Primitives or Pioneers?

We can never truly know wheen the birth of cinema was. It is difficult to even establish what we actually mean by “The Birth of Cinema”, it could mean the first ever recorded moving images, or the first screening people paid to enter or the first official movie theatre.

For the purpose of this essay, I will be using 1985, the first time people paid to watch films. I will be looking at some of the films from early cinema (1895 – 1908) and considering the question “Primitives or Pioneers?”. I will be studying their methods and some of their work to determine whether I think that the early filmmakers methods were primitive or revolutionary.

Some of the most successful early pioneers in the early development of motion pictures were Thomas Edison and William Dickson from America and the Lumière Brothers in France. Their work was inspired by the motion capture work by Frenchman Étienne-Jules Marey and British photographer Eadweard Muybridge who provided the basis for motion picture photography and presentation. Marey and Muybridge’s techniques are still used in the capture and projection of modern motion pictures.

British photographer Birt Acres, together with electrical engineer Robert Paul developed their own motion picture camera (35mm camera) to create films for use with copies of Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope. Acre’s and Paul’s brief partnership led to the production of the first successful British Film – “Incident at Clovelly Cottage” in March, 1895.

As technology advanced, filmmakers emerged. Cecil Hepworth and Edwin Porter led the way with Hepworth producing such early films as “How it Feels to be Run Over” (1900, United Kingdom) and “Rescued by Rover” (1905, United Kingdom) with Porter directing “The Great Train Robbery” (1903, United States) among others.

George Méliès, coming from a theatrical background, started making films combining film technique with the effects achievable from the theatre. His work led to some of the first ‘Special Effects’ in cinema in films such as “A Trip to the Moon” (1902, France). Méliès was also the subject for the 2011 Martin Scorsese film “Hugo” (2011, United States).

The Great Train Robbery is a ten minute American Western film written, produced and directed by Edwin Porter in 1903. Porter was a former camera man for Edison Studios, Thomas Edison’s company. He was also a fan of Méliès and tried to emulate the trick photography which Méliès had introduced to the world. The Great Train Robbery is cited as the first Epic Western, with a cast of forty actors working to an actual script.

When I watched The Great Train Robbery I noticed a few things about it, first of all, it had a set, meaning they didn’t film on location. This means they would have had to design, make and pay for a set. In the background, some of the sets had a window, through which you could see a train, however, I think the train looked like it was an odd angle through the window. There were also some shots with moving scenery in the background which didn’t look right to me which makes me think that these scenes were all filmed on a set with a screen of some sorts in the background.

There was also a point where one of the outlaws beat someone to death before throwing him off the train. Just before he throws the man off of the train, there is a very brief jump in the film before you can see the outlaw throw what is clearly a dummy off of the train. It’s a clever effect for such an early film.

There is some interesting colour play in the film, too. Only a few times but they have edited in some colour to the film. Things like the flash from a gun or explosion and women’s clothing have colour. It’s interesting to see that they chose to add colour to some things but not others, but also interesting to see that they added any in the first place.

Another interesting thing to note is that, in every shot you can see most, if not all of the set and the entirety of the actors bodies. This is probably because most of the people who worked on the earliest films came from a theatrical background, which could also explain the actors rather exaggerated performances.

I also feel that the sets all seems a little too large. This, and the exaggerated performances of the actors, can possibly be attributed to the theatrical backgrounds of most people who were involved in early films. An audience was used to seeing the whole scene at once, as an onlooker would, and subtle acting on stage would likely go unnoticed. (In silent films, exaggerated body language had to replace dialogue.)

Having also watched Rescued by Rover, what struck me as most interesting was this one shot where the father character (Played by director Cecil Hepworth) got into a boat to cross a short river. As the boat moves a bit to our right, the camera pans a little to follow him, this was most likely a pan made out of necessity, rather than artistic choice as back then, panning wasn’t a big thing.

I think that the early filmmakers were all primitives and pioneers all in their own rights. They clearly did some revolutionary things, such as panning, or playing with colour, or even some early effects, but they also hadn’t learned some, now seemingly obvious, techniques. Such as using constant wide shots to keep actors entire bodies in shot. However, without them, films definintely wouldn’t be where they are today.