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Films go through many transformations as they are copied or transferred to video, but the most important visual aspects of a film are those that can give clues to its production. What can we see about how the film was made by looking at the film itself? How was it shot and how was it arranged for the camera? Was the camera on location or in a studio? Where was the camera placed and why was it placed there? What sort of lenses were used? Did the camera operator use artificial or available light? Was the scene specially arranged for the camera and how was it framed? What angle of view was it taken from? Was the camera on a tripod or hand-held? If there was camera movement, how was it done? After examining individual shots, you must also consider how the film was edited. What scenes may have been cut out by the editor? How do shots begin and end? With the shots that follow each other, how much time actually took place between them? Do the shots form a sequence or are they only loosely connected? If they form a sequence, did the original event really occur in this order?

While many of these questions (such as what footage was cut in the editing process) cannot be answered with certainty by simply examining the film, careful examination can reveal some important features. Only rarely are sets so convincing that a viewer cannot tell if the film was shot on a set or not. The image reveals camera angle, distance, composition, and even lenses. Occasionally such aspects can be very revealing of a film's authenticity. A too carefully arranged composition -- such as camera operators capturing a battle from an ideal viewpoint that would have placed them in mortal danger from enemy fire -- can reveal it as a re-enactment.

Editing can make historical interpretation of film tricky for three reasons. First, it can utterly re-work or determine the meaning of a film sequence. Second, it can be done after the filming. Third, films can be re-edited in ways not immediately obvious to a viewer. Many early filmmakers and theorists understood editing as perhaps the most powerful tool filmmakers had for making meaning. While a single shot usually supplies some sort of record of what the camera filmed (even if artificially arranged), editing always presents a reconstruction and can greatly change the meaning of what was shot, creating relationships of space and time that may not have existed originally.

As I mentioned earlier, one must be especially aware of editing when watching a compilation film. Editors can create a sequence of a battle, a riot, or a political convention by cutting between combatants or political orators and their audiences, but they are combining shots taken at very different times and sometimes different places. Thus, in Hearts of the World, a fictional feature film made during W.W.I., D.W. Griffith used documentary images of the war to heighten the film's drama. But as film historian Russell Merritt has shown, the images that seem to show one battle actually combine footage from several events and even mix footage shot by both British and German cameramen.

Early filmmakers often created stories and illusions out of different, unrelated, film clips. In this exercise, you need to arrange these four early film clips to create a narrative. Drag the clips in the sequence that you think tells the best story and then click the Play Movie button. When you're finished, select the commentary button for more information on film editing.