Give and Take


Question 3: Looking for Lookalikes
by Yuri Tsivian

There appears to be a wealth of graphical methods that may be used to investigate the internal SL structure of a single film; some of those are detailed in Mike Baxter’s and Nick Redfern’s responses to the previous question in this conversation. The question I’d like to propose now relates to what seems to be a less charted area. All films are different as far as their SL structures; yet some are less different than others. Some may be similar because of the time and space of their production; some because they belong to the same genre; some because the same filmmaker made them; and some are similar because want to be different at any cost. I believe we all have a consensus on the stylistic relevance of family resemblances between films; the question is what might be the ways of revealing them. Possible solutions have been offered by Nick Redfern in his Chaplin Keystones analysis; by James Cutting and his collaborators in the course of their attempt to test the “four-act structure” hypothesis; by Mike Baxter (see Figures 3 and 4 from his article “Lines, damned lines and statistics” found under the tab “What do Lines Tell?” of the present conversation); for more than a year, Keith Brisson and I have been collaborating on solving this issue.

Let me begin with a quick master-view overlooking the Cinemetrics database; what follows then is a summary account of samplings and calculations Brisson and I have performed on parts of it: sets of data that pertain to Griffith’s films. Segments of our work have been exposed to Cinemetrics users across four Labs and in Brisson’s Discussion topic “Side by Side” where you will also find comments and doubts posted by Barry Salt; other segments remained unpublished until now. Gunars Civjans will then open the floor for your questions and suggestions.   

Imagine the Cinemetrics database as a small ocean of a million or so time-length data varying between close to 0 and close to 600 seconds.  It is highly unlikely that one would be able to find some structure common to all: first, not all of these data belong to films (non-films like TV shows, football matches or presidential addresses are met with among the Cinemetrics submissions); secondly, not all of the length measurements are those of SL (there are, among my own Chaplin submissions, films measured by the frequency of laughter in the viewing hall; some length are those of the screen presence of a star, a music tune, etc.)  Thirdly, even the film films measured by SLs are too diverse to expect all of them to display some sort of salient pattern. Too many different people pursuing different research agendas and interested in different areas and periods of filmmaking have been submitting data to Cinemetrics within the last 7 years. This is what an imaginary “database film” might look like if all its lengths data were averaged and projected onto a conditional “film length” axis: 

Figure 1: Curve obtained by Keith Brisson in June 2011 using his “partitions method” (henceforth the “Brisson curve”) to process all the 7K+ submissions found at the Cinemetrics Db by that date


On the other hand, there are smaller groups found in the pool of Cinemetrics data within which SLs cohere. Evidently the basic autonomous group of this kind is this or that individual film; hence the architecture of the Cinemetrics database whose front page looks like a list of records but is, in fact a database of databases:


Figure 2: Opening page (detail) of the Cinemetrics database shown here sorted by title. The “Abraham Lincoln” record, for instance, specifies that the film was made by D.W. Griffith in the US in 1930, measures and data-submitted by Charles O’Brien in 2012, its ASL being of 12.1 seconds, etc.


Indeed, if we click, say, on the “Abraham Lincoln” record what we access is a smaller, well-structured and content-coherent database of shots:


Figure 3: Database of 449 SL data extracted from the set of shots (minus credits and the end title) all of which are part of the record IDd “Abraham Lincoln.” Color-coded are subsets of SL data pertaining to 4 types of shots


In other words, while on the ground level the Cinemetrics database looks perfectly chaotic, the picture changes to a more orderly and meaningful when it comes to smaller databases that hide under the record for each film. Let us call the latter a “high level” SL organization; the level Keith and I were curious about is a “middle level” of the database coherence: can coherence be detected between, not only within a number of high-level databases called “submissions” in the Cinemetrics vernacular.

Indeed, when we arrange Cinemetrics records as we have on Figure 2, nothing that unifies them aside from the fact that their key metadata start with A. The question is what is going to happen if we sort them by metadata which are more relevant to editing, for instance, this way:

Figure 4: Opening page (detail) of the Cinemetrics database shown here sorted by the director ID: Griffith

There are grounds to believe some consistency can be found in Griffith’s editing choices across years; the question is what kind of.

Figure 5: Cinemetrics graphs for D. W. Griffith’s A Romance of the Western Hills (1910) to the left and Abraham Lincoln (1930) to the right. The polynomial smoothing lines set to Degree=10

Take a film made by Griffith in 1910 and put its dynamic profile back to back with Abraham Lincoln made 20 years later, as on Figure 5. Is there something in common between the two, or maybe these are polynomial smoothing methods that tempt us into seeing a semblance between the two profiles?  

