CHAPTER 8 / Part 1


Table of Contents

Table of Contents




We’ve already encountered two watershed years in the history of “the formal aspects” of the story film—that is, in the evolution of the cinema’s methods for giving narrative shape to its materials. The first is 1903, when, as film historian Barry Salt observes, “there began a definite trend toward longer, multi-scene films.”[1] In the three countries where production mattered—the United States, Great Britain, and France—it was the year of Edwin S. Porter’s Life of an American Fireman, The Gay Shoe Clerk, and The Great Train Robbery; of Frank Mottershaw’s Daring Daylight Burglary, Walter Haggar’s Desperate Poaching Affray, and G.A. Smith’s The Sick Kitten and Mary Janes’s Mishap; of Georges Méliès’ Le Royaume des fées and Pathé’s Epopée Napoléonienne and La Vie et la passion de Jésus Christ.

From the period 1900 through 1906, some 1,500 films have survived (with several times that number forever lost). In researching this period, Roberta Pearson breaks it into

two subsidiary periods: 1894-1902/03, when the majority of films consisted of one shot and were what we would call today documentaries, known then, after the French usage, as actualities; and 1903-07, when the multi-shot, fiction film gradually began to dominate, with simple narratives structuring the temporal and causal relations between shots.[2]

Linking One Shot to Another: The Art of the Transition

During the second of these two periods, says Pearson, “the multi-shot film emerged as the norm rather than the exception, with films no longer treating the individual shot as a self-contained unit of meaning, but [rather] linking one shot to another.”[3] For the most part, we’ll limit our analysis of “the formal aspect of film” in this chapter to descriptions of the devices developed to fashion linkages of this sort. In doing so, observes Salt, we can expect to discover

some analogies with biological evolution, in the way that novel features which suddenly appear like mutations are sometimes rapidly taken up in other films, forming a line of descent, while on other occasions, original devices die out because they have some unsuitability of a technical, commercial, or artistic nature.[4]

The result is “a descriptive norm,” and in this section, in which we summarize the development of narrative form in the cinema up to the year 1903, we’ll adhere to Salt’s descriptive categories of various cinematic devices for linking one shot to another.

The Time Lapse as Visual Pleasure: Dissolves
  A common means of linking successive shots was the dissolve—the fading out of one shot and fading into the next, often resulting in the superimposition of the two images. The strategy was a favorite of Georges Méliès, and he uses it several times in Le Voyage dans la lune (1902—see Chapter 3.2). Today the dissolve typically denotes a temporal ellipsis, or lapse of time (see Figure 8.1)[5], but such is not its function for Méliès, who uses it primarily to enhance visual pleasure in the spectacle without implying anything specific about the accompanying transition in time or space.

See the moving picture


                Life Rescue at Long Branch,

                 Edison Mfg. Co., USA, 1901

In Edison’s Life Rescue at Long Branch (1901—Figure 8.2), two successive shots of a life-saving episode on the beach—one in long shot and the next from slightly closer range—are linked by a dissolve. In Cecil Hepworth’s Alice in Wonderland (1903), a woman walks out of one shot and into a second whose position matching to the first is fairly good; again, the linkage is made by a dissolve. In neither case is a time lapse intended, and in the second, in which there’s a spatial transition, the two spaces are adjoining.

Although such practice can be a little confusing to the modern viewer, it’s not quite as peculiar as the device of overlapping action, which consisted essentially in repeating the same action twice. Again, Le Voyage dans la lune offers a good example. In one shot, taken from the perspective of outer space, a moon-bound capsule hits the Man in the Moon in the eye; in the next shot, taken from the surface of the moon, the capsule makes its landing all over again. In Porter’s How They Do Things in the Bowery (1902—see Figure 4.21), we see a man twice pitched out of a bar and into the street—first from inside, when the bartender throws him out, and then from outside, when he lands in the street.[6]

Toward the Illusion of Continuity and Simultaneity: Cutting on Action
  Consider the following four-shot sequence from Le Voyage dans la lune:
  1. The space capsule leaves the moon, exiting the frame at the bottom (Figure 8.3/Shot 1).
  2. The capsule continues its journey, still downward, from top to bottom of the frame (Figure 8.3/Shot 2).
  3. Still hurtling downwards, the capsule reaches the surface of the ocean at the bottom of the frame (Figure 8.3/Shot 3)
  4. Plunging into the water, the capsule sinks, downward, from the surface (now implicitly at the top of the frame) to the seabed (at the bottom) (Figure 8.3/Shot 4).

Unmediated, Unobtrusive Transitions
  Directional continuity is clearly maintained throughout this sequence: moving in the same direction from shot to shot, the object appears to occupy a spatially and temporally coherent world. Curiously, however, Méliès resorts, as usual, to linking the shots by means of dissolves. Direct cuts—unmediated transitions from one image to another—would have been sufficient (and certainly more logical to the modern spectator).

See the moving picture


                   James Williamson, Fire!,

                        Great Britain, 1901

Now consider the following sequence from James Williamson’s Fire! (1901), which we dicussed in detail in Chapter 5.1:

  1. An interior shot in the bedroom of a burning house shows a fireman entering through a window, rescuing an occupant, and returning to the window (Figure 8.4/Shot 1).
  2. An exterior shot shows the fireman, victim in hand, as he comes out of the window (Figure 8.4/Shot 2).

