The History of Narrative Film
The history of narrative film is traced back to more than 100 years ago in the late 1800s. Simple basic filming devices were invented and were used during this period. Narrative films spread to all parts of the world within twenty years. The spread led to the development of complex technologies and the rise of a major industry.
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The industry became widely accepted as a form of entertainment. It attracted numerous artists, entrepreneurs, politicians, and scientists (Cook, 2004). However, the film industry has constantly been dependent on factors beyond its control. The dependency raises important questions, which include: What are the effects of technology on the filmmaking industry? How has industrialization affected the creation of narrative film?
According to Gunning (1991), the narrative of the film was the most important aspect of this art. Editing, composition, and lighting were all designed to assist the audience in understanding the story in the late 1910s. The characters in these stories were created through increased editing. In addition, performance and dialogue subtitles helped the audience in relating the images to the scenes.
Editing was increased and the distance between the cameras and the actors decreased. The change contributed to the development of the star system due to recognition of actors and the emphasis on facial expressions. Editing was used to display the internal thoughts and emotions of a character, as well as to clearly show instances of psychological intensity.
The filmmaking industry experienced a rapid growth and expansion during the first thirty years of its operation. The then unfamiliar experience quickly spread across the globe, attracting an ever growing audience in all the places it was introduced. The growth made it a very popular form of entertainment, displacing other forms of entertainment.
The rapid growth in audience led to an increase in the number of locations where films were shown, competing with opera-houses and theatres for excellence and opulence. The length of the films increased from a few minutes to hours, which controlled the world’s screens for a long time (Cook, 2004).
Among the countries credited with the invention and development of filmmaking are French, America, Germany, and British. The French and the Americans played a major role in the distribution of filmmaking in other parts of the world. They led in the development of artists and talents. Russia, Italy, and Denmark also played a role in developing filmmaking before World War I. By following a strong export policy and advancing its markets, the US became the largest consumer of films (Gunning, 1991).
Americans dominated the world’s film market by the beginning of the First World War. The American filmmaking industry continued to grow during the war, developing new technologies and strengthening its control. The US filmmaking industry moved to Hollywood and films from the new studios filled the world’s market after the First World War. Hollywood led the filmmaking industry artistically and industrially (Liesegang, 1986).
Factors Contributing to Creation of Narrative Film
The history of filmmaking began with devices and experiments designed to present images in a sequence. The earliest technology in filmmaking involved producing an illusion of continuous movement. The illusion was achieved by passing a series of pictures in quick succession in front of a light source.
Later, the moving pictures were projected on a screen. Each picture was briefly held in front of the light source and replaced by the next one. If the process was quick enough, it provided an illusion of movement, where the discontinuous pictures are perceived as continuous (Elsaesser, 1990).
Various experiments seeking to analyze the movement of pictures and their reproduction were performed. The experiments were aimed at naturally reproducing movement by showing pictures at the same speed used to take them. A mechanism was developed to allow the pictures to be displayed in the camera in quick succession.
The pictures were projected in a similar manner. The technology resulted in the development of film rolls. The roll was placed in the camera and quickly moved down while holding it very still. The process had to be repeated when the film was being shown. The process was enhanced by the development of a loop placed in the threading of the film. The loop was situated where the film passed in front of the lens (Liesegang, 1986).
The film was developed and spread in a material invented by Henry M. Reichenbach. The material was made up of a semitransparent and flexible celluloid base. It was divided into strips that were 35mm wide. The material was first adopted by Thomas Edison in 1892 for his Kinetoscope.
Kinetoscope was a device that allowed one person at a time to view brief segments of a film. Riding on the success of the Kinetoscope, other machines developed to reproduce pictures in movement employed the 35mm technology. The Eastman Company supported this process even though their photographic films were 70mm wide. To produce films of the required width, the company had to cut the photographic films lengthwise (Abramson, 1987).
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In the late 1800s, colored films came into existence. They were created by delicately hand-coloring the frames using very fine brushes. The resultant film was spectacular due to the glow of the pictures (Cook, 2004). However, these films had a limitation since the colors occupying a particular place could spread to other areas of the frame.
The problem was addressed by giving each frame a uniform color. Uniformity of frames was achieved by tinting, toning, or a combination of both. Eastman Kodak invented the first color-sensitive emulsion around 1915. His invention was promoted by the trademark ‘Kodachrome’. Although Kodachrome was still a two-color system, it provided a basis for remarkable developments (Gunning, 1991).
Most early narrative films were accompanied by some kind of sound. The films had lecturers who commented on the pictures shown on the screen, expounding on their material and meaning for the spectators. In addition to the speech, most films were accompanied by music. Accompanying music was produced from a piano or specifically commissioned for the film. At times, music was used together with noise effects.
Noise effects were usually produced by performers using a large display of objects that reproduced natural and artificial sounds. Inventors of moving image desired to synchronize films and discs to print sound directly on the film. It was not until 1926, however, that Warner Bros., a Hollywood Company, presented a film using sound synchronization (Elsaesser, 1990). The film was produced by Don Juan and John Barrymore.
Though it had started as a mere novelty, filmmaking turned into an established industry by 1913. The earliest films evolved from moving snapshots, about a minute long, to about five to ten minutes long by 1905 (Cook, 2004). The films also used change of camera position and change of scenes to convey a message or to show different themes. With the development of longer displays, a new set of methods for making complex narrative films emerged in the 1910s.
By this time, large-scale businesses had come up to offer services of making and showing films. The companies acquired specialized venues exclusively used for showing films. The venues were supplied with films by various production and distribution companies. Such companies started by selling the films to the exhibitors, but later started renting them out. In the late 1910s, Hollywood became the most important supplier of films (Abramson, 1987).