Of course, this is a rhetorical question, and Figure 5 is a rhetorical comparison: too many things happened between 1910 and 1930 in the history of editing to reduce similarities or differences between the two graphs to Griffith’s individual handwriting; in addition, any theory based on two graphs is too data-thin to draw a conclusion. Ideally, all 535 films that Griffith (co-)directed should be put back to back, or, for instance, a subset of those which Griffith made at the Biograph studio between 1908 and 1913. This way we could determine if there is a family resemblance between the films Griffith made at a certain period, or of a certain genre, or perhaps between all of them.

This is the middle-level of the Cinemetrics Db coherence that I was talking about earlier on. But here, of course, an operational problem interferes: what do we do to compare data flows of 500, 50 or even 5 films? One solution is to use multiple plots superimposed onto the same grid, as Nick Redfern did in his study of Chaplin at Keystone, or Mike Baxter did for 24 action films in his “Lines, damned lines and statistics.” Is there also a way of summarising middle-level data using one line instead of 24?

In the spring of 2011 Keith Brisson and I embarked on a series of experiments whose goal was to find out exactly this: can data pertaining to a number of films be averaged and visualised as if they were one? Griffith looked like a good specimen for this study. Three telescopically embedded samples were selected, each placed into a separate Cinemetrics lab: A)132 Griffith's films from any time (1908-1931) found in the Cinemetrics database, one submission per title; B) Griffith’s 61 Biograph movies (1908-13) ; C) 19 Biograph movies in which crosscutting is used. I will say more about crosscutting later in this note; one thing to mention now is that crosscutting sequences tend to start on a slower pace and gather speed towards the end.

 Cinemetrics labs come equpped with a semblance of a blackboard, or star map, depending on which visual metaphor we choose to refer to the black-foil scatter plot below:

Figure 6: Scatter plot with gray dots standing for the entire set of Cinemetrics submissions, and yellow dots for all Griffith’s submissions on the Db. The X-axis represents the span of the film history in years, the Y-axis ASLs in the descending order: the slower, the lower. The dashed line (added later in Word) marked the end boundary of the Biograph period 1908-1913

Each yellow dot on Figure 6 represents an ASL figure for each of the 132 films by Griffith selected in this lab (if they fail to light up when you visit the lab online, change your browser to Mozilla Firefox).  The cascade of sparks which becomes more scarce as films become longer (hence longer to make) tells us how steeply Griffith’s cutting rates accelerated till the beginning of the 1920s then falling down in the early 1930s (this following the general trend of early talkies, to be sure). Some dots overlap, and some important submission are still wanted (Orphans of the Storm, for instance), but in general, the Griffith constellation has a story to tell. There is a consistency in the fluctuation of speeds with which Griffith cuts. To what extent this story is Griffith’s own and what it shares (or does not) with the universal drift is not what concerns us here.

What the above plot does not tell us, however, is if the way Griffith cut within the duration of a film remained consistent from film to film and from year to year. Cinemetrics graphs allow us to ask this question about each separate film; what Keith and I were after was a super-graph, the graph of graphs which would enable us to detect at which point in the run of the film Griffith’s editing becomes typically faster and typically slower.

The first problem we needed to solve was how to compare various films of unequal length: no film is likely to be of the exactly same length as another, and Griffith’s movies vary in length from the split reel shorts he began with to three-hour-plus affairs like the 1916 Intolerance. The solution Keith offered was to split each film into a number of equal-length partitions.

Figure 7: Shots-to-partitions conversion of a hypothetical 2-minute movie; a demo slide Keith Brisson designed for a presentation he, Arno Bosse and I gave at the Digital Humanities conference at Stanford in 2011

In his topic posted on the Discussion Board here Keith Brisson explains his method in some detail. Let me give a general sense of how it works. On Figure 7 a 120-seconds long film dummy consists of 8 shots of non-equal lengths. The program divides it into 6 equal-length partition. For each of these partitions we can count the number of shots that occurred in each. If a shot had a fraction in the partition we add that fraction. For each partition, dividing the partition's length by its shot count yields the ASL for that partition.  We can thus compare movies using data from this method by using the same N value for each film.  For instance, if N=100, then the first partition of each represents the first 1/100th of each film, and we can calculate and compare corresponding ASLs. This data can be averaged across films.  If we choose N=100, and look at the 50th partition of each film, we can calculate the average shot length at the midpoint of each.  This average can then be averaged again.