The link between these two shots very nearly establishes a continuity or matching cut—a direct cut emphasizing an unobtrusive transition as it condenses time and space (see Chapter 4.2). In this instance, the matching cut is imperfect because it exposes a gap in the action of perhaps a few seconds. In Life of an American Fireman (1903), Porter depicts an almost identical episode by means of overlapping action, showing the whole rescue in the interior shot and then again in the exterior shot (Figure 8.5).

The Problem of Linear Construction
  The intuition that images can be linked by means of a matching cut suggests an extremely important advance in the art of filmmaking because it points the way toward resolving a problem that we raised when discussing Porter’s Fireman in Chapter 4.2. The desire to show a character entering a window from the interior of a building and exiting it from the exterior raises a problem not only of continuity, but of simultaneity. If a continuous action is to be presented from two perspectives, the two perspectives must be regarded as existing at the same time: the continuity of the action eliminates any possibility of the camera being allowed the time to shift from one perspective to the other. A film, however, is a linear construction—filmstrips are attached to one another in sequential order. Does it follow that, as an art form, film is antithetical to the expression of simultaneity? Hypothetically, the reliance on overlapping action suggests the belief that sequence—even when entailing repetition—is preferable to an illusion of continuity and simultaneity that’s doomed to obfuscation by the material nature of the art form. Conversely, the impulse to create a matching cut suggests the intuition that achieving cinematic continuity is feasible in principle.[7]

See the excerpt


          John Huston, The Maltese Falcon,

                 Warner Bros., USA, 1941

The Uses of Condensation
  Let’s examine the sequence of shots reproduced in Figure 8.6, all of which are joined by direct cuts. The sequence comes from John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) and begins just after detective Sam Spade has placed a mysterious package on a table. Shot 1 is a medium shot of three characters—Joel Cairo, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and Kaspar Gutman—looking at the package. Shot 2 is an insert of the package as Gutman opens it. Shot 3 cuts to a medium closeup of Gutman, Shot 4 to a medium closeup of Cairo and O’Shaughnessy (which matches Shot 1). Shot 5, taken from roughly the same angle as Shots 1, 3, and 4, locates Spade, who’s standing behind Cairo and O’Shaughnessy, and Shot 6 matches Shot 1 in order to resume on the action occurring at the table.

The action of this sequence, then, begins in Shot 1 and consists of two details: (1) Gutman’s manipulation of the package and (2) Cairo’s and O’Shaughnessy’s attention to his activity. With this fact in mind, it’s easier to see that Shot 3, which shifts the frame to Gutman, and Shot 4, which switches it back to Cairo and O’Shaughnessy, are continuations of the same action. Enough time, in other words, has passed in order for the action to progress, but no time has been allowed to permit the camera to shift its spatial orientation. It’s in this sense that space and time have been condensed. Likewise, the shift in spatial orientation between Shot 4 and Shot 5 (the shot that reminds us of the hero’s presence) transpires with no lapse of time other than that entailed precisely by the progress of the action. If no “extra” time has been allotted for locating Spade in the room, we must deduce that the perspective from he’s viewed has always existed simultaneously with the perspective from which Gutman, Cairo, and O’Shaughnessy are being viewed. This deduction is confirmed by the progress of the action as revealed in Shot 6, which shows the action to have been continuous.

Cinematic continuity is clearly possible, both in theory and in practice. By about 1917, such principles for linking shots in longer films had become pretty much common practice, especially in American films. Principles gradually became guidelines, and by the mid 1920s, guidelines had become rules for matching action smoothly.[8]

Ironically, for innovative filmmakers, mastery of such “rules” is often a prelude to finding new means of expression by violating them. For a detailed illustration, see Reading 8.1, “Jump Cut: Strangers on a Train,” which analyzes the technique of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

Following Directions; or, Getting It Right Some of the Time
  In Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la lune, characters typically enter and exit scenes in “logical” sequences of direction: if a character exits the location of one shot by moving beyond the left edge of the frame, he’ll enter the nearby location of the next shot from the right, and vice versa. The space of each shot, in other words, is treated as a continuation of the space in the previous shot, and the characters are treated as if they were moving continuously from one space to another. The illusion of continuous movement is thereby strengthened and the viewer’s spatial orientation reinforced. According to Salt, however, although Méliès seems to have had a good sense of directional continuity, the same can’t be said for “most other filmmakers of this period, though obviously anyone who makes the directions of entrances and exits purely at random . . . is going to get them ‘right’ some of the time, just by chance.”[9]

If Salt is correct, the prevalence of illogical staging is peculiar. Consider, for example, the following description of the staging of a theatrical spectacular in the late nineteenth century.[10] The characters will run out of a shelter near the sea, onto an area near the beach, and finally to the edge of the sea in a storm—all within the confines of a proscenium stage:

  1. In front of one backdrop representing the shelter, they exit, right to left.
  2. In front of a second backdrop representing the beach, which is lowered without the curtain closing, they “continue” to run, right to left.
  3. In front a third backdrop representing the storm-tossed sea (also lowered without the curtain closing), they run, right to left, to the survivors of a sinking ship.

