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How do Universities earn money from studying films? A subject thought to be a modern debate; it may come as a surprise to you that film theory has existed for over 100 years. Thankfully, with the help of digital film transfer, anyone across the globe can study the history of cinema now. But, you may be wondering who you have to thank for Cats (2019) being in the same debate as Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss?

Well, it all began in Moscow in 1919.

Welcome to the Russian Revolution, and the first-ever film school has opened in Moscow. Its purpose was to teach students how to edit existing reels into propaganda films. Here, Lev Kuleshov, a director and film theorist, taught.

Due to the revolution, there was a lack of funding from the government to produce films. But, this didn’t stop Kuleshov and his students from studying cinema on paper and using silent cinema archives to assemble new movies. However, Kuleshov’s access to these reels was a lethal decision. He destroyed much of this footage from cutting and splicing the cine films for his study.

Yet, every cloud has a silver lining, and it is within this study, Kuleshov introduced the Soviet montage theory – and the beginning of film theory itself.

Lev Kuleshov’s Experiments

Lev Kuleshov’s love for cinema was all in the editing. In 1921, he began conducting experiments to prove that montage (the assembly and editing of shots) was the most critical step in making a film. He studied Western cinema, particularly D.W. Griffith‘s cross-cutting to build a narrative. Kuleshov even used a print of Griffith’s film Intolerance in lessons where his students rearranged the film’s shots into hundreds of combinations.

By the end of his experiments, Kuleshov had founded two critical theories: the Kuleshov effect and creative geography. He theorised that editing controls the continuity of time and space in a film. His findings also showed that the viewer is an active participant in constructing the meaning of films.

The Kuleshov Effect

A name created by film historians, the Kuleshov effect is infamous for proving that the viewer subconsciously reads a scene based on the assembly of shots. Much like studying a painting, everyone perceives the image they see before them based on their experiences in life. However, unlike a still picture, film shots can evoke varying emotions depending on the assembly of images.

To help explain, Kuleshov created a short film where he used the same shot of an actor staring into the camera and cut it with three other contrasting pictures: a bowl of soup, a dead child in a coffin and a woman seductively lying on a bed.

Source: Curator Magazine

Kuleshov showed this film to three separate audiences at his film school. His results found that the viewer’s opinion of the actor’s expression differed depending on which image they saw next to his face. For example, the audience believed the actor looked hungry when cut with the soup; he looked sad when cut with the dead child and lustful when cut with the woman lying down.

So, what’s the importance?

His experiment led to the theory that the audience has an active role in constructing meaning when watching a sequence of images. Take the shot of the dead child, for instance: since the audience equates death with sadness, when the film cuts to the video of the actor, the audience then places their feeling of sadness onto the actor’s neutral expression.

Interestingly, this led to an understanding that a director could manipulate the viewer’s interpretation of a scene by assembling shots in a particular order – a perfect trick for creating propaganda footage from existing archives.

Creative Geography

The Kuleshov effect also proved that the editing establishes the time and space within a scene. When creating his short film to explain the Kuleshov effect, he used existing footage of the actor, soup, dead girl and seductive woman. In doing so, he saw that the audience believed the man was looking at the three separate things, even though the shots were filmed at different times and places.

With that knowledge, Kuleshov began experimenting further with continuity editing by creating artificial landscapes. First, he filmed two actors in different parts of Moscow. Then, cut the shots together to make it appear like the two actors were walking towards each other.  To hammer his point home, when the actor’s met, he filmed them looking off into the distance and cut it with an image of the White House in Washington (which obviously does not exist in Moscow).

The editing leads the audience to believe the actors exist within the same setting, and the White House is within the spatial whole of the scene – even though we know that this is not possible in real life.

Kuleshov’s experiments influenced modern directors.

