Pre 1930s Cinema

According to Dancyger (2011), 1895 marks the beginning of film. However, at that time, editing was still nonexistent or minimal, as because of the novelty represented by the movie image, a story wasn’t really necessary.

The earliest films were as short as not even one minute long and consisted of a series of single shots. Composition and emotions were not yet taken into consideration and lightning was only used for its most basic purposes. On the French film stage, George Melies represented a breath of fresh air for the medium and turned it into a very popular form of entertainment. Even though the first films he created were almost reproductions of what the Lumiere Brothers had produced, his creativity quickly kicked in made him achieve his very first special effect (Lanzoni, 2004: 34). During the shooting of “The Conjuring of a Woman at the House of Robert Houdin” (1896), by interrupting the scene with the actress for a few seconds and then following with a second take without her, he creates the impression of her disappear (which later gave birth to the stop motion visual effect).

It was, however, through the work of Edwin S. Porter that editing started to be given even more importance. Inspired by Melies’ use of “theatrical devices and a playful sense of the fantastic” (Dancyger, 2011: 3), Porter realized that the way he organized the shots could contribute to the story become more dynamic. Based on his argument that films must therefore be formed by the assembly of single shots, it can thus be argued that he is the one who founded editing’s basic principle.

A first example of his work is “The Life of an American Fireman” (1903), in which Porter presents a six-minutes story of how a mother and a child are rescued from a burning building. The novelty that he brings to filmmaking was the alternation of shots of outside of the building with shots of the inside of it, creating the impression of motion and dynamism. Overall, the meaning that the story is trying to convey comes from the grouping of shots in such a way that they create a “narrative continuity” (Dancyger, 2011: 5).

It was D.W. Griffith who started to experiment more with the way the medium was used. He moves the action closer to the audience, he starts fragmenting the scenes, so that spectators start feeling the emotions he is trying to transmit. Good examples of emotionally involving the audience into the plot are “The Greaser’s Gauntlet” (1908) and “Enoch Arden” (1908), the latter one showcasing innovations such as the close-up.

However, it was with “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) that Griffith achieved an impressive narrative and complex emotional quality, being a two hours showcase of all the editing techniques he had acquired in his shorter films. It is not only the story of the Civil War, but also about the destiny of two families in the setting of Lincoln’s assassination and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan.

The beginning of a new era is marked by Friday August 1926, when ‘Don Juan’ is released on Broadway (Fairservice, 2001). Although it wasn’t very different from previous silent films, what made it stand out was the fact “it was the first studio-backed picture to be made with sound” (Fairservice, 2001: 203), being a clear indicator of the big changes that were taking place. However, it was Warner Brothers’ second film, “The Jazz Singer” (1927) that illustrated more clearly these changes with the use of synchronized songs and the character’s two short dialogues.

The impact that this particular film had within the industry is perfectly illustrated by Fairservice, who argues that many silent films that were still in the production stage when “The Jazz Singer” was released had some parts adapted to the new techniques. Hitchcock’s “Blackmail” is the perfect example of this, as many parts of it were re-shot and attached dialogues, making it a great success at its release in 1929. The silent version was also launched in order to be shown in theatres not yet prepared for sound screenings.


DANCYGER, K., 2007. The Technique of Film and Video Editing. History, Theory and Practice. Oxford: Focal Press.

FAIRSERVICE, D., 2001. Film Editing: History, Theory and Practice. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

LANZONI, R.F., 2002. French Cinema: from its beginnings to the present. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group.


~ by andragroza2013 on March 6, 2013.

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