The beauty of film digitisation means that we can now edit our cine reels without cutting or damaging the film. Mistakes can be unmade, decisions can be adjusted, and colour can be manipulated to our heart’s content. However, the ease of editing was not quite so simple when motion pictures began.
The French magician George Méliès introduced the skill of film editing in 1896. His stage shows constantly reinvented the art of illusion through tricks of the camera. Méliès’ inspiration for creating motion pictures began after witnessing one of the Lumière brothers’ cinematograph shows. His short productions paved the way in film editing as he invented jump cuts, dissolves, double exposure illusions and splicing.
One of the first editing techniques happened by accident when Méliès was filming the streets of Paris. His camera jammed whilst filming a bus entering a tunnel in Paris. When his camera began working again, his film had jumped to capturing a hearse entering the tunnel.
The illusion of the bus magically transforming into a hearse gave Méliès an idea. He could manipulate films by stopping the camera, changing the scenery, and start filming again. By cutting partway through a single shot, Méliès introduced the jump cut. It is a valuable technique for showing a passage of time in a film narrative or creating optical tricks like a bat turning into a man in Le Manoir du Diable (The Haunted Castle, 1896).
However, when restarting the camera after a jump cut, the camera would create a light burst before returning to the original lighting. Plus, the frame rate would be different due to the camera needing to be hand-cranked. So, to maintain continuity and fluidity in frame rates and lighting, Méliès manipulated the film reel through splicing.
Thankfully, Méliès already had experience in splicing before he discovered jump cuts. Historians have examined his work and found he had refined his motion pictures by trimming the beginning and end of each of his cuts. However, Méliès was not the first person to introduce splicing.
Thomas Edison invented the splicing technique when creating a stop motion film in 1895 of The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. He spliced together the shots of Mary’s decapitation by cutting the frame after the axe strikes her neck and joining the shot with the frame of her head rolling on the floor. The following year, Méliès used the same technique to create the magician’s illusion of a lady’s body disappearing in The Vanishing Lady (1896).
Before film digitisation and auto-stabilisation in editing programs, splicing was much more difficult due to physically cutting the film. The frames had to be trimmed and rejoined together carefully to ensure the reel plays seamlessly between cuts. It involved trial and error as the director could not easily control the frame rates and lighting.
Méliès’ technical abilities expanded after his innovative jump cut and practice in splicing. He began using photographic techniques to create illusions during filming after realising that film reels could be stopped partway through shots. Méliès implemented the double exposure technique by shooting a scene and rolling back his reel to the beginning and filming over the original film.
This technique was a favourite of his to make films where he appeared on the camera twice. He would use mattes to cover parts of the film emulsion to film two things happening in the same shot.
In Le Portrait Mysterieux, you can see how Méliès covered up the frame with a matte for his first shot and then rolled back the camera and covered everywhere outside the frame to film his second shot. By using double exposure, he created the illusion of his character interacting with himself.
Finally, one of Méliès’ most effective editing techniques is the dissolve. This film transition softened transitions between scene changes. Unlike the jump cut criticised for its jarring shift in image, the dissolve helps the viewer understand the temporal continuity in a film narrative. Méliès would commonly use fade-in and outs to establish the beginning and end of the film.
Méliès created the dissolve by using double exposure between the beginning and end of two shots to soften the cut. It meant he could avoid damaging the film between shots by using dissolves instead. Dissolves were hugely beneficial for audiences to understand the continuity of a narrative. For Méliès, it meant that he could minimise his jump cuts to only illusionary trick shots created to surprise his audience.
In the early 20th century, George Méliès’ innovative editing techniques inspired many filmmakers to experiment with film narratives. Whereas today, the origins of these techniques are a humbling reminder of how excellent film digitisation services are today.
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