With the action running continuously, the three scenes resemble three film shots linked, perhaps, by dissolves. Note, however, that the actors always run from right to left: exiting one scene into the wings stage left, they return to the wings stage right behind the scenery and re-emerge in the next scene to “continue” running from right to left. In other words, the model for conceptualizing cinematic space could be found in certain theatrical practices for treating spectators in a proscenium theater to the illusion of logical movement through contiguous space. “There is but a small step,” suggests Kristin Thompson, from “a series of contiguous spaces on the Victorian stage to the series of shots in a primitive chase film.”[11]

Thrusting into the Depth of Things: Exploring the Diagonal
  Adhering to the stage model came naturally to Méliès, who was a theater operator and who shot his films completely within the confines of his studio at Montreuil. But even by this time, many filmmakers, notably the British, had already begun to shoot multiscene films on exterior locations. Most British production companies were still working out of so-called “back-garden ‘studios’”—stages equipped with such minimal facilities as a glass roof and a hanging cloth for backdrops. From his “studio” at Walton-on-Thames, Cecil Hepworth found it almost as easy to shoot short films (such as Rescued by Rover [1905—see Chapter 5.2]) at the nearby the river as in his own backyard. Filming outdoors underscored the fact that the perspective of the camera need not be limited by the artificial backwall of the “box set” in which live theater was staged: the visual field of the camera was not, after all, the same as the field described by the proscenium-arch stage (see Figure 8.7).[12] “In the theater,” observes one French film historian, “we sweep the scene, looking for a center of interest. In the cinema, the camera thrusts into the depth of things.”[13]

See the moving picture


              James Williamson, Stop Thief!,

                        Great Britain, 1901

Movement and Motivation
  In effect, the cinematic “stage” had become three dimensional, and it was possible to have characters moving not only laterally across the frame, but diagonally—toward and away from the camera. When filmmakers began experimenting with such movements, they encountered certain new and important dimensions to the larger problem of lending spatiotemporal coherence to a narrative composed of multiple shots. There wasn’t exactly a mad rush into pro-filmic space—which we defined in Chapter 5.1 as fictionally articulated space that stands in for and denotes spatial reality—but a portal had been opened. Again, the British filmmaker James Williamson was in the forefront of such experimentation.[14] In Stop Thief! (1901—see Chapter 5.1), for instance, a butcher and two dogs chase a thief who’s stolen a joint of meat. The action in both of the first two shots is played out on a plane that’s perpendicular to the camera axis but crosses it at a slight diagonal:

  1. The butcher comes across the frame from left to right, moving slightly toward the foreground as he does; the thief accosts him from behind, grabs the meat, and runs away, followed by the butcher, in a path that reverses the butcher’s original direction; both exit the frame on the right.
  2. The thief runs into the frame from the left, moving across it from upper left to lower right, where he exits the shot; two dogs and then the butcher follow the same trajectory.

The sequence violates directional logic, but the continuity of the two contiguous spaces (as well as that of the third and last shot) is indicated by movement, which bridges the separate locations and the effect of which is enhanced by the diagonal staging. Moreover, the camera establishes its perspective in order to discover the moving characters as they enter its range and holds on the scene until everyone—thief, dogs, butcher—has exited by passing in front of it. The cutting, in other words, is motivated by character movement, not by the need to get from one episode to another in which characters play a role that’s not much more important than that of setting or décor. In theory, it’s just a short step to the relationship between narrative strategy and character motivation as it’s developed in the so-called “classical” cinema. “[T]he premise of Hollywood story construction,” says David Bordwell, can ultimately be characterized as “causality, consequence, psychological motivations, the drive toward overcoming obstacles and achieving goals. Character-centered—i.e., personal or psychological—causality is the armature of the classical [cinematic] story,” and thus of its storytelling techniques.[15]

Movement and Orientation: Fire!
  The technique of motivating movement also appears in the opening sequence of Williamson’s Fire!:

  1. The first shot opens on a burning house; a policeman enters the frame from the lower left and runs up to investigate, moving diagonally into the frame toward the house; he then rushes laterally out of the frame to the right.
  2. The second shot opens on the Hove fire department; the policeman rushes in from the left and summons the firemen from a door located at frame center.
  3. The horse-drawn firefighting equipment is brought out, and two fire wagons exit by crossing out of the frame to the left, moving on a slight diagonal toward the foreground.

See the moving picture


                   James Williamson, Fire!,

                        Great Britain, 1901

The house in Shot 1 and the fire station in Shot 2 are both set at oblique angles to the camera axis—that is, with the camera looking at them diagonally rather than straight on, thus directing the lateral plane of action along the diagonal (Figure 8.8/Frame 2). Otherwise lateral movement, therefore, occurs on a diagonal that runs between the foreground of the frame, closer to the camera, and the rearground, where the background set is centered farther from the camera. The spatial continuity between Shots 1 and 2 and Shots 2 and 3 is reinforced both by the logic of entrances and exits and by the fluidity of movement. Not so, however, the continuity between Shots 3 and 4: In a long shot, the first fire wagon approaches from the left; it moves diagonally toward the center of the shot, where it turns toward the camera and approaches the bottom of the frame, parallel to the camera axis, until it exits the frame, just to the camera’s left (Figure 8.8/Frame 4); the second wagon follows the same trajectory. As we noted in Chapter 5.1, the directional “illogic” of the action—it moves right to left in Shot 3 and left to right in Shot 4—gives the momentary impression that the fire wagons have changed direction; although such a change isn’t narratively out of the question, the change would require a certain passage of both space and time that the direct cut ignores. To the extent that we orient ourselves and accept the contiguity of the two locations, we do so because the cut has been made on movement.

Cutting to the Chase: Personal
  The most immediate impact of the principle of cutting on movement was on the development of the “chase” film as a genre, which standardized the treatment of directional movement as a means of linking multiple locations and indicating their contiguity. Beginning in 1903, chase films became a popular comic staple on both American and French motion-picture programs. A good example is Biograph’s Personal (1904—see Figure 5.18), in which a French gentleman advertises for a wife in a New York newspaper personals column, instructing interested parties to meet him at Grant’s Tomb. He arrives to find a crowd of undesirable women and absconds in panic, pursued by the women through a series of eight shots. Each shot pursues the action in the same direction: movement along the camera axis, from the background at the top of the frame and toward the bottom, where everyone exits.

