Monday, January 30, 2017

The Origins of Cinema

Although its basic technical details are clear enough, the origins of cinema are shrouded in doubt, dispute, and even death. As with other media technologies, among the earliest uses of sequential images were in scientific projects, such as those of Marey and Muybridge. The technical problem confronting them both was how to get a series of images in quick, measured sequence. Muybridge used timers and tripwires to obtain sequential images; Marey, more direct, invented a cinematic gun which "fired" a cylinder of small photonegatives; it looked somewhat like a Thompson submachine gun but was limited to 12 exposures. What was really needed was some kind of double movement -- a shutter which would open and close quickly and repeatedly, and a mechanism which would advance the photosensitive material. When the material in question was glass plates, the problem was overwhelming -- but with the invention of celluloid photo "film" by George Eastman, a solution was in sight, and the prize belonged to the inventor who could best employ it.

Louis Augustin Le Prince (above) is my personal favorite among the many candidates for first filmmaker. He had gotten his start working on painted panoramas -- great circular paintings which created a sort of Victorian virtual reality -- where his job was projecting glass plate photos onto the canvas for artists to trace. Arriving in Leeds, England, in the late 1880's, he married into a well-off family, and his father-in-law financed further experiments. Le Prince's first design was a 16-lens camera, using a series of "mutilated gears" to fire off 16 frames in short order on two strips of film. He later designed a single-lens camera, with a mechanical movement using smooth rollers (sprockets not yet having been tried) to advance the film. He planned to stage a grand d├ębut in New York City, and had rented a private mansion for his demonstration; his equipment was packed into custom-made crates, and his tickets were purchased for crossing on a luxurious Cunard liner. And yet just then, as he was returning from visiting his brother in Dijon, France, he vanished from the Dijon-Paris express and was never seen again, alive or dead.

As with many early cinematographers, Le Prince's films do not survive. Eastman's celluloid turned out to be volatile; it could disintegrate into a brown powder, burst into flame, or even explode without warning. However, at some point, paper prints were made of three of his films, and these have been reconstructed into short, viewable sequences. The films were made in 1888, earlier than any others. His first film, "Roundhay Garden Scene," shows his family dancing about in his father-in-law's back garden; his second, "Leeds Bridge," shows traffic and pedestrians crossing a bridge in the city where he worked; the third, untitled, shows his young son playing an accordion as he dances upon a set of stairs. The only question is: with what camera were these shot? Distortions and perspective problems with the frames, as well as the fact that there are rarely more than 16 of them, suggest that the 16-lens camera is the most likely source, but some believe he used his single-lens camera for some or all of the films. If so, he was certainly the first person in the world to make what we have come to regard as cinema film.


  1. From reading the post and just remembering the lecture of the class, I felt fatigue and in some ways annoyance of the projects in mention. I’m not discrediting these projects or this topic, I find it important and interesting to be honest, but I guess what I am saying is that I can somewhat sense the frustration and annoyance that came with trying to create this media. I can only wonder of the setbacks and how long it might have taken to make something that could “maybe” work. That being said I wasn’t all that surprised when the post mentioned how Le Prince’s films did not survive and how the camera in mention of his films was unknown. Perhaps that’s what made this period so great, and perhaps that’s what made these pioneers so focused on their work, the frustration that comes with creating something new, in the hopes that someday it would become something amazing.

  2. With the strides made in technology during last century, I am certain many would not consider Le Prince’s works actual ‘films’. I gather they are pretty primitive by today’s standard, but back in the 1800’s his accomplishments were revolutionary. The idea of being able to view the past in motion, as if it was unfolding right before one’s eyes must have been a rather radical concept. I mean the past for Le Prince was pretty recent. He filmed himself and family, and traffic and people walking. Perhaps preserving the past wasn’t his intention. This newfangled notion of motion pictures may have just been for the purpose of entertainment. Le Prince may have never even conceived of what could be done with this new recording medium. Incidental or not, Le Prince succeeded in preserving the past. In some way he and his loved ones, and all of those strangers captured on camera still exist. I think that’s astonishing. I agree with Edgar that at times experimentation is frustrating. One could spend their entire life on an idea, project, or invention they are passionate about, but yet never fully accomplish what they have set out to do. I guess the lesson is that the enjoyment and fulfillment should lie in the pursuit and not in the outcome.

  3. Louis LePrince just didn’t get the timing right. His own disappearance would have made a great plot for his first movie. Perhaps that’s what he wanted, then something went horribly wrong. Of course, it would take quite a bit of masterful editing to get his sordid and enigmatic story into 16 frames, but hey, this man loved a challenge! George Eastman gets runner up prize for inventing a process that not only heralded modern film and photography, but he did it with a product that could self destruct, or erupt in a fiery surprise. These guys had all the fun. Then again, the Galaxy Note 7 comes close. The plots LePrince did manage to capture needed a bit of Spielberg. Grandma dancing and some kid playing the accordion would be 8 billion hits below “cats eating potato chips” on the youtube ranking board. Roundhay Garden Scene Fight Club or Leeds Bridge Has Fallen would still be classics today. If only he had more frames. And a life vest.
    -Tony Ricci