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Advent of Cinema

Scientists and inventors set photographs into motion—and make movies.

The Great Train Robbery

Edwin S. Porter
(American, 1870–1941)

1903. 35mm film (black and white with color tinting, silent), 11 min.

An 11-minute-long escapade telling the story of a gang of bandits who rob a passenger train, The Great Train Robbery is a spectacle- and drama-laden film. It was a breakout success, transcending everything that had been screened before it. Its director was Edwin S. Porter, a camera operator in the Edison Laboratory, who became one of the most successful early American filmmakers. While the earliest Edison films were actualities or brief fictional scenarios, by 1902, technological advancements in motion picture cameras and celluloid made possible longer, more complex narratives like The Great Train Robbery.

The film’s popularity stemmed largely from Porter’s formal innovations, significantly, his use of editing to cut together disparate shots into a narrative of shifting perspectives and locations. Though 11 minutes may seem fleeting today, this length marks a milestone in American filmmaking. Audiences who flocked to movie theaters across the United States to see The Great Train Robbery would have never before been treated to such a long spectacle. The minutes were packed with action and special effects that would have felt bold and exciting, while its moments of abject violence—as when a bandit shoots a passenger point-blank—disturbed audiences not yet accustomed to violence in film.

Porter filmed the scenes that take place inside the train and in other indoor spaces like the railroad administration office on set, using double exposure to create the illusion of the train passing by the window of the office or the landscape rushing past the train car’s open door. He took his camera outside to shoot such climactic scenes as the pursuit and ultimate defeat of the bandits by a band of heroes. He also mounted his camera to the top of the moving train, framing the bandits’ infiltration from above and behind to heighten the sense of their stealth.

Moments of color, hand-painted onto the celluloid, enhanced select prints (including the one in MoMA’s collection) of this otherwise black-and-white film. Dynamite and guns explode in orange-yellow bursts and women attend a dance in bright dresses. While the story proceeds largely chronologically, Porter sequenced scenes to indicate simultaneously occurring action, creating a narrative with a layered sense of time. The film closes with a shot of one of the bandits facing the camera and firing his gun directly at it—startling audience members by placing them in the position of the train’s unfortunate passengers.

In photography and filmmaking, a technique in which film is exposed twice to capture and merge two different images in a single frame.

The first synthetic plastic material, developed in the 1860s and 1870s from a combination of camphor and nitrocellulose. Tough, flexible, and moldable, it was used to make many mass-produced items, including photographic film for both still and motion picture cameras. Despite its flammability and tendency to discolor and crack with age, celluloid was used in motion picture production until the 1930s, when it began to be replaced by cellulose-acetate safety film.

A nonfiction film, usually lasting no more than one to two minutes, showing unedited, unstructured footage of real events, places, people, or things. Actualities, the predecessor of documentaries, were popular forms of entertainment from the early 1890s until around 1908.

An illusion created for movies and television using props, camerawork, computer graphics, etc.

An unreal, deceptive, or misleading appearance or image.

A person who directs or produces movies.

1. A series of moving images, especially those recorded on film and projected onto a screen or other surface (noun); 2. A sheet or roll of a flexible transparent material coated with an emulsion sensitive to light and used to capture an image for a photograph or film (noun); 3. To record on film or video using a movie camera (verb).

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

A combination of pigment, binder, and solvent (noun); the act of producing a picture using paint (verb, gerund).

Technique used to depict volumes and spatial relationships on a flat surface, as in a painted scene that appears to extend into the distance.

A spoken, written, or visual account of an event or a series of connected events.

The method by which information is included or excluded from a photograph, film, or video. A photographer or filmmaker frames an image when he or she points a camera at a subject.

Relating to the shape or structure of an object.

The perceived hue of an object, produced by the manner in which it reflects or emits light into the eye. Also, a substance, such as a dye, pigment, or paint, that imparts a hue.

Porter Gains Accolades, Fame…and Competition
Until David Wark (D. W.) Griffith began making films in 1908, Edwin S. Porter enjoyed the esteem of being regarded as one of the most innovative filmmakers of his day. With The Great Train Robbery, he pulled the American film business out of its early doldrums and captured the imagination (not to mention the money) of the still-developing movie-going public across the United States and in Europe. In a sense, Porter helped prime the public for the movies. So when the prolific Griffith released nearly 50 films in 1908 alone—practically one film per week—people were ready to be entertained.

Behind-the-Scenes: Women at Work
In America, women were barred from pursuing most professions until World War II. This dynamic held in the world of cinema, too, where men were the inventors and directors, while women were relegated to acting and to behind-the-scenes positions including editing and hand-coloring. Both editing and hand-coloring were perceived as work that women could do, like sewing, needlepoint, and other crafts. A codification system for hand-coloring—e.g. bright blue for daylight scenes or orange and yellow for fire—guided the women. But those who colored The Great Train Robbery had a measure of freedom in choosing how to paint the dresses of the young girl character and the women at the dance.