Fictional and Factual Texts

Though moving image texts might seem transparent and obvious – simple almost – they nevertheless have a very definite and highly evolved ‘vocabulary’ of shots and angles, ‘punctuation’ in the form of clips camera movements and edits, and a codified audio-visual ‘grammar’ that gives specific meaning to particular shot sequences. This vocabulary, punctuation and grammar can be just as complex and nuanced as in verbal language, and just as rewarding to unpack.

This codified language was largely developed in the area of fictional filmmaking and then applied to non-fiction films by the Documentary Movement during the 1920s. This development happened most rapidly between the years of 1895 to 1930. Changes and refinements continue to be made to the present day as new types and genres of screen media are introduced and developed (e.g. new TV programme genres, computer games, interactive screen narratives and 3D film).

Sir Harry Lauder visits Regent Picture House

Fictional Texts

Fictional texts are unsurprisingly character-centred narratives. These were first filmed like plays; however, with each successive film the early pioneers realised that they could use the audience's curiosity and imagination to link the clips in more effective ways. Examples of these early films include:

  • George Méliès “The Brahmin and the Butterfly” 1901 which can be found in this collection amongst Early Trick Films,
  • George Albert Smith, (e.g. “The House that Jack Built” (1900) which can be found in this collection amongst Early Trick Films),
  • Edwin Stanton Porter, (director of the first true feature film The Great Train Robbery 1903) and
  • Arthur Melbourne Cooper (e.g. MacNab's visit to London (1905) which can also be found in this collection.

The language developed in these early films was later codified into visual grammar by the Russian genius Sergei Eisenstein (cinematic montage) and the pioneering American director, D.W. Griffiths. Sometimes referred to as "the invisible art" (because when it is well done the viewer cannot see the joins), this visual language (remember sound did not really arrive until the 1930s) developed into a system of planning, shooting and editing that is now generally referred to as the ‘continuity system’.

The continuity system is designed to provide the audience with a smooth and apparently seamless viewing experience despite the fact that a film is cobbled together from hundreds of individual clips of visual and audio information. At the core of this system is the concept of active questioning. 

This means that the narrative should be constructed in a fashion where questions are set and answered through the actions and reactions of the characters in one clip and then partially answered by the next, as well as what the audience has deduced must be happening in the areas of the action that they cannot directly see. When these filmed shots and recorded sounds are edited into sequences, audiences suspend their disbelief and allow their natural curiosity about what they see and hear to draw them into the artifice of the cinematic experience and engage emotionally and intellectually with the illusion of a larger narrative world.

This process can be readily demonstrated with a simple, hypothetical shot sequence:

  • A man points (what is he pointing at?).
  • It's a ship sailing into harbour (who is on the boat?).
  • On the boat the captain gives an order to drop the sails (What are they going to do in the harbour?). And so forth.

*Please note, some art films may also be described as associational. Here there is no direct narrative connection between the shots except on a thematic level.

For the most part the narrative proceeds through this process: setting a question - providing a partial answer and setting a new question. However, at certain points this process, the filmmaker, just like a writer, may want to introduce a new character, cut to a different line of action, or introduce a completely new sequence. At these points filmmakers have developed special techniques to alert the audience to the new paragraph or new chapter, through the use of specific transitions (e.g. wipes or dissolves), changes in the music, changing the music, changing the soundscape or using sounds that bridge a cut. These alert audiences subliminally that they are about to see something new and, if they are a little confused by the new image, not to worry, it will all make sense in a few moments once a new line of question and answer is established.

Factual Texts

Though the earliest film in this collection Execution of Mary Queen of Scots (1895) is a drama composed of two nearly identical shots and Dewar's Scotch Whisky (1897) is a very early advert, most are factual films of one form or another. The earliest factual films were factual texts (documents not documentaries) that simply filmed a simple scene or an historical event from one or two usually unconnected angles.  Here the placement of the camera was not determined by the desire to create a cohesive narrative, but simply to record the subject or event.

A few good examples from this collection of these kinds of texts are:

Glasgow Trams (c1902)

Through the Nineteen Tens and Twenties, factual filmmaking output developed to include propoganda Films, such as Patriotic Porkers (1918), as well as news and public information films such as Fundraising in Dundee and proto-documentaries such as Scottish Women's Hospitals (1917).  Documentary films as we know them were not developed until the Nineteen Twenties by pioneers such as Scotland's most important filmmaker John Grierson (see Grierson and the Documentary Movement). Factual enterainment programmes (Things That Happen -1936) and promotional films (Out for Value - 1931) arrived during the 1920s and 30s.

Drifters (1929; dir. John Grierson)

Though documentaries can be purely observational and poetic like "Drifters", they are more often narrated. Here the narratives are often investigatorial and the line of questioning is based around questions set by verbal narration at the outset and developed through a series of sequences. Here the sounds and images often do not structure the narrative on their own as in a fictional film, but are linked by the rhetorical questions and exposition contained within the narration. This is generally refered to as ‘evidentiary’ editing. When evidentiary editing is done well, the progressions sounds and images do not merely illustrate what is said, but are used to arouse the viewer's curiosity and add layers of meaning.

It is critical that film readers are aware that most modern factual films, documentaries and news reports make use of many of the conventions, techniques and artifices of the 'continuity system' and 'cinematic montage' to support their meanings, and therefore awareness of these languages should be a key component of citizenship as well as 21st Century Literacy.

Links to other pages in this section:

Written by David Griffith, Lead Practitioner in Moving Image Education  


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