Doing this for each of the Griffith titles available on Cinemetrics, we will end up with a super-graph that resembles a curve representing ASL at each point in the "average film," as in this super-graph “All Griffith:”

Figure 8:
The Brisson curve obtained for all 132 Cinemetrics-hosted films by Griffith listed in this Lab. Arrows added.

The curve fits, roughly, within the space between c. 3.2 seconds where the all-Griffith average film starts, and is at its slowest (c. 6.7 seconds) after 10% of its duration; it starts regaining tempo sometime in the area of 30% and starts losing speed again after 60%; and ends pretty much in the middle, slightly above 5 seconds.

Figure 9: The Brisson curve obtained for 61 Biograph films by Griffith listed in
this Lab. Arrows added.

The Biograph super-graph on Figure 9 displays a similar profile but with sharper features. It starts faster (ASL just above 2 seconds) that the All-Griffith graph on Figure 8, becomes slower than the latter  at around 8% of its run (ASL just below 7”), and gains speed again (ASL between 3” and 4”) somewhere between 60 and 70% into the film. 

Both of Griffith’s curves are more informative than the all-submission curve shown on Figure 1 in which all that noise fits into the narrow slot between 3.4 and 4.3 seconds. Consider the growth and decrease in Griffith’s cutting speed which takes place after the “slow speed” point. This pattern conforms to what we know about Griffith’s habit to cut faster as the story tension grows. What comes more as a surprise to those familiar with Griffith’s films is a strange steep beak which shows on both of the Griffith graphs, a longer one with Biographs, and a shorter one with the all-Griffith graph.

Two possible explanations have been offered to account for the beak effect, both by Barry Salt here. On the one hand the fast start could have been caused by a calculation error, a statistical artifact of a kind Salt found in a study by James Cutting and collaborators, see more here. On the other, Salt suggests, “the dip might be a real characteristic of the structure of the films themselves. This is interesting.”

If the latter assumption is correct, the fast-start effect diagnosed by the Brisson curve may have something to do with instant openings characteristic of one-reel narratives with their 15-minute limit of screen time imposed on any story, be it a day- or a life-long. Screenwriting manuals of 1913 (the last year of the reign of one-reelers in American film industry) would typically issue this warning: “A common mistake among amateur photoplaywrights is to take too long in ‘getting down to business’ – far too much time is wasted on preliminaries.  … No matter what kind of story you are writing, go straight to the point from the opening – make the wheels of the plot actually commence to revolve in the first scene – plunge into your action, don’t wade timidly in inch by inch” (J. Berg Esenwein, Arthur Leeds, Writing the Photoplay (Springfield, Mass.: The Home Correspondence School, 1913), p. 115-6; italics in the original).

Griffith’s favorite method of plunging into action was to insert a brief expository title before the first shot. Suppose the story starts with a young girl (or two) losing a parent. In a 150-minute called Orphans of the Storm (1921) Griffith afforded a prologue showing a mother murdered, a baby put at the church’s door, being adopted, growing into a beautiful young girl – and only then the complication phase sets in.  Not so in the teeth of the austere footage policy enforced at Biograph ten years earlier in Griffith’s career. All Griffith could afford in the way of a prologue in those years was a brief obituary-style title like the ones that open those two shots from 1910 and 1912:

Figure 10:
Expository intertitles that open Griffith’s As It is in Life (1910) to the left and An Unseen Enemy (1912)

The timing rule for intertitles being one foot per word (which equals one second at 16 fps), the intertitle on the left would last for 3 seconds, and to the right, say, 8. If we compare the three-second opening of As It Is in Life: (7) Description: 16.5 whose intertitles-only ASL = 4.8” we will think this indeed may be something that caused the fast-start beak on the Brisson curve; on the other hand, if we do a similar comparison between the 8 seconds taken by the more tearful expository title shown on the right on Figure 10 with average data for Unseen Enemy, An: (7) Description: 7.1 (intertitles-only ASL = 6.3”) the result will point in an opposite direction.

The next step Keith and I took was what Barry Salt has termed “experimental film history” in the final paragraph of his recent essay. Cinemetrics measurements done in the advanced mode allow sorting out data by shot categories; what happens if we take a set of advanced-measured Biographs by Griffith, and partition-process them first with, and then without intertitles taken into account? Will the beak change or remain the same?

Description: C:\Users\Yuri\Documents\CineMetrics\griffith partition statistics\New Keith graphs\griffith_intertitles.png
Figure 11: Two Brisson curves obtained for a sample of 61 Biograph films by Griffith listed in Notes to
this lab. Explanation in the text. Arrows added.

