Innovations in the conceptual years of film found in formalism (A Trip to the Moon, 1902) and realism (The Great Train Robbery, 1903).
Capturing and portraying moving images fascinated people in the early 1800s. While it is hard to pinpoint the exact invention of cinema, many inventions were used to give the illusion of movement through little gadgets used at circuses and freak shows. From there came early projectors, the kinetiscope and the cinemagraphe of the Lumière Brothers (Mast, Ch. 1-3). All of these early beginnings of film aimed to capture the fascination of moving images that amazed audiences, and profit from that. After the screen tests of the Lumière brothers, story became a new forefront for filmmakers to enter into exploring both formalism, where the camera creates the world and realism, where real life is depicted. One of the most mentionable examples of formalism is Georges Méliès’ short film, A Trip to the Moon.
George Méliès’ film work, like others of this time, combined what directors knew from theater with their films. Each scene was set for a single, long take, the camera would remain stationary, and, due to there being no sound other than music played along with it, the characters would “over-act” their actions to convey dialogue and intention. The narrative of A Trip to the Moon, pulled audiences into a realm where wizards are heroes in the town and moon creatures are a real threat, a world that the camera creates. Categorized as formalism, Méliès pioneered the initial takes of storytelling by using fantasy and magic as his guide. Conversely, Edwin S. Porter’s short film The Great Train Robbery utilized storytelling through the other main realm of filmmaking during that time, realism.
Its title giving away the plot, The Great Train Robbery shows how several robbers devastated passengers on a train and the swiftness of justice from the local officials. Similarly “primitive” like its formalist counterpart, this film explored two deviating techniques: one being more experimental use of the camera, adding movement and varying sizes of shots. For example, during the film when the robbers are escaping on horseback and running down to a ravine, the camera follows them in a subtle tilt shot, bringing the audience’s gaze down with them, a technique used throughout film today (The Great Train Robbery). The other technique the film attempted was a simultaneous storyline, one following the robbery of the train and the escape of the robbers while the other followed the hunting and eventual success of the police officials. Not exactly successful in comparison to today’s parallel plot structures, the attempt is revolutionary for its time.
Before watching these films, I had my own assumptions of what to expect, but one thing that surprised me about both films was the use of color. I did have a slight suggestion that this was a trend for these films from seeing Martin Scorscese’s film Hugo, a film adaptation of Brian Selznick’s book highlighting the life of Georges Méliès. Méliès and his wife would coordinate on the artistic quality of the film, her and her coworkers would paint each individual frame to add color to the picture. The same was done in The Great Train Robbery for the dresses worn by the women when the police officials were alerted. A bit out of the blue, it still showed the innovative steps that filmmakers were taking to experiment in this new medium.
A Trip to the Moon and The Great Train Robbery were both revolutionary for their stab at creating a story for audiences to follow along and, thinking of the context of the time, amazing for what they were able to accomplish. This first week of films proves that to fully appreciate a film, one must understand the time rather than just seek entertainment.
Original release date: September 27, 2015 // Amended June 8th, 2020
Hugo. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz. GK Films, 2011. DVD.
Mast, Gerald. “Chapter 1-3.” A Short History of the Movies. 11th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1986. Print
Méliès, Georges. “A Trip to the Moon – the 1902 Science Fiction Film by Georges Méliès.” YouTube, uploaded by Open Culture. Nov. 27, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLVChRVfZ74
The Great Train Robbery. Dir. Edwin S. Porter. Edison Manufacturing Company, 1903. AmazonPrime.