The art of timing

http://www.cinemetrics.lv

Measurement is fundamental to film. In the early days of the medium, films were priced by the foot, with the content of little consequence unless it was coloured or featured a subject of particular importance, in which case the price per foot went up. The business was measured in how many feet of film were sold, competition was fiercest where cuts were made by one company in the price per foot of film, and as films grew longer they would still be measured in so many reels. Quantity overrode quality. Hold up a strip of film and you could use it as a tape measure – equidistant frames arranged in a straight line.

Films may be all digital now (or virtually so), but that has only increased their propensity towards measurement. There is duration, frame speed, file size, bit rate, and still that succession of frames that are fundamental to the nature of the time-based medium.

Then things get more complicated, because films comprise multiple shots. This was a puzzle for the earliest film producers, who started off believing that a different shot became a different film, to be catalogued, priced and sold separately. But art and the market started to demand that these shots be brought together. Films might now be measured in reels, but within those reels a complexity emerged, as the number of shots, and their length, started to vary according to the type of film or producer. This was not an issue as such for the producers of the period, but decades later it has become a matter of great interest to film scholars who would like to assess the art of film not just qualitatively but quantitively. Which is where cinemetrics comes in.

Cinemetrics graph for Battleship Potemkin, produced by Yuri Tsivian

Cinemetrics is the creation of Professor Yuri Tsivian of the University of Chicago. A renowned historian of early cinema (if his Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception isn’t on your bookshelf as yet, it should be), probably best known for introducing film scholarship to the marvels of pre-revolutionary Russian dramatic film, notably the work of Yevgenii Bauer. It was when Tsivian started doing an average shot analysis on the films of Bauer and his pupil Lev Kuleshov that Tsivian found evidence to show that “between 1917 and 1918 the cutting tempo of Russian films had jumped from the slowest to the fastest in the world”. What might previously have been intuited could, with patience, be demonstrated empiricially.

With patience, and some software, that is. Because Tsivian then did two extraordinary things. The first was (with computer scientist Gunars Civjans) in 2005 to build a software programme for measuring films; the second was to invite anyone in the world to take part and submit their data to a website – a model example of crowdsourcing in action.

Timing I think was my key thing. I was able to figure out the timing to close the gap between my opponent and myself and move back, and that was I think the key.

It is symptomatic of the imagination, as well as the playfulness, of Tsivian, that he should provide this quote from Chuck Norris on how he won six karate world titles. As Tsivian says, “much like martial arts, or like poetry and music, cinema is the art of timing”. Other scholars, notably David Bordwell and Barry Salt, has shown interest in average shot lengths as a means to measure film style, and Tsivian’s endeavour has demonstrated many scholars worldwide are similarly interested, and sufficiently dedicated to the cause to view and measure films (from any era, and of any kind) and submit the data online for all to study and share.

The Cinemetrics tool can be downloaded onto your PC or used online. The idea is that you then run your video and mark each change in shot with the click of a mouse on by hitting a keyboard button. This will then give you your data on the film’s length, number of shots and average shot length. You then upload the data to the Cinemetrics database, which produces graphs and publishes the data online for all to see. It’s that simple (an advanced option invites you to identify types of shot, such as close-up or medium shot). A more sophisticated tool, the Frame Accurate Cinemetrics Tool has recently been made available, for which you must rip a copy of the film you wish to analyse onto your hard drive (a tad contentious under some copyright regimes).

Video explaining how to use the new Frame Accurate Cinemetrics Tool (FACT)

Many have taken part, and there are many silent films that have been analyses. The database currently contains just over 10,000 titles, which can be sorted by date, country, director, submitter, average shot length (unsurprisingly the single shot Russian Ark comes out top), media shot length, and so forth. Many silent films are along them.

The Cinemetrics site hosts the database, software programme, articles (check out in particular Tsivian’s classic analysis of Intolerance), examples of Cinemetrics studies, a discussion board, and a lab section for comparing data. Most recently (and the reason for posting this now), a ‘conversations’ section has been added on film and statistics in which film scholars and statistical scientists come together to discuss their shared field arranged around particular themes.

The language of statistics is not one that appeals to most film viewers, and some of the debate may seem wilfully recherché. Talk of medians, means, datasets and outliers may seem to have little to do with the appreciation of film, reducing an art into a quantifiable commodity, just as those early film producers who only saw their product in terms of feet and reels.

