The short film has taken some interesting turns on its route from the Lumières to YouTube’s viewing millions, says Rebecca Davies.
In the beginning, all films were short. The earliest cinema audiences may not have been particularly aware of this as they marvelled at seconds-long scenes of circus performers, exotic cities, scantily clad ladies and people going about their daily business. For them, the novelty and the thrill of witnessing man’s latest technological triumph was paramount. But as the 20th century dawned, films began to get longer.
The very first films were presented to the public in 1894 through Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope, a peepshow-like device for individual viewing. These, and the projected films that succeeded them, were often one-shot “actuality” or “interest” films depicting celebrities, royal processions, travelogues, current affairs and scenes from everyday life. The best-known film from this time is perhaps the Lumière brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895), which supposedly had audiences fleeing in terror as a celluloid locomotive hurtled towards them.
The brevity of these one-shot films suited Victorian modes of presentation. As Bryony Dixon, the BFI national archive’s silent film curator and director of the British Silent Film Festival, explains: “The major outlets for entertainment at that time were music halls and fairgrounds, where programmes were made up of a variety of different acts lasting up to about 20 minutes. Most early films imitated other entertainment media already in existence: magic lantern shows, illustrations, variety acts, tableaux presentations. So short was the norm.”
But in the early 1900s, improvements in recording and editing technology allowed film-makers to produce longer, multi-shot films. Some of the most memorable longer short films from the pre-features era include Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902) – in which a group of astronomers build an improbable space ship and encounter some acrobatic moon men – and Edwin S Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), often celebrated as the first Western.
From about 1910 onwards, studio competition and audience demand induced film-makers to make even longer, multi-reel films and the first features were born. While DW Griffith’s controversial Ku Klux epic The Birth of a Nation (1915) has gone down in popular memory as the first feature film, it was in fact preceded by several feature-length multi-reelers from Italy, France, Denmark and the United States, including George Loane Tucker’s equally controversial Traffic in Souls (1913), which dealt with white slavery and prostitution.
Source: The Telegraph