I sometimes evoked books I read, but I also watch a lot of movies! I know, not really original. Also, I read books about the history of cinema and other actors’ biography. But I’ve never really taken a look at the origin of the medium. Until today!
Who Created Cinema?
First, as always, we are taking a look at the definition of the word. Merriam-Webster is telling us that cinema is:
1 a: MOTION PICTURE—usually used attributively
b: a motion-picture theater
2 a: MOVIES (especially: the film industry)
b: the art or technique of making motion pictures
Meaning that what is called “cinema” is as much about the art of making movies that it is the place to watch them and the movies themselves. Confusing you say?
The confusion started early. In fact, the place where to start with the history of cinema can cause a bit of confusion. Did the beginning was the first film, the first technology that led to the projection of the film, or even the one that led to that one?
From the Phenakistoscope to the Cinematograph
Have you heard about the phenakistoscope? It’s a spinning cardboard disk that created the illusion of movement when viewed in a mirror. It was an optic game—also known as the stroboscopic disc—created almost simultaneously in 1832 by Belgian inventor Joseph Plateau and Austrian professor of practical geometry Simon Stampfer. It is known as the invention that paved the way for the motion picture—it is basically a GIF IRL.
Two years later, inspired by Plateau’s work, British mathematician William George Horner developed a cylindrical variation. He called it the Dædaleum—the revolving drum had viewing slits between the pictures, instead of above. After that, a few experimental variations followed the same idea. In 1865, William Ensign Lincoln’s concept was noticed. It was called the zoetrope. His approach was patented and had the viewing slits on a level above the pictures, which allowed the use of easily replaceable strips of images. Lincoln worked with board game manufacturers Milton Bradley who later released multiple series with twelve zoetrope strips each. Illustrators and animators saw the potential of the zoetrope and created education strips and what basically were short animation films.
Other inventors improved on the zoetrope, most notably French inventor Charles-Émile Reynaud who, in 1877, patented the Praxinoscope—replacing zoetrope’s narrow viewing slits with an inner circle of mirrors. Reynaud invented in 1888 the “Théâtre Optique” (aka Optical Theatre in English), an animated moving picture system. He found success by projecting his Pantomimes Lumineuses series of animated films.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, things moved in a different direction. Inspired by a demonstration of the zoopraxiscope, a device used for displaying moving images conceived by English photographer Eadweard Muybridge in 1879, Thomas Edison was inspired to create the Kinetoscope, a motion picture device that was destined to be part of an audiovisual system (his phonograph would have delivered the sound). His employee William Dickson (the company’s official photographer) was tasked with its creation. It took time.
In 1889, Edison visited the Exposition Universelle in Paris. During his time in France, he met with scientist-photographer Étienne-Jules Marey who introduced to him the “chronophotographic gun,” a device considered to be the first portable motion picture camera. It used a strip of flexible film in order to capture sequential images at twelve frames per second. It inspired Edison to use a perforated image band. With Dickson, they started working with sensitized celluloid sheets to record the photographs that were put on a cylinder to be projected. That’s when the first motion picture ever on photographic film in the United States was produced. It was called “Monkeyshines, No. 1.” At that time, the idea of synchronizing sound with pictures was temporarily forgotten.
Worked continued and, in 1891, the first public demonstration of a prototype Kinetoscope was given at the laboratory. The Kinetoscope was designed for films to be viewed by one individual at a time through a peephole viewer window at the top of the device. The filmstrip quickly evolved, became a 35 mm (1 3/8 inches) wide. A public Kinetoscope parlor was opened by the Holland Bros. in New York City in 1894. This was the first commercial motion picture house.
The Kinetoscope made an impact in France when Antoine Lumière discovered it at a Paris exhibition in 1894. It makes him think about a device that could project the film onto a screen. He presented his idea to his sons who started to work on it. Louis Lumière had already made his mark with the invention of the “blue plate”—a technology that changed the photography industry and made the Lumière family a fortune.
In 1895, the Lumière brothers had achieved their goal and made their first film “Sortie de l’usine Lumière de Lyon” (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory). In December of that year, they organized their first commercial public screening, a presentation featuring ten short films. The Lumière Cinématographe used perforated 35 mm-wide film that passed through a shutter at 16 frames per second. Unlike the Kinetoscope that was electrically powered, the Cinématographe was manually operated by a hand crank. An important fact, because it made the camera portable.
The name Cinematograph was used for movie cameras as well as film projectors.
The Cinématographe quickly became a popular attraction around the world, it even found its way to China. After the first public projection, Louis Lumière thought that Cinema was an invention without a future. He was clearly wrong. They changed the world as history could be recorded.
The Art of Cinema
Among those who were present at the first commercial public screening organized by the Lumière Brothers, Georges Méliès was clearly the one who was the most affected by this new technology. He immediately wanted to buy their patents, but as they saw their invention as a simple scientific curiosity, the brothers refused his offer. Nevertheless, Méliès found a way to create his own production company, Star Film, and started to project his own theater films inspired by those of the Lumière brothers. It was simply scenes from everyday life, nothing more. Soon, in order to keep his clients interested, Méliès started to produce short fiction in the vein of Lumière’s “L’Arroseur arrosé” (The Sprinkler Sprinkled). He soon began to use visual tricks, experimenting with special effects—some were discovered by accident when the Cinematographe malfunctioned. In September 1896, he built a film studio on his property and began the production of every genre of film he could think of—a magic trick film like “The Famous Box Trick,” religious satires like “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” horror films like “Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb,” and more.
Of course, his most famous one is 1901’s “A Trip to the Moon,” based on Jules Verne’s sci-fi novels. This film became an enormous success in France and around the world.
As a way to control the film industry in the United States and Europe, Thomas Edison created in 1908 the Motion Picture Patents Company. Méliès and others joined him, as cinema had become a worldwide phenomenon. Filmmakers started to become known like Germans Fritz Lang and Robert Weine, Russians Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein, Americans Lois Weber (who invented split-screen editing) and D. W. Griffith.
Thomas Edison owned the patent for capturing and projecting motion pictures. If you wanted to make movies in the US, you had to pay him. He controlled the entire industry, but some found a way to get away from him. They just move to the other side of the country, in California, making it harder for Edison to sue for patent violations.
The move liberated the industry. Los Angeles became the center of the film business. The rest is history.