Early Cinema


One of the most important changes to occur at the same time that the MPPC was formed was the adoption of the single reel (a 1,000-foot length) as the industry standard. This move to a standardized format had repercussions not only for industry practice but also for the formal properties defining story films during the next five years. Reliance on a single, interchangeable film length rendered print delivery and rental charges to distributors much more straightforward. Exhibition programs became more predictable, as audiences came to expect films to last a prescribed amount of time. In many ways, the move to a single-reel standard helped push films toward the status of amass consumer good, in sofar as they became acommodity whose value was now regularized.

The changes wrought by the adoption of the single-reel format also registered themselves at the level of production methods and formal features. Now that producers knew exactly how long a film narrative should run, they could fashion stories designed to fit within the specified 1,000 feet. Film narratives began to assume a structural sameness from 1908 onward, hastened in part

b. Paris, France, 8 December 1861, d. 21 January 1938

Famed for his elaborately staged fantasy films and whimsical trick films, Georges Méliès has often been described as the antithesis of the Lumière brothers, his fictional flights of fancy viewed as the inverse of their slice-of-life actualités . Nonetheless, one can overstate Méliès's contribution to the development of film narrative: for example, his famed "substitution splice" operates according to the logic of trickery rather than continuity and demonstrates how his early career as a magician clearly influenced his subsequent filmmaking practice.

First and foremost, Méliès's films are the work of a showman, the tricks proudly displayed while the wizardry is kept under wraps. Usually prized for their intricate miseen-scène, his films are also feats of editing-as-illusion, a fact easily missed by those accustomed to associating cuts with spatial transitions. Instead, many of Méliès's disguised cuts operate to facilitate a transformation; accordingly, all elements of the mise-en-scène must remain in the same place while a single object is removed or repositioned to enable the visual trick to work effectively. Through these substitution splices, Méliès engaged in a form of invisible editing, though not the type associated with later classical storytelling methods.

Equally exacting was Méliès's approach to miseen-scène, and his films are a cornucopia of visual effects, whether they be the reflexive displays of projection and technological reproduction in films such as La Lanterne magique ( The Magic Lantern , 1903) and Photographie électrique à distance ( Long Distance Wireless Photography , 1908) or the creation of fantasy worlds in longer works like Le Voyage dans la lune ( A Trip to the Moon , 1902) and Le Voyage à travers l'impossible ( The Impossible Voyage , 1904). It is these multi-shot story films that have contributed to Méliès's reputation as an early master of film narrative, but in truth, they are a collection of intricate and distinct tableaux. Méliès's primary interest was the visual capacity of the individual shot, and he excelled at devising ever more elaborate sets, populated by sprites who disappear in a puff of smoke, mermaids surrounded by varieties of exotic sea life, and improbably conceived traveling machines capable of propelling their inhabitants beyond the earth's surface.

Exercising total control over all aspects of the filmmaking process, Méliès created perfectly self-contained worlds, most of them shot within the confines of his glass-walled studio in Montreuil. Yet his artisanal approach to filmmaking would prove his financial undoing as he was dwarfed by the industrially advanced Pathé Frères in his home country and cheated by American competitors who duped his most popular films without asking permission (or providing compensation). Though still making films as late as 1913, Méliès found himself outpaced by an industry increasingly dependent on production methods foreign to his preferred approach and gravitating toward subject matter rooted in a more prosaic realism.


Cendrillon ( Cinderella , 1899), Barbe-bleue ( Bluebeard , 1901), L'Homme à la tête de caoutchouc ( The Man with the India-Rubber Head , 1902), Le Voyage dans la lune ( A Trip to the Moon , 1902), La Royaume des fées ( Kingdom of the Fairies , 1903), La Lanterne magique ( The Magic Lantern , 1903), La Sirène ( The Mermaid , 1904), Le Voyage à travers l'impossible ( The Impossible Voyage , 1904), La Photographie électrique à distance ( Long Distance Wireless Photography , 1908), À la Conquête du Pôle ( The Conquest of the Pole , 1912)


Ezra, Elizabeth. Georges Méliès . Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Gaudreault, André. "Theatricality, Narrativity, and 'Trickality': Reevaluating the Cinema of Georges Méliès." Journal of Popular Film and Television 15, no. 3 (1987): 110–119.

Hammond, Paul. Marvelous Méliès . New York: St. Martin's, 1975.

Charlie Keil

Georges Méliès.

by the adoption of the scenario script. These scripts served as skeletons for finished films and provided producers with blueprints for production schedules. The increased rationalization of production practices followed directly from the introduction of scenario scripts, allowing producers to organize sets, locations, and personnel according to shooting demands. Departmental organization of personnel provided further streamlining of the production process, resulting in writing departments, which further refined the crafting of scenario scripts.

