What cinematic innovations changed the course of film history?  

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One movie which had a tremendous effect on cinematic techniques is The Birth of a Nation, a controversial film in which D. H. Griffith portrayed the epic in covering a period before the Civil War to the rebuiding of the South after this horrific war. After watching this film President Woodrow Wilson remarked, 

"It's like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true."

This 1915 film first uses such techniques as night filming, tinting, panning, close-ups, panoramic long shots, and high angle shots.

Another early film that was very innovative is the 1941 production of Citizen Kane by Orson Welles.  This film combines several innovative techniques that have since been employed in many a film:

  1. Single source lighting - Since the movie was meant to be a figuratively dark film, single lighting is employed. This casts shadows and places characters often in silhouette. With the character of Thompson, who pursues the meaning of "Rosebud," shadow covers his person most of the film, suggesting Welles's attitude toward the media and his lack of importance. Shadows used as an ethical value of a character were later used in the film noir movies.
  2. Flashbacks - While flashbacks had been used before, the use of flashbacks that have come from the perspective of a character who is aging or forgetful placed a new dimension on this technique as memories, then, become unreliable.  This technique was used in a more modern film Little Big Man starring Dustin Hoffman, interviewed as a very old man, who is forgetful and exaggerative.
  3. Framing of characters - Doors and windows frame characters in Welles's film, focusing the viewers' attention upon them.
  4. Deep focus - A technique that puts every element in the frame in perfect detail, deep focus requires that lighting and composition be managed with a special camera lens that can "showcase overlapping actions" making the mise en scene, the surroundings of the setting, more important. Thus, this technique allows filmakers to place more details in a given scene, and it allowed more creativity in filming that scene.
  5. Unusual camera angles - Welles had holes cut into floors so that cameramen would shoot underneath people, distorting their height, etc.
  6. The "wipe" - This technique has a new scene sweep away the previous one as it replaces the first one.

Alfred Hitchock was also innovative as he used the camera lens as the voyeuristic eye of a character in many of his films.

Of course, nowadays with the many computer generated techniques much more innovation has come into being. But, for their time, Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane stand out for their creative genius with many stylistic and technical innovations that changed film forever.