The history of occlusion by the screen edge

In document An attentional theory of continuity editing (Page 110-114)

Chapter 4: Cuing a Cut

4.1 Experiment 1: Introduction

4.1.2 Occlusion as a primitive editing cue The history of occlusion by the screen edge

A good place to start looking for evidence that occlusion by the screen edge is a useful technique for hiding a cut is in the history of continuity editing conventions. Forbidden Occlusion

The very first films (those made around 1900) consisted of just one shot depicting an entire episode as a distant tableaux48 (Burch, 1990). If more than one shot was presented in sequence the spatiotemporal relations between shot usually remained unspecified (Bordwell, 1997). This was accentuated by the use of fade-to-blacks after each tableaux (Bottomore, 1990). Primitive films were highly artificial in their staging (resembling theatre in this respect) as all action had to remain within the confines of the frame (Burch, 1990). Characters would rarely be seen entering or leaving the shot and if they did leave, they were considered to have left the event depicted in the film (Nelmes, 2003).

48 A composition in which the scene is presented in Long Shot so that all action occurs within the confines of the frame.

110 Parallel to the development of this “primitive” form of film (Burch, 1990) was the more innovative development of ‘actuality’ filmmaking: the filming of live events49. When recording real-life events the filmmaker could not direct the action to accommodate the limited view of the camera. These early actualities resemble more closely what we are used to seeing in film today: people, animals, and vehicles move in and out of shot with no respect for the frame edge and the composition of the shot. This freedom of movement can be counter the filmmaker’s artistic intentions for the scene and so techniques needed to be developed that allowed the filmmaker to accommodate the action with the camera. The simplest of these is the reframing of a shot through panning50 and tilting51 the camera. If a character had wandered off screen the camera could be slowly panned to bring them back into shot. However, slight reframing only works if the action occurs within the camera’s field of view and does not take the character into a part of the scene hidden from the camera.

As these actuality films became popular, they began to attempt to record complex events such as football matches and Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee procession in 1897 (Salt, 1983). These events were often too big for one film to capture so multiple cameras would film the event simultaneously (Bottomore, 1990). This resulted in multiple views of an event that had to be sequenced in some way before they could be presented to an audience. The shots would be sold separately (i.e. they were not spliced together) but cinema exhibitors were advised to purchase multiple shots and show them together in an order that preserved the chronology of the event. These multi-shot actuality films proved very successful as they presented actions bigger than the confines of the frame. Filmmakers began to realise the potential of film to represent spatially and temporally more than was possible in the theatre (the

49 The original street scenes filmed by the Lumiere Brothers and the factory gate films of Mitchell and Kenyon are fine examples of this. See examples of these films at 50 Left-Right rotation of the camera about its vertical axis. 51 Up-Down rotation of the camera about its horizontal axis.

111 principal visual narrative medium up to that point; Bottomore, 1990). This potential was eventually realised in the chase genre. Chasing attention across cuts

The success of the actuality films indicated that an event, such as a procession, could be shown across multiple shots and the viewer would still follow the action. This technique of dissecting an event into chronological units and presenting them sequentially was adopted by narrative filmmakers very early52, but these early multi- shot films were often judged as confusing by audiences (Salt, 1983). The sudden cut from one tableaux to another was thought to be too disruptive to the viewer so the junctures between shots were emphasised using fades and dissolves (Bottomore, 1990).

It was not until action was used to cue the cut that cutting straight from one shot to another became acceptable (Salt, 1983). The first filmmaker to use this technique was James Williamson, a chemist and amateur filmmaking from Hove, England53. His films Stop Thief! (1901) and Fire! (1901) set the standard for all subsequent chase films. Stop Thief! (1901) depicted the theft of a joint of meat and the subsequent chase of the thief by a butcher and a pack of dogs (see Figure 4-2 on page 112). The action takes place across three different locations. A static camera is used to film the action in each location and a straight cut to the next shot occurs when the action moves out of shot i.e. is occluded by the screen edge. This continuation of action across multiple shots was what the actuality filmmakers had achieved just by recording natural events but Williamson’s application of the technique indicated how it could be used to move narrative cinema beyond the frame.

52 Such as Lumiere’s Vie et Passion de Jesus Christ (13 shots, 1897) and Melies’ Cendrillon (20 shots, 1899).

112 Figure 4-2: James Williamson's Stop Thief! (1901). A tramp steals a joint of meat from a butcher (top left) then runs out of shot. The tramp enters a new shot (top right) and is pursued by the butcher (bottom left). The final shot (bottom right) shows the tramp

hiding in a barrel before being found by the butcher and his dogs.

As was discussed in chapter 2, matching an action across a cut is one of the main techniques described by the continuity editing rules as creating an “acceptable” cut. Any action, no matter how small, has the potential to hide a cut (Dmytryk, 1986; Pepperman, 2004). Over the first two decades of the Twentieth century, most of the conventions of the continuity style of filmmaking in use today were established

54(Bordwell et al., 1985; Burch, 1990). However, the first convention to be

established was that used by Williamson in Stop Thief!: the cuing of a cut by a character’s exit from the screen. The almost immediate development of this convention at the very beginning of the film form seems to indicate that there is something primitive about it. It cannot be viewed as an established convention as no other medium existing at that time was able to instantaneously transport the viewer to

54 The obvious exception is the integral use of sound. Synchronised sound was not commonly used in film until 1928.

113 a new visual scene55. Something about an object’s occlusion by the screen edge seems to make a cut to a new visual scene acceptable to the viewer. This convention seems to support the view that occlusion by the screen edge may function as an attentional cue. To investigate this possibility further the exact form of the convention will be identified.

In document An attentional theory of continuity editing (Page 110-114)