We’re back at it this week after more than a month off. With just three years left in the 19th century oeuvre, we’re seeing film exit its embryonic stage as directors experiment with the storytelling mechanisms of the medium. This week’s movie, The X-Rays, is another example of the artistic innovation sweeping across the moviemaking world.
Every art form benefits from certain aesthetic “tricks” that can only be established by that avenue. A novelist might rely on wordplay, a visual artist will return to reliable brushstroke patterns, and a musician understands which harmonies rile which emotions. Filmmaking is no different, it just took a bit of time to figure out. Some call this the “visual grammar” of a movie, others call it “special effects” (often pejoratively) and some prefer the even broader “style.” Whatever the term, there exists a reliable toolkit of visual techniques that, when deployed, stir our emotions and create magic on the screen. George Albert Smith’s 1897 short The X-Rays showcases one of the earliest of these techniques: the jump cut. This technique involves an abrupt change in visual information, either through editing technique or physical camera movement. The move is most often associated with the fantastical work of magician Georges Méliès (who we’ll be seeing soon) and the artsy New Wave movies of the 1960s.
The jump cut was a particular favorite of primitive filmmakers because it was easy to execute and dazzled the eye. This tactic was really the first visual effect, and helped add a bit of zest to movie projects. In an era where directors were torn between documentary realism or simply filming stage plays, the jump cut injected an essence of magic for the viewer to behold. We have seen the magic of unreality before (specifically in Pauvre Pierrot) but that required painstaking hours of labour to create the effect. With the jump cut, any live action scene could be spliced with a disparate shot, opening the floodgates for all sorts of narrative tricks. Suddenly, directors started to consider what they could accomplish during the editing process, and set about staging their films entirely with editing in mind.
The X-Rays is focused around a single jump cut gag. A couple, sitting alone is subjected to an “X-Ray” camera that instantly exposes their skeletons to the viewer. Is it a metaphor for the necessary transparency of love? Is the director exploring the underlying human similarities despite gender roles? Are we shocked into disbelief at the thought of out eventual mortality? No, probably not. The movie is a simple comedy, likely composed to show off the nifty new jump cut more than anything else. But its important to note where special effects began, and movies like this are a good place to start. I hope that by now you are understanding the complex jigsaw puzzle that makes up the history of film. We start with one piece; camera technology. Then we add ideas like fictional filmmaking, documentary, or animation. Next we add in visual techniques, like lighting, staging and camera angle. In 1897, special effects got thrown into the mix, and now we see a cavalcade of possibilities opening up for the next century.