In the beginning, there was light. The prehistory of cinema starts as far back as the 1600s, when magic lantern shows toured Europe, delighting audiences with elaborately drawn images and shadows projected on walls by a lantern, usually with spoken narration to go along and tell the story. But cinema as we know it required a few more elements, which came together at the end of the 19th century. First, a way to capture an image and hold it, which came through the advancements in photography throughout the century. Second, the concept of the persistence of vision, that is, that the human brain will fill in the gaps between rapidly changing, slightly different still images to create the illusion of movement. Third, a device and medium to capture many subsequent images in a row, as many as 15-25 per second in order to kick in persistence of vision – film and the motion picture camera, which were developed by George Eastman, Thomas Edison, and others nearly simultaneously in the mid-1880s.
Persistence of vision toys were quite popular in the middle of the 19th century, usually with a series of drawings that were somehow manipulated to create the illusion of movement. The concept is that when different still images are run quickly by the eye, the brain tries to put them together. In the case of the thaumatrope (a disc on a string with a drawing of a bird on one side and of a cage on the other), the bird appears to be in the cage when you spin the disc. In the case of series drawings like you would find in the more elaborate zoetrope, running the slightly different images quickly in front of the eye fools the brain into seeing movement, as it fills in the gaps between each drawing. Hand drawn animation is a direct descendent of these forms of entertainment.
But to capture live action, photography needed to come into play, and we can thank Eadweard Muybridge and a bet he made for pioneering series photography. When he bet a friend that at some point during a horse’s gallop, all four feet would be off the ground, he needed a way to prove it, so he set up a series of still cameras all along a racetrack, with trip wires so the horse would trip the shutter of each camera as he went by. When all the photographs were run together, it looked like the horse was running. Also, Muybridge won his bet.
After Muybridge’s series photography started coming out (he did many other series after the horse, mostly of nude women walking up and down stairs), it was only a matter of a few years until inventors started coming up with ways to shoot series of photographs with a single camera (one design was even shaped like a gun), and the Eastman company developed celluloid film to capture images. Thomas Edison’s company got into the mix early, as Edison assigned his assistant W.K.L. Dickson, to develop a motion picture camera. Edison thought the short film clips from the machine he called the Kinetograph would make a good visual accompaniment to the recordings made on his phonograph.
And indeed, the first films shown in the United States were very short actuality films, often less than a minute in length, showing such attractions as Sandow the Strong Man, Annie Oakley, a woman feeding her chickens, the demolition of a wall, and serpentine dancers Loie Fuller and Annabelle. Some of these were vaudeville or circus acts now able to be seen by greater numbers of people through the medium of film; though still just one person at a time, since the early Edison films were shown in an upright box called a Kinetoscope with a single peephole to look in and see the film. To maximize tickets (Edison was a shrewd businessman as well as inventor), separate rounds of boxing matches would be filmed and shown on different Kinetoscope machines, requiring another coin to watch each subsequent round.
But Edison wasn’t the only person working with motion pictures, nor was everyone as convinced as he was that there was no future in projected film. Various attempts were made in the mid-1890s to create a viable projection system, but it was Lumiere brothers Auguste and Louis in Paris who studied the Kinetograph carefully and then developed their own device that served as camera, projector, and film printer – they called it the Cinematographe, which lent its name to cinema itself. In March 1895, they projected their first film, Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory, to a private audience, thus marking the beginning of cinematic exhibition as we know it. Just like Edison, the Lumieres filmed very short scenes, but thanks in part to the portable nature of the Cinematographe, they tended toward a realistic documentary impulse, filming arrivals of trains, workers at their father’s factory, and scenes with the Lumiere family at home, while Edison’s films (most manufactured in a studio) soon tended toward populist entertainment.
The projection method of exhibition spread like wildfire, and soon movies were being shown in theatres as part of a vaudeville bill. Realizing projection was the way to go, Edison bought an improved projection machine developed by Thomas Armat and C. Francis Jenkins and rebranded it the Vitascope (in a somewhat scandalous move, Edison’s deal with Armat stipulated that Edison would be credited for the invention). The Vitascope allowed for longer films to be made due to a device called the Latham Loop (after the family who developed it for their own modified Kinetoscope) that prevented film breakage at film lengths longer than 100 feet, or about two minutes.
