History of Cinema: The Early Years (1895 - 1906)

Le voyage dans la lune (1902)

"The history of the cinema in its first thirty years is one of unprecedented expansion and growth. Beginning as a novelty in a handful of big cities-New York, Paris, London, and Berlin-the new medium quickly found its way across the world, attracting larger and larger audiences wherever it was shown and displacing other forms of entertainment as it did so. As audiences grew, so did the places where films were shown, culminating in the great 'picture palaces' of the 1920s which rivalled theatres and opera-houses for opulence and splendour. Meanwhile films themselves developed from being short 'attractions', only a couple of minutes long, to the feature length that has dominated the world's screens up to the present day".[2] By the end of the silent period, the cinema had established itself not only as an industry but as the 'seventh art'. None of this would have happened without technology, and cinema is in fact unique as an art form in being defined by its technological character.


Emerging at the tail end of the nineteenth century, cinema owed its existence as a technological invention to key developments in motion study and optics, and, as a visual novelty to traditions of screened entertainment. The medium would soon shed its affiliation with science when its potential for widespread commercial success became more apparent, facilitating its entry into the mainstream of twentieth-century popular culture. Even so, cinema's earliest years were marked by a variety of representational tendencies and viewing contexts whose diversity would diminish once commercial imperatives imposed themselves more fully. Had cinema proved less successful, it might have enjoyed freedom from borrowed aesthetic conventions somewhat longer than it did. But by the first years of the new century, as films became longer and their content incorporated story material with greater regularity, the potential for the cinema to rival stage-based forms and generate greater profit attracted numerous entrepreneurs, leading to sustained growth throughout the early 1900s.

Eadweard Muybridge: Attitudes of Animals in Motion, 1881

There would be no true motion pictures, however, until live action could be photographed spontaneously and simultaneously. This required a reduction in exposure time from the hour or so necessary for the pioneer photographic processes to the one-hundredth (and, ultimately, one-thousandth) of a second achieved in 1870. It also required the development of the technology of series photography by the British American photographer Eadweard Muybridge between 1872 and 1877. During that time, Muybridge was employed by Gov. Leland Stanford of California, a zealous racehorse breeder, to prove that at some point in its gallop a running horse lifts all four hooves off the ground at once. Conventions of 19th-century illustration suggested otherwise, and the movement itself occurred too rapidly for perception by the naked eye, so Muybridge experimented with multiple cameras to take successive photographs of horses in motion. Finally, in 1877, he set up a battery of 12 cameras along a Sacramento racecourse with wires stretched across the track to operate their shutters. As a horse strode down the track, its hooves tripped each shutter individually to expose a successive photograph of the gallop, confirming Stanford’s belief. When Muybridge later mounted these images on a rotating disk and projected them on a screen through a magic lantern, they produced a “moving picture” of the horse at full gallop as it had actually occurred in life.

In 1882, inspired by Muybridge's work, French physiologist Etienne Jules Marey studied the flight of birds and other rapid animal movements by means of a photographic gun. Shaped like a rifle, it exposed twelve images around the edge of a circular glass plate (later, paper roll film), that made a single revolution in one second. In 1888, Marey built a box-type camera that used an intermittent mechanism to expo s e a series of photographs on a strip of paper film at speeds of up to 120 frames per second. Marey was the first to combine flexible film stock and an intermittent mechanism in photographing motion. He was interested in analyzing movements rather than in reproducing them on a screen, but his work inspired other inventors. Muybridge and Marey, in fact, conducted their work in the spirit of scientific inquiry; they both extended and elaborated existing technologies in order to probe and analyze events that occurred beyond the threshold of human perception. Those who came after would return their discoveries to the realm of normal human vision and exploit them for profit.

Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince

"Perhaps the most mysterious figure of the era is Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince, whose experiments in cinematography were revolutionary and remain controversial to this day. In Paris in 1887, Le Prince built a sixteen-lens camera, capable of photographing sixteen images in rapid succession of a single scene.

