On a warm and sunny summer's day, a mother and father take their young daughter Dollie on a riverside outing. A gypsy basket peddler happens along, and is angered when the mother refuses to buy his wares. He attacks mother and daughter but is driven off by the father. Later the gypsy sneaks back and kidnaps the girl. A rescue party is organized but the gypsy conceals the child in a 30 gallon barrel which he precariously places on the tail of the wagon. He and his gypsy-wife make their getaway by fording the river with the wagon. The barrel, with Dollie still inside, breaks free, tumbling into into the river; it starts floating toward the peril of a nearby waterfall . . .
In the early years of cinema, film producers were worried that the American public could not last through a film that was an hour long, thereby delaying the advent of feature films (60-90 minutes in length) in the US. According to most sources, the first continuous, full-length narrative feature film (defined as a commercially-made film at least an hour in length) was writer/director Charles Tait's five-reel biopic of a notorious outback folk hero and bushranger, The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906, Australia), with a running time of between 60-70 minutes. Only fragments of the film survive to this day. Australia was the only country set up to regularly produce feature-length films prior to 1911.
With the combination of film editing and the telling of narrative stories, Porter produced one of the most important and influential films of the time to reveal the possibility of fictional stories on film. The film was the one-reel, 14-scene, approximately 10-minute long The Great Train Robbery (1903) - it was based on a real-life train heist and was a loose adaptation of a popular stage production. His visual film, made in New Jersey and not particularly artistic by today's standards - set many milestones at the time:
it was the first narrative Western film with a storyline, and included various western cliches (a shoot-out, a robbery, a chase, etc.) that would be used by all future westerns [Note: the same claim was made for the earlier 21-minute Kit Carson (1903)]
it was a ground-breaking film - and one of the earliest films to be shot out of chronological sequence, using revolutionary parallel cross-cutting (or parallel action) between two simultaneous events or scenes; it did not use fades or dissolves between scenes or shots
it effectively used rear projection in an early scene (the image of a train seen through a window), and two impressive panning shots
it was the first 'true' western, but not the first actual western [Note: Edison's Cripple Creek Bar-Room Scene (1899) was probably the first western.]
it was the first real motion picture smash hit, establishing the notion that film could be a commercially-viable medium
it featured a future western film hero/star, Gilbert M. Anderson (aka "Broncho Billy")
In an effective, scary, full-screen closeup (placed at either the beginning or at the end of the film at the discretion of the exhibitor), a bandit shot his gun directly into the audience. The film also included exterior scenes, chases on horseback, actors that moved toward (and away from) the camera, a camera pan with the escaping bandits, and a camera mounted on a moving train. Porter also developed the process of film editing - a crucial film technique that would further the cinematic art. Most early films were not much more than short, filmed stage productions or records of live events. In the early days of film-making, actors were usually unidentified and not even trained actors. The earliest actors in movies, that were dubbed "flickers," supplemented their stage incomes by acting in moving pictures.
the first American documentary, docudrama, fictionalized biopic or realistic narrative film, with non-linear continuity. It combined re-enacted scenes, the dreamy thoughts of a sleeping fireman seen in a round iris or 'thought balloon', and documentary stock footage of actual fire scenes, and it was dramatically edited with inter-cutting (or jump-cutting) between the exterior and interior of a burning house. Edison was actually uncomfortable with Porter's editing techniques, including his use of close-ups to tell an entertaining story.
Divers At Work on the Wreck of The Maine was a short silent film created and released in 1898 and directed by Georges Méliès.
Porter's sequential continuity editing links several shots to form a narrative of the famous fairy tale story of Jack and his magic beanstalk. Borrowing on cinematographic methods reminiscent of 'Georges Melies', Porter uses animation, double exposure, and trick photography to illustrate the fairy's apparitions, Jack's dream, and the fast growing beanstalk.
An illusionist and stage magician, and a wizard at special effects, Melies exploited the new medium with a pioneering, 14-minute science fiction work, Le Voyage Dans la Lune - A Trip to the Moon (1902). It was his most popular and best-known work, with about 30 scenes called tableaux. He incorporated surrealistic special effects, including the memorable image of a rocketship landing and gouging out the eye of the 'man in the moon.' Melies also introduced the idea of narrative storylines, plots, character development, illusion, and fantasy into film, including trick photography (early special effects), hand-tinting, dissolves, wipes, 'magical' super-impositions and double exposures, the use of mirrors, trick sets, stop motion, slow-motion and fade-outs/fade-ins. Although his use of the camera was innovative, the camera remained stationary and recorded the staged production from one position only.