Cutting to the Chase


    By Subir Ghosh
    Once the early film makers got over the fact that a film could be made of more than one shot, the multi-shot film became the norm of the day. Films of the 1902/3-07 period were no longer treating the individual shot as a self-contained unit of meaning. One shot was now linked to another. It was like putting words together to form a meaningful sentence. The grammar, in any, of course, was far from evolving.

    Filmmakers used succession of shots to capture ane emphasise the highpoints of the action rather than construct either a linear narrative causality or even try to establish temporal-spatial relations. The editing of the film was solely intended to enhance visual pleasure for the audience rather than to refine narrative developments as a filmmaker.

    Many editing devices evolved, one of them being the overlapping action. This was a result of the filmmakers’ desire both to preserve the pro-filmic space and tp emphasise the important action by showing it twice. Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902) covered the landing of a space capsule on the moon in two shots. In the first, taken from space, the capsule hits the man in the moon on the eye, and he grimaces. In the second, taken from the moon’s surface, the capsule once again lands. To a viewer today, it would mean nothing. And in the film, while a later-day filmmaker would have cut directly from shot to shot, Méliès dissolved from one to another, and worked on it as a transitional device.

    Soon, the dissolve was not unusual to see in films. But the direct cuts which continued action from one shot to another became a popular device after English filmmaker James Williamson made Stop Thief! in 1901. The film showed a crowd chasing a tramp who had stolen a joint from a butcher, motivating connections by the diagonal movement of characters through each of the individual shots; the thief and then his pursures entering the frame at the back and exiting the frame past the camera. The fact that the camera remained with the scene until the last character had exited revealed how character movement motivates the editing. Williamson’s venture gave birth to chase films, the most famous of them being Personal (Biograph, 1904).

    Edwin S Porter, considerably influenced by another of Williamson’s films, Fire!, employed overlapping action in Life of an American Fireman (1902), and showed a rescue in its entirety, first from the interior and then from the exterior perspective. The cuts were not perfect yet, and the ‘imperfect’ match cut of GA Smith’s The Sick Kitten (1903) took it further. The cut in question was that from a long view of two children administering medicine to a kitten to a closer view of the kitten licking the spoon. Films, as you can see, were still jarring to look at.

    It was Porter, formerly a camerman with Edison Studios, who took the narrative element of cinema further with The Great Train Robbery (1903), a convetional Western film. It was twelve minutes long, and built upon his earlier work Life of an American Fireman. The film used a number of innovative techniques, including cross cutting, double exposure, composite editing, camera movement, and on location shooting. Cross-cuts were a new, sophisticated editing technique. Some prints were also hand coloured in certain scenes. None of the techniques were original, and the film is today considered to have been heavily influenced by Frank Mottershaw’s earlier British film A Daring Daylight Burglary.

    Among the narrative techniques employed by Porter was a medium shot of the bandit leader firing his revolver directly at the camera. The film was originally distributed with a note saying this shot could be placed either at the beginning or at the end of the film, or both. Most modern prints put it at the end. It is believed that the sequence with bandit Justus D Barnes was the inspiration for the gun barrel sequence in James Bond movies.

    Porter (born 1870) started his career doing odd jobs, but showed his knack for gadgets relatively early – he shared a patent at age 21 for a lamp regulator. Porter entered the film industry in 1896. He was briefly employed in New York City by Raff & Gammon, agents for the films and viewing equipment made by Thomas Edison, and then became a touring projectionist with a competing machine, Kuhn & Webster’s Projectorscope. He travelled to the West Indies and South America, and returned to become a projectionist.

    In 1899, he joined the Edison Manufacturing Company, and subsequently took charge of motion picture production, operating the camera, directing the actors, and assembling the final print. As a touring projectionist he knew what pleased crowds; he later used this info to the hilt.

    In The Great Train Robbery, Porter took the Western, already familiar to audiences from novels and stage, and made it an entirely new visual experience. It used as many as ten different indoor and outdoor locations and was groundbreaking in its use of “cross-cutting” in editing to show simultaneous action in different places. The film added pace to cinema.

    He presented two parallel stories in The Kleptomaniac (1905), and used side lighting, close-ups, and changed shots within a scene in The Seven Ages (1905). He paved the way for DW Griffith’s contributions in editing and screen storytelling, but himself could not keep pacec with motion picture art. . Yet he seemed to regard them only as separate experiments and never brought them together in a unified filmmaking style. Porter rarely repeated an innovation after he had used it successfully, and even protested when others rediscovered his techniques and claimed them as their own. He was never comofrtable with stars, and as the star concept became a phenomenon in the United States, Porter faded away.


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