But we cannot judge films by emotions alone, no matter how acutely attuned to artistic worth we may feel them to be. Data can quanitify what the eye may only sense or the heart feel. Of course there is more to film art than shot lengths, and new kinds of film analysis tools are starting to emerge which analyse action within and beyond the frame or shot (see, for example, the Gestus Project, which employs vector analysis; or Tim J. Smith’s acclaimed work on visual cognition, which maps where our eyes actually rove over the screen as opposed to where you think they might be looking). The important things in any sort of data analysis are relevance, consistency and range. The work of the cinemetricists is firmly relevant to how films are constructed, it is rigorously consistent in application, and the range of scholars worldwide who have conributed to this remarkable work enriches the data with every new contribution. Even if statistics leaves you cold, the ingenuity and dedication merit your admiration.

Acknowledgments to Nick Redfern of the Research into Film blog, a Cinemetrics contributor and film empiricist, whose blog alerted me to the new ‘conversations’ feature.

(Unfortunately the name ‘Cinemetrics’ has recently been adopted by graphic designer Frederic Brodbeck to create visualisations of films derived from their data. The results look beautiful, but do not quantify or analyse in the same way, and have no connection with Tsivian and Civjans’ Cinemetrics.)

Portrait of an invisible man

Dai Vaughan, from Vertigo magazine

There have been many warm tributes recently to the late Andrew Sarris, the great film critic. Sarris was renowned for his advocacy of the auteur theory, in which the director of a film is judged to be its primary author when considering a film’s status as a work of art. Not all film directors can be auteurs, however, or so the argument goes – it is predominantly an elite whose distinctive stamp marks out those films that are truly great.

Well, may be so, but if there are film auteurs out there I do not think that they have always to be directors, or creators of fiction films, or indeed exclusively filmmakers. A case in point is the late Dai Vaughan, who died last month, to somewhat less recognition from the film world. Vaughan was a film artist – or perhaps more properly an artist who worked within film – whose commitment to that art was every bit as notable as a Hitchcock, a Ford or a Hawks. But Vaughan was a documentary film editor, and consequently an invisible man, to use the phrase that employed for his outstanding study of the editor behind Humphrey Jennings’ documentaries, Stewart McAllister, Portrait of an Invisible Man (1983).

Dai Vaughan (1933-2012) worked in the heart of film for over thirty years. He discovered the medium at the National Film Theatre in London in the 1950s, and joined the London Film of School Technique, going on to make films for the Labour Party, including the documentary Gala Day (1963) and a number of party political broadcasts. Establishing himself as a documentary film editor, he worked on some of the most notable British television series of the 60s and 70s: Granada’s social affairs World in Action and the great anthropological Disappearing World, the BBC’s arts series Omnibus and Roger Graef’s pioneering fly-on-the-wall series The Space Between Words (1972) and Decision (1975-76).

Vaughan’s social and political commitment, and his deep interest in how film can document, came out equally in his films and in his writings. His study of Stewart McAllister (practically his alter ego) is an inspired recovery of a lost life and a buried art, demonstrating as it does with what subtle artistry McAllister turned the wartime documentary inspirations of Humphrey Jennings into such exceptional works of arts as Listen to Britain and Fires were Started. However his greatest work is a collection of essays, For Documentary (1999). Were I to be restricted to just ten books on film in my library, then For Documentary would be one of them; and were I then only allowed to keep one, For Documentary might be it. For ideas that grip you and stay with you, fine style, knowledge based on practical experience and depth of undertanding, there is little in the field that surpasses it.

The book covers such subjects as ethnographic film, films of the Olympic Games, fabriciation in documentary and a prescient essay from 1994 on the digital image bringing about the death of cinema. But my favourite piece, and the reason for writing about Vaughan in a blog concerned with silent cinema is the opening essay, ‘Let there be Lumière’.

This exquisite piece of writing is concerned about the beginnings of cinema, specficially that extraordinary moment at which point cinema came into being, something which for Vaughan is equivalent to “what happened to the universe in the first microseconds after the big bang”. Vaughan analyses one film in particular, the Lumières’ Barque sortant du port (A Boat Leaving Harbour) (1895), a film whose mysterious beauty Vaughan unpicks by reference to its absolute spontaneity, a moment on film before film understood itself to be an art, before the arts of fiction (and of editing) intruded, before rules are introduced that make the mysteries of film comprehensible. He writes (also referring to the fascination leaves moving in the background had for audiences of the the first Lumière films):

As audiences settle for appearances, according film’s images the status of dream or fantasy whose links with a prior world are assumed to have been severed if they ever existed, film falls into place as a signifying system whose articulations may grow ever more complex. True, the movement of leaves remains unpredictable; but we know that, with the endless possibility of retakes open to the filmmaker, what was unplanned is nevertheless what has been chosen: and the spontaneous is subsumed into the enunciated. Even in documentary, which seeks to respect the provenance of its images, they are bent inexorably to foreign purpose. The “big bang” leaves only a murmur of background radiation, detectable whenever someone decides that a film will gain in realism by being shot on “real” locations or where the verisimilitude of a Western is enhanced, momentarily, by the unscripted whinny of a horse.

