In 1915, D. W. Griffith astounded audiences with The Birth of a Nation.
Scenes join shots as if ripped from Civil War era photo albums. They begin, generally, with an establishing shot and pass, in turn, to detail shots. We call this way of building scenes "classical cutting."
The film is masterwork laced with monstrosity—the second half valorizes Klu Kux Kan terror. Production stills (above) suggest the look of The Birth of a Nation. Behind these stills, the Edison Quartet of 1905 sings an anthem of the Civil War, Stephen Foster's 1854 "Hard Times Come Again No More." Over a panorama of Calumet, Michigan in 1905, the recording plays again here.
American filmmakers in the teens and Soviet filmmakers in the twenties regarded this movie and Griffith's next, Intolerance (1916), as textbooks of cutting.
Griffith first directed in 1908. In 1909, he churned out 148 Biograph one-reelers, roughly three per week. Movies from Griffith's era have largely vanished. Little studios proliferated. For countless viewers, those movies led to the palace of dreams.

Classical Cutting


Read it. Learn it. Do it.


  Lillian GIsh  
  D.W. Griffith is conferring with his six-foot tall red headed negative cutter, Rose Smith, at a temporary editing table set up in the Loring Opera House projection booth in Riverside, California.  
  It’s January 1, 1915, and their movie continues to defy all attempts to give it a final shape. Having culled 13 of every 14 feet of The Clansman Griffith printed since shooting concluded late October 1914, Griffith and Smith are still feverishly cutting, taping, untaping and recutting the ride-to-the rescue scene between previews.  
  Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee postcard  
Birth of a Nation
Birth of a Nation film frame
Cut 17 frames here?


You Did It Then: Help Griffith analyze and then compress the ride-to-the-rescue scene, but not by accelerating the projection speed (Silent era projectionists sometime cranked films faster to lend them an air of frenzy.) First view the Make Film History clip collection of some—but not all—shots Griffith included in his ride-to-the-rescue sequence. Then create your own cut. Griffith’s crosscut sequence finishes nineteen minutes after it begins. Whittle yours down to less than four minutes. Step by step instructions and the files you’ll use are in the button below.

"I would come into the projection booth, and the next day I’d see a lot of the film she’d cut on the floor. Then they’d show the picture at the next regular performance, and maybe cut some more and sometimes put back some that had been cut,” the local projectionist remembered.