Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Shot in the Narrative

The shot is more than just a close-up.  It is an integral part of what film is today.  A film is a series of shots put together through editing to fictionalize an event - to tell the tale of it. 

Méliès had discovered that two different pieces of film can be put together to create the illusion of something which couldn’t possibly happen.  Now it was time to use that knowledge to create the illusion that something was happening.  Something real.  

The two discoveries that were made which made narrative film possible were the close-up and parallel editing.  

The close-up was cut into  Méliès tableaus in order to bring the viewer closer to a specific action.  To show them detail  of the action happening while it happens. 

Parallel editing was editing two different simultaneous lines of action together into one line of action.

Firemen spray the exterior of a building.  Inside a baby cries as flames near its crib. Outside a fireman climbs a creaky ladder.   Inside a mother tries to cross a line of fire to reach her baby. 

Around the same time that Méliès was active in France a couple of English gentlemen from Brighton were experimenting with both of these concept -- George Albert Smith and James Williamson.

James Williamson was supposedly the discoverer of parallel editing.  I say supposedly because the films I’ve found don’t seem to match up with the history I’ve read.  Plus the history even says many of these early films don’t exist in their original shape.  Take for example this film:

It’s supposed to contain examples of parallel editing but I just don’t see them.  If you happen to find a copy of this film or  Stop Thief or Attack on a China Mission that contain good examples of parallel editing or if you happen to see it in this film then please let me know.

Funnily enough  while searching through the web, I discovered Williamson’s most popular films today seem to be the following.

The second film, The Big Swallow, claims to be the first close-up.  

However, historically the discoverer of the close-up is considered to be George Albert Smith (our other English gentleman).  And the first example of a close-up I can find from him is in this film from 1900.  So it seems that maybe he actually is.

Other films from G. A. Smith that are of interest are the first Christmas film from 1898. You can see the Méliès influence in this one.

And also this tragically funny film from 1903 called Mary Jane’s Mishap.  That’s Smith’s wife in the lead.

And last but not least I made an error in the Méliès post and attributed this film to him.  It’s actually Smith’s film. Méliès made a film of the same name a year earlier – proof of the competition that early filmmakers faced and that they had good knowledge of their competitors. 

Then in steps Edwin Porter a projectionist for the Edison company until he became a director in his own right.  He started out directing a few actualitiés then, after picking up on the narrative advances of Méliès, Smith and Williamson, directed the first true narrative film, The Life of an American Fireman. 

I found this copy of the film which has subtitled information on the important narrative structure (Thanks to Ashley Hughes). This film has no sound so crank up your tunes.

Life of an American Fireman Narrative Structure from Ashley Hughes on Vimeo.

However, there is some controversy about this being the first narrative film because two copies exist.  One with parallel editing and one without.  No one is certain which came first and the second may have come much later than the first.

So the first indisputable narrative film is the Great Train Robbery. 

However, even that film has it’s controversy.  Many believe it was “borrowed” from this earlier British film.

Either way the shot and narrative film were out of the bottle and there was no putting them back.  The way was paved, the structure in place, for the upcoming great silent directors like D.W. Griffith.

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First article Before Film

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