At the turn of the 20th century, all the most innovative cinema came from French filmmakers like George Méliès, The Lumière Brothers, Ferdinand Zecca and Max Linder, but in these films, one shot equalled one scene. The next step in the evolution of filmed storytelling came when an American filmmaker named Edwin S. Porter changed the way continuity was shown in movies.

Porter’s camerawork showed that it was unnecessary to contain an entire scene in one continuous shot. Actions could continue from one shot to the next within a single scene and not confuse the audience. He also showed that a movie could cover two events taking place simultaneously in different locations, making Porter somewhat of a founder of cinematic A and B stories.

The two big films that Porter made were The Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery, both released in 1903.

The Life of an American Fireman told the simple story of a firefighter who saves some victims from a burning building, but its historical significance is undeniable due to a number of firsts.

For example, at the beginning of the movie when the fireman is dreaming of a mother and child, it is the first time a character’s thoughts are literally presented on screen. The effect was achieved with a superimposed shot of the mother and child near the fireman’s head, although D.W. Griffith would later simplify this by cutting to the character’s mental visions.

It was also the first film to present a close shot when the fire alarm box is set off, the first film to incorporate stock footage when the fire brigade charges out of the station and down the street, and the first film to use what the Soviets would later call creative geography when the outdoor scenes were shot outside a real building and the indoor scenes were shot on a stage.

Most famous of all was The Great Train Robbery, the single most popular film in America before the 1910s.

This film demonstrated the effectiveness of continuity when you omit inessential elements and create a tightly-focused plot. It is not surprising that it was so popular because it was the most creative film at the time, the narrative flow jumping through time and incorporating more than one story.

Fun Fact: Max Aronson, the actor who played the bandit who had trouble mounting his horse, became the first cowboy star of the movies, “Broncho Billy.”

The shot at the end of the movie where one of the bandits fires a gun in the direction of the audience was unrelated to the story but remained a part of the film to thrill moviegoers.

Porter was a trailblazer in the evolution of film, perhaps the first director to capitalize on the public’s appetite for action, a genre that is still the most popular at the box office. His techniques have become the language of cinema so naturally that we no longer marvel at their brilliance.

After effective stories like The Great Train Robbery came along, the people who would eventually become the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century started taking notice of film’s storytelling power. The birth of Hollywood as we know it today begins here.