Week 2, Group D: Working with Early Film

Problems and Challenges that we face from Early Cinema

From the screenings we have viewed in the last two weeks on this module, I think the immediate challenges presented with us as film historians are due to the lack of development and diversity in early cinema. A core reason for this lies in the very minimal advancement of filmmaking technology and technical skills that existed in the 1890s and 1920s resulting in a large amount of early cinema that stylistically echo each other. Even films that were made in varying countries and of different purposes seem to be shot in a very basic and monotonous fashion such as the British short film “Rescued by Rover” (1905) and the Lumière’s film “The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” (1896) from France. In Hepworth and Fitzhamon’s “Rescued by Rover” for example we are given an action/thriller narrative with dramatic actors, the use of animals and babies in a set consistent with detail to mise en scène. The Lumière’s short film “The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” however is a simple documentary of a train coming to a gradual stop at a station in the south of France. Yet both these thematically opposing examples of early cinema appear to be stylistically uncanny in production. As a result, I think as a film historian it is difficult to compare and contrast some examples of early cinema when they all seem so similar on face value.

Things that Surprised Us

It is not easy to come up with a single surprising element from earlier films. However, early cinema editing is one of the works that surprised us a lot.

The Impossible Voyage

The Impossible Voyage (From: Gfycat.com)

Editing in early cinema didn’t involve digital computers until 1989. Before 1980s people used AMPEX VR to electronically edit videotape. So, before these technical advancements, people had to physically edit a videotape. Physically editing a videotape means to use a razor blade or guillotine cutter to cut the celluloid film stock and join that together with another piece of film stock. The surprising factor about this job is the editor wouldn’t even know where the edit point is, as they don’t get to see the image on the screen. In the early time, they had to play the tape to a point near the edit and stop the machine to turn the reel by hand to a point where they thought the edit should happen. The Impossible Voyage by Georges Méliès, in 1904 is a great example of this. This movie had lots of cuts and it had colours. It is a surprising fact that this movie had colours, even before the invention of Technicolor. This was achieved using, hand-painted prints, which basically means that people had to paint frame-by-frame, to colourise this 20-minute movie. In other words, 300 meters of film stock had to get hand-painted by multiple people.

Another surprising factor is the amount of development that happened in the film industry in such a short period. It is easy to assume that the place we got today in Film was down to one person’s idea and a slow development of that, however, it is quite the opposite and instead of a mixture of different ideas from different countries. In Italy, they had rising melodramatic male and female stars, in Russia you had Soviet Montages. France formed Pathé Frères. Denmark produced famous producers such as Peter Elfelt. Sweden was one of the first countries to create major cinema drawings on a national culture, and America emerged Hollywood and leading film companies such as Warner Bros, Fox Film and Metro. All in all the information thus far we have learned into this year has enriched our understandings of where we are in our development today.

Particular Skills We Might Need to Employ


Fantomas (From: thecinemascopecat)

In order to get the most out of studying this kind of cinema, the audience needs to be open minded and focused on what the image is trying to convey, as sound is not a tool which can help us do that here. On rare occasion, we might have to watch other language movies without subtitle. So, we need to be prepared to understand the film language itself.

One thought on “Week 2, Group D: Working with Early Film

  1. This is an interesting post that provides a wide-ranging snapshot of early cinema. Also, really fantastic use of images and clips! You raise some thought-provoking points about editing, while your mention of Melies’ use of colour is an excellent example of early cinema defying expectations.

    I wonder, however, about the observation that “the immediate challenges presented with us as film historians are due to the lack of development and diversity in early cinema”… On one level it is certainly true that a lot of themes get recycled (boy stands on hose, chase scenarios, etc), but could we not say the same about contemporary cinema (think of the formulas used in romantic comedies, superhero origin stories, or the abundance of sequels that are made). Also, we mustn’t forget that early filmmakers were essentially creating a whole new filmic language, essentially from scratch (albeit with influences from other artistic spheres). I wonder also if the post contradicts itself a little in relation to a lack of innovation in the second last paragraph?

Leave a Reply