Fictional and Factual Texts
Though moving image texts might seem simple or transparent, they have a very definite and highly evolved ‘vocabulary’ of shots and camera angles, ‘punctuation’ in the form of camera movements and edits, and a codified audio-visual ‘grammar’ that gives specific meaning to particular sequences. This vocabulary, punctuation and grammar can be just as complex and nuanced as verbal language, and just as rewarding to unpack.
The codified language of film was largely developed in the area of fictional filmmaking and then applied to non-fiction films in Britain 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).
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:
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 (sound did not fully 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 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. This allows audiences to engage emotionally and intellectually with the illusion of a larger narrative world.
This process can be readily demonstrated with a simple, hypothetical shot sequence:
*Please note, some 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 up a question, providing a partial answer and setting up a new question. However, at certain points this process, the filmmaker 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 chapter, through the use of specific transitions.
Transitions can include visual effects, such as screen wipes or dissolves, or sound effects, including changes in the music or using sounds to 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.
Through the 1910s and 1920s, and during the First World War, 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 (1918) and proto-documentaries such as Scottish Women's Hospitals (1917).
Documentary films as we know them were not developed until the 1920s by pioneers such as Stirlingshire-born 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 1930s.
Though documentaries can be purely observational and poetic like "Drifters", they are more often narrated. Here the narratives are often investigative and the line of questioning is based around questions set by verbal narration at the outset and developed through a series of sequences. The sounds and images in documentaries 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 sounds and images do not merely illustrate what is said, but are used to arouse the viewer's curiosity and add layers of meaning.
Links to other pages in this section:
Written by David Griffith, Lead Practitioner in Moving Image Education