A number of countries claim that they were the ones who invented the moving pictures. However, filmmaking cannot be traced to any of these countries. The reason is because, like many technologies, filmmaking cannot be traced to any particular moment. In addition, the birth of filmmaking cannot be credited to any particular country or person. In the late 1800s, entrepreneurs strongly pursued avenues to project pictures that continuously moved on a screen.
Such ventures led to the presentation of moving pictures to a marveled audience in various parts of the world (Gunning, 1991). Although filmmaking had spread to different parts of the world, some European countries and the United States retained their dominance over film production and exhibition. The French, however, were the first to dominate local and international markets. In addition, they were arguably the best in stylistic innovations, though they competed with the United States and Britain on this front.
Among the initial innovators in France were the Lumie’re brothers. They are said to be the first to show moving pictures to an audience for a fee. The brothers operated a photographic equipment factory where they experimented with a camera design called the cinematographe. However, depending on how one looks at it, the first show of moving pictures can be traced to Edison when he developed the Kinetoscope.
The Lumie’re brothers faced competition from other film makers, such as Georges Melielis. Since the brothers primarily dealt with documentary material, Melielis became the leader in the production of fiction films. However, due to competition, Melielis was forced into bankruptcy in 1913. One of the major competitors at this time was the Pathe Company, which outlived the Lumie’re and the Melielis (Abramson, 1987).
According to Cook (2004), the film industry in some European countries and the United States began coalescing into industrial capitalist enterprises in the early 1910s. Specialization and division of labor was established in the industry by separating exhibition, distribution, and production sectors. Films became longer in size and exhibitors demanded a regular supply of new items. The development led to increased demand for production of high standard films.
Such production required increased division of labor, specialization, and standardized practices. The emergence of permanent exhibition venues also contributed to the rationalization of separating exhibition from the other areas of filmmaking. Specialization and division of labor enabled the industry to maximize profits, making it more stable. Since profits depended on the turnout at exhibitions, producers in most countries were forced to make short films to accommodate the different tastes of the audience (Gunning, 1991).
The attempt to rationalize distribution of films resulted in maximization of profits. As a result, US manufacturers who had initially concentrated on the domestic market only began expanding into international markets. According to Elsaesser (1990), Vitagraph was the first company to establish a distribution office in Europe in 1907. Other major companies followed by establishing distribution agencies in Britain. They became America’s distribution centers in Europe.
On its part, British filmmakers mainly concentrated on the distribution and exhibition of films, rather than on production. Half of the films showing in Britain were American, with French and Italy films constituting a significant portion of the remaining 50 percent. Germany also benefitted from the distribution of American films. The US replaced the Europeans as leaders in the film industry in 1914. At this time, the Europeans were reeling from the effects of World War I (Liesegang, 1986).
By 1908, the film industry was well established and flourishing like never before. However, the industry was still very disorganized. Neighboring exhibition venues competed for similar films or rented similar items, which forced them to compete for the same audience. Some distributors supplied exhibitors with films that had been shown for so long that they contained scratches that obscured the image.
The new developments created the need for film censorship and regulation (Cook, 2004). The Edison and Biograph companies helped the producers to form the Motion Picture Patents Company in late 1908. The MPPC was formed in an effort to stabilize the industry and look after the producer’s interests. In addition to the producers, the MPPC incorporated foreign distributors in the US. It later agreed to regularize the issue of new films and to standardize the price per foot for their films (Elsaesser, 1990).
The production of films in major countries was characterized by specialization and division of labor. The sector changed from a collaborative enterprise to a specialized field with the emergence of specialists. Such specialists included property men, script-writers, and wardrobe mistresses. All of them worked under the director. The director was required to make one reel per week using their own cast and crew.
The requirement led to the emergence of a new category of producer who was charged with overseeing the whole process (Elsaesser, 1990). At the time, the film industry put emphasis on speed and quantity of films. However, a few films, especially those made to promote cultural values, were exempt from the rule. According to Gunning (1991), Vitagraph, the largest American studio, hired G. W. Griffith as its sole director. The director was hired in 1918. However, by the time he left in 1913, there were six directors under his supervision.
By mid 1910s, the American film industry had improved in terms of better and permanent exhibitions, internal censorships, and the production of respectable forms of entertainment.
Conditions had improved from the early 1900s when the industry was in a crisis. A large audience could now comfortably enjoy watching films in an elaborate movie exhibition venue. The films produced during this period were different as well. Narrative emerged as an important aspect of the films at the time. Such factors as technology improved editing, composition, and lighting in the production of films.
Specialization and division of labor also impacted on the production, distribution, and exhibition of narrative films at the time. In addition, specialization and division of labor maximized profits in the filmmaking industry, leading to its stability. However, the distribution and exhibition sectors in the US hindered the process of changing the industry to multi-reel film producer.
The reason is that most exhibition venues had a small seating capacity. In turn, limited seating capacity led to the exhibition of short films featuring a wide array of subjects to attract more audience and increase profits. Due to this, the impetus to shift the focus of the industry to the production of multi-reel films came from Europe. The reason is that the distribution of imported films was not subject to MPPC controls.
Abramson, A. (1987). The history of television, 1880 to 1941. Victoria: Oxford University Press.
Cook, D. A. (2004). A history of narrative film (4th ed.). Virginia: W W Norton & Company Incorporated.
Elsaesser, T. (1990). Early cinema: Space, frame, narrative. London: Mandarin.
Gunning, T. (1991). D.W. Griffith and the origins of American narrative film. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Liesegang, F. P. (1986). Moving and projecting images: A chronology of pre-cinema history. New York: Wiley.