The Emerging Cinema
Cinema: An artistic arrangement of visual (and sometimes) auditory stimulus to deliberately express something to an audience. Cinema is meant to be viewed but should not be made in order to appease all viewers and all tastes. Cinema should be deeply personal.
Personal experience should be valued. Personal expression should be shared. Cinema is an idea. Anyone who wants to express themselves cinematically, should. We should film what we know. We should share our neighborhood experience. We should share our cultural experience. We should share our thoughts and feelings cinematically, without fear of comment or criticism. The comments and criticism will come whether we fear them or not.
For those who wish to express themselves through motion pictures, an education in cinema has never been more readily available.
I listened to a retired engineer from Warner Brothers speak to a group of high school students a few months ago. When asked what advice he could give a young filmmaker wanting to access the industry, he replied, “choose another industry.” He talked about the difficulty of “making it.” That the paths to filmmaking, such as apprenticeship, were dead and that it was hopeless for a person to access the film industry.
I disagree. I believe that we are in the most exciting time for new and inexperienced filmmakers in the history of the art. Creation, Production, Funding and Distribution are all easier than they have ever been. Post World War II Italians made amazing films despite not having money or equipment. If you have a smart phone and a computer (or access to them) you are a studio. If you don’t know what you are doing, don’t worry, you’re in good company.
Revisiting the birth, childhood and adolescence of cinema is of extreme importance. I am focusing on 1895-1955. Every filmmaker will not embrace every movement but the framework of experimentation is in place in the work of the early filmmakers. There isn’t anything in cinema today that wasn’t conceived in the first 60 years. More importantly these films provide the framework for the form of cinema. Fully expressing yourself in cinema is (most likely) more than setting up a camera and pressing record. There are camera angles, sound track, duration, pacing, acting style and editing to consider. Even if you are interested in an experimental and open form of cinema you will benefit.
1a : of, relating to, or dealing with aesthetics or the beautiful
2: appreciative of, responsive to, or zealous about the beautiful; also : responsive to or appreciative of what is pleasurable to the senses
Film Form: Film is a unique art form with its own conventions and aesthetics. Form includes story, space, cinematography, editing, sound, score and acting. Film, through its form, has the ability to show us an entire lifetime in 2 hours. We can visit ancient civilizations or those that haven’t even occurred yet. We can fragment space through editing. We can show the audience exactly what we want them to see. We can even tell them what to think about what they see. We can manipulate the senses with the visuals and sound.
The form and the aesthetics of cinema are losing value. Not because they are any less valuable but because they are not valued. Culture that loses touch with art is in danger. Painting, sculpture, illustration and cinema have been replaced with movies, computer generated images and cartoons. Harlequin has replaced literature. Music may be the only expressive art that is still valued.
Our news streams are littered with stories of terrorism, police brutality, racism, classism, genderism, student protests, caricatures that pass as political leaders, unemployment, poverty, infant mortality, sex trafficking, social liberties but our theaters are filled with a five-year-plan that includes The Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars, Pixels, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Fifty Shades of Grey, etc. I am not completely criticizing these films. There is a place for them. Distraction can be an art. But, if distraction is the only diet of moving picture, the art form and its viewers, will be left incomplete and the art form will die. That is not to say that there will not always be movies; visual stories that cater to the lowest common denominator will continue to be produced and viewed in theatres. What is in danger is the pure cinema. The art form. The avenue of personal expression.
What do we do now? Re-engage art. Learn the language. The same way we learn Spanish, French, Hebrew or Japanese. We start with simple words. We develop a vocabulary. Then we develop sentences. Learn grammar. Write essays. Then literature. Cinema has a vocabulary and grammar. The composition of the film is similar to creating a piece of literature.
Letters - Frames
Words – Shot
Sentences – Shots with motion or edits
Essays – Edited short form
Literature – Full realized motion pictures
Not to be ignored are the advances in technology. Flexible celluloid film coated in silver nitrate has been replaced with a chip. Shooting on film is quaint. It is an interesting experiment but it is not the current tool of Cinema. The DSLR, smart phone or GoPro can teach the same lessons at a fraction of the cost.