These two curves were obtained from the same set of 61 Biograph films partition-processed with (blue) and without (red) intertitle data. Most of the time the blue curve unfolds in the faster-cut area of the graph which means (to no surprise) that on average titles were shorter than live-action shots. And the long beak became shorter by some 4.7 seconds.

Another subset of Biographs we used in order to test the partitions method were Griffith’s films in which cross-cutting is used. Griffith’s main area of experimentation throughout his Biograph years, crosscutting is an ab(c)ab(c)… technique of shot sequencing is which a, b, c, etc. are mutually related series of actions taking place each in a different location. While crosscutting can be (and was) used in any genre, its native and privileged genre is the suspense melodrama in which danger, aggression, and the subsequent rescue operation are sequenced in the above order. When it comes to the rescue stage of the plot, the frequency of cuts shifting between spaces grows. Would the partitions curve give us a sense of the early evolution of Griffith’s crosscutting?

Before I report our results let me briefly dwell on some graphic ideas Keith and I have been toying with as we thought of best ways of visualizing crosscutting. Two alternative methods are habitually used to represent shot lengths in a graph.

Figure 12: Cinemetrics graph for the “take-off” sequence from Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Pobeda [Victory; American release title: Mother and Sons], 1938. Click to access:
Pobeda (start sequence): (7) Description: 2 Click to see the whole-movie graph: Pobeda: (7) Description: 5.8

Method one is to use a bar chart as we do in Cinemetrics: brighter bars looking upside down from the X-axis stand for shot lengths. The longer the shot, the longer the bar; the width of bars remains the same within the space of one graph.

Figure 12 stands for 25 shots from the film’s second reel: the bravura take-off of a plane. It so happens that a detailed cutting-chart for this sequence survives; designed by Pudovkin in 1938, the chart served him as a visual aid to coordinate shot lengths with the length of four elements that constitute the soundtrack.

Figure 13: Pudovkin’s preparatory graph (fragment) for the editing of the “take-off” sequence from Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Pobeda, 1938. Click to see a fuller version of the chart paste in a comment box under:
Pobeda: (7) Description: 5.8. The chart was reproduced in Lev Kuleshov’s manual Osnovy kinorezhissury [Fundamentals of film directing], Moscow: VGIK, 1941. Arrows added in Word

Distinct from the Cinemetrics graph on Figure 12, here the X-axis, not the Y-axis serves to visually render the length of each shot. In Pudovkin’s chart, each shot is a little column with a shot number inscribed in its capital and shot length in seconds in its base. All columns are of the same height, but the width of each depends on the figure in the base.

Clearly, each of the two systems has its advantages and drawbacks. A trendline, for instance, which helps to smooth data in Cinemetrics, would not work in a Pudovkin-type graph; on the other hand, a trendline was of no use for Pudovkin who used the chart in 1938 as a blueprint for, not as a fingerprint of editing. What his system was geared for was to coordinate the optical track with the sound track.

There is no reason why the two systems cannot be integrated into one, Keith and I reasoned; in our experimenting with Griffith’s crosscutting at Biograph we did exactly this. In the series of diagrams that follow, the length of a shot in a film is indicated both by its height along the Y-axis and its width along the X-axis. The plan was to use what might be called a bi-axial plotting to scrutinize a small sample from 1908-1909, Griffith’s earliest years of crosscutting. We took 4 films, plotted them separately, and then used the Brisson-curve process on all the four.

Description: griffith_prussian_spy.png
Figure 14: Bi-axial SL
plot for Griffith’s 1909 The Prussian Spy: (6) Description: 26; the year 1908 above the graph is given in error

The figure above plots the editing of one of Griffith’s first attempts at crosscutting, entitled The Prussian Spy (unjustly misspelt as “Russian spy” in many American filmographies). The plateau which ends with a precipice soon after the middle of the film is the first shot, 165.5 long; a rocky ravine in the middle is formed of 9 shots all under 16 seconds; a lower/shorter plateau (39.6”) closes the film.

Figure 14 tells a lot to the historian of film, for its uneven formation is caused by the clash between two filmmaking systems, verily geological in age and scale. A more archaic (yet by no means “retarded”) system privileged single-space action articulated by entrances and exits; the other, which Griffith increasingly relied on through his Biograph years, preferred to spread action across shots; crosscutting, of course, is a particular case of the latter. In The Prussian Spy Griffith made use of both; how the choice of either affects shot lengths is evident from the plot above.