Another example of creative geography is in Jurassic Park when the scientists see a dinosaur for the first time. The viewer watches the characters look aghast as they look into the distance. Spielberg cuts to an image of dinosaurs roaming around the park and then cuts back to the car. Now, we all know that pastures of land filled with dinosaurs do not exist. However, as viewers, we understand that the scientists are looking at a dinosaur because Shot A shows the characters looking off in the distance and Shot B shows us a dinosaur eating leaves.

The audience reads signals through a film’s montage to make sense of space and time within scenes. Hence, directors can splice together two different landscapes and trick the audience into believing it is the same space without an establishing shot.

Soviet Montage

Kuleshov’s experimentations founded the Soviet Montage style that his student, Sergei Eisenstein, would later use. His studies concluded that the assembly of shots constructed the time, space and meaning in film. He even believed that acting was subservient to editing because editing can arouse different emotions from a viewer.

Next month, there will be an article on Kuleshov’s student Sergei Eisenstein to learn more about the Soviet montage theory! But, before then, create your own film transfer by digitising your cine reels with Digital Converters.

Welcome to the second article on film history before digital cameras and cine digitisation. In this series, we began with the basic editing techniques introduced by George Méliès in 1896. Now, we are twelve years later, and D.W. Griffith has started experimenting with camera techniques to tell a story. 

Have you ever watched a film and felt emotionally moved by the images you saw? Maybe you have cried at a movie? Or, perhaps, you felt tense whilst watching a chase sequence?

David W. Griffith is one of the earliest directors in silent cinema to emotionally captivate viewers by varying camera shots and cutting between scenes. His innovations with basic camera techniques (such as camera shots, angles and cutting) progressed moving images from a spectacle of documented life to the fictional narratives we watch in cinema today.

Not only did his early short films expose film as a new art form for personal expression, but his feature film displayed the cultural impact film can have on audiences. However, as Spiderman once said: “With power over an audience’s emotions comes responsibility for the message you promote in your films” (or something to that taste).

And Griffith used that power wrong. Really, wrong. Actually, so wrong D. W. Griffith has smeared his name from film legacy.

Griffith’s feature film, The Birth of a Nation (1915), chastised him from film history because of its profoundly racist storyline and cultural impact on America. The film helped revive the Ku Klux Klan and caused protests asking for the censorship of films. It is incredibly frustrating that this film is one of the first examples of narrative cinema emotionally moving viewers. However, it does perfectly exemplify the dangerous power well-executed camera techniques can have on film.

So, what were these camera techniques Griffith used to captivate his viewers?

The Close-Up Shot

Griffith began his directorial work at Biograph Company in 1908. His short one-reel films allowed him to experiment with varying camera shots, particularly the use of close-up shots. He intended to close the space between the camera and the actor so that the camera could capture their emotions.

“We were striving for real acting. When you saw only the small, full-length figures it was necessary to have exaggerated acting, which might be called “physical” acting, the waving of the hands and so on. The close-up enabled us to reach real acting, restraint, acting that is a duplicate of real life.”D.W. Griffith, 1914

Griffith wanted his films to replicate real life. Instead of having over-the-top acting typical in theatre and earlier silent films, he wanted the camera to tell the audience how the character was feeling. By filming closer to an actor, the audience can recognise natural emotions without the need for over-exaggeration.

However, Biograph’s executives worried that the audience would not understand the purpose of using a close-up shot of an actor’s face. Like in After Many Years (1908), executives worried the audience would interpret the close-up shot as a decapitation instead of a wife longing for her husband’s return.

The idea that a close-up shot would depict a headless person is a funny perception to us now, but at the time, no one knew how audiences would perceive different shot types. Thankfully, Griffith was right, and the intention to connect the viewer with the character’s emotions with a close-up shot worked.

The Long Shot and Moving Camera

If a close-up shot expressed a character’s emotions and heightened drama by placing the audience within the scene; then, a long shot should focus the audience’s attention away from the action and towards the scenery. Now filming a long shot during early cinema would have been fine if directors didn’t film their moving pictures like a stage show with a few magic tricks. Thankfully, Griffith understood the restraints in keeping with theatre conventions and needed a way to break the confines of staged filming.

