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Fictional and Factual Texts

Though moving image texts might seem simple, they have a very definite ‘vocabulary’ of shots and camera angles.

'Punctuation’ can be found in films in the form of camera movements and edits, and audio-visual ‘grammar’ gives specific meaning to sequences. This vocabulary, punctuation and grammar is just as sophisticated as verbal language and is rewarding to interpret.

The language of film was largely developed 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 virtual reality).

Sir Harry Lauder visits Regent Picture House

Fictional Texts

Fictional texts are character-centred narratives. Film narratives were first performed and filmed like plays; however, as confidence in and experimentation with the new medium grew, filmmakers began to incorporate the techniques of early cinema pioneers who had surprised audiences with their visual illusions. Examples of some innovative 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 Sergei Eisenstein (who created Russian cinematic montage) and the 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 developed into a system of planning, shooting and editing that is now generally referred to as the ‘continuity system’. Sound did not fully arrive until the 1930s.

The continuity system provides 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.

Active questioning means that the narrative is 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. When shots and sounds are edited into sequences, audiences allow their natural curiosity about what they see and hear to draw them into the artifice of the cinematic experience. This 'suspension of disbelief' allows audiences to engage emotionally and intellectually with the illusion of a larger narrative world.

This process can be 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.

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 may use 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 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.

Some films may be described as 'associational'. Here there is no direct narrative connection between the shots except on a thematic level.

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 of the films on Scotland on Screen are factual texts of one form or another.

The earliest factual films were 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 of these kinds of texts are:

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.

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 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.

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 there is a close correspondence between the fictional and the factual film.