Tom Gunning (who prefers the term “parallel editing” to “cross-cutting”) gives a helpful analytical description of the film’s action:

The Prussian Spy … is a good example of this uneven development in articulation. The first shot of the film lasts an agonizing ninety-nine feet (16 mm), more than half the length of the entire film. An enormous amount of information is contained in this shot, with characters entering, exiting and reentering. A spy (Owen Moore) is concealed in a closet by his lover (Marion Leonard); the concealment is discovered by a French officer (Harry Solter). To torment the woman and destroy his enemy, the officer tacks a target onto the closet door, claiming he must practice his aim with his pistol. All of this takes place in a single shot. … However, as soon as a parallel editing schema can be introduced, the film alters radically. The second half of the film fragments into ten shots. The woman has sent her maid (Florence Lawrence) to open a trap door above the closet and help the spy escape. The sequence alternates dramatically between the trap door and the parlor containing the closet. Griffith repeatedly interrupts action with a cut on gesture (the French officer aiming his pistol at the targeted door), switching to the progress of the maid as she pries the trap door open and attempts to get the spy out of danger (GUNNING 1991, p. 198).

The only detail one can add to this description looking at Figure 14 is a pause on the last shot; indeed, a few extra seconds given to relaxation (arrest; embrace or kiss; comic relief) was seen as the right note to end the film; in infrequent cases when Griffith’s victim dies, extra seconds are reserved for us to grieve:

Figure 15: Bi-axial SL plot for Griffith’s 1908 Behind the Scenes: (2) Description: 23. Recolored in Word; see the text for the legend

This story is a mother-dancing-daughter-dying melodrama (click here for a detailed synopsis). The crosscutting is between home and theater. The red-colored areas of the plot-line on Figure 15 mark the shots set in the theater to which the mother is summoned ostensibly to jump in for a no-show dancer; the uncolored areas stand for the home with the sick daughter. Two high cliffs that flank the crosscutting sequence in the middle are shots set at home: the length of the first shot is explained by the amount of action needed to set the scene (enter a messenger; exit with the mother); the length of the final one by dramatic needs (the mother learns the tragic and collapses).

Description: griffith_drive_for_a_life 1908.png
Figure 16: Bi-axial SL
plot for Griffith’s 1909 Drive for a Life, The: (7) Description: 15.4

The Drive for a Life (Figure 16) and At the Altar (figure 17) are stories of averted bridal revenge both. Distinct from Behind the Scenes or The Prussian Spy, it takes more than one shot for a former mistress or a rejected suitor to set up the trap before the films precipitate into crosscutting. Hence a less regular rockscape above and below:




Description: griffith_at_the_altar 1908.png
Figure 17: Bi-axial SL
plot for Griffith’s 1909 At the Altar: (7) Description: 22.5

What we did next was to process the bi-axial graphs (Figures 13-17) to obtain a bi-axial Brisson curve for all the four:

Description: griffith_early_crosscutting.png
Figure 18: Bi-axial Brisson curve obtained for four Griffith’s crosscutting films of 1908-9

The main information we gain from the aggregate plot on Figure 18 is that crosscutting in early Biograph one-reelers has a tendency to accelerate after half into the film, reach its peak with 10% from the end and slow down slightly at the end of the tail. But there is also some information that we lose. If we compare the plot-line on Figure 18 with any of individual bi-axial plots (Figures 14-17) what we will find lacking is a sense of rhythm. Take a look at Figures 15 and 16 for instance: the longer rocks look so well-spaced by series of shorter ones that one is tempted to see behind the graphs the hand of a skillful landscaper. Clearly, this is not the case on Figure 18: apparently, four times rhythm equals ruin.

What the above account is about are attempts to use a single trendline to summarize the dynamic curves of multiple films. There are a number of questions attempts like this raise. One of these is to what extent comparisons between films of different length can be seen as a legitimate procedure. Longer films typically contain more shots; shorter ones, fewer. It seems intuitively reasonable to compare four one-reelers from two consecutive years 1908 and 1909 or, say, between ca. three-hour long Griffiths from 1915 and 1916; is it as kosher to try to summarize data dynamics of Griffith films as distant in time and different in length as the 10-minute 1909 Lonely Villa, The: (7) Description: 12) consisting of 54 shots and the 144-minute 1920 Way Down East: (7) Description: 4.9) consisting of 1767 shots?  Even if their sparkline graphs look as similar as above?

Another question might be about similarity/dissimilarity assessment. Film scholars and specialists in visualization like Lev Manovich (see his recent experiment on visualizing Vertov’s films) are used to base their judgment on visual shapes, be these of moving figures seen on the screen or more abstract film-related statistical graphs. Are there ways of calculating a “coefficient” of family resemblance between bi-axial plots, for instance, on Figures 16 and 17?

As earlier, these questions are shots in the dark, meant mainly to steer this conversation, not to solicit direct answers of recommendations.