Lesson 3 Research Activity
On the Set

At the Movies: The Silent Era

The first films simply recorded what happened in front of the camera. Then, filmmakers like Edwin Porter and Georges Méliès thought to mold the reality that the camera saw. Meanwhile, the Lumière brothers were fascinated simply by the power of film to capture reality. From their work grew the tradition of documentary and news film. Méliès envisioned fantasies that never were. From his work grew our current obsession with special effects films. Porterís approach to the medium was between the two poles represented by his French contemporaries. He wanted to tell stories grounded in the real world. From his work developed the mainstream tradition of fiction film.

Student Materials

Time Estimate

1 1/2 hours


Watch The Great Train Robbery and other early silent films (Lumière, Méliès, Sennett, etc.) while thinking about the following questions. As you watch, jot down notes (hit the pause button and you wonít miss anything) so you donít forget any of the important observations that youíd like to share with your classmates.


Please post your responses to the following questions on the class message board.

  1. The very earliest films, like those the Lumière brothers produced, merely recorded simple actions going on in front of the camera. But with The Great Train Robbery, we have a more complicated story, composed of several scenes. How many scene units do you count in the film? What is their relationship to the dramatic structure?
  2. The earliest comedies were strings of "gags." Analyze the Sennett or Linder film. What is the ratio of gag scenes to non-gag scenes?
  3. Edwin Porter was inventing a new art. The technology was just being developed. What do you notice about the cinematography of The Great Train Robbery that Porter might have done differently 30 years later?
  4. Similarly, what techniques do you see in the film that strike you as surprisingly modern?