Topic 2: Film development up to the coming of sound

● major film-making technique developments ● genres, stars and directors ● major developments in Europe ● the beginnings of Hollywood ● the peak of the silent movies

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From film as a curiosity to film as an art form. The first two decades of the 20th century saw the development of most major visual film making techniques, the so-called visual grammar for telling stories through moving pictures. Most film genres were established and this silent era saw the creation of revolutionary works of visual art. While the first motivation behind the invention of cinema was to capture reality, soon visionary film makers realized the potential of the medium and experimented with the combining illusion and reality to further amaze the rapidly growing numbers of film audiences.

From one-reel to multiple reels, from simple to complex. The first pictures were silent shorts, one-reel presentations (usually around 11-12 minutes long, played at 25 frames per second, or 16-18 minutes at slower speeds, usual at the time), depicting images from everyday life, funny sketches, or various short representations of well-known, historical events. Pioneering filmmakers soon started experimenting with longer multiple-reel presentations that allowed a more complex story to be told, sometimes stretching to unusual lengths.

These feature films were becoming more and more popular with audiences over short, one-reel presentations. They allowed adaptations of well-known, popular theatre plays and literary works that could attract audiences from higher social classes.

The early production and distribution companies at first saw features as too expensive, but soon realized their potential to bring greater profits. After some early successful experiments, the whole industry began to reorganize itself into the so-called vertical studio system, which meant that all aspects of making, marketing and presenting features was organised by one studio.

Feature films had a more complex storyline, a theme often based on historical events or literary works. With their rising popularity, the form in which moving pictures were shown to audiences also changed. It caused the end of the nickelodeon era, and the establishment of movie palaces, presenting movies as an equal alternative to theatre, opera and other traditionally respected forms of art. Movie palaces were grand, luxurious and impressive versions of cinemas as we know them today, where features (multi-reel, or full-length films) could be presented in big style.

These were some of the important developments that lead to the rise of film industry in Hollywood, its studio and star systems and the establishment of independents, or film companies.

  • Self-study
  • Why & when did the film industry began to develop so fast in a previously small suburb of Los Angeles, called Hollywood? What were the first newly established independent film companies (or studios) there? What was UA, United Artists Corporation?

    Who were the earliest film stars and important filmmakers of the Silent Era?
    (Edwin S. Porter, D.W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Cecil B. DeMille, etc.)

    What was the development in Europe & Russia?
    German expressionism (Fritz Lang, F.W. Marnau, G.W. Pabst), Russian innovators in editing (Lev Kuleshov, Sergey Eisenstein, V.I. Pudovkin, Dziga Vertov, A. Dovzhenko), socialist realism, propaganda film, Italian and French film industries.


    One of the earliest narrative one-reel films: The Great Train Robbery (1903), Edwin S. Porter

    Length 12 minutes, the film used a number of innovative techniques including cross cutting, double exposure, composite editing, camera movement and on location shooting. Edwin S. Porter, former employee of Edison Company, used them to tell a story in pictures. The narrative techniques were mostly fairly simple, one shot for one scene, but the film includes some early innovations, such as cross-cutting, camera movement and on-location shooting. Some of the copies were hand-painted to include colour (e.g. firing guns) and the film includes the iconic scene with one of the robbers firing a pistol directly at the camera.
    It is snow accepted that an earlier British film A Daring Daylight Burglary by Frank Mottershaw’s served as Porter’s inspiration.

    The world’s first feature film: The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906, Australia), Charles Tait

    Generally regarded as the world’s first feature film, preceding D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) by nine years. Its 60-minute length was unprecedented when it was released. The movie traces the life of the legendary Australian bushranger, Ned Kelly (1855-1880). It was written and directed by Charles Tait. Only about 10 minutes were known to have survived. In November 2006 the National Film and Sound Archive released a new digital restoration which incorporated 11 minutes of material recently discovered in the United Kingdom. The restoration now is 17 minutes long.

    The grand Italian historical epic that influenced D.W. Griffith to make his own: CABIRIA (1914, Italy), Giovanni Pastrone

    One of the extravagant Italian historical epics that were made in the pre-World War I silent era that made its mark on American film industry. The film used real locations in the Alps, thousands of extras, and a “tracking” shot, with the camera placed on a dolly, which was afterwards used by other film makers. The film was a major influence on D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance.

    The controversial, openly racist, first American multiple-reel blockbuster, but a landmark in American movie history: The Birth of a Nation (1915), D. W. Griffith

    Griffith gave motion picture in America the status it has today. He told his stories by using fresh visual techniques, like cross-cutting, close-ups, irises, dollying and different camera angles. Griffith’s visual innovations were so different that the distribution companies worried that audiences could become confused. Of course, they weren’t. Griffith laid down the essential visual grammar for film makers to employ to tell their stories and captivate audiences.

    One of the great artistic masterpieces of the Silent Era:
    Intolerance (1916), D. W. Griffith

    Griffith’s epic masterpiece, further developing the film making techniques, freely cross-cutting between different periods and centuries to tell a story with a noble idea: a plea for tolerance.

    The highly influential German Expressionism film: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Robert Wiene

    The first feature length comedy film to combine comedy and drama, as one of the opening titles says: “A picture with a smile, and perhaps a tear…,” and loved by people the world over: The Kid (1921), Charlie Chaplin

    The famed German Expressionist vampire horror film:
    Nosferatu (1922), F. W. Murnau

    Safety Last! (1923), Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor (starring Harold Lloyd)

    One of the most influential propaganda films of all time:
    The Battleship Potemkin (Броненосец «Потёмкин») (1925, Soviet Union), Sergei Eisenstein

    The General (1927), Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton

    Buster Keaton’s legendary film (Frigo na mašine), now considered to be one of the most important and greatest movies in history, misunderstood at the time of its release and considered a flop, later admired for its artistic brilliance, now considered by many critics as one of the greatest films ever made.

    The monumental German expressionism science-fiction film:Metropolis (1927), Fritz Lang

  • Links
  • more info in the second half of the article from topic 1
    – read about the birth of Film Art
    – the development of techniques and genres and other important changes
    – another extensive resource on the Silent Era years

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    Be concise, focus on the important facts, choose your favourites and be ready to talk about them

    as always, feel free to ask, leave a comment, recommend : )



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