A Numerate Film History?

Cinemetrics Looks at Griffith, Sennett and Chaplin (1909-1917) Conference
Saturday, March 1, 2014 - 1:00pm

Note location: 5811 S. Ellis Ave., Cobb 307

Does looking at numbers help make sense of film history? People in filmmaking used to count, and not just money. For “the pace of a picture to wed the pulse of an audience,” as D.W. Griffith once put it, the director must know for how long this or that shot will stay on the screen. In 1912, a critic for The Moving Picture World counted the number of shots-per-reel in 17 films released that August in New York, and was shocked to discover that in Griffith’s The Sands of Dee shots succeeded each other three times faster than the average: “Acting is not possible. Clarity of story is not possible. Unfolding of plot is not possible.” At the end of his acting career, Charlie Chaplin remembered how he, as a newcomer to films, used to bargain for a few extra seconds with Mack Sennett, the head of Keystone Studios, whose pacing policy in 1914 was ten feet per shot, no more. Critics and filmmakers were quite numerate in the 1910s: no know-how was complete without the know-for-how-long.

Numbers count in film history, as well. In his 1991 book on early Griffith, Tom Gunning conducts a study not unlike that which appeared in The Moving Picture World. By calculating the average number of shots-per-reel for the first six years of Griffith’s filmmaking career, Gunning establishes an increase in the tempo of cutting in Griffith’s films made between 1908 and 1913, with the sharp acceleration in 1910. Historical distance allows Gunning to interpret this trend in the opposite terms to those proposed by The Moving Picture World’s alarmist study. As it turns out, the increase in cutting rates contributed to, rather than undermined, the evolving narrative system in Griffith’s films.

The digital age opens film history both to newer tools and the challenges of statistics. One such tool is Cinemetrics, a sizable database of shot lengths that enables users to amass and process numeric data related to film editing. The one-day conference “A Numerate Film History?” is about the possible promises—or traps—that emerge as a result of the encounter between century-old films and the computational statistics of today. Conducted under the aegis of the Neubauer Collegium of Culture and Society and co-sponsored by the Film Studies Center, the conference features Prof. Tom Gunning and Prof. Yuri Tsivian from Cinema and Media Studies and two Neubauer Visiting Fellows: Michael Baxter, Emeritus Professor of Statistical Archaeology, Nottingham Trent University, UK and Daria Khitrova, Visiting Assistant Professor, University of California, Los Angeles.

Visit the Conference page to read more about the Cinemetrics Project and RSVP for the Conference.