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This will hopefully be the very first of many posts to come on early film, one of my particular interests.

It seems to me that few are aware of the pleasures of early film. The term ‘early film’ refers to the earliest films, from around 1894 until around 1907 at which point films shifted towards a the more explicitly narrative cinema.

Early films are distinctly different to the narrative feature films in obvious ways: namely they’re far shorter, contain far fewer shots, and many are factual. At least silent feature films resemble the fiction films we are used to of today. As a result early films tend not to be dealt with in broad film histories (particularly online), and as I’ll probably end up mentioning over and over on this site, many people seem to believe that cinema began with either A Trip to the Moon (1902), The Great Train Robbery (1903) or The Birth of a Nation (1915).

These fragments of film can seem to come out of the blue, a tiny window on somewhere in the world. One common reaction is that these films are ‘primitive’, almost naive, in their form. ‘Why have a single shot when we now know that films are meant to be made up of many shots? If they only knew then what we know now.’

One aspect of films that many do not take into account is how they were exhibited. For many, films should ‘hold up’ as singular entities that should ‘work’ regardless of the year in which they are being watched. Therefore if they do not work today, they do not ‘work’ at all. Early films, many of which today can be comprehended with absolute clarity, were shown in a programme of other films, and often other kinds of acts. Moving pictures would have played on a music hall programme amidst live acts, for instance. Therefore these films were not intended to be watched in isolation.

There is often great imagination in these films, which consisted of trick films with spectacular special effects or actualities documenting life and movement. The earliest films consisted of a single shot, as in the film above, View From An Engine Front – Ilfracombe (1898). One of the earliest multi-shot films was G.A. Smith’s A Kiss in the Tunnel from 1899. The technological constraint of only being able to shoot using a single strip of film was not viewed as a constraint to early filmmakers but rather a mere fact of their trade. This ‘limitation’ to creative variations, such as in the phantom ride above, and to a visual economy that was ultimately succinct aesthetically intriguing. The single shot also resulted in early films having a distinct temporal difference to edited fiction feature films, namely that they linger, play out in real time, and in many ways do not seem to begin or end, they just happen.

Many people do not realise that cinema began as early as it did and that there indeed were Victorian films. These films can still be a pleasurable shock in the vivid window they present to us of our world over 110 years ago.

I plucked the film above from the BFI’s YouTube collection. Indeed it’s one of the films I have written about for the BFI’s Screenonline here. Also check out my mini-essay on the ‘phantom ride‘, of which this is a great example, here.

If only you were watching it on a big screen rather than through the fog of pixels. 

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May 2008

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