Saturday, November 26, 2011

Technology's Imprint on Story Telling-- Lesson 1: Early Silent Film

Having taught a theater course to 6th grade students for over ten years, I learned a lot about the relationship between technology and the evolution of story telling.  I watched a lot of film as I dug for mentor "texts" and in the process constantly observed "something else" to include in the lesson.  Judging by the quality and depth of responses in their writer's notebooks, the unit called Technology's Imprint grew in scope and quality and became a favorite of many students--especially because they could clearly see themselves in the throes of the constant evolution and influence of technology.

An early relationship I tried to capture was the importance of the freshness of any technology when first developed.  For my purposes with early silent film, no one had acted for the screen before or had been an audience for it.  That simply relationship was new--think of the first time we sent a text message to someone, or used Skype--there is something to remember in humanity's trill with discovery.

Human Beings have a great passion and need and thirst for new experiences. I try to connect the feelings our kids had the first time they played XBox (can we mention here that computer games are developing epic stories which the player takes the central role in?)  See, the more you look, the more you see "something else" to include in the lesson.

But, back to the beginning...

I learned that starting with Thomas Edison's and Edwin Porter's Great Train Robbery from 1903 provided many great starting points of inquiry and discussion:

a) it was only 10 minutes long
b) only one stationary camera angle or perspective existed, yet the film was shot in several locations/settings
c) it was silent yet there is music on most copies today
d) for weeks my students would have studied "sound and movement" as the genesis for all acting, yet here a challenge presented it self to actors--tell the story with just movement.  This affected acting styles greatly and we were set to trace the changes actors and directors made the more they worked with this technology--for instance, early film such as GTR made little room for anything but meoldrama in its performances.
e) the speed of the action was controlled my frames per second or how fast a cameraman turned the crank on the camera (did any of those cameramen even get recognized with an Oscar, even post humously?  I wonder if that can even be traced anymore--the skillful work of a particular cameraman?)
f) the wonderfully odd choices to hand-paint (with dye) segments of individual frames in the GTR--you'll see gun fire appear yellow and read, a little girls cloak appear purple--some had experimented with dipping entire scenes into dyes to help control the mood of the audience, much in the same way a lighting directors works with a live stage production.
g) the image of the bandit firing his gun into the camera/audience must have thrilled audiences much in the same way that 3D thrills people today.  It is interesting to note that Martin Scorsese paid homage to this film and moment at the end of Goodfellas--Joe Pesci pointing and firing his gun at the the camera, at us.  Before I knew anything about GTR, I saw Goodfellas in a theater, and was completely unnerved by that final scene.
h) crosscutting: the idea that the audience can understand that two consecutive scenes shot in different locations with different characters could be happening at the same time.
i) distributed with a note saying the famous shot of the bandit firing his gun at the camera/audience could appeareither at the beginning or at the end of the film, or both.

As I taught this unit, I loved asking the students to draw parallels to today.  What new technologies do we see altering the way we are told stories or altering the way in which our story-tellers work?
The answers to this question evolve every year--we could discuss everything from computer animation and the importance now for actors to be able to do voice work well, to the infusion of reality TV which by all accounts takes jobs away from professional actors yet opens the door for more types of "acting" or storytelling.  Shows like The Biggest Loser, Survivor, The Amazing Race, and the granddaddy of them all American Idol are popular because they are stories and are marketed as that--real stories.  How thrilling to follow the story of someone just like us...which, by the way, is nothing new.  Shakespeare knew enough when he wrote Romeo and Juliet--capitalizing for the first time on the notion that a play could be about someone other than a King or Queen or great military or political hero from history--my gosh, give the people the story of a teenage girl and boy in love and see what happens.  We can identify this in the work of many great story tellers: Charles Dickens, John Dos Passos, Carson McCullers, John Steinbeck, etc.

But I am digressing, in this series of blog posts I aim to share with you the many angles and discussions you can have on story telling simply by looking at how technology influenced it, and still does today...the iPad? the smartphone, the Kindle, the Nook, anyone?

No comments:

Post a Comment