See the moving picture


   Edwin S. Porter, How a French Nobleman,

    Got a Wife..., Edison Mfg. Co., USA, 1904

As Charles Musser points out, the principle observed by the unknown Biograph director probably derives from “a convention of confrontation” with the camera that had proved popular in much earlier films, such as Empire State Express (1896), in which the prospect of a train speeding into the foreground was found to give spectators a momentarily terrifying thrill.[16] As such, the treatment of space in Personal reflects the presentational mode of the cinema of attractions rather than the incipient representational mode of classical continuity.[17] The same subject—remade by Porter in August 1904 as How a French Nobleman Got a Wife through the New York “Herald” Personal Columns (Figure 8.9 [18])—was Edison’s bestselling film for the 1904-1905 business year. Another obvious copy, Dix Femmes pour un mari (Ten Women for One Husband, 1905—see Figure 6.24), is the earliest surviving copy of a Pathé comic-chase film.

In Desperate Poaching Affray, made by the British filmmaker Walter Haggar in 1903 (see Chapter 5.2), the chase pattern is given more complexity as it’s applied to a dramatic rather than comic premise. Consider, for example, the following three-shot sequence:

See the moving picture


  Walter Haggar, Desperate Poaching Affray,

      Haggar and Sons, Great Britain, 1903

  1. Two poachers, pursued by police and local farmers, are caught and a fight ensues in the center of the frame; freeing themselves, the poachers escape by running diagonally out of the frame at the bottom left.
  2. Entering from the bottom left, the poachers continue their flight along an s-shaped road that leads diagonally toward the upper right.
  3. A third poacher, also being pursued, enters the frame from the upper right, runs diagonally into a pond that occupies most of the frame space, and attempts his getaway by heading, still diagonally, toward the lower left.

Here, movement into/out of the frame toward the camera is combined with movement into/out of the frame away from the camera, with all the action crossing the camera axis. This particular innovation, according to Salt, remains “extremely rare” up through the period ending in 1906,[19] but the premise—the chase as the central narrative element—proved quite influential. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, which was shot for Edison in November 1903, includes a chase (which, oddly, is confined to a single shot) and was undoubtedly influenced by the generic elements of crime and pursuit. Titles such as A Desperate Encounter between Burglars and Police (Edison, 1905), a well-edited chase through the streets that culminates hand-to-hand combat in a basement,[20] probably testify to public familiarity with Haggar’s prototype.

See the moving picture


            Edwin S. Porter, Maniac Chase,

               Edison Mfg. Co., USA, 1904

On the whole, however, Americans seemed to prefer their chases with a comic twist, such as Personal, Biograph’s 1903 The Escaped Lunatic and Edison’s 1904 knockoff, Maniac Chase (see Figure 7.17), and Biograph’s The Lost Child (1904—Figure 8.10), in which, after a frantic pursuit by police and a distraught mother, a suspected kidnapper turns out to be concealing a guinea pig (the missing child is home, hiding in the doghouse).[21] Likewise, French audiences preferred their chases embedded in courses comiques (see Chapter 6.3), which soon became fast-paced gags in which stereotyped characters (notably policemen and country bumpkins), often played by acrobats and circus clowns, pursued each other despite one obstacle after another.[22] In one form or another, the chase had become an international staple by the end of 1904.

Further Uses of the Continuity Criterion: Scenic Dissection

Salt says that G.A. Smith’s Grandma’s Reading Glass (1900—see Figure 5.6) represents the first instance of a scene divided into multiple shots.[23] Smith repeats the strategy in As Seen through a Telescope (also 1900—see Figure 5.7) and Scenes on Every Floor (1902), in each case replicating a character’s point of view by framing objects in masked vignettes. Technically, as we saw in Chapter 5.1, these are point-of-view shots. In Reading Glass and Telescope, the masks are round, representing the visual field of a magnifying glass and a telescope, respectively. In the latter film, the object viewed is a girl’s ankle as it’s being stroked by a man’s hand. In Pathé’s Ce que l’on voit de mon sixième (Scenes from My Balcony, 1901), a panning shot across the rooftops of a city establishes an ostensible spatial relationship between two circular masked point-of-view shots, both of which are seen from the perspective of the same point-of-view character.[24] In Scenes on Every Floor, Smith’s mask is keyhole shaped because the point-of-view character is looking through keyholes in hotel doors.

See the moving picture


    Ferdinand Zecca, Par le trou de la serrue,

               Pathé-Frères, France, 1901

Not surprisingly, this gimmick lent itself to voyeuristic “closeups,” as in Hepworth’s Inquisitive Boots (1905) and Pathé’s Par le trou de la serrure (Peeping Tom), both of which add some narrative interest to the premise. Ferdinand Zecca first made Par le trou de la serrure in 1901.[25] In each of three shots, a man peers through the keyhole in each of three doors. Medium shots of the voyeur alternate with point-of-view shots in which the frame is masked with a keyhole. We see what the peeping tom sees:

  1. A young woman sits at her dressing table (Figure 8.11/Frame 1).
  2. A woman does a burlesque “striptease,” removing absolutely everything, including her hair, nose, and teeth (Figure 8.11/Frame 2).
  3. A boy hoists a heavyset older woman.

