The History of Cutting – The Birth of Cinema and Continuity Editing

[Class Assembling] This FilmmakerIQ lesson is sponsored by Blackmagic
Design, creating the world’s highest quality solutions
for feature film production post production and
television broadcast industries. Hi – John Hess from Filmmaker and today
we’ll look at the birth of Film Editing the origins of the cinematic language and
the beginning of continuity editing. It’s hard for modern audiences who are grew
up with video to imagine the spectacle of the first film screening
in the basement of the Grand Cafe in Paris in 1895 by the Lumiere Brothers. This film – Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory
– as un-extraordinary as it looks today, marvelled audiences as something completely
unseen before. In the year of film’s infancy, the dancing
shadows and the machines behind them were the main attraction. The content of the film was not so important,
they were essentially animated photographs. But one audience member in the Grand Cafe
screening saw much more potential: a professional magician by the name of Georges
Melies who owned and operated the Theatre Robert-Houdin. He attempted to buy a Cinematographe machine
for ten thousand Francs. But the Lumieres saw him as potential competition
and refused. Unphased, Melies, who had also been a mechanic,
bought a English made projector called the Animatograph for 1,000 Francs,
reversed the mechanics and created his own camera. Within a few months of the Grand Cafe screening,
Melies was making and showing his own films as part of his stage show. In the fall 1896, Melies was in Paris shooting
a bus coming out of a tunnel when his camera jammed in the middle of the
take. When he got the camera working again, the bus was gone and replaced by a hearse. When Melies developed the film, he discovered
a startling and magical thing – the bus turned into the hearse right there
on the screen – something we would call the Jump Cut. Melies put this discovery to work right away
– using jump cuts in his films to create disappearing and reappearing effects. Through his still photography and magic lantern
experience Melies also introduced editing devices like fade-in and fade-out, overlapping dissolves,
and stop motion photography. Through these techniques and showmanship Milies
began to push the medium of film from mundane single action shots
into a narrative story telling vehicle. But Milies was very much grounded in the theater
mode of thinking. His narratives were comprised of tableaus
– detailed scenes all shot from the same angle – like a viewer who had the perfect theater
seat. In the 500 or so films he created, Melies
never once moved the camera – even going so far as to mount the set and
moon on elaborate dollies for this famous shot from The Voyage to the Moon instead of moving the camera – which would
have been much more practical. Across the Atlantic Ocean, another key figure
was getting his start in the infant filmmaking industry: Edwin S. Porter. Porter started off as a Vitascope Projectionist,
setting up the first Edison projection in Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York City
in April of 1896. For a few years he operated his own equipment
until 1900 when he joined Edison Manufacturing company and became head of production for Edison’s
Skylight studio in 1901. For the next five years he served as Edison’s
go to director and cameraman. Porter’s projectionist background gave him
some unique insight into film. Greatly influenced by the work of Milies especially
1902’s A Trip To the Moon – often duplicating it for distribution for Edison albeit illegally Porter decided to try his hand at a narrative
film with 1903’s “Life of an American Fireman”. Firemen were common subject matter for early
films but what Porter did was rather unique. He took stock footage from the large Edison
Library and spliced them together with staged scenes to create a fictional narrative. Porter was still stuck in the Tableaux mentality
– constructing each shot as a complete scene. Temporal overlaps, where action is duplicated
from one shot to the other, were common – as in this opening shot where the firemen
all rush down the pole followed by a shot from the bottom of the pole before
the firemen land… to our modern sensibilities would be like
a mini flashback. Porter does this again in the fire rescue
– first showing the drama from the inside of the building then moving
outside and showing the same rescue from the perspective of the firemen. This editing looks long and clunky to our
modern sensibilities but the overlap was acceptable to contemporary audiences who were still amazed
by these flicker machines and looking for animated photographs. But the novelty would wear off and Porter
himself would push the narrative envelope a bit further by the end of 1903 with his
landmark film: The Great Train Robbery. Here Porter is more decisive with his cutting.
Although each scene is still one master take, he cuts straight between scenes without using
fades or dissolves and, most importantly, without letting the scene
reach it’s logical end. For example – Porter cuts out of this shot
before the train has cleared the frame. This departure shows how filmmakers were beginning
to see editing’s ability to compress time in favor of impact over reality. Porter was beginning to forge a new cinematic
language. Through his work we start to see that the
most basic unit of cinema was NOT the scene as Milies and his contemporaries thought,
but the shot. Meaning came not only in the spatial arrangement
of objects and actors in a frame like in theater and in still photography – but in the way that shots are arranged in
time. But like Georges Milies before him, Porter
would only take editing so far. Cinema would require another artist to build
on their work and expand the editing vocabulary And in one of those serendipitous moments
of history, Porter would inspire just that artist. In 1908, just before leaving Edison to start
his own production company, Portered hired a young starving actor to fill
the lead part in “Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest” This would end up being the first break of
a 40-year-career of one David Wark Griffith. The seventh child of a Confederate Army Colonel
from a rural district of Kentucky, David Wark Griffith tried everything – from hop picking, selling encyclopedias
door-to-door to acting. His life-long ambition was to be a writer
falling in love with Victorian style of literature especially that of Dickens but his poems and plays were unremarkable. Acting on advice from a friend, Griffith tried
his hand at writing scenarios for movie companies. Working under the stage name of Lawrence Griffith,
he submitted an adapted play to none other than Edwin S. Porter.