A Boat Leaving Harbour begins without purpose and ends without conclusion, its actors drawn into the contingency of events. Successive viewings serve only to stress its pathetic brevity as a fragment of human experience. It survives as a reminder of that moment when the question of spontaneity was posed and not yet found to be insoluble: when cinema seemed free, not only of its proper connotations, but of the threat of its absorption into meanings beyond it. Here is the secret of its beauty. The promise of this film remains untarnished because it is a promise which can never be kept: a promise whose every fulfilment is also its betrayal.

‘Let there be Lumière’ is a standard text on some film studies courses, and it has been much quoted down the years since it was first written in 1991. Yet its insights remain as fresh as ever, and its analysis of the workings of the first films as hypnotically entrancing as the endlessly watchable Barque sortant du port.

You can find the full essay reproduced on World Cat, but I warmly recommed the complete book. Vaughan knew his silent films, and throws in references to E.J. Marey, Laurel and Hardy, The Battle of the Somme and Charles Urban, alongside such diverse artists (film and non-film) as Federico Fellini, Adrian Cowell, David Hockney and Dorothy Richardson. Film for Vaughan is related to everything else in our culture, and all that we are may be illuminated through film.

Vaughan was also a poet and an experimental novelist, who with works such as Cloud Chamber, Moritur and Totes Meer, explored the mysteries of recovering the past in a form profoundly analogous with that of the filmmaker (the protagonist of Moritur is a film editor). As filmmaker, editor, essayist, reviewer, critic, novelist and poet, Vaughan’s work was consistent, interconnected, profound, auteurist.

(Examples of Dai Vaughan’s writings for Vertigo Magazine can be found online at http://www.closeupfilmcentre.com/library/dossiers/dai-vaughan.)

News from the Soviets

V.I. Lenin smiling for the camera, from Kinonedelja No. 22 (29 October 1918)

Dziga Vertov is one of the most revered names in Soviet filmmaking. The ways in which he married radical politics to radical film form in films such as the screen magazine Kino-Pravda, Man with a Movie Camera, A Sixth of the World and Three Songs of Lenin, and in his theoretical understanding of film, especially his concept of the ‘kino-eye’ (“I am an eye. I am a mechanical eye”) argued for film as the vital medium at the time that a new form of society was emerging. Vertov demanded that film showed the truth. In technique this meant both trusting and curiously distrusting the camera’s propensity for capturing reality, as he employed exuberant montage (especially in Kino-Pravda) to reveal supposed greater truths by stirring the passions and stimulating the ideas of the observer.

Vertov’s first films were not so radical. His film career began as a writer and occasional director for the newsreel Kinonedelja (Cinema Weekly), produced by the Moscow Film Committee of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment. This newsreel ran for forty-three issues between May 1918 and June 1919, documenting daily life in Russia in the months following the revolution of October 1917. Remarkably fourteen issues from the series survive, discovered in Sweden and now held by the Austrian Film Museum which has digitised and made twelve of the fourteen available online.

Kinonedelja has nothing like the exuberant and confrontational experiments in film reportage Vertov develped for Kino-Pravda over 1922-25. It is, instead, fascinatingly mundane. It is newsreel footage much like newsreels were being produced elsewhere around the world, basic in construction, reporting on matters of passing, local interest, in form more passive than manipulative. Kinonedelja certainly has its propagandist edge, and is loaded with the excitement of social and political change, and some propagandist language (“Soviet border guards congratulate their German comrades for liberating themselves from the bonds of monarchical slavery”). But it mixes this rather charmingly with the everyday, either reports on the ordinary (buildings being constructed, several reports on snow, a children’s festival) or by revealing the ordinary carrying on in the background. The human eye will always see more of what is going on than the camera eye, for all Vertov’s theorising.

A Red Army cinema at Gžatsk, from Kinonedelja No. 23 (5 November 1918)

The twelve newsreels (the other two are promised soon) come with Russian intertitles, but there are short descriptions provided in English. A typical example is Kinonedelja No. 3, issued 15 June 1918, length eight minutes:

1. The Peoples’ Commissar for Food Rationing, Comrade Cjurupa. / The Peoples’ Commissar for Rationing in the Southern territories, Comrade Šljapnikov. / Head of the Army Rationing Committee, Zusmanovič.

2. Intelligensia working on farms behind the Butyrsk construction site. / Planting cabbage. / Townspeople plant potatoes in a large field.

