Category: Cinema 101

Cinema 101: Flickers of Light


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.

ThaumatropePersistence 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.

Edison's KinetographAfter 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.[ref name=”Porter1″]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.[/ref] 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.

Further Watching

On YouTube

Muybridge’s horse
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[backref name=”Porter1″ /])
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)

Further Reading

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.

Cinema 101: The Academy Awards


With the 83rd Academy Awards coming up this evening and all the entertainment media and blogs going crazy with coverage and predictions and stats and publicity, I thought it might be fun to pull back and look a bit at the history of the awards and the Academy that bestows them, as well as how the Awards work. The Academy Awards are one of the oldest awards in cinema, and however right or wrong or self-congratulatory they are, they can be a great springboard for the study of Hollywood. I may rail against the Academy’s choices and wonder why the Awards get the prestige that they do, but truth be told, I have a big soft spot for the Academy and its history.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

First of all, who is this “Academy”, and what do they do besides hand out little gold statues every year? Today the Academy is a group of 6000 industry professionals, from all different areas of filmmaking ranging from studio executives to actors to writers to special effects technicians and everything else. Membership is by invitation only, which tends to give the group a bit of a snooty insider facade, and of course lends that Hollywood insider bias that the Oscars are often ridiculed for. But the Academy does a lot more that you might think – let’s take a look at how it got started.

mayer.jpgIn 1927, a dinner party at MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer’s house sparked the idea to start an institute that would benefit the entire film industry. By which they mostly meant the American film industry, and of course, the Academy has remained focused on Hollywood and American cinema, but there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. From that initial conversation, which also involved actor Conrad Nagel and director Fred Niblo, the project soon brought heavy hitters Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks (who became the first president), Sid Grauman, Jesse Lasky, Cecil B. DeMille, Irving Thalberg, and others on board. With both major studios like MGM, Paramount, and United Artists as well as exhibitors like Grauman and Lasky involved, the Academy had the talent and connections necessary to fulfill the role it created for itself.

The Academy quickly started publishing books of interest to industry professionals on technical and artistic topics like cinematography and sound recording – these first books were out as early as 1928. A program of film screenings was created, catering specifically to industry professionals – allowing them to see films in state of the art conditions prior to or concurrent with their theatrical release. By the 1930s, the Academy ran educational programs for non-industry people as well, teaching the US Signal Corps how to make their own training films, for example, and later acting as a liason between the government and the industry to make WWII training films. It was even involved in industry labor disputes during the 1920s and 1930s, though it explicitly moved away from such involvement in 1937, preferring to maintain its distance from labor conflict.

The Academy is probably best known today (aside from the Academy Awards) as an extensive resource both for industry professionals and outside researchers interested in the history of Hollywood film. Right from the start they started keeping detailed records of every film produced with full credits as well as directories of actors and their agents for the use of producers and filmmakers. Soon they were maintaining a full library of film-related material, from scripts and books to actual prints. As academic interest in film school and film studies grew in the 1960s, the Academy began scholarship and grant programs for film students, and in 1972 they opened their archives up to scholars and historians as well as indiustry professionals. This library and archive are invaluable for researchers even today, and the Academy is heavily involved in the preservation and restoration of classic Hollywood films. Expanding their reach beyond the industry, the Academy started putting on public lectures and later public screenings, often with the filmmakers in attendence. These events continue into the present, with events, exhibitions and screenings scheduled all the time.


While it’s easy to see the Academy as simply “those people who give out the Oscars,” the institution performs an important function for both filmmakers and film historians, providing symposiums and information for industry professionals and the public alike, access to an extensive film library and archive to researchers and cinematheques, and a valuable reminder of the rich heritage of American cinema. The Academy has preserved much of the history of Hollywood, and its founders were among the pioneers in recognizing the importance of film preservation and education.

The Academy Awards

Of course, the reason we’re talking about the Academy is the thing they’re most famous for – doling out awards every year. And the Awards were one of the first initiatives undertaken by the Academy, as a way of celebrating the work of their colleagues. One of the things the Academy is often criticized for is their Hollywood centrism, and that’s a valid objection, but the Academy’s whole purpose is to provide information and recognition for the American film industry, so it shouldn’t really be surprising.


The first Academy Awards of Merit were presented in 1929 for films released between August 1, 1927 and July 31, 1928. The practice of using an August-to-August eligibility calender would remain in effect until 1934, when the current January-to-December schedule was adopted. The first awards were not kept secret, but were announced several months in advance and presented at a private awards dinner to the winners. It was only the next year, however, that the awards were kept secret until the ceremony and the awards were radio broadcast live – the awards would only grow in prestige and public spectacle. By 1942 they had outgrown a banquet-style ceremony and were moved into Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Now they are held in the Kodak Theatre, right next to the Chinese at the center of Hollywood.

The actual statue is officially known as the Academy Award of Merit, and was designed by production designer Cedric Gibbons. It depicts a naked gold man driving a sword into the reel of film upon which he stands. It’s unclear exactly how it got the nickname “Oscar” – one story is that when Academy librarian (and later Executive Director) Margaret Herrick first saw the statue, she remarked that it looked like her Uncle Oscar. The nickname was popularly used as early as 1934, and was officially adopted by the Academy in 1939.