By March or April of 1888, working in Leeds, England, Le Prince successfully created a single-lens camera that used a series of photographic plates to record motion, later replacing the plates with perforated paper film from the George Eastman company, as Marey had, for greater ease of projection. In the summer of 1889 (although some historians say 1888), Le Prince photographed what would become his most famous sequence: a shot of pedestrians and traffic crossing Leeds Bridge. Twenty frames of this historic film survive today. Le Prince was also working on a projection device for his images, and by the winter of 1889 he had perfected a projection device using the “Maltese cross movement,” a gear that pulled down the perforated film images one at a time for successive projection to create the smooth illusion of movement. But then the inexplicable happened. After visiting his brother in Dijon in September 1890, Le Prince boarded a train bound for Paris intent on presenting his invention to the world. He never arrived at his destination. In one of cinema’s great mysteries, Le Prince seemingly vanished from the train before it arrived in Paris, along with his invention. Although a full-scale investigation was launched into Le Prince’s disappearance, no trace of the inventor or his devices was ever found. To this day, the riddle of what happened to Le Prince’s camera and projector remains a tantalizing enigma, and one can only speculate as to what history might have recorded of his accomplishments had he not disappeared without a trace".[4]

"Other inventors, certainly, were working along similar lines. William Friese-Greene, an Englishman, was also involved in creating an early version of the motion picture camera and projector, and is claimed by the British as the inventor of motion pictures. In Germany, Max and Emil Skladanowsky invented their own cinema camera and projection system, the Bioscope, and in France, Henri Joly created the competing Photozoötrope.

Thus, working at roughly the same time, William Friese-Greene, Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince, Max and Emil Skladanowsky, and many other film pioneers all made significant contributions to the emerging medium. But despite all their work, two individuals, through a combination of skill and luck, stand out as the “inventors” of the cinema, although they were really just the most aggressive commercial popularizers of the new medium".[4]

Edison and the Lumiere Brothers

"The first 'movies' were not intended to be projected or silent. They were sponsored by Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931), who instructed, the head of his West Orange laboratory, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson (1860-1935), to copy the design of the Phonograph. However, photographs etched The Kiss (1896)

onto metal cylinders proved unworkable and so Dickson, whose genius is too often overlooked, adapted elements from every stage of the evolution of the moving image to produce in 1890 a camera called the Kinetograph ",[1] a workable but bulky camera, and the Kinetoscope, a peep-show-like viewing machine in which a continuous strip of film between 40 and 50 feet long ran between an electric lamp and a shutter. "They also developed and built the first motion picture studio, necessitated by the Kinetograph's size, weight, and relative immobility. This was a shack whose resemblance to a police van caused it to be popularly dubbed the 'Black Maria'. To this primitive studio came the earliest American film actors, mainly vaudeville performers who travelled to West Orange from nearby New York City to have their (moving) pictures taken. These pictures lasted anywhere from fifteen seconds to one minute and simply reproduced the various performers' stage acts with, for example, tittle Egypt, the famous belly-dancer, dancing, or Sandow the Strongman posing".[2] "Items such as Fred Ott's Sneeze, the Rice-Irwin Kiss were, in effect, little more than unedited lengths of footage, no longer than the action itself or the particular strip of celluloid. Carelessly neglecting to take out overseas patents, Edison completely dismissed the potential of projection and concentrated on exploiting the peepshow, which he believed would be just another fad in a novelty-hungry age. His avaricious misjudgment would ultimately cost him dear".[1]

"The brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière are generally credited with making the first commercial breakthrough in combining the photographic and projection device into one machine in early 1895. Their camera/projector, the Cinematographe, was patented on 13 February 1895, and the first Lumière projections took place shortly thereafter, on 28 December 1895, in the Salon Indien the Grand Café in Paris".[4] "Their portable, hand-cranked cameras (invented by Louis in a single night when unable to sleep), capable of shooting, printing and projecting moving pictures, were soon filming around the world to produce a catalogue of general, military, comic and scenic views, as well as living portraits. The limitations of Dickson's studio-bound shorts were soon exposed alongside the Lumieres' more spontaneous 15-20 second slices of life".[1]

Cinematographe Lumiere

"The brothers presented, in such landmark films as La Sortie des usines Lumière (Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory), L’Arroseur arrosé (Tables Turned on the Gardener), in which a gardener is watered with his own hose by a young prankster, and Repas de bébé (Feeding the Baby), a world that was at once realistic and tranquil, gently whimsical, and deeply privileged. In many respects, the Lumière brothers were the world’s first documentary filmmakers, and their short films (about one minute in length) remain invaluable as a slice of upper-middle-class French society at the turn of the century that would otherwise have been forgotten. One of the Lumière’ most famous early films was L’Arrivée d’un train a La Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, 1895), in which a train pulls into a railroad station. Early patrons were so amazed that some are said to have fled the theater in fright, certain that the train would run them over. The Lumières made literally hundreds of these one-shot, one-scene films, and for several years continued to present them to an enthusiastic public captivated by the simple fact that the images moved. It was the first successful commercial exploitation of the medium".[4] "Reflecting the composed look of contemporary photography rather than the theatrical tableau, their 'pictures in motion' had a depth of scene that contributed to the realism of the train pulling into the Gare de la Ciotat and a basic narrative pattern of beginning, middle and end that informed even the 'Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory'. The naturalism and bustle of many of their actualités (actuality films) foreshadowed the style of the Soviet Kino-Eye and the Italian Neo-Realists, while 'Feeding the Baby' has a distinct home-movie feel.