3. Lunch for the unemployed in exchange for labor. / A meal costs one ruble and ten kopecks.

4. I.G. Cereteli arrives in Moscow in the capacity of the delegate from the Caucasus.

5. In Vladivostok. Commander of the counter-revolutionary forces in Siberia, Admiral Kolčak.

6. In Moscow. June 8. Wounded Russian prisoners of war return from German captivity. / Disembarkation. / Loading the wounded into ambulances. / Wooden shoes for our prisoners in Germany. / Armbands on tunics and greatcoats testify to the repression suffered by Russian officers of the 10th division in the Hannover region. / Head commander of the Soviet Army in the Northern Caucasus, Comrade Avtonomov.

7. In Petrograd. The Revolutionary Tribunal. Murder trial for O. Kokošin und A. Šingarev. / The accused, Kulikov and Basov.

8. The new Brjansk Station in Moscow. / The central platform for passengers.

9. A children’s festival held by the Peasant Soviet in the village of Mitišča. / Who is stronger?

Much of Kinonedelja is given over to promoting the revolution and to the ongoing civil war. There are calls to arms, scenes of medical care, refugees, prisoners of war, agit trains, funerals. Little of it demonstrates the more manipulative arts of cinema (and where the newsreel does so it is clumsy, as in a story showing a queue of men keen to join the Red forces moving with comical swiftness inside an enlisting station, being inspected within, and then moving just as rapidly out of the building). It is almost guileless. Vertov would go on to greater things – in terms of film art – but for a motion picture portrait of the Soviet Union coming into being and as it was reported to its people at the time we are most fortunate to have the plain and revealing Kinonedelja.

The video are presented silently, and the quality of the digitisations is high. It is the first time the Austria Film Museum has presented archive films online (which is a little startling to learn in this day and age) and one looks forward to more of similar high quality in presentation.

Database entry for Kinonedelja, issues 38, 39, 41 (1919), showing digitised synopses for the three editions of the newsreel

However, while it may have been been slow in putting up films online, the Museum has been exemplary in digitising and making available its extensive collection of primary documentation on Dziga Vertov. The site provides an overview of the collection and a database, which has content descriptions in their original language plus German and English (most are in English as yet, but translations are promised).

So, for example, you can find 368 digitised documents on Man with a Movie Camera, 159 on Three Songs of Lenin, 72 on A Sixth Part of the World and 23 on Kinonedelja itself, with around 1,900 documents all told. They includes newspaper articles, photographs, posters, advertisements, frame enlargements, notes, letters and montage lists. All is clearly catalogued, and each document usefully crossed-linked to the relevant film, encouraging further browsing. You can also search by language, type of document, name of journal etc. There is a book guide to the collection available, Dziga Vertov: The Vertov Collection at the Austrian Film Museum.

More information on Kinonedelja and Vertov’s later film work can be found in the 2004 Pordenone silent film festival catalogue (when the festival ran a major retrospective of Vertov’s films). There is a useful essay on Vertov’s career and influence on Senses of Cinema.

Sunbeam variations

Kristin Thompson has written a fine post on the blog she shares with David Bordwell about a singularly inventive video by a Spanish student, Aitor Gametxo. He has taken D.W. Griffith’s little-known film Sunbeam (1912), which takes place in a tenement building on multiple floors and rooms, and arranged the scenes that take place in each room in a grid format, so that what takes place in the upstairs room on the left occurs on the upper left-hand corner of the screen, and so on. The performers then move in and out of the spaces, respecting Griffith’s editing ploys.

The result is as delightful as it is informative. I’m not going to go into the fine details of Griffith’s handling of simultaneous action or his intuitive understanding of naturalistic film cutting, because others – such Thompson or video essay enthusiast Kevin B. Lee – can do so very much better than I. I’m just doing what Thompson asks, which is to help spread the word about an imaginative piece of film analysis and a rather beautiful piece of work in itself, reminiscent in its way of Mike Figgis’ four-screen Timecode or the celebrated multi-roomed HBO promo video Voyeur.

Aitor Gametxo’s visual exposition of Griffith’s artistry is an object lesson in understanding how some silent films (indeed other films) work. It is one of a growing number of video essays to be found online, particularly on the Vimeo site, which film scholar Catherine Grant, of the Film Studies for Free blog, has been gathering together under the Audiovisualcy channel. Such essays analyse film texts in video form, making their arguments by illustrations from the films themselves, in a variety of often highly creative ways. What is noticeable is that none of the essays she has uncovered so far, with the one exception of Variation: The Sunbeam, David W. Griffith, 1912, is devoted to a silent film. I’ve gone looking for examples and not found them. Why is this? Are silent films insufficiently understood as being a part of film studies? Do the films not interest students and lecturers as much as they might? Do they lack the sense of cool that may come from deconstructing the cinema of today?

Or will the reimagining of Sunbeam help inspire further such investigations into early film form and strategies?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 301 other followers