Martin Scorsese Explains How Directors Started Using Technology As A Device In Filmmaking

Since the very beginning of filmmaking, directors have experimented with many different techniques and styles to present their stories to the audience. From the early days of silent era films to the days of computer-generated movies, film production has seen a massive advancement. Today, the directors are required to use and implement the technology to achieve a quality that provides the audience with a cinematic experience. Plus, these tools also come in handy to help a filmmaker achieve their vision with ease. Today, we’ll talk about how the directors turned into magicians by using technology in their movies.


Martin Scorsese’s journey through American movies gave us a more extended version of the understanding of filmmaking. In the documentary’s second part, he talked about how directors needed to be technicians to implement their vision perfectly. Through a century of constant experimentation, filmmaking today has expanded extraordinarily. Films grew from silent to sound, black and white to Technicolor, standard screen size to Cinemascope, and 35 mm to 70 mm. All this has been possible only after pioneers of the field used technology as a device in their filmmaking. When making a film, it is essential to understand the critical role that technology plays in it.

Cinema Is An Illusion; Director Is The Wizard

The best thing about the American industry is that it is always more receptive to change. It is indeed one of the many reasons why foreign films fail to compete with Hollywood in terms of film technology. Scorsese quoted King Vidor, who said, “Cinema is the greatest means of expression ever invented, but it is an illusion more powerful than any other, and it should therefore be in the hands of the magicians and the wizards who can bring it to life.” Cinema had these brilliant directors, like D.W. Griffith. He introduced some new camera angles, transitions, and special effects in American filmmaking that became the foundation of what Kind Vidor had said. To master this form of art, the director needs to have knowledge of all the technical aspects, or he will be left with embarrassment, if not a significant failure. For example, Buster Keaton accidentally double-exposed the film in his “The Cameraman” (1928). If Keaton’s cameraman had mastered the technicalities of the film, this wouldn’t have happened.


This brings us to the world D.W. Griffith had created that changed almost everything for the American Filmmaking Style. Although, most of the pioneering directors who helped American movies grow never had any formal education regarding filmmaking. D.W. Griffith often expressed his thoughts on seeing cinema as a minor form of entertainment. But, as time progressed, he made drastic developments in his films. In February 1915, D.W. Griffith’s first feature-length epic, “The Birth Of A Nation,” was released, and with it, a new style of filmmaking was introduced to the world. He revolutionized, or to be appropriate, created an entirely new industry. Raoul Walsh, one of the assistants of D.W. Griffith said that “The Birth Of A Nation” almost convinced the Americans that films were not just an illegitimate successor of the theatre but a genuine art form independently.

How Did Frame Composition And Shot Design Change American Filmmaking History?

In his “The Birth Of A Nation,” D.W. Griffith used some of the most intriguing compositions that had never been used or seen before. Also, as mentioned by Walsh, Griffith introduced high and low-angle shots, which elevated the impact of his storytelling. D.W. Griffith also used the close-ups so elegantly that they described a thousand words in a single shot. Scorsese added that visual literacy is just as critical as verbal literacy. This idea intrigued the American filmmakers, who decided to explore as many technical aspects as possible. The design of the shots was one of the fields left unexplored for a more extended period of time. In low-budget films, the director had a lot of freedom to study these new techniques as the producer never interfered with their work. This process developed a new language or a visual grammar that is used to narrate a story or express emotions through images instead of words. Shots and transitions developed a new storytelling format. Close-ups, irises, dissolves, masking part of the screen for emphasis, dolly shots, tracking shots, and more techniques are used by filmmakers all around the world to create and heighten the illusion of reality.


The Introduction Of The Special Effects To American Filmmaking

When D.W. Griffith saw an Italian epic, “Cabiria,” its production design stunned him completely. This particular film inspired him to create one of his most magnificent masterpieces—”Intolerance” (1916). However, Griffith directed “Intolerance” without a script. The whole film was planned in his head. “Intolerance” was made with an extravagant budget, real-size sets, and thousands of extras. It was a daring attempt to portray stories and characters from four different centuries. He used his most effective close-ups to catch the perfect emotion of his distressed heroines. Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 epic, “The Ten Commandments,” masterfully staged the exodus from Egypt, introducing a visual contrast between the pharaoh’s war machine and the simple caravan of the Israelites. He even used an early two-strip Technicolor process to capture the humor of the scenes vibrantly. However, he knew that the grand set and spectacles wouldn’t just make a great film, (and) thus he started working on dramatic construction rather than photographic effects. He believed that he could introduce the words from the Bible into the medium (of film) directly. He devised some of the most extraordinary technical effects to achieve this.

How Did Frederick Murnau Affect Hollywood With His Style Of Filmmaking?

In the late 1920s, some experiments took place all around American filmmaking. Films have evolved into a more sophisticated art form with unique camera movements, long takes, deep focus, intense lighting, etc. Fox Studios and Frederick Murnau created the most expensive art film in Hollywood—”Sunrise” (1927). A big production house investing a significant amount in an art film was also one of the most progressive things in American filmmaking history. Murnau’s treatment of his characters was so vibrant that rather than establishing a plot, he depicted his entire vision in expressions that had the caliber to move a person or an entire audience. His main objective was to fulfill the character’s desire through lights and shadows. He was called “a cerebral director” by many of his Hollywood peers because he demanded his actors understand the psychology of their characters. He would even use 20 pounds of lead in George O’Brien’s shoes to make the actor’s presence more threatening. Murnau once said that he would talk to an actor about what he should be thinking rather than what he should be doing.


The Era Of The Pantomime And Frank Borzage

Frank Borzage was not a well-educated person, so his approach was more spontaneous. What inspired him the most was the power of emotions. That made him the maestro of pantomime. He used to give more preference to the feelings of his characters than anything else. His approach to such a style helped him deliver melodramas with pure emotions. In “Seventh Heaven” (1927), Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell created a unique couple with great chemistry. As Scorsese said, their romance would lift them from the physical form to the spiritual one. When the war took place, and Charles Farrell lost his eyes, the couple would interact with each other telepathically. According to Borzage, souls are made great only through love and adversity. This was the reason why he introduced such characters in his film. Even after Charles returned from the war, he confronted Janet by saying that he could see the dreams now that he was blind. Scorsese concluded by saying, for lovers, reality itself is immaterial. Borzage somehow incorporated the highest levels of empathy into his pantomime.


When the art of pantomime had reached its zenith, it was time for Hollywood to embrace the era of sound. It was a rather painful transition for the silent film directors. But, as we have stated earlier, the American film industry has always been eager to accept new techniques. We now know how directors play the role of an illusionist to approach their visions and also how important it is for a director to learn about the technicalities that come with filmmaking. Next time, we will discuss the age of sound and how the screen size evolved with time.


See More: Martin Scorsese Explains The Era Of Sound, Three-Strip Technicolor, Cinemascope & Green Screen

Shovan Roy
Shovan Roy
Shovan Roy is a creative content writer. Formerly he used to write film reviews on an international film festival website named Beyond the Curve International Film Festival. He also interviewed global directors. He also interviewed one of the characters from the show 'Trailer Park Boys', Mr. Bernard Robichaud, platformed in Netflix. Shovan tends to write through the third person narrative and he loves to do psychoanalysis. He can't say that he has mastered it but that is some sort of hobby of his. Film is a platform where he loves to spend most of his time learning.


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