Our fascination with film goes back to the late 1800s. Film started off as a novelty - practically a parlor trick using photographic techniques and the newly invented light bulb to project what looks like moving images on a screen.
One of the earliest and most famous demonstrations of film was the Lumiere Brothers’ screenings which opened Paris France on December 28, 1895. It was a collection of 10 short films which had catchy titles like “Workers leaving the Lumiere Factory”, “Bathing in the Sea” and “Baby’s Breakfast” - these films were all approximately 40 seconds long and didn’t need anything more than a simple written description.
And that’s the way it was for the first few years of motion picture development. These synopses called “Scenarios” and were used both as a description of the film and in marketing. Who wouldn’t want to see Edison’s 1897 sordid tale: “Pillow Fight” described as
“Four young ladies, in their nightgowns, are having a romp. One of the pillows gets torn, and the feathers fly all over the room.” Sounds like a solid hit.
But filmmakers discovered that you could start splicing different pieces of film together to tell a story. George Melies famous “A trip to the Moon” was sketched out as a series of scenarios.
- The Scientific Congress at the Astronomic Club.
- Planning the Trip. Appointing the Explorers and Servants. Farewell.
- The Workshops Constructing the Projectile.
- The Foundries. The Chimney-stack. The Casting of the Monster Gun/Cannon.
- The Astronomers-Scientists Enter the Shell.
- Loading the Gun.
- The Monster Gun. March Past the Gunners. Fire!!! Saluting the Flag.
- The Flight Through Space. Approaching the Moon.
- Landing Right in the Moon's Eye!!!
- Flight of the Rocket Shell into the Moon. Appearance of the Earth From the Moon.
- The Plain of Craters. Volcanic Eruption.
- The Dream of 'Stars' (the Bolies, the Great Bear, Phoebus, the Twin Stars, Saturn).
- The Snowstorm.
- 40 Degrees Below Zero. Descent Into a Lunar Crater.
- In the Interior of the Moon. The Giant Mushroom Grotto.
- Encounter and Fight with the Selenites.
- Taken Prisoners!!
- The Kingdom of the Moon. The Selenite Army.
- The Flight or Escape.
- Wild Pursuit.
- The Astronomers Find the Shell Again. Departure from the Moon in the Rocket.
- The Rocket's Vertical Drop into Space.
- Splashing into the Open Sea.
- Submerged At the Bottom of the Ocean.
- The Rescue. Return to Port and Land.
- Great Fetes and Celebrations.
- Crowning and Decorating the Heroes of the Trip.
- Procession of Marines and Fire Brigade. Triumphal March Past.
- Erection of the Commemorative Statue by the Mayor and Council.
- Public Rejoicings.
These first scripts written were really just a technical aid for the directors to notate what was to be shot and in what order.
By 1903 with Scott Marble’s scenario for Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery you started to see the emergence of what was later to be called the “Master Scene Format”. Master Scene format breaks down the film into master scenes (not cuts), each scene having a scene heading followed by a description of the action.
Two masked robbers enter and compel the operator to get the "signal block" to stop the approaching train, and make him write a fictitious order to the engineer to take water at this station, instead of "Red Lodge," the regular watering stop. The train comes to a standstill (seen through window of office); the conductor comes to the window, and the frightened operator delivers the order while the bandits crouch out of sight, at the same time keeping him covered with their revolvers. As soon as the conductor leaves, they fall upon the operator, bind and gag him, and hastily depart to catch the moving train.
Messenger is busily engaged. An unusual sound alarms him. He goes to the door, peeps through the keyhole and discovers two men trying to break in. He starts back bewildered, but, quickly recovering, he hastily locks the strong box containing the valuables and throws the key through the open side door. Drawing his revolver, he crouches behind a desk. In the meantime, the two robbers have succeeded in breaking in the
door and enter cautiously. The messenger opens fire, and a desperate pistol duel takes place in which the messenger is killed. One of the robbers stands watch while the other tries to open the treasure box. Finding it locked, he vainly searches the messenger for the key, and blows the safe open with dynamite. Securing the valuables and mail bags they leave the car.