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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.
If you want to edit your cine reels without cutting into your precious film, get your reels digitised with Digital Converters. To start your editing journey, click the link here.
Substandard is a harsh review of 3-inch reels. There is beauty in watching 4-minute home films recorded on small reels, and it stems from the beginning of cinema when moving images began.
Recently, it has irked me as to why 3-inch reels are still a popular form of media to have digitised. They are so short and meek in their prowess. Especially compared to the marathon-long VHS tapes or touch-of-a-button, high-definition filming available on our phones. I even enjoy watching these jittery, discoloured and (mostly) silent videos — even those that are overexposed and covered in dirt.
Something is enchanting in these incredibly short, moving images of documented life. I can only liken it to the beginning of cinema itself. When films were called moving images, and the spectacle was in the newness of video technology itself.
It isn’t easy to pinpoint where the art of moving images began due to many people creating video technology around the same time. Yet, Thomas Edison’s invention of the kinetoscope in 1891 definitely began the capitalisation of a spectator watching a moving image.
The kinetoscope’s intimate and self-contained showing of moving images paved the way to why home filming became popular. It was a personable attraction designed for one person to view at a time. The kinetoscope displayed its films inside a cabinet with a window for spectators to peer inside and watch the show. The small size of the attraction meant the kinetoscope was installed in many tourist hotspots like amusement parks and hotels.
Well, Edison genuinely believed that moving image technology would not make as much money if larger groups could watch the show at the same time. A faux pas on his part since cinemas and television are incredibly successful even to this day.
Yet, his belief did touch upon one part of the truth. That the technology of moving images is incredibly personal to the consumer. There is a love for creating films yourself, whether this is documentations of your life or Oscar-worthy dramatizations. The beauty of 3-inch reels is in the hands of the creator.
Yet, this is only part of the answer.
The second answer to the question is the content of these moving image films.
The Lumière Brothers began the worldwide attraction of moving images as a spectacle of life with their invention of the cinématographe. It was a lightweight camera and projector that displayed short videos for audiences to engross themselves.
One of the most famous moving image clips was of a train arriving at La Ciotat station. Let’s be honest; if this video were at a cinema today, it would not entice audiences to flock to the screens. (Or maybe it would if it meant we were out of lockdown?) But, back in the 19th Century, the film’s novelty shocked many audiences, with some spectators hiding behind their chairs in fear of the oncoming train hitting them!
The novelty of watching menial moments on a screen captivated audiences and later introduced the market for home video cameras. Soon, everyone was documenting their own ordinary moments of life. There was a captivation in watching the variety of lives and cultures displayed on 3-inch reels. Their rawness in content and novel technology is a spectacle to watch even to this day.
The sharp cuts and abruptness to 3-inch reels can feel like they lack in substance. Yet, similar to how the Lumière Brothers captivated audiences with their short clips, which lacked narrative, 3-inch reels have a familiar charm.
“Rather than a development that links the past with the present in such a way as to define specific anticipation of the future […] the attraction seems limited to a sudden burst of presence.” – Tom Gunning
Tom Gunning created the term “Cinema of Attraction” to categorise moving image cinema before the development of narrative storylines. These early shows enticed audiences with surprise through momentary appearances of moving images.
Much the same, home videos filmed on 3-inch reels have a “sudden burst of presence”. They contain 4-minute time capsules of the present. Most of the reels were documentation of life that lacked the temporal structure shown in films we see in later years. The videos would have people interacting with the camera or a voyeuristic approach where the viewer sees a glimpse into the camera holder’s life.
The beginning of home filming were private spectacles. They encapsulated moments in time and attracted others to watch what the camera holder had experienced. The beauty of 3-inch reels are in their abruptness: they erupt with the presence of a time once had and spilt with the ordinary person’s intimate documentation of the familiar.