Considering the length of its prehistory and the comparative spans required by the novel and the other arts, the speed with which the cinema developed its complex code of instantly recognizable narrative symbols and its own grammar and poetics is all the more remarkable. Yet few were willing to concede that film, with its roots in pulp fiction, comic strips, popular photography and melodrama, was an art, dismissing it as a fairground attraction or a magician's prop. Ironically, it was a French illusionist, George Méliès (1861—1938), considered by many 'the father of the narrative film', who was to become the screen's first true artist".[1]

George Melies, Magician of Cinema

Méliès was a performing magician who owned his own theater. After seeing the Lumières Cinématographe in 1895, he decided to add films to his program, but the Lumière brothers refused to sell him one. In early 1896, he obtained a projector from English inventor R.W. Paul and reversed its mechanical principles to design his own camera. The following year he organized the Star Film company and constructed a small glass-enclosed studio on the grounds of his house at Montreuil, where he produced, directed, photographed, and acted in over than 500 films, of which less than 140 survive.


Initially Méliès used stop-motion photography (the camera and action are stopped while something is added to or removed from the scene; then filming and action are continued) to make one-shot “trick” films in which objects disappeared and reappeared or transformed themselves into other objects entirely. These films were widely imitated by producers in England and the United States. "His trademark brand of phantasmagorical wizardry made him the godfather of special effects cinema in the hundreds of films he created in his Paris studio, including Le Spectre (Murder Will Out, 1899) and Le rêve de Noël (The Christmas Dream, 1900). In Escamotage d'une dame au théâtre Robert Houdin (The Conjuring of a Woman at the House of Robert Houdin, 1896), Méliès makes a woman vanish before our eyes. In L'hallucination de l'alchimiste (The Hallucinating Alchemist, 1897), he presents the viewer with a gigantic star sporting five female heads. Les aventures de baron de Munchhausen (Baron Munchhausen’s Dream, 1911) features a woman/spider construct that anticipates the Scorpion King in a much later film, Stephen Sommers’s The Mummy Returns (2001). In Le chaudron infernal (The Infernal Boiling Pot, 1903), three young women are boiled alive in a gigantic cauldron".[4] Soon, however, Méliès began to experiment with brief multiscene films, such as L’Affaire Dreyfus (The Dreyfus Affair, 1899), his first, which followed the logic of linear temporality to establish causal sequences and tell simple stories. The Dreyfus Affair, told the story of the Jewish officer convicted of treason in 1894 on the basis of false evidence put forth through anti - Semitic motives . The controversy was still raging when Melies made his pro - Dreyfus picture. As was customary at the time, he released each of the ten shots as a separate film. When shown together, the shots combined into one of the most complex works of the cinema's early years.

By 1902 he had produced the influential 30-scene narrative Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon). Adapted from a novel by Jules Verne, it was nearly one reel in length (about 14 minutes) and ranks as one of the cinema’s first (if not the first) science fiction films, combining spectacle, sensation, and technical wizardry to create a cosmic fantasy that was an international sensation. The film also created many of the basic generic situations that are still used in science fiction films today. The first film to achieve international distribution (mainly through piracy), Le Voyage dans la lune was an enormous popular success. It helped to make Star Film one of the world’s largest producers (an American branch was opened in 1903) and to establish the fiction film as the cinema’s mainstream product. In both respects Mélies dethroned the Lumieres’ cinema of actuality. Despite his innovations, Méliès’s productions remained essentially filmed stage plays. He conceived them quite literally as successions of living pictures or, as he termed them, “artificially arranged scenes.” From his earliest trick films through his last successful fantasy, À la conquête du pôle (The Conquest of the Pole, 1912), Méliès treated the frame of the film as the proscenium arch of a theatre stage, never once moving his camera or changing its position within a scene.

