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Characteristics of the Motion-Picture Medium

BY Robert Sklar

Four characteristics may be stressed as factors that differentiate the motion-picture medium, either in degree or in kind, from other mediums for works of art: luminosity, movement, realism, and montage.

Luminosity
The intense brightness of the picture projected by powerful light onto a coated screen in itself transforms the most mundane element of reality. The appeal of a luminous picture is attested by efforts of advertisers to achieve luminous effects in posters and displays. The luminosity of the motion-picture image also results in a considerable range of tone, between the brightest highlight and the deepest black. In both black-and-white and colour films, the most delicate gradations in the image are therefore possible.

Movement
As a feature of the motion picture, movement is so obvious that its central importance is sometimes forgotten. The motion picture has much in common with the graphic arts, but the added dimension of movement transforms it, allowing a narrative or a drama to unfold in time in a way no other graphic art can. Both in filmmaking and in film appreciation, movement must constantly be borne in mind: composition in the motion picture is kinetic rather than static. It is not a single colour but the cumulative effect that matters, not a single situation but a developing plot. The composition within any frame, or exposure, of a motion picture is as important as the relationship of that frame to those that precede and follow it.

Realism
Another essential element of the motion-picture image is that it gives an impression of reality. Whether in a drama enacted expressly for the camera or in a documentary film of an event at which the camera just happened to be present, this feeling of realism deriving from motion-picture photography accounts for much of the force of motion pictures. Animated films, which lack this element of photographic realism, tend to be taken as fantasies.

The attempt of the motion picture to reproduce three-dimensional reality on a flat screen presents the same problems and opportunities that are encountered in still photography and in painting. The standard camera lens, in fact, is constructed to produce visual effects precisely similar to those achieved by painters using the principles of perspective that were developed during the Renaissance.

Cinematic realism is most fully heightened when the images are accompanied by synchronous sound, whereby a second sense, hearing, ratifies what the eyes see. Although reproduced sound can be manipulated with regard to distance, timbre, clarity, and duration, in combination with photographed moving images, it forcefully brings alive its subject as present in a way unavailable to the other arts of representation.

Montage
Perhaps the most essential characteristic of the motion picture is montage, from the French monter, “to assemble.” Montage refers to the editing of the film, the cutting and piecing together of exposed film in a manner that best conveys the intent of the work. Montage is what distinguishes motion pictures from the performing arts, which exist only within a performance. The motion picture, by contrast, uses the performances as the raw material, which is built up as a novel or an essay or a painting, studiously put together piece by piece, with an allowance for trial and error, second thoughts, and, if necessary, reshooting. The order in which the segments of film are presented can have drastically different dramatic effects.

Several major contributions to the theory of montage were made by Soviet directors. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Soviet films were encouraged for their propaganda value, but film stocks were scarce. Soviet directors carefully studied the films of D.W. Griffith and other masters to make the most effective use of their own meagre resources. One of those early Russian directors, Lev Kuleshov, conducted an experiment involving identical shots of an actor’s expressionless face. He inserted it in a film before a shot of a bowl of soup, again before a shot of a child playing, and still again before one of a dead old woman. An unsuspecting audience, asked to evaluate the actor’s performance, praised his ability to express, respectively, hunger, tenderness, and grief.

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