Porter rejected it for having too many scenes, but hired the young handsome Griffith to star
in one of his films. That’s when the Filmmaking bug bit… Griffith
found a position at Biograph, a production company struggling in debt and looking for
directors. After directing “The Adventures of Dollie”
which was shot in 2 days, Griffith was given a $45-a-week director’s contract. Under contract ot Biograph, Griffith would
make over 450 films from 1908-1911, pushing cinema out of the primitive tableau mentality
and into a multi shot medium we would now recognize. One of Griffith’s first inventions was the
“cut-in” first used in “The Greaser’s Gauntlet” in 1908 – just four months after
his first film for Biograph. Griffith cut from a medium long shot of a
hanging tree to a full shot in the middle of the scene to emphasize the emotional impact of an exchange
between two actors – A brand new concept.
Griffith continued to experiment with alternating shot lengths using multiple camera setups to create a scene through what’s called
continuity editing. Continuity editing is cutting between shots
with the purpose of maintaining smooth sense of continuous space and time. With multiple camera setups being used, the
180 degree rule evolved out of practice. Griffith as well as his contemporaries discovered
that if you kept the camera on one side of the axis of action
(that’s the imaginary line where movements, eyeline occurs), you can avoid continuity problems of confusing
geography when cutting from one angle to another. Griffith’s next invention in editing was
one that would become his favorite – intercutting or crosscutting –
bouncing between two different scenes in a parallel action which he first put to use
on After Many Years based on the poem Enoch Arden
showing a shipwrecked man and the woman he left at home. Now this is commonplace in today’s cinema
language but wholly new at the time. Biograph’s managers thought the experiment
was dangerous and would be confusing to the public, but Griffith stood firm, likening the technique to the writing style
of Dickens. It paid off, as After Many Years was hailed
as a masterpiece. Griffith upped the ante again in 1909 with
“The Lonely Villa” intercutting between 3 parallel actions – a woman held up in a house, robbers trying
to break in, and a husband rushing home to rescue. Griffith amps up the tension by continously
building up the tempo of the cuts faster and faster to an ultimate cinematic climax. Through varying the spatial distance with
long medium and close up shots and the temporary length of shots,
Griffith began to establish the tenets of classic Hollywood continuity editing. Through practical problem solving and experimentation,
he and contemporary filmmakers who often copied the style, brought about concepts like the establishing shot, reverse shots, matching
eyelines – everything we think about in terms of continuity editing. By 1911 Griffith was ready to pursue bigger
and more ambitious projects. More ambitious than the managers of Biograph could stomach. He left and after a stint with Mutual Pictures,
Griffith stuck out on his own. In 1914, Griffith released an independent
that would be cinema’s most expensive movie ever made at that time but also the first world wide blockbuster:
“The Birth of a Nation” A major hit, but condemed as racist even during
it’s time, The Birth of a Nation was the culmination of all of Griffith’s editing
and cinematic techniques. But the pro-Ku Klux Klan film didn’t sit
well with many, Censorship boards requested alterations, some
states flat out banned the film as riots broke out at premieres in Boston, Atlanta and Chicago. A born and raised Confederate Kentucky Colonel’s
son Griffith couldn’t understand the charge of racism and saw all this as an attack on him personally – he responded by publishing a pamphlet: The
Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America, vigorously defending his film against what
he thought was Intolerance. In 1916 he set out to make a massive epic
decrying just that – Intolerance. Intercutting 4 separate narratives, Intolerance
cost nearly 2.5 million dollars to produce, sinking most of the profits from Birth of
a Nation which only cost $115,000. The first cut ran 8 hours before Griffith
came to his senses and trimmed it to a tidy 3 and a half hours. But that wasn’t enough – Intolerance bombed
at the box office. Though Griffith would still go on to direct
26 more features he would die still paying off the debt on Intolerance. D.W. Griffith remains a controversial figure
of history but he almost singlehandedly invented the conventions of editing that would establish the continuity style of cutting that is still
very much with us today. His greatest artistic and financial gamble
failed but Intolerance was not destined for obscurity. Instead – it would be key to the development
of a new style of editing devised by Soviet Filmmakers who studied and picked apart Griffith’s
editing style. A new theory of editing they called montage
which we’ll explore in the next lesson. Even in the birth of cinema, the first 20
years of filmmaking, the history of editing has been the story of
filmmakers learning from each other and adding their own voice into the mix. Cinema was becoming a language, and editing
is the syntax. Learn it and use it – go make something great, I’m John Hess and I’ll see you at


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