When the protagonist prepares to peep through a fourth door, a man comes out, knocks him down the stairs, and gives the camera a self-satisfied glare.

Narrativizing Point of View
  The point-of-view shots in Par le trou de la serrure are not intended to articulate the narrative more precisely: they’re conceived as a spectacle attraction—a ploy to display the medium’s ability to show something that will attract the spectator’s attention. They’re not, however, entirely unmotivated: they can be attributed to a character in the film. Arguably, although the character-motivated point-of-view shot doesn’t necessarily dwell in the house of narrative, it undoubtedly resides in the same neighborhood. Consider, for example, Biograph’s A Search for Evidence (1903), in which a wife and a house detective look through hotel keyholes in search of her philandering husband. In the hotel corridor, the same setup is repeated (with room numbers changed), and as in Par le trou de la serrure, alternating shots reveal what the protagonists see (a young man and a baby, a rube trying to light a light bulb with a match). Finally, they see what they’re looking for—the husband (Figure 8.12). In this case, even the point-of-view shots that fail to find the husband move the narrative along—literally: after each such shot, we follow the wife and detective down the corridor as they continue the search.[26]

Moreover, because they move in each shot right to left through contiguous space, their movement not only reinforces our sense of spatial continuity but lends the search itself a rationale that we can appreciate. In a sense, then, we, too, share in the protagonists’ rational motivation, which justifies—or rationalizes—our behavior as voyeurs. Interestingly, the last shot of the film is taken from inside the husband’s room, at an angle perpendicular to the previous shot taken from the hallway, as the wife and detective burst in. We can take this shot as a matching cut (on action) with linear continuity,[27] and the effect of the visually logical shift in point of view is telling. Objectified in the eyes of the guilty husband, the wife and detective are vindicated: the search has not merely satisfied voyeuristic impulses but has in fact uncovered something of value—evidence.

See the moving picture


                G.A. Smith, The Sick Kitten,

                       Great Britain, 1903

Narrativizing the Frame
  In all of these films, the camera distance in the masked cut-in shot differs from that in the establishing shot. In no case, however, does the cut-in shot contribute to scenic continuity rather than serve merely as one discrete element in a succession of shots. Recall our definition of the continuity cut in Chapter 4.2 as a cut emphasizing an unobtrusive transition while condensing time and space. According to Salt, the continuity criterion—the use of a continuity cut rather than such a device as masking to integrate a shift to a closer camera position—is first satisfied by G.A. Smith’s The Sick Kitten (1903—see Figure 5.9), in which we have the following sequence:

  1. In medium long shot, a little girl spoon-feeds a kitten in her lap.
  2. In medium closeup, we see the kitten licking the spoon.

Here, the camera cuts from one position to another within the duration of a scene that’s not interrupted by a masked cut-in shot. Or to put it another way: the action transpiring across the cuts is not interrupted—it’s continuous, even though the visual match is imperfect.

In Smith’s Mary Jane’s Mishap, or Don’t Fool with the Paraffin (1903—see Figure 5.11), medium long shots of the heroine in the kitchen are intercut with three medium closeups that provide a better view of the titular activity (the mistake of lighting a fire with flammable paraffin). Again, although the matching is careless (the character doesn’t appear to be in exactly the same position in the medium closeups as in the medium long shots), the scene develops continuously, with uninterrupted action unfolding over the whole series of shots (Figure 8.13).

Denoting Distances: Distinctions and Finer Distinctions
  Note, by the way, that in all of these films, the cut-in shot, whether masked or contrived to reinforce the sense of continuous movement, is a medium shot. Throughout, we’ll refer to the following definitions of various types of camera distance:[28]

Then there are finer distinctions. In the extreme long shot (ELS), which is used for bird’s-eye views and distantly viewed landscapes, the human figure may be scarcely recognizable. The extreme closeup (ECU) isolates a detail (for example, something held in a hand) or a feature of the human face. Remember, however, that one viewer’s MS is another viewer’s MCU (medium closeup). There are no universally applicable measures of camera distance (or angle); both in theory and in practice, camera distance is always a matter of degree. Finally, the functions of the same framing technique will vary from the context of one film to another.

See the moving picture


        Edwin S. Porter, The Gay Shoe Clerk,

               Edison Mfg. Co., USA, 1903

Catering to Point of View: The Gay Shoe Clerk Redux
  Whatever the relative camera distance and resultant framing, the cut-in shots in these early films are not designed to effect or enhance continuity. Look again, for example, at the sequence of two shots from Edwin S. Porter’s The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903) in Figure 8.15. The premise of this brief gag may be borrowed from an untitled French film of 1901, in which a voyeur with a telescope espies a young man who, in aiding a young woman on a bicycle, helps himself to a caress of her foot. In the French version, the filmmaker uses a circular mask to denote the telescopic image and so creates a typical point-of-view shot.[29] Although the interpolated shot in Porter’s treatment isn’t masked, the set background has disappeared—the better to display the shape of the actress’ leg and the position of the actor’s hand. In this respect, the shot isolates a narratively important detail, which is one potential function of the closeup. At the same time, however, the shift in background actually works against another potential function of the camera distance—confirming character positions in relation to setting. Moreover, it disturbs the reasonably good matching cut on movement (the clerk’s hand), which may have been either intentional or accidental. Most importantly, however, it counteracts an acceptably unobtrusive transition in time with a transition in space that is by definition obtrusive. In catering to the point of view that the clerk shares with the spectator-voyeur, the technique discloses the working of a cinema of attractions rather than a cinema of continuity.

