The development of the cinematic art form had to undergo an evolution in order to survive and thrive. Several key innovators–some of whom you will recognize from last week’s readings–and one from this week’s lecture, pushed the development of cinematic language. They helped discover how cinema could be a unique art form, and how film could be edited to create story and narrative clarity. Eventually, their discoveries became part of what we now call the Continuity System–the foundation of modern cinematic language. Watch this great short video from Filmmaker IQ, and then read the next set of posts to help you focus on the key information that will be on exams.
This wonderful sequence from a Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle one-reeler exemplifies the first rule for creating narrative clarity: every action has a reaction/for every cause, there is an effect. For fun, click the “Find Out More” button to see more of these pratfall sequences and read about Keaton and Arbuckle!
Your characters must motivate the action. A goal-oriented protagonist is key to a clear, engaging story. Pictured here is early movie star Douglas Fairbanks, whose many starring roles exemplified the active protagonist–from Thief of Baghdad to The Black Pirate to Robin Hood.
D.W. Griffith and others quickly discovered that a closer camera actually helped the action feel more natural. So rather than use wide shots that mimicked the view of a stage play, they established the “9-foot rule.” This made the standard shot a 3/4 shot, cutting the character off just below the knee (the approximate framing achieved by a camera 9 feet away from the subject).
D.W. Griffith is largely responsible for popularizing the close-up shot. He realized it was the best way to allow the actors to convey intense emotion and draw the audience into the scene. We would not feel Lillian Gish’s sorrow in Way Down East (1920), pictured above left, if the camera was placed too far away for us to see the tears in her eyes.
Filmmakers began experimenting with color as a storytelling tool long before the advent of color process film stock. Sequences were hand-tinted in colors that helped to convey mood and setting. In Way Down East (1920), blue is used for night scenes (and romance), yellow for warm indoor settings, and red for daytime outdoor settings.
Filmmakers began using intertitles to help fill in the dialogue and set the scene. Click the “FInd Out More” button to see a fun and slightly shocking collection of intertitles on Tumblr. Note the how carefully many of these were designed–from the typeface choices and decorative elements, and even animation! This striking example is from The Cat and the Canary (1927).
“How Motion Pictures Became the Movies, 1908-1920” – a lecture by David Bordwell. Bordwell is arguably the preeminent film scholar of this generation. This lecture contains all you need to know and more about the development of film style during this period, with lots of image-based examples. Skim through this, especially if you are still confused about the Continuity System. (Side note: my slides are better looking than his!)