Short films as an introduction to cinema?
March 10, 2021 7:45 PM   Subscribe

I am teaching a university course this spring on film. I would like some suggestions on teaching cinema concepts, as well as some examples of early films.

As for the course, the bulk of it will be watching and discussing four or five films. I am in the process of choosing those, and they will be modern films; maybe the oldest will be from the 80s.

But I don't want to just jump straight into watching without giving students a bit of context. And I am thinking of playing short clips (YouTube would be ideal!) that explain concepts like genre, plot characters; technical concepts like dolly shot, medium shot, depth of field, lighting, etc. And in addition to that, I want to give a quick overview of early films, namely short films or clips of films that give a decent sampling of 20th century film.

I have two class periods (90 mins each) in which to lay down these concepts, and after that it's off to the full-length features. BTW I am in Japan and my students will be taking the course to improve their English.
posted by zardoz to Education (19 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
We used Edward Scissor Hands to talk about a lot of screen techniques in the 8th Grade English class I used to teach. It's quite bright and easy to see different camera angles and their effects.
posted by freethefeet at 8:11 PM on March 10, 2021

Best answer: Might you find some helpful options in Every Frame a Painting?
posted by praemunire at 8:41 PM on March 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'd suggest asking them to work through some of Pixar in a Box at Khan Academy--especially the section on film grammar, which is not specific to animated film.
posted by Wobbuffet at 8:54 PM on March 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: CineFix (on YouTube) occasionally does videos that talk about the technical aspect of movies. Here are the videos I think are most relevant to your question.

Best Shots of All Time - Part 1 (19 minutes)
Single Shots by Scale
Close Ups, Long Shot, Medium Shot, Extreme Close Up, Extreme Long Shot

Best Shots of All Time - Part 2 (15 minutes)
Relational Shots
Over the Shoulder, two characters facing the camera (not named?), Two Shot, Group Shot, Crowd Shot

Best Shots of All Time - Part 3 (11 minutes)
Places and Things
Establishing Shot, Inserts, Cut Aways

4 More of the Best Shots of All Time (15 minutes)
Lenses and Focal Length
Telephoto, Wide Angle, Zoom, Focus

6 of the Best Shots of All Time
Pan, Tilt, Cant/Roll/Dutch Tilt, Push, Track, Crane

5 Brilliant Moments of Camera Movement
posted by rakaidan at 9:27 PM on March 10, 2021 [8 favorites]

The classic example of montage is the scene at steps in Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. Which even a film as late as the Costner/Connery Untouchables cribs from.

Related to the notion of montage is the Kuleshov effect though no examples from popular films jump out at me, there is an example in the wiki article.
posted by juv3nal at 9:31 PM on March 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Oh wait nevermind the wiki article has a link in the references to Hitch explaining the Kuleshov effect.
posted by juv3nal at 9:33 PM on March 10, 2021

Selected very early films, with info from Wikipedia:

1878 – Eadweard Muybridge’s “Horse in Motion” – “The series became the first example of chronophotography, an early method to photographically record the passing of time, mainly used to document the different phases of locomotion for scientific study. It formed an important step in the development of motion pictures.”

1894 or 1895 – William Dickson’s “The Dickson Experimental Sound Film”—First known film with live-recorded sound – 17 seconds.

1896 – Alice Guy-Blache’s “La Fee aux Choux (The Fairy of the Cabbages)” – First film by a woman, and arguably first narrative film – 60 seconds.

1900 – J. Stuart Blackton’s “The Enchanted Drawing” – First animated sequences recorded on standard picture film – 90 seconds.

1902 – Georges Melies’ “A Trip to the Moon” – First science fiction – 18 minutes?

1913 – Lois Weber’s “Suspense” – Early example split-screen shot – Weber was one of America’s first auteurs and also made some socially conscious films – 10 minutes.

1916 – Lois Weber’s “Where Are My Children?” – Features issue of abortion prominently – 62 minutes.
posted by NotLost at 9:55 PM on March 10, 2021

I am in the process of choosing those, and they will be modern films; maybe the oldest will be from the 80s.

If Withnail and I is not already on your shortlist, it really needs to be. Quite apart from the sheer magnificence of every performance in it, it is just gorgeously shot.

The sparks that bounce up from the filthy old gas stove as the filthy old kettle is plonked down upon it in closeup fill me with joy every. single. time.
posted by flabdablet at 10:20 PM on March 10, 2021

the best of the best of the best. the filtering is hard to use, but they're all there. also, you can easily scroll off the list accidentally and into other site links and ads.
posted by j_curiouser at 10:40 PM on March 10, 2021

Since you're in Japan and need films suitable for English learners, this might be obvious or irrelevant, but maybe it's worth mentioning that a sample of early films may invite comparisons with early Japanese cinema, e.g. the fantasy/horror films from 1898-1949 that Jess Nevins covers in this Twitter thread or the animated films from 1917-1941 at the National Film Archive of Japan. In particular, I think Jiraiya the Hero (1921) illustrates making cuts to achieve special effects in a fun way: Jiraiya turns into a giant frog while fighting a group of people and turns into a frog again while fighting Orochimaru (the battle's conclusion). And A Page of Madness (1926), co-written by Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata, shows up fairly often on Anglophone 'greatest horror' / 'greatest silent film' lists, because it's something really special--stranger, more surreal than actual Surrealist films being made at the same time. Neither are great for your purpose, because their lost benshi narration means there's not even an English translation to work with, but they're things you could call out while explaining your focus.
posted by Wobbuffet at 11:31 PM on March 10, 2021

Best answer: The Filmmaker IQ series has a lot of well make videos on the technical aspects of films like: How a Director Stages and Blocks a Scene, Mastering the Art of the Dolly Zoom, History of the Hollywood Musical and a lot more.
posted by octothorpe at 4:54 AM on March 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Story of Film: An Odyssey is a really excellent 2011 British documentary series. Highly recommended for its inclusive nature.