Inserts and Emblems
  It’s worth noting that the closer shot often serves one of two other functions in the early cinema. In modern nomenclature, the term closeup is reserved for the actor’s face; when the image details an object or a part of the actor’s body other than the face, the term insert is used (see Figure 8.16). As Salt observes, early filmmakers seem to have observed this difference in practice even if they had no need to make any formal distinction. Often the insert is an object which, when examined in some detail, helps to clarify certain narrative matters. The shot of Mary Jane’s tombstone in Mary Jane’s Mishap, for example, refines the final jest of the film—the superimposition of the heroine’s ghost as it rises from and returns to the grave (Figure 8.17).

See the moving picture


        R.W. Paul, Buy Your Own Cherries,

                      Great Britain, 1904

Inserting the Printed Word: Buy Your Own Cherries
  R.W. Paul’s Buy Your Own Cherries (1904) makes overt use of an insert as one among several images of the printed word. A working-class drunkard goes into a pub, where a salesman, a better-dressed, more moderate drinker, is identified by the sign on his sample case. Our hero begins running up a tab, but when he takes some cherries from a bowl on the bar, the proprietress tells him to buy his own. He returns home in an ugly mood and begins to abuse his wife, but then he spots his terrified children hiding under the kitchen table. Walking the streets in shame, he’s passing a mission when a man at the gate invites him in. Inside, where several signs identify the religious message of the mission (“God Is Love,” “Abide in Me”), he pledges abstinence. When next we see him, he’s more prosperously dressed, and in front of the tavern, he stops to purchase some cherries (identified by the sign on the grocer’s cart) rather than booze. He returns home to his family, full of good will and bearing presents.


Magic Lantern Slide, Buy Your Own Cherries,

           York & Son, Great Britain, 1885

Interestingly, Buy Your Own Cherries is an adaptation of a popular magic-lantern slide-show narrative. Recall from Chapter 1.1 that by the 1870s, magic-lantern showmen, particularly those specializing in illustrated travel lectures, had begun to manipulate spatial relations by sequencing photographic views of different distances and angles, following longer with closer shots, exterior with interior shots, and even establishing with point-of-view shots. As cut-ins, not only Paul’s inserts but also Smith’s point-of-view shots would have been familiar to spectators as borrowings from slide-show practice. The masking of inserts and other closer shots not only mimics a technique for enhancing magic-lantern slides, but, in clearly announcing what the image is—what the child sees, for example, through his grandmother’s glasses—essentially takes over the function of the exposition provided by the slide-show lecturer.[30] On a basic level, the mask, like the sound of the lecturer’s voice, disrupts strictly visual fluidity. According to one standard book on the art of editing film, the purpose of ensuring that

transitions are mechanically smooth . . . is to work out a continuity which will be understandable and smooth. . . . Making a smooth cut means joining two shots in such a way that the transition does not create a noticeable jerk and the spectator’s illusion of seeing a continuous piece of action is not interrupted.[31]

In order to establish such continuity, the frame within the frame produced by the mask eventually had to be eliminated.

“Narratively Non-Specific Shots”
  Of lesser interest are so called emblematic shots—“narratively non specific shots”[32] of which the bandit firing his pistol at the end of The Great Train Robbery is certainly the most famous instance. Although no specific commercial agreement seems to have been in place, the Edison Company clearly appropriated this image from a well-known contemporary advertising poster that featured a gun-toting “Highwayman” touting a packaged cleanser called Gold Dust Powder. Presumably, the image, which also appeared in Edison’s advertising for the film (see Figure 8.18), was conceived to exploit the familiarity of the consumer-product ad.[33] Not quite so well known is the emblematic shot that opens British filmmaker Alfred Collins’ Raid on a Coiner’s Den (1904), a cops-and-counterfeiters story. In this shot, the first in the film, three hands come into the frame from different directions: one as a clenched fist, one brandishing a pistol, and one gripping a pair of handcuffs.

Salt observes that because the emblematic shot often features characters who appear in the film itself, it may be mistaken for a closer shot preceding the longer shot that typically opens the first actual scene. Often, however, because no care has been taken to match the positioning in the emblem shot with that of any narrative shot, the blatant mismatching reveals the emblem shot for what it is (especially if the rest of the film’s continuity is reasonably smooth).[34]

Narrativizing Angles
  The shots from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) in Figure 8.19 are reverse-angle shots, which we defined in Chapter 5.2 as shots taken from 90 degrees to 180 degrees from the opposite side of a subject. In fact, Hitchcock effects two successive reverse angles in this two-shot sequence, which we’ve broken down into three images. Images 1 and 2 belong to a single shot/frame: as the character descends a flight of stairs, the camera pans in order to keep her in the frame. Image 2, therefore, is not, technically, a reverse-angle shot. The effect of the panning shot, however, which depends upon and draws our attention to the manipulation of the camera, reminds us that the point of view in both images has been usurped by the director. Note, too, that both Image 1 and Image 3 (the lastter a reverse-angle shot effected by a direct cut) seem to set up a point-of-view character but then decline to show us what she sees. Psycho is all about the peril that comes upon victims who do not see it in time—and which, in fact, even the viewer perceives only indistinctly. Throughout the film (this sequence occurs toward the very end), Hitchcock has developed a cinematic strategy designed to convey the sense of a world that’s a dangerous place because dire events occur with sudden unpredictability.