By 1898, J Stuart Blackton (mostly known for animation in the first decade of the 20th century) created a couple of films documenting the Spanish-American War – except the epic sea battles he captured on film took place on his roof with minatures. Special effects are born. Meanwhile, in France, magician Georges Méliès was fascinated by movies and figuring out what magic he could make them do. He discovered that if he stopped the camera and changed something in the scene, then started it again, it appeared that the thing had changed by pure magic. He exploited this in many films, disappearing and reappearing items, changing people into things and things into people, but nowhere did it all come together as wonderfully as in his 1902 masterpiece A Trip to the Moon, about a group of astronomers who go to the moon in their spaceship, discover creatures up there who imprison them, then escape and return home. The voiceover included in many available versions of the film recreates a live narration Melies distributed to be read along with the film.
Though Méliès excelled at camera trickery and was perhaps the first filmmaker to exploit the cinema’s potential for narrative, his films remain stagebound, a single stationary camera capturing a tableau in each scene. The next step in cinema evolution was editing – the realization that the basic unit of meaning in cinema was not the scene, as it is in theatre, but the shot, and that you can create a coherent scene and tie scenes together through editing. Edison Company director Edwin S. Porter is most closely associated with the birth of continuity editing; that is, the understanding that each scene does not have to be complete in and of itself – rather, you can start a scene in the middle of an action, and end it, cutting to something else, before the action is complete. In The Great Train Robbery (1903), Porter has series of shots that must be understood in relation to each other – robbers tying up a telegraph operator, then attacking the train, then leaving the train, then the operator being rescued, then the operator forming a posse, then the robbers riding through the woods, etc. This all seems very obvious to us, but at the time it was a marked break from the then-standard stage-based understanding of space and time. The Great Train Robbery marks the end of the primitive era of filmmaking, when cinema started coming of age, as it were, and granted new life to a medium that had begun to get stale as audiences tired of single-shot actualities. Other filmmakers followed Porter’s lead, and the tools were all in place for the first great master of American cinema to come along – D.W. Griffith. But that’s a post for another day.
Compilation of Muybridge series photographs
Edison’s Annie Oakley (yes, the real Annie Oakley)
Lumiere’s Serpentine Dances (with Loie Fuller, usually credited as the creator of the style)
Méliès’ The Magician
Porter’s Life of An American Fireman (Copyright Version)
Méliès’ Le Diable Noir
(many of these sets overlap, containing several of the same films)
The Movies Begin: A Treasure of Early Cinema (1894-1913) (Amazon)
Edison: The Invention of the Movies (Amazon | Netflix)
Landmarks of Early Film, Vol. 1 (Amazon | Netflix)
Landmarks of Early Film, Vol. 2: Magic Méliès (Netflix)
Méliès the Magician (Amazon | Netflix)
Bogdanovich, Peter. “The First Films.” Blogdanovich. Posted 19 March 2011. Accessed 31 March 2011.
Cook, David A. “Origins.” In A History of Narrative Film. New York: Norton, 1996: 1-32.
Library of Congress. “History of Edison Motion Pictures.” Library of Congress. Accessed 29 Jan 2011.
Musser, Charles. History of the American Cinema: The Emergence of Cinema. New York: Scribner, 1990.
O’Donoghue, Darragh. “Great Directors: Georges Méliès.” Senses of Cinema Vol. 32. Accessed 7 March, 2011.
Slide, Anthony. Early American Cinema. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1994.
-  An earlier Porter film, Life of an American Fireman, uses similar techniques as A Great Train Robbery, but not as powerfully. The film, which was lost until 1944, now exists in two different versions. The one found in 1944 is known as the Cross-Cut Version and cuts back and forth between the interior and exterior of the burning house in the climactic scene. A version discovered later is known as the Copyright Version because it matches the paper print submitted to the Library of Congress in 1902. At the time, films were not covered under copyright law, but still images were, so companies would print each frame of the film on paper and submit that for copyright. In the Copyright Version (YouTube), the interior scene plays all the way through, then the exterior scene follows it, repeating the same action from a different vantage point. This wasn’t unusual in films at the time, and audiences didn’t expect temporal continuity. If the Cross-Cut Version is earlier, then Dickson is the first to use the technique that would later become associated with D.W. Griffith, Louis Feuillade, and others. However, it is likely that the Copyright Version is in fact earlier and the film was re-edited after cross-cutting became a more common technique toward the end of the 1910s. However, the film is still notable for the continuity editing as the fireman race to the fire, the pan from the last fire truck onto the house, and the fact that Porter cut in existing stock footage along with the original footage he shot, perhaps the first time a filmmaker realized that footage could be reused in different films. ↩