Advanced Video Camera and Editing

Editing in Early Cinema

In 1888, the famous inventor, Thomas Edison, commissioned a young laboratory assistant named William Kennedy Laurie Dickson to develop the first motion picture camera. Edison envisioned the camera as a kind of "home entertainment machine" in which motion pictures would be accompanied by sound. Actually, the motion picture camera was invented as an accessory to a sound recording device and not for its own sake.

Other entrepreneurs soon followed, and so began attempts to experiment with motion picture cameras. The first moving pictures were projected in small boxes with a viewing screen for individual exhibition. But other inventors realised the commercial potential for projecting films onto bigger screens for a mass audience.

The brothers, August and Louis Lumiere, are credited for the being the first to achieve theatrical projection to an audience on 22 March 1895 in Paris, France. The sale of their projection devices that followed led to the first careers in motion pictures.

Compared to today's standards, many of the earliest films appear quite primitive. The cameras were large and cumbersome, and couldn't be moved easily to go on location. It was always much easier to simply turn them on and let them record whatever was in front of the lens.

Many of these early films consisted of unedited, continuous footage of actual events, called "actualities." Other events were staged, but always the laws of empirical reality were obeyed. That is, the scene that took place before the camera was always treated as we would see it with the unblinking eye. The camera was never permitted to record more than what could be seen by a single individual in one fixed spot... or by an audience seated in a theatre.

Lumiere Brothers, Arrival of a Train at a Station (1896)

The Lumiere Brothers began projecting their series of films in a rented basement room at the Grand Cafe on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. The presentations are alleged to the first time an audience paid to see a film screening. One of these films, L'arrivee d'un train en gare de la Ciolat both fascinated and horrified audiences. The film showed the arrival of a train at a station, but audiences are said to have stampeded at the sight of the locomotive barreling toward them from the distance. The Lumiere Brothers called these films "actualities" or documentary views where the static camera simply records whatever action is in front of it from beginning to end. Other early films consisted of vaudeville performances, but it wasn't until the turn of the century when the narrative potential of film was discovered.

Georges Melies, A Trip to the Moon (1902)

Loosely based on the Jules Verne classic, Le voyage dans la lune, Melies' film is shot in a series of tableux where every scene consists of a single wide shot that plays out to its logical conclusion.
Melies never once allowed the camera to move, framing the shot in what is called a proscenium, where the shot is framed similar to the point of view from an audience sitting directly in front of the stage. Each of the 30 scenes in the film is connected by a dissolve. The entire film plays out to nearly 14 minutes.

In these early days of film, the fundamental unit of editing was not the shot, but the scene. 
Edwin Porter, The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Porter is credited with discovering the Shot. Unlike Melies, The Great Train Robbery connects scenes using cuts instead of dissolves. Porter would, also, cut away from a scene before it reached its logical conclusion. The Great Train Robbery is just over 12 minutes consisting of 14 shots. Other innovations include back projection as seen in the first shot when the moving train appears outside the telegraph operator's window. Another example appears in Shot 3 where the landscape rushes past the train door. Porter also includes panning shots and Shot 8 uses a tilt as the bandits leave the train. The Great Train Robbery is also noted for the cinema's first appearance of the close-up shot, although many film historians consider it was used as a gimmick rather than to advance the story dramatically. In this shot (Shot 14), the leader of the bandits actually appears in medium close-up as he fires his gun at the camera.

The fundamental unit of editing is the shot where each shot is connected by straight cuts.

D.W. Griffith, The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Griffith is considered by film historians to be the Father of Modern Cinema. He directed The Birth of a Nation, considered one of the most influential films of all time for its cinematic technique of using close-ups and parallel action. Griffith alternated wide medium and close-up shots within the same scene. The use of cross-cutting, or parallel editing, shows separate events that happen simultaneously. For example, in the scene of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, Griffith used 55 shots, some held for mere seconds, to show the relationship between Lincoln, his bodyguard, the audience and the assassin John Wilkes Booth, coming together in the final moment. Griffith is also well-known for innovating elaborate chase sequences by cutting the shots shorter and shorter to increase the tension.

The video above is an analysis of parallel editing by filmmaker Kewin Lan. He uses examples from D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation as well as from other films including Christopher Nolan's Inception.

Decreasing the length of the shots increases the tension.
Emeritus Professor of Statistical Archaeology, Nottingham Trent University, UK, Mike Baxter, wrote this thesis on D.W. Griffith's cutting patterns. Click on the link here: Cutting patterns in D.W. Griffith's silent feature films.
Sergie Eisenstein, Strike! (1925)
Russian director Eisenstein was influenced highly by Griffith's films. He is called by film historians the Father of the Montage for his work on juxtaposing symbolic or metaphoric images within the narrative of his films. An early example of his montage is seen in the film Strike! when oppressed factory workers and their families are massacred by the police. Eisenstein inserts shots of cattle being slaughtered in an abattoir as a visual metaphor for the atrocity that takes place.

The scene below is graphic

Orson Welles, Citizen Kane (1941)
This film transformed the world of cinema, using straight cuts for shock effect and lingering dissolves to connect scenes. The dissolve pattern was intricate, involving a combination of lighting and effects: first, the background lights on the set would fade down followed by the foreground lights. Then, in the next shot, the background lights would fade up followed by the lights in the foreground. The example below shows the opening of the movie with a dissolve that takes viewers outside the castle Xanadu to the bedroom interior where Kane utters his famous last words.