See the moving picture


            Ladies Skirts Nailed to a Fence,

          Bamforth Co., Great Britain, 1899

Straddling the Fence: Early Reverse Angles
  According to Salt, a film entitled Ladies Skirts Nailed to a Fence (also known as Women’s Rights), made by the Bamforth Company in 1899, is the earliest instance of a “cut within a scene without any real change in scale or closeness of shot and with strict time continuity”—in other words, a proto-reverse–angle shot.[35] Laidies Skirts shows two women (actually actors in drag) conversing so intently in front of a fence that they fail to notice two boys who sneak up behind them and, from the opposite side of the fence, nail down their skirts. The “reverse angle,” however, is achieved theatrically rather than cinematically: rather than moving the camera from one side of the fence to the other, the Bamforth director simply moved his actors to the opposite side of the prop fence (Figure 8.20).[36]

In The Other Side of the Hedge, a two-shot film directed by Lewin Fitzhamon for Cecil Hepworth in 1905, we get a truer reverse-angle shot. Accompanied by a chaperone, two young lovers are picnicking on the grass in front of a hedge. The chaperone demands that they sit on either side of her and then settles down for a nap. The couple then retreats to the other side of the hedge. When the chaperone wakes to check on them, she sees that although they’ve moved to the other side, the distance between their hats, which are visible above the hedge, ensures propriety. A reverse angle to the other side reveals that the lovers, having placed their respective hats on strategically distanced poles, are happily embracing.

See the moving picture


  Lewin Fitzhamon/Cecil Hepworth,The Other

       Side of the Hedge, Great Britain, 1905

Both of these films exhibit the penchant for generic diversity common in the cinema of attractions. Hedge gives a tame burlesque twist to the kind of naughty parable that undoubtedly goes back to the Middle Ages; Laidies Skirts tries to embellish the genre of the bad boy-antic with a visual gimmick.

Salt reports “no consolidated development in the use of cutting to different angles within a scene before 1906,” although the technique appears occasionally in such chase comedies as Alf Collins’ The Runaway Match (1903), in which it’s used to cut between two cars in a chase scene.[37] Salt also cites Caught in the Undertow, a 1902 Biograph remake of Edison’s Life Rescue at Long Branch. The Biograph version uses direct cuts instead of dissolves, joining separate shots to form a continuous scene by cutting from a long shot of the rescue to a closer shot of the resuscitation efforts. The cut, however, shifts our perspective in a straight line down the axis of the camera. Granted, there would be no pressing need to shift our angle or perspective on the action—much less to reverse it—but the habit of cutting straight down the camera axis would have to be broken before such techniques as the reverse-angle shot could become staples in the art of scenic dissection. According to Salt, it would be approximately ten years before that happened.[38]


closeup (CU)   Shot taken with the camera quite close to the object, revealing only a detail

direct cut   Unmediated transition from one image to another

dissolve   Technique of fading out of one shot and fading into the next, often resulting in the superimposition of the two images

extreme closeup (ECU)   Shot that isolates a detail (such as something held in a hand) or a feature of a human face

extreme long shot (ELS)   Shot used for bird’s-eye and other distant views

insert   Closeup detailing an object or a part of an actor’s body other than the face

long shot (LS)   Shot taken at a considerable distance from the object, usually depicting a human figure that’s not as tall as the height of the screen

medium shot (MS)   Shot that brings the object closer than the long shot but not as close as the closeup

overlapping action   Repeating all or part of the same action in two successive shots


[1] “Film Form, 1900-06,” Sight and Sound 47 (Summer 1978), pp. 148-53.

[2] Roberta Pearson, “Early Cinema,” in The Oxford History of World Cinema, ed. Geoffrey Nowell Smith (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996), p. 17.

[3] “Early Cinema,” p. 19.

[4] “Film Form,” p. 149.

[5] For Figure 8.1, see James Monaco, How to Read a Film: The Art, Technology, Language, History and Theory of Film and Media (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977), p. 191. On the evolution and frequency of the dissolve in American cinema, see James E. Cutting, Kaitlin L. Brunick, and Jordan E. DeLong, “The Changing Poetics of the Dissolve in Hollywood Film,” Empirical Studies of the Arts 29:2 (2011), pp. 149-69, at (accessed June 17, 2016). On the metaphorical uses of the dissolve, see Jani Scandura, Down in the Dumps: Place, Modernity, American Depression (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 2008), pp. 204-08. On the significance of the dissolve in the pre-World War II German horror film, see Claire Cisco King, “Imagining the Abject: The Ideological Use of the Dissolve,” in Horror Film: Creating and Marketing Fear, ed. Steffen Hantke (Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2004), pp. 21-34.

[6] See Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1990), pp. 325, 326; Musser, “The Innovators 1900-1910: Time after Time,” Sight and Sound (NS) 9:3 (1999), pp. 16-18, at (accessed June 17, 2016). For further discussion of “temporal repitition” in How They Do Things in the Bowery and other Porter films, see esp. Chapter 4.2; see also Biographical Sketch 4.2.

[7] On the “logic of space and time” in Williamson’s Fire!, see Chapter 5.1; on “temporal repetition” and “nonlinear continuity” in Porter’s Life of an American Fireman, see Chapter 4.2.

