A glimpse of the language of film in the 20th century

A brief timeline of the evolution of film as a medium in the Western world in the twentieth century

The evolution of film language in the twentieth century began with the arrival of Edwin Porter who established the shot as the building block of cinematic language unlike the ‘scene’ that was used by George Méliès. Méliès had already seen film as a narrative medium and had innovated several devices like the fade-in, fade-out, overlapping, superimposing shots and dissolves. In his films A Trip to the Moon, he creatively portrayed the smiling face of the moon carved in shaving cream. As a magician, he had discovered that film need not obey the laws of empirical reality, and exploited film to ‘astonish’ viewers. But he nevertheless stayed within the conventions of the theatre and conceived films in terms of dramatic scenes which contained the logical unfolding of an action played out to its end; he even designed and painted backgrounds as was done in a stage backdrop. The film was narrated from a single perspective, the eagle-eye view of the theatre- going spectator, with the shots taken from a motionless camera. The only editing that occurred was between scenes rather than within them.

With all these technical devices at his disposal, Porter experimented with point of view and the way action was portrayed. He realised that he could cut in the middle of action without causing confusion in the viewer and thus laid the foundations of continuity editing in The Great Train Robbery (1903). With inter-cutting between scenes, Porter managed to create the illusion of simultaneous or parallel action accessible to the viewer from simultaneous points of view. Yet the cut was used only to advance the story and not within the shot itself for dramatic effect. But in the Great Train Robbery, Porter for the first time experimented with camera angles- in one of the scenes he shows the action by placing the camera on a moving engine. He also attempted camera moves like panning in the scene where the robbers are fleeing to the woods, yet he nevertheless left shot sizes unexplored as all his scenes are in the long shot. The only transition that he uses is the cut. But his most important contribution to the cinematic language is that film has its own aesthetic, distinct from that of the theatre, which depends not upon the arranged of objects in a scene, but on the interaction of shots with one another.

Griffith, “the Shakespeare of the Screen”, took up the discoveries of Porter and developed the cinematic language to a greater extent. He established cinema as a narrative form with its own set of aesthetics and laws. Through the rise of multi-shot films, he realised the need for shot consistency and a different kind of direction than stage direction. Griffith was a master story teller, thus all his experimentation was driven towards the perfection of dramatic effect. He employed the ‘cut in’ to heighten drama in films like The Greaser’s Gauntlet (1908) and broke down the distance between the audience and the action. By 1908 he had made parallel editing more sophisticated and had stumbled upon the beginnings of montage. Various techniques like the ‘object of attentions’ or the motivated point of view shot and functions like the flashback or the ‘switch back’ that interrupted the narrative had also been devised.

Even in other parts of the world cinematic language and the new medium of film were being explored. In Man with the Movie Camera, film was being examined as a distinct and independent entity from theatre or literature. The film sought to establish the aesthetics unique to the medium and form itself as a separate and self-sufficient art, questions about which were to be later taken up by Arnheim and the others.

But in America itself, one of Griffith’s major contributions in an area that remained largely unexplored in the age of Porter and Méliès, was the variations of shot sizes. The close –up was important for providing detail to the viewer and giving him sudden access to a character or an object, while the long shot estranged him and gave him a panoramic view of the action. In 1909, Griffith attempted multiple parallel actions in The Lonely Villa and explored multiple point of views. He devised another technique of increasing the tempo of inter-cutting between parallel action so that the dramatic climax coincided with the cinematic climax and the way of the telling the story and the story itself became one. The technique of the alternation of simultaneous action as well as the alternation of temporally converging action, known as ‘Griffith’s last minute rescue’, formed the basis for montage; Griffith was aware of the length of a shot and the particular psychological effect that it produced.

Aware of the camera’s exaggerating possibilities, Griffith also trained his actors in naturalness and subtlety of expression unlike theatrical customs. He explored lighting, camera moves and angles and noted the effect that each produced on the audience. The horizontal sweep gave the audience the entire action, while the track involved the viewer. The depth of field broke down the action onto several planes so that the director could create visual metaphors through a combination of all these devices. Even transitions were perfected as dissolves could be carried out within the lens diaphragm itself.

In Germany during the war years, Oskar Messeter, ignorant of Griffith’s inventions, contributed his share to the cinematic language by improving the Maltese cross system for projection; at a time when all films operated within the conventions of the theatre, he used artificial lights on the sets and made short films and actualiteés. The cinematic language sprang to life through the contributions of filmmakers around the world, but it was only through Griffith’s techniques and innovations that it attained its zenith.


  1. Andrew, J. Dudley. The Major Film Theories: An Introduction. London: Oxford University Press, 1976.
  2. Cook, Pam. The Cinema Book. California: Pantheon Books, 1986

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