The emerging trade press in the United States also contributed to the standardization of the script writing process from 1907 onward. Existing publications such as New York Daily Mirror and Variety began to devote space to the film industry, and new journals aimed specifically at exhibitors also appeared, most notably Moving Picture World and Nickelodeon . Along with advice to exhibitors on how to enhance the moviegoing experience, film reviews and columns outlined the ideal ways to structure film scenarios. The trade press coached aspiring writers in the nascent craft of screenwriting while pointing out the clichés and overused devices that would mark their scripts as derivative. Though one cannot be certain how seriously such advice was taken by those responsible for the scripts, these primers on crafting film narratives nonetheless indicate which principles of narrative construction were prized at this time.

With films now longer, the stories that filmmakers could tell inevitably grew in complexity as well. While an involving narrative might well produce a satisfied viewer, a muddled set of events would only result in frustration and bafflement. Filmmakers had to ensure that as narratives increased in intricacy, they did not tax viewers' powers of comprehension. As Charles Musser has argued, this resulted in a crisis of representation for the industry around 1907, as filmmakers struggled to find ways to guarantee that audiences would understand the stories presented. Various extratextual aides to comprehension were tested, including the reintroduction of the lecturer and the employment of actors behind the screen to utter dialogue explaining silent scenes. But solutions unique to a single exhibition situation did not address the problem in a systematic way; instead, audience comprehension had to be ensured by internally generated means, and these needed to function the same way for every spectator, regardless of viewing circumstances.

This led to a period of protracted experimentation during which filmmakers devised a series of text-based strategies to provide narratives that would ideally "tell themselves": aspects of the medium were enlisted to ensure comprehension of plot points, provide the look of a believable fictional world, and promote a sense of viewer engagement. The methods filmmakers developed emerged over time and through trial and error. What they came up with was one of the most striking transformations in film style ever undergone within such a short timeframe. In effect, this involved a wholesale change to the narrative approach already entrenched in early cinema. What Kristin Thompson has identified as a "neutral and unobtrusive" manner of providing information in the earliest years shifted gradually to a more directive guiding of the viewer's attention.

Numerous scholars have coined the term "transitional era" to identify the years following 1907 and extending to the introduction of features. What distinguishes this period on a formal level is the ongoing experimentation in storytelling methods and the shifting functions of various stylistic devices, as those devices were enlisted in the service of a developing narrative system. Comparisons to the earlier, pre-1907 mode can help make the distinctions clearer: during the cinema of attractions period, one finds a bias favoring the autonomy of the shot: shots operate as individual units rather than as pieces fitting together to make a whole. Even when editing stitches together numerous shots, it is more like beads on a string rather than integrally interrelated component pieces. This emphasis on discrete shots translates into filmmakers exhausting the narrative potential of a single space before replacing it with another. Even in chase films, defined by the principle of advancing action, all the characters must exit the frame before a shot is deemed complete.

In many films made prior to 1907, style existed as a system only loosely connected to narrative concerns; what the next five or so years witnessed was the gradual but increased bending of style to narrative prerogatives. Conveying temporal continuity offers one striking example of this narrational shift: whereas in the earlier period, depictions of events occurring at the same time had occasioned instances of temporal overlap (even in films that employed sustained versions of linear editing, such as The Great Train Robbery and Rescued by Rover ), now actions would be interrupted—literally cut into by edits—to produce the sensation of simultaneity for the viewer.

Nowhere is this more evident than in D. W. Griffith's celebrated last-minute rescues, perfected during his tenure at Biograph (which more or less coincides with the period under examination here, 1908–1913). In numerous films during the transitional period, crosscutting clarified spatial relationships between two physically separated locales while incorporating temporal pressure into the representation of space. Such an approach generates suspense, because of its constant reliance on delay in showing the outcome of one line of action while switching to another. Suspense works to involve the viewer in the narrative, in much the same way other stylistic strategies developed during this period pull the viewer into the narrative world on view: changing approaches to set decoration and arrangement of actors enhance the depth and volume of the spaces depicted; performance style moves toward greater restraint, with fewer grand gestures and a more internalized approach to expressing emotion; shifts in performance style are reinforced by moving the camera closer to the actors, making their faces more legible. Many of these changes make the fictional world on display both more believable and more engaging, placing the characters and their motivations at the center of the drama. For this reason, flashbacks, dreams, visions, and cut-ins to inserts (especially those revealing extracts from letters) become much more prevalent during this period, helping to convey characters' internal states. Overall, the individual elements of style become subordinated to a narrational program that fosters interdependency and integration, as when editing allows for shifts in shot scale, which in turn helps to register changes in performance style.

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