The Application of Staged Motion: A Historical Understanding of Cinema's Relation to Staged Pictures

By Sokalski, Joseph A. | Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

The Application of Staged Motion: A Historical Understanding of Cinema's Relation to Staged Pictures


Sokalski, Joseph A., Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film


Competing with a variety of entertainments of the end of the nineteenth century, it can be argued that cinema introduced a new definition in the performative arts. With cinema gaining much of its definition from recording purposely-staged livemotion and then playing back this motion as the central activity for entertainment purposes, it is necessary to investigate the kinds of motions that were initially recorded for playback, and their relationship to earlier forms of performed arts. One form that inspired some of these cinematic staging - theatre - will be the centre of focus. Not only did early cinema base many of its narrative and performance conventions on nineteenth-century theatre but perhaps more importantly cinema was able to surpass the pictorial stagings in theatre through the use of a form of 'staged motion' unlike any commonly available to theatre at this time. That is: motion staged with little to no human reference. Using examples from nineteenth-century theatre, this paper argues that it is the application of such infrequently used 'staged motion' found in theatre in the nineteenth century that significantly 'marks' cinema during its period of early aesthetic development. Such a consideration is important for understanding an emerging medium's aesthetic formulations that builds upon such features found to a less-developed level in established media.

Staged Motion

The term 'staged motion' advanced here expresses the idea that in fictional narrative cinema the only motion shown is that purposely undertaken for recording by a camera. This observation is substantiated by Lev Manovich who has written that '[f]iction films are live-action films; that is, they largely consist of unmodified photographic recordings of real events that took place in real, physical space.' Continuing, he notes that '[t]oday in the age of ... digital compositing, ... this characteristic becomes crucial in defining the specificity of twentieth-century cinema.'1 What is implicit but needs to be made clear for the sake of the argument is an understanding that what Manovich calls 'live-action' films are staged to be watched by an audience. It necessarily follows that this 'staging' relates to the concept of 'performance' as used in the field of Theatre Studies where the term has a specific definition that proves useful here. A performance can be understood as an activity undertaken for the viewing by an audience.2 It usually is applied to include humans on stage, but it need not. Thus, to stage motion for 'live-action' films is to record a performance, while performance in theatre is - necessarily - live. It is this seemingly obvious final observation that needs further delineation.

Staging motion in the theatre of the twentieth century largely privileged human locomotion, but in relation to nineteenth-century theatre, the concept of 'staged motion' can be more critically useful if defined as motion that is not centrally human motion. Here, 'staged motion' becomes a useful concept if conceived of as motion 'other' than human motion in theatre. It is the motion of the stage picture wherein the movement of humans might play a part, but this is not the largest, nor the most visually spectacular movement performed for an audience. One of Europe's earliest recognized stage directors, George II, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen (1826-1914) wrote on the subject of 'pictorial motion' on stage, commenting that 'the stage must always depict movement, the continuous unfolding of a story.'3 Of course, he was speaking of narrative movement obtained through pictorial means. The earliest pictorial movement on stage, the simplest, and the one Saxe-Meiningen had success with, relied on humans. Yet, as theatre technology developed in the nineteenth century, the pictorial motion on stage that thrilled audiences was less human-movement based and more technologically based.

A strong example of the kind of 'staged motion' under consideration here is found in an 1866 American production, The Black Crook, where a spectacular ending is created through a series of transformation scenes which relied on sophisticated technology to stage 'motion. …

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