Saturday, February 3, 2018

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 début 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.

As with other media we've encountered, the nascent art of film took a long time figuring out its subject matter. Very early films (pre-1900) tended to use a fixed camera, although movement was sometime obtained by attaching the camera to a train (these train-front films were called "phantom rides"). Early commercial operators such as Edison were limited by the method of presentation, which was originally a wooden box known as a "Kinetoscope" which held only 50 feet of film in a loop. These one-act films, which included fixed shots of buildings, street scenes, and common sights, are sometimes known as the "cinema of attractions." Vaudeville entertainers (Professor Welton's Boxing Cats), sideshows (Annie Oakley shooting clay pigeons), ventriloquists, and magicians were also invited to have their acts recorded on celluloid.

Indeed, one of the first masters of the cinema, Georges Méliès, was a magician himself, and became renowned for his 'trick' special-effects films. In one, he takes his head off his body three times, and the assembled heads join in song; in another, he blows up his head to enormous size with a bellows and a tube. Eventually, films expanded in length and began to tell sequential narratives, and actors and scene-designers trained especially in film produced increasingly ambitious subjects. One of Edison's most successful films was a pioneer in this regard: The Great Train Robbery introduced intercut narratives, switching between close and wide shots, and even some camera movement. The final scene, where the robber turns to the camera and fires, is one of cinema's most iconic.


  1. What struck me most about this blog post was the disappearance of Le Prince. I wonder if his equipment in those specially made crates survived even if he did not. If they did survive, were they eventually debuted? Did his disappearance mean that no one would get to see or use the technology he developed?

    I am also interested in how Georges Méliès was able to accomplish his special effects in early film. The effects must have had such a huge impact on an audience that had literally never seen such depictions. I also wonder if there were groups that objected to film as being too advanced and specifically objected to the types of "magic" tricks he created.


  2. It was cool to see the first cinematic clips ever produced. Film is the most innovative media technology because it is derived from a medium that was created within the same century. Whereas books incorporated writing, which had been around for millennia, and recorded music still depended on instruments, most of which had existed for centuries, cinema was an offshoot of photographs. Photography and film are truly 19th century inventions. Though portraits and sketches provided near realistic renderings of people, living things, and inanimate objects, photos actually captured 2 dimensional images as they appear in real life. Like all other media, film was also subject to the need for portability. To think that just over a century later, humans would be recording and watching video content on hand held devices like smart phones.