The Fine Art of Manipulation

         It was started to settle a bet. Did horses take all four hooves off the ground when they ran? Today characters in film can be shown from any angle in a single scene; fantastic beasts and the stuff of legends are created with the click of a mouse. However, it has taken eighty years and the minds, blood, sweat and tears of genius to get where we are. If not for the accomplishments of individuals in camera movement, light, setting, etc, cinema would have died long ago, a stagnant, antiquated art form.

         One of the major contributions to cinema was developing camera work. Cinema started with a single, very large camera standing at the fixed point capturing one short event. The French called these films “realitiés” or in their language “actualités.” Although the work of the Lumière Brothers was groundbreaking at the time, as it is rumored that the audience was genuinely afraid because the steam engine seemed to be actually corralling towards them, the camera was still fixed and showed but a limited point of view.

         Georges Méliès created fantastic sets and told a story that previously the world experienced through novels and stage plays in his 1902 Le Voyage dans la lune; however, he still only had the capacity to tell his story better through these sets and his use of light—not with the camera.

         Subsequent directors because of the bulkiness of the camera began to develop editing techniques, such as parallel editing, intercutting and using stock footage to make up for the look of good camera placement. It was not until D. W. Griffith that American audiences got a taste of the mobile camera. Griffith pioneered this effect in his controversial film The Birth of a Nation wherein he put his camera in the back of a moving car to following the squadron of Ku Klux Klan cavalrymen as they raced toward victory. For the first time the camera was used as an expressive tool equally as valuable and mobile as the actors.

         It was around this time too, that mercury lamps were invented and used in order to give the director a greater control over expressive lighting in a scene. Both of these innovations were important in creating what is known today as the concept of intra frame narrationism.

In his next series of films Griffith began to use panning, lilting and extended the mobility of his camera to create an elevator movement that added to the expressive quality of film.

         Directors who have utilized Griffith’s innovations include Alfred Hitchcock in his 1946 film Notorious. We see it as the camera moves up and down the sweeping staircase of the villain’s mansion. In addition, Orson Welles used a crane to use his camera omnisciently in one of the opening scenes of Citizen Kane wherein the camera goes from the roof of the restaurant to the inside without any cutting taking place.

         Settings and set design also have played an extremely important role in the narrative nature of film. The Italians were some of the first to create big, sweeping sets in the elaborate costuming with an extreme attention to detail. One of the biggest grossing films in Europe in the early period of cinema and which inspired D. W. Griffith’s Judith of Bethusela, was the Italian masterpiece Quo Vadis, directed in 1912 by Enrico Guanzoni. Part of the drawback to what inspired the use of big sets and historical costumes was the Film d’Art movement wherein the camera again became stuck to a fixed point. People who went to movies saw history come alive in front of them. The artistic expression associated with the setting developed more during, believe it or not, the German Expression period. Directors such as Wiene, Rye, and Fritz Lang used simply constructed sets designed and painted to convey a deep sense of emotional darkness. Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors would not have been rated one of the scariest movies had it not been for the dark, dank castle with lugubrious shadows and flickering, suspenseful lighting.

         It is though tweaking of lighting and camera work that we have directors that we consider master. It is so because of these innovations that cinema holds the power over the public that it does today.

Erin Lane

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