Screenshot from Ramona 1910

Screenshot from YouTube: Ramona, 1910

In Ramona (1910), Griffith broke away from the conventions of a stage setting and used long, landscape shots of a mountainscape in the film. By filming in a natural environment, settings began to feel fluid and free. But, here is where Griffith met his next challenge: if you want the scenery to be fluid and unconfined, the camera will need to move freely with the actors. And, this would have been a difficult feat – if it wasn’t for Billy Bitzer, his expert cameraman.

Before meeting Griffith, Bitzer experimented with travelling shots (such as pans, dollies, and tracking). However, it was when working with Griffith that Bitzer’s moving camera techniques began having an impact. For example, by combining travelling shots with close-ups, Griffith could evoke sympathy for a character or tension during the action. Similarly, he learnt that changing the camera angle changes the audience’s perception of a character.

Cross-Cutting and Parallel Editing

Griffith was also a pioneer in editing. He manipulated and controlled time in movies by cross-cutting and parallel editing. Although he was not the first director to use cross-cutting – Edwin Porter built suspense with cutting in his 1903 classic, The Great Train Robbery. However, Griffith’s talented cutting did earn him the strapline “Griffith’s last-minute rescue” because of the suspense he built by alternating between scenes.

Cross-cutting is an editing technique used for continuity and building a temporal structure of a scene. A director could give more information and a sense of cause and effect in the narrative by crossing between two events happening simultaneously.

For instance, in Griffith’s The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913), cross-cutting tells the spectator that the cavalry troops are fighting the Indians to rescue the settlers trapped inside a cabin. As the scene continues, Griffith edited the cuts between the fighting and trapped settlers for a shorter and shorter time to build tension and heighten suspense.

Cross-cutting in The Battle at Elderbush Gulch

Screenshot from YouTube: Cross-cutting in The Battle at Elderbush Gulch


Later in his feature films, Griffith would alternate between multiple storylines to give more narrative information. For example, in Intolerance (1916), four storylines are separated by time: a modern story on crime, a Christian story of Jesus’ mission, an account of the Bartholomew’s Day massacre, and a story about the fall of the Babylonian Empire.

And… Fade-Out!

Finally, Griffith and Bitzer introduced the softening of light in films. One of the most famous film conventions they brought to cinema was fade-in and out. Much like Méliès’ accidental invention of the jump cut, Bitzer accidentally created the fade-in and outs:

Bitzer had built a hood for his camera that opened light to the camera lens with a handle. He had previously learnt that the camera works similar to an eye’s pupil, and by limiting the amount of light around the lens with a hood, you could soften the edges of a shot. Griffith loved this technique and wondered whether Bitzer could build a device to change the amount of light whilst filming.

So, Bitzer created a hood with a handle to adjust the size of the circle in the shot. However, the handle’s weight broke and caused the hood to encompass the lens slowly. The result was an image slowly descending to darkness – what we now know as the fade-out.

“This was just what we needed. The climax of these films was the kiss. We couldn’t linger over the embrace, for then yokels in the audience would make cat-calls. We couldn’t cut abruptly – that would be crude. The fade-out gave a really dignified touch” – Bitzer discussing The Birth of a Natioand fade-outs.

Griffith could soften the ending of films by fading the light from the camera. A convention now used widely in cinema to represent the story coming to a close. Similarly, he could introduce a scene by opening the hood to let light into the camera.

By the time Griffith released The Birth of a Nation, his camera techniques had enamoured other filmmakers. His variation of camera shots, cutting and fades established their functions in telling a film narrative and proved films could evoke emotions from an audience.

If you want to try these camera techniques, why not use a cine digitisation service to help you edit? Digital Converters is the leading cine digitisation service in the UK. Follow this link to find out more.


Classical Notes





D.W. Griffith’s and The Origins of American Film

A Million and One Nights