[8] See David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985), esp. pp. 157-63, 231-36. For a discussion of how “classical continuity conventions” facilitate the brain’s perception of physical space, see Todd Berliner and Dale J. Cohen, “The Illusion of Continuity: Active Perception and the Classical Editing System,” Journal of Film and Video 63:1 (2011), pp. 44-63. To see how “specialized mechanisms in higher-order perceptual processing regions” help to preserve the perception of spatiotemporal continuity even when onscreen imagery depends on “spatiotemporal discontinuities,” see Joseph P. Magliano and Jeffrey M. Zacks, “The Impact of Continuity Editing in Narrative Film on Event Segmentation,” Cognitive Science 35:8 (2011), pp. 1489-1517, at (accessed June 17, 2016). In “The Attentional Theory of Cinematic Continuity,” Projections 6:1 (2012), pp. 1-27, Tim J. Smith argues for “the critical role” of visual attention “in the perception of continuity across cuts.”

[9] “Film Form,” p. 150.

[10] This illustration is adapted from Nicholas A. Vardac, Stage to Screen (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1949), p. 32; it’s recounted by Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema, p. 204.

[11] The Classical Hollywood Cinema, p. 204.

[12] On the influence of shooting on “little open-air stages” on the British chase-and-rescue film, see Rachael Low and Roger Manvell, The History of the British Film 1896-1906 (1948; rpt. London: Unwin Brothers, 1973), p. 47. See also Roy Armes, A Critical History of the British Cinema (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978), esp. pp. 21-26; Michael Chanan, The Dream That Kicks: The Prehistory and Early Years of Cinema in Britain (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), p. 247.

[13] Marcel Martin, Le Langage cinématographique (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1962); quoted by Ralph Stephenson and Jean R. Debrix, The Cinema as Art, rev. ed. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), p. 55.

[14] On the cinema of James Williamson, see Chapter 5.1.

[15] The Classical Hollywood Cinema, p. 13.

[16] The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 375-76, 152-54.

[17] On Personal and How a French Nobleman Got a Wife... and the cinema of attractions, see Chapter 5.2.

[18] For Figure 8.9, see Musser, The Transformation of Cinema, pp. 385-86, 394-96, 458, 476.

[19] “Film Form,” p. 150.

[20] See William K. Everson, American Silent Film (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 22, 227.

[21] See Musser, The Transformation of Cinema, p. 378.

[22] See Richard Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1994), pp. 109-12.

[23] “Film Form,” p. 150.

[24] See Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town, p. 118.

[25] See Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town, pp. 118-19.

[26] See Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema, p. 203. On The Story the Biograph Told and A Search for Evidence, see Paul Young, The Cinema Dreams Its Rivals: Media Fantasy Films from Radio to the Internet (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2006), pp. 35-39, at (accessed June 17, 2016).

[27] See Musser, The Transformation of Cinema, p. 345.

[28] These definitions are adapted principally from Karel Reisz and Gavin Millar, The Technique of Film Editing, 2nd ed. (New York: Hastings House, 1968).

[29] See Salt, “Film Form,” p. 150.

[30] See Simon Popple and Joe Kember, Early Cinema: From Factory Gate to Dream Factory (London: Wallflower Press, 2004), pp. 96-97. See also Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 37-38; Chanan, The Dream That Kicks, p. 295.

[31] Reisz and Millar, The Technique of Film Editing, p. 216.

[32] Pearson, “Early Cinema,” p. 20.

[33] See Richard Abel, The Red Rooster Scare: Making Cinema American, 1900-1910 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1999), pp. 15-17.

[34] “Film Form,” p. 150. On the emblematic shot, which has occasioned a good deal of historical and theoretical discussion, see esp. Noël Burch, “A Primitive Mode of Representation?” in Life to Those Shadows, ed. and trans. Ben Brewster (London: BFI Publishing, 1990), pp. 186-201; rpt. in Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, ed. Thomas Elsaesser with Adam Barker (London: BFI Publishing, 1990), pp. 220-27.

See also: Per Persson, Understanding Cinema: A Psychological Theory of Moving Imagery (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003), pp. 118-21; Charlie Keil, Early American Cinema in Transition: Story, Style, and Filmmaking, 1907-1913 (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2001), pp. 167-69; Donald Fairservice, Film Editing: History, Theory, and Practice: Looking at the Invisible (Manchester, UK: Manchester Univ. Press, 2001), pp. 54-55, at (accessed June 17, 2016); Scott Bukatman, “Spectacle, Attractions and Visual Pleasure,” in The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, ed. Wanda Strauven (Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press, 2006), pp. 79-80, at (accessed June 17, 2016); Gustavo Mercado, The Filmmaker’s Eye: Learning (and Breaking) the Rules of Cinematic Composition (London: Taylor & Francis, 2013), p. 107, at (accessed June 17, 2016); Susan Hayward, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts (2000; rpt. London and New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 98, at (accessed June 17, 2016).

[35] “Film Form,” p. 151.

[36] On Ladies Skirts Nailed to a Fence, see Ian Christie, The Last Machine: Early Cinema and the Birth of the Modern World (London: British Film Institute, 1994), p. 81; Adrian Garvey, “Women’s Rights,” in Britain, Directory of World Cinema (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2012), pp. 110-11, at (accessed June 17, 2016); Michael Brooke, “Women’s Rights (1899),” Screenonline (British Film Institute, 2003-14), at (accessed June 17, 2016); Fairservice, Film Editing, p. 21, at (accessed June 17, 2016); Joe Kember, “Bamforth, James (1842-?),” Screenonline (British Film Institute, 2003-14), at (accessed June 17, 2016); Kember, “Bamforth and Co.,” Screenonline (British Film Institute, 2003-14), at (accessed June 17, 2016).

[37] “Film Form,” p. 151.

[38] “Film Form,” p. 151.

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