The technique is when one stops filming, moves or replaces an object, and then continues filming. When cut together and played, it appears as if the original object has transformed or disappeared. Most of these tricks are still widely used today.
Méliès contributed some of the first narrative films, and some of the first aspects of the modern visual narrative language.
Edwin S. Porter
Edwin S. Porter is commonly known as the world’s first film editor. When he was young, he worked as a projectionist at Eden Musée. This job led him to continue continuity editing, or, rearranging shots for logical coherence. He was heavily influenced by Georges
Méliès, who’s “A Trip to the Moon” inspired Porter to tell stories
in continuity form. “Pan-American Exposition by Night (1901)” is one of first works. It displays the view of a cityscape, and is one of the earliest examples of the time-lapse. In actuality, though,
Méliès was the first to use the trick. It works by the film being recorded with an extremely low frame-rate, then being played as if it was filmed normally. It then creates the illusion that time is passing very quickly.
The technique is still used in modern cinema as a way of displaying the passage of time. The film can be seen below (Ex A).
Another of his earliest works, “Life of an American Fireman (1902)” displays his interest in continuous storytelling. It’s a silent short-film comprised of seven scenes and nine shots.
Méliès’ influence can be observed especially when an action is repeated from two different points of view, one interior and the other, an exterior shot. The film can be viewed below (Ex B).
In 1903, the director released “The Great Train Robbery”. It is considered to be the first movie ever that displays continuity of action and used dynamic editing for emotional impact. The film was also the first to use double exposures, miniatures and split screen. It displays fourteen different non-overlapping, non-continuous shots of action. This was a major development in the history of film, as it was vastly different from
Méliès’ frontal composition and theatrical staging. At the end of the film is a startling close-up, or a shot that is close to the subject, of a gunman “firing” at the audience, which received more than a few startled reactions. Watch the film below (Ex C). This framework of the narrative, and other techniques created or used by Edwin Porter, are still widely utilized in the modern cinema narrative language.
Although wanting to become a playwright, D.W. Griffith took the job as a director at the Biograph Company, and would eventually become one of the most famous directors of all time. While creating various short films, Griffith took the current basic staples of moviemaking and melded them into his own style. He used lighting, continuity, editing, and acting in a way all his own. The director’s short films revealed that “Griffith’s style already emerging: crosscut editing to build tension, acute observation of details to heighten reality, and the use of the camera as a vehicle for expounding his views on society.” (PBS)
In 1915, D.W. Griffith released “Birth of a Nation”, a film about two families during the civil war. He used dramatic camera angles and editing in a way not done in any film before it. The film debuted the narrative close up and flashback, both innovative at the time of it’s release. The movie itself, however, was horribly racist and poorly received by the black community for the film’s portrayal of “black-face.” It can be viewed here below (Ex A).
His next movie, “Intolerance (1916),” masterfully interwove four different storylines, each from a separate time period. The film set the new standard for narrative complexity and film spectacle. “Intolerance” can be watched below (Ex B). Some consider that D.W. Griffith almost single handedly created the modern movie, as his contributions to the film narrative language were, and still are, immensely influential.
Orson Welles is another well known director whose influence on the cinema’s visual narrative language can still be felt today. At the mere age of twenty-five, Welles created what is still considered the greatest movies of all time, “Citizen Kane (1941)”. The film was nothing short of groundbreaking. The innovative lighting and focusing techniques by cinematographer Gregg Toland, along with the dramatic editing style by Robert Wise, were completely unprecedented at the time and are still influencing filmmakers today. Welles’ cutting-edge use of photography, lighting, and music were used to influence the mood of this masterpiece. The film deployed a number of new film techniques, including the deep-focus shot. That is when all objects in the frame are captured in great detail, or in other words, the camera has a large depth of field. The director also stylistically bound the look together through the continued, dramatic use of low camera angles. The film also improved upon the use of montage and sound. The film was told through multiple points of view, which was also unheard of at the time. An example clip, displaying all of the advancements from this innovative film, can be seen below. Orson Welles’ masterpiece was a groundbreaking work of art, and its’ contributions to the film visual language are still being used in modern cinema.
The importance of these mens’ developments in film’s visual narrative narrative language is indisputable. Today’s moviegoers have Georges
, Edwin S. Porter, D.W. Griffith and Orson Welles to thank for the modern films we all know and love. Cinema was originally comprised of minute long shorts of everyday life. But, these four men brought new storytelling techniques, creativity and life to the table, permanently transforming filmmaking into an art form of all its’ own.
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"Orson Welles (American Actor, Director and Writer)." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 04 June 2013.
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"Stop Trick." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Feb. 2013. Web. 04 June 2013.
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