What then, do I propose? To ignore 120 years of history is ignorance and hubris. To assume that because we have seen Star Wars, Fast and the Furious, The Avengers and maybe even one or two art-films qualifies us to create Cinema is foolish. We must embrace Porter, The Lumieres, Smith, Guy-Blache, Melies, Eisenstein, Kuleshov, Renoir, Bresson; the list is extensive. If you haven’t heard of these people, don’t worry, you will.
Is there value in a 120-year-old, 30-second film of people exiting a factory? Yes. I have made short films and a failed feature. A few weeks back, inspired by the Lumiere’s Arrival of a Train at La Ciutat, I set out to make an homage film. The point was to ignore everything else I knew about film and embrace the moment of films birth. To capture a moment without the use of zooms, edits, dolly’s, cranes, etc. Filming a bus arriving at a station was not as easy as I thought it would be. In narrative film this would be a b-roll shot. In my short film the arrival of the bus was the primary action. The bus was the star. A single shot to capture a moment in time. A moment that is now immortal.
There is not a singular way to express yourself in cinema. There isn’t one right way to do it. To learn Cinema, one must make Cinema. Cinema without the worry of who wants to see it. Cinema without worry of failure. Cinema that teaches about the past while driving towards the future. The purpose of Cinema is expression, experimentation or a bit of both; not wealth, not fame. If wealth and fame are a byproduct, consider yourself fortunate, but the driving force must be expression and/or experimentation. Immense pressure is put on filmmakers for success. This ignores the fact that failure is part of the process. What is “good?” Is it a mastery of form? Content? Both? Neither?
I suggest that we will celebrate the expression and the experimentation without worry of success. I suggest that we impose the same limitations that the earliest filmmakers had on their film creation. I suggest that we start with frames, then shots, then cuts and then narratives. The ultimate goal is personal expression through cinema. Over the span of years we will work our way through the history of film through creating films. We will share and learn.
Who wants to watch these films? I suppose the answer is somewhere between no-one and everyone. I propose an ongoing, online film festival. A digital cinematheque. Education through study of the pioneering filmmakers starting with 1895. A place to showcase the work of filmmakers. Films inspired by the works studied. Filmmaking challenges based on the works studied. Shared distribution of films through free digital outlets. A place of safe discussion. A place of education and shared ideas.
Challenge 1 (1894-1896)
The Lumiere Brothers and William K.L. Dickson
The earliest filmmakers had a variety of limitations, the least of which was not that they didn’t even believe in their invention. The French pioneering Lumiere Brothers, who invented the Cinematograph, and Edison in America didn’t see much of a future for their inventions. The motion picture was a limited, side-show attraction; a shock to the senses that would soon wear off and be replaced.
We have the hindsight to know that they were wrong. For this challenge we are doing our best to put ourselves in their shoes.
Challenge: Make a short film (30-60 seconds) with the limitations of the earliest filmmakers and films. Post your film to vimeo, youtube, or tumblr with the hashtag #LumiereChallenge
- No edits
- No synchronous sound
- No Camera movement
- No Close-ups. These early films showed the whole body.
Don’t let the limitations limit your creativity. Film something meaningful, beautiful, horrible, or funny. Focus on framing. Focus on expression.
Some films are posted below as inspiration. You can also type, “Lumiere Brothers” or “William K.L. Dickson” on youtube and find tons of films by these early directors. (remember, we are focusing on 1894-1896 for this challenge)
Annabelle Butterfly Dance d. William K.L. Dickson, 1894 (USA)
The Arrival of a Train at la Ciotat d. The Lumiere Brothers, 1896 (France)
Arroseur et arrose d. The Lumiere Brothers, 1896 (France)
The Mechanical Butcherd. The Lumiere Brothers, 1895 (France)
Demolition d’un mur d. The Lumiere Brothers, 1896 (France)