"For all his showmanship, Méliès was an unsuccessful business person, and his films were often bootlegged in foreign countries. Near the end of his career he went bankrupt, partially because of the extensive pirating of his work, but also as a result of overspending on increasingly lavish spectacles. The negatives for Mélies’s films were melted down by a creditor for their silver content. Many of his films survive today only through the illegal copies that helped to bankrupt him".[4]

Edwin S. Porter, Edison's Mainstay

"Porter was a film projectionist and an expert at building photographic equipment. In late 1900, he went to work for Edison, whom he greatly admired . He was assigned to improve the firm's cameras and projectors. That year the Edison Company built a new glassenclosed rooftop studio on East 21st Street in New York City, where films could be shot using the typical painted stage-style scenery of the era. In early 1901, Porter began operating a camera there. At this point in cinema history, the cameraman was also the film's director, and soon Porter was responsible for many of the company's most popular films".[3] For the next few years, he served as director-cameraman for much of Edison’s output, starting with simple one-shot films (Kansas Saloon Smashers, 1901) and progressing rapidly to trick films (The Finish of Bridget McKeen, 1901) and short multiscene narratives based on political cartoons and contemporary events (Sampson-Schley Controversy, 1901; Execution of Czolgosz, with Panorama of Auburn Prison, 1901). Porter also filmed the extraordinary Pan-American Exposition by Night (1901), which used time-lapse photography to produce a circular panorama of the exposition’s electrical illumination, and the 10-scene Jack and the Beanstalk (1902), a narrative that simulates the sequencing of lantern slides to achieve a logical, if elliptical, spatial continuity.

Edwin S. Porter: Life of an American Fireman

It was probably Porter’s experience as a projectionist at the Eden Musée theatre in 1898 that ultimately led him in the early 1900s to the practice of continuity editing. The process of selecting one-shot films and arranging them into a 15-minute program for screen presentation was very much like that of constructing a single film out of a series of separate shots. Porter, by his own admission, was also influenced by other filmmakers - especially Méliès, whose Le Voyage dans la lune he came to know well in the process of duplicating it for illegal distribution by Edison in October 1902. Years later Porter claimed that the Méliès film had given him the notion of “telling a story in continuity form,” which resulted in The Life of an American Fireman (about 400 feet [122 metres], or six minutes, produced in late 1902 and released in January 1903). This film, which was also influenced by James Williamson’s Fire!, combined archival footage with staged scenes to create a nine-shot narrative of a dramatic rescue from a burning building. It was for years the subject of controversy because in a later version the last two scenes were intercut, or crosscut, into a 14-shot parallel sequence. It is now generally believed that in the earliest version of the film these scenes, which repeat the same rescue operation from an interior and exterior point of view, were shown in their entirety, one after the other. This repetition, or overlapping continuity, which owes much to magic lantern shows, clearly defines the spatial relationships between scenes but leaves temporal relationships underdeveloped and, to modern sensibilities, confused. Contemporary audiences, however, were conditioned by lantern slide projections and even comic strips; they understood a sequence of motion-picture shots to be a series of individual moving photographs, each of which was self-contained within its frame. Spatial relationships were clear in such earlier narrative forms because their only medium was space. Nevertheless, the technical innovations in the film are many: a close-up of the fire alarm being activated, the use of both medium and wide shots, the intercutting of actual footage with staged sequences, and the use of dissolves as transitions between scenes to suggest the passage of time.

Motion pictures, however, exist in time as well as space, and the major problem for early filmmakers was the establishment of temporal continuity from one shot to the next. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) is widely acknowledged to be the first narrative film to have achieved such continuity of action. Comprising 14 separate shots of noncontinuous, nonoverlapping action, the film contains an early example of parallel editing, two credible back, or rear, projections (the projection from the rear of previously filmed action or scenery onto a translucent screen to provide the background for new action filmed in front of the screen), two camera pans, and several shots composed diagonally and staged in depth - a major departure from the frontally composed, theatrical staging of Méliès. "The film used intercutting for suspense (a telegraph operator knocked out at the beginning of the film is revived by a young girl who discovers him by accident; will he be able to spread the alarm in time?); parallel editing (the robbery takes place as the telegraph operator is being revived, and the robbery concludes as the posse is being formed to pursue the bandits); and camera angles that view the action from a variety of vantage points, usually to the left or right of the actors, rather than placing the actors directly in front of the camera".[4]

The film’s popularity encouraged investors and led to the establishment of the first permanent film theatres, or nickelodeons, across the country. Running about 12 minutes, it also helped to boost standard film length toward one reel, or 1,000 feet (305 metres [about 16 minutes at the average silent speed]). Despite the film’s success, Porter continued to practice overlapping action in such conventional narratives as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903) and the social justice dramas The Ex-Convict (1904) and The Kleptomaniac (1905). He experimented with model animation in The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906) and The Teddy Bears (1907) but lost interest in the creative aspects of filmmaking as the process became increasingly industrialized. He left Edison in 1909 to pursue a career as a producer and equipment manufacturer. Porter, like Méliès, could not adapt to the linear narrative modes and assembly-line production systems that were developing.

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