Experimentation and Failure

Whenever I think about innovation, my mind always jumps to the early pioneers of cinema. It might have to do with the fact that I studied it for my degree, but that’s besides the point. Art can often be an area that leads the charge in experimentation and the technical side of cinema in its infancy was no exception. Instead of talking about film lenses or the creation of synced sound on film, I’m going to ponder something that sounds deathly dull on paper – Film Grammar.

Grammar is the bones by which we understand things. A sentence arranged in a different order can give a completely different meaning. The rules or guidelines that grammar create are generally not originated from some instantaneous decision where a committee slam a gavel and pronounce - “this is how language works.” It’s a slow morphing and experimenting movement into order that users ‘unspokenly’ agree on (for the most part anyway!).

Film grammar was similar. In the beginning you had one single shot or take in a fixed position, similar to a theatre stage that showed the story. Soon enough someone noticed you could ‘cut’ a length of film stock and splice it onto another different length creating a jump in space or time. Characters or features could magically appear in one spot, then another. When filmmakers started moving their camera position between these, the entire scene would shift. These early experiments with the technique sometimes confused audiences – a character would be speaking to another, then suddenly they would switch positions. The character on the right of the screen would shift to the left side. This spatial shift and ensuing visual discomfort led to one of the early ‘rules’ of cinema – the ‘180 Degree Rule’, wherein two or more characters within a scene must be spatially consistent. Those on the left of the screen must remain on the left after a cut.

Through these experiments (or fumbling) a ‘language’ of cinema was born – a language we are now so accustomed to that we do not notice its presence because we are all practically raised viewing the visual media and taking onboard its stories.

To bring this round to innovation (ahem) – experimentation is essentially feeling the freedom to fail. Like those first ‘cuts’ in film, experiments and their resultant failure are a route to finding the shortcomings of the current status quo. The Avant Garde of the art world is not full of people trying to recreate the here and now, it is striving to create new things. The results are sometimes failures (whatever the artists may say), but truly great and new ideas are not shaped in a vacuum. This lesson is just as true throughout life. Technologies get better through their flaws; techniques are improved; and every relationship is a work-in-progress.

As a wise philosopher once said – “Sucking at sumthin’ is the first step towards being sorta good at something.” (It’s Jake the Dog from metaphysical children’s animation show Adventure Time in case you didn’t recognise it.)