There’s enough trivia about the Oscars to fill several books (and it has), but here are a few important dates.

1934 – awards for editing, score, song added
1934 – It Happened One Night sweeps Picture/Director/Actor/Actress/Screenplay
1936 – awards for supporting actor/actress added
1939 – award for special effects added
1941 – award for documentary added
1942 – Greer Garson’s speech lasts minutes, instigating speech limits
1947 – special award given for foreign language film – the Italian Shoeshine
1953 – first televised Oscars
1956 – award for foreign film added (special awards were given most years from 1947)
1959 – Ben-Hur sets 11-win record, unmatched until 1997
2001 – award for animated feature added

How the Awards Work

There are a lot of eligibility rules that are specific for each category, but the basic rule is that a film must have played a one-week commercial run at a Los Angeles theatre between January 1st and December 31st. A lot of times films will open for an Oscar qualifying run at one LA cinema (often the Laemmle Sunset 5), then not release any further until later the next year. Certain categories have further restrictions – for instance, foreign films have to have a certain percentage of the dialogue be non-English, and original scores can only contain a certain amount of pre-released music. These restrictions have led to odd non-nominations, like The Band’s Visit, which was deemed ineligible for foreign film because the Israeli and Egyptian characters resorted to English to understand each other, even though the film was totally produced by Israel.


For most categories, only the members of the relevant branch of the Academy may submit nominations – for example, only cinematographers can nominate in the Best Cinematography category, and only directors can nominate in the Best Director category. All members may nominate for Best Picture, however, and Best Foreign Film nominees are selected by a committee representing all branches. When it comes to final voting, all members may vote in every category, though in certain categories (the short film categories, for example) they must have seen all the nominated films to vote. It is possible, though rare, for ties to happen in the final vote. The only two times it has happened in major categories is 1932, when Fredric March and Wallace Beery tied for Best Actor (for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Champ, respectively) and in 1967, when Barbra Streisand’s performance in Funny Girl tied Katharine Hepburn’s in The Lion in Winter.

As mentioned above, the awards tend to be very Hollywood-centric, making it surprising when a foreign film gets any nominations other than as a foreign film. In fact, many studios refused to support the 1948 awards when it became clear that the UK-produced Hamlet was likely to win the Best Picture award (and it did).

Recently, the Awards have come under media attention for their tendency to reward middle-of-the-road “Oscar-bait” pictures – lushly produced films with recognizable actors and inspirational plots, bonus points if the film is pseudo-independent or smaller-scale. This means that most of the films nominated tend to be limited release films that don’t play multiplexes or get a lot of publicity, which makes it harder to get the interest of the public, who often haven’t heard of the front-runners for the awards. On the other hand, critics and film buffs who follow independent and foreign cinema find the awards painfully safe, not reaching into the more interesting corners of lesser-known cinema. Still, it’s hard to appeal to every audience who pays attention to the Oscars – it’s probably best just to see the Awards as a fun and glitzy celebration of the movies rather than as a truly meaningful recognition for films that deserve it.

Further Reading

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Cinema 101: Introductory Remarks


Starting a new post series is always a shaky venture for me; if it weren’t mathematically impossible, I’d say I probably abandon more series than I start. Yet here I go again. I’ve been wanting to do something like an introduction to cinema for non-film experts for a while now. In other words, if I were teaching an Intro to Film course to college freshmen and sophomores, these would be some of the things I’d talk about. People who know a lot about film may find some of the things I talk about too basic, which is why I decided to do this series here rather than Row Three – my audience here is more varied.

The only thing keeping it different from an intro college course is that I’m not planning on doing things in order. That is, I may write about the invention of film in one post, then about the French New Wave in the next, then discuss what a producer does in the third. It’s likely a bunch of the entries will be either historical or theoretical (i.e., explaining the auteur theory or genre theory in film criticism), simply because that’s what I find the most interesting, but I will also try to include some practical stuff about production as well, since I know people tend to have questions about that side of film. But I am not a filmmaker and don’t have extensive technical knowledge, so even those will probably tend to take a historical tack. Some posts may be on an era or national cinema, others may be just about a single film. There’s going to be a lot of leeway in what’s covered and how it’s covered in this series, which I’m hoping will help keep it both interesting to me to write and to you to read.

And in fact, I would like for you to tell me what you have questions about – what areas of filmmaking, film history, film criticism, etc. you’d like to know more about. What film movements have you heard of but aren’t as familiar with as you’d like to be? What aspects of filmmaking would you be interested to learn about? I expect and intend to be doing a bunch of research for this series, and actually, that’s part of the impetus for it – to give myself a solid reason and drive to get back into reading about and learning about film in a dedicated manner myself. But I can do that in a more efficient and directed way if I have some ideas that I know people might be interested in. Otherwise, I’ll probably just talk about the New Wave and film noir a whole lot. :)

So please, go ahead and comment with some things you’d like to see in this space in the future.

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