While it looks like it's streaming on Hulu, you can also use a free service like Kanopy to access it with library card or university login.
posted by jeremias at 7:45 AM on March 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: *pulls up chair and sits down*

So, if you haven't heard about the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die books, this is one place to start looking (along with the Ebert's Best Movies list linked above). The 1001-Movies list also has a bit of an online fan following, so you'll find many bloggers from around the world (disclaimer: I'm one) going through the list and writing about the films. What's great about the 1001 Movies list is that it makes a point of being geographically diverse - it's not all Hollywood, they go out of their way to include films from other countries' movie industries, obscure indie stuff, and even stuff that they flat-out admit is kinda boring but "it gives a good example of [this specific technique]". They also start early on in film history, with some stuff that is available on Youtube.

I have a couple recommendations, and some notes that may help with the class work.

* A Trip To The Moon (also suggested above) is one of the earliest films that shows up on everyone's lists. It's pretty short and it has some fun special effects. But - for early 21st-century movie watchers, it can be a little difficult to follow because the cameraman just put everyone in a room and turned the camera on, and hadn't yet figured out how to do things like closeups or such so it's a little unclear where an audience is meant to be looking or what's going on, you're just watching Stuff Happen. My theory is that this was more about very early filmmakers treating film like theater - in a theater, you also just throw all the actors on stage and the audience sees the whole stage in one go. But in theater, you can actually hear the actors speaking, so it's easier to tell where you should focus at any given moment; here you didn't have that. My hunch is that it simply took filmmakers a little while to figure out how to account for that, and here they hadn't yet.

* One of the reasons everyone talks about D.W. Griffith so much is that he was the guy who finally first started using close-ups in his films. Unfortunately he used them on things like Birth Of A Nation, which you definitely want to skip...however, his next film, Intolerance, has some of the same techniques without as much overt racism. Intolerance is a saga with 4 stories being told all together; if you focus on the sequences set in ancient Babylon, they may be the most fun and eye-catching (most of the story there concerns a spunky peasant girl who ends up patriotically devoted to the Babylonian king, to the point that she becomes one of his chariot drivers).

* You gotta have some clips from the big silent comedy stars. I recommend going for all three - Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. You can find scores of short clips showing their work, but for Keaton I particularly recommend this dream sequence from Sherlock Jr., and for Lloyd go with this sequence from The Kid Brother.

* The Big over-the-top Busby Berkeley stuff needs a shout-out - adding the context that "this was during the Depression when people really wanted escapism and spectacle". The human waterfall sequence from Footlight Parade or We're In The Money from Golddiggers of 1933 would suit here.

* For specific examples of the dolly shot - the first notable example was in the 1927 film Sunrise, A Song Of Two Humans (they even won a technical award in the first-ever Oscars because of it). I'm pretty sure you can find a clip of that particular scene online somewhere (I can't get my own hands on it right now). Today, we should also tip our hats to Spike Lee's own use of the dolly shot - he uses it a bit differently as a bit of a personal style, and that may be fun to discuss its use.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:57 AM on March 11, 2021 [2 favorites]


Okay, I didn't mention any of the Japanese films on the 1001 movies list above, largely because I didn't know whether it would be old hat for your students at all. But if you wanna pick anything by Akira Kurosawa, I'd go with something from Throne of Blood - it's Shakespeare through a Noh drama filter, and ends up looking super funky as a result. There are a ton of scholarly articles about how Kurosawa used Noh techniques in that film, and how well-suited that particular work was to that treatment.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:07 AM on March 11, 2021

2nding checking out The Story of Film: An Odyssey for ideas - I've only seen the first episode so far (1895-1918) but it sounds like it will have some of what you are looking for. A timeline of the early development of film and had details and examples of which techniques were developed when, why they were important, and how each new innovation in technique built on the last.
posted by ghostbikes at 8:53 AM on March 11, 2021

Just found this blog post from a film fan who discusses the Spike Lee dolly shot from a technical "how he did it" angle, before going into analyzing its use in Spike's various films. It may be good to know the technique so you can explain the difference between Spike's "double-dolly" shot and a more traditional dolly shot (which that blog post also defines).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:43 AM on March 11, 2021

CG Layout is a great youtube channel that covers some of the basic shots you want to discuss.
posted by cleverevans at 2:52 PM on March 11, 2021

The Anatomy of a Scene series from the New York Times is pretty great.
posted by octothorpe at 5:23 PM on March 11, 2021

Thirding A Story of Film. One of the aspects I remember most was in the first episode or two, describing the first uses of very simple techniques that we take entirely for granted now. Realising that even the simplest things - like showing a person then cutting to their viewpoint - were part of an entirely new language that both filmmakers and audiences had to learn was fascinating. For me, demonstrating such techniques with their earliest uses was more impactful than showing uses from more modern films.
posted by fabius at 5:27 AM on March 12, 2021

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