I got excited in a college lecture today for the first time in a very long time.
It was the first session in my film class for this semester, Foundations of Film & New Media. The selected topic for the semester is World Cinema to 1960, which I was really bummed about at first. Looking over the selected film list, I feared I was doomed for another semester lost in ostentation; or, rather, asleep in a room where ostentation bounces from wall to wall.
I don’t fear this anymore. My professor is wickedly smart, and completely floored with me knowledge bombs the entire session. I hope I’m not breaking any rules, but I figured that, on this journey of film history, including little tidbits I learned from lecture (or knew already but was really expertly elaborated upon) would be fun. So, here goes:
We know Thomas Edison is essentially the founder of film. He and an employee, W.K.L. Dickson, worked together to create the Kinetograph:
This bad boy was the first movie camera. It weighed a quarter of a ton, so moving it around wasn’t an option. It was the Lumière Brothers over in France that made the camera portable, though Edison and Dickson certainly had the ability to do so. The problem was, however, it didn’t coincide with what they intended their invention to be. Edison saw it as accompaniment to music being played from his other invention, the phonograph. Neither he nor Dickson considered the potential that film could have; they figured people would come in to their factory, be filmed (as was the case in Sandow, Annabelle Butterfly Dance, and The May Irwin Kiss), and that was that. These were actualities, marked by their simplistic nature (with little to no story or editing used), and their subjects being that of “spectacles” and “amusements”, to entice viewers.
When talking about the early days of filmmaking, it’s easy to forget how recently photography had been, for lack of a better word, developed. Louis Daguerre had only taken the above photograph, Boulevard du Temple, sixty or so years prior, in 1838. This photograph, the oldest known photograph of a person, took more than ten minutes to develop. By the 1870s, the time needed was reduced to 1/1000th of a second, and it was this advancement that allowed Eadweard Muybridge to photograph Sallie Gardner at a Gallop.
Photographed in June of 1878, Sallie Gardner was the response to a question raised to Muybridge of whether a horse’s legs ever completely left the ground when galloping. Muybridge, who once killed a man, situated 12 cameras with trip lines across a race track, which triggered the camera to capture the 12 frames shown above and later animated below.
Muybridge essentially mastered serial photography, which would be a key player in the forward march toward full-blown filmmaking. George Eastman‘s contribution of celluloid in 1889 (which, in fact, was actually invented by Hannibal Goodwin two years prior), further moved the process along. W.K.L. Dickson, under the watchful eye of Thomas Edison, combined all these elements into the kinetograph: the first camera.
On the other side of the pond, the Lumière Brothers, Louis and Auguste, made a much simpler version of the kinetograph. Dubbed the cinématograph (the same word, but French), this guy was much more portable. Instead of Edison’s 500 pound goliath, the Lumiere project weighed just 16 pounds, making it much more portable and feasible to shoot outside. It was also a one-stop shop for filmmaking; the cinématograph shot, printed, and projected film.
The machine’s portability came in handy. By this time, Edison’s actualities were diminishing in popularity; the people wanted something different. The Brothers were able to film all over the world, from street corners to the front lines of the Spanish-American War. Some of their films from this period include Workers Leaving the Factory (the first film shown to an audience), Childish Quarrel, Demolishing of a Wall (notable for its reverse-playback at the end of the film), and perhaps most notoriously Arrival of a Train, which reportedly terrified audiences in early screenings, who feared the train was coming out of the screen towards them.
The success of the Lumière films prompted Edison to rework his mechanics, allowing him to successfully film outdoors as well, most notably the obvious copycat work Black Diamond Express, as well as a personal favorite, What Happened on Twenty-Third Street in New York. Edison also saw the need to improve upon the projection of the films produced in his company. The Lumiere brothers had always publicly shown their films in group settings, while Edison had always limited it to private viewings on a kinetoscope, pictured above. These advancements, most notably the vitascope, advertised below, allowed for such public viewings, as well as advancements in his own films, such as What Happened in the Tunnel.
If one is to appreciate how far film has come, it’s essential to look back at these baby steps. The stigma against silent film deals with the idea that it “lacks” something, this something being sound or color or story. (It is worth noting, however, that films almost always had some kind of musical accompaniment, thus they were never “silent”. They could also be colored by hand if the situation called for it, as shown at the top of this page, and though elaborate stories would come later, simple scenarios, or if nothing else simple observations of everyday life, did play out on screen in the earliest demonstration films of Thomas Edison.) But can something be truly lacking if it wasn’t there to begin with? Directors of the time weren’t lamenting that they couldn’t capture these elements; they worked with what they had. This is the foundation on which film was built. No one knew what they were messing with, they were simply pushing buttons and seeing what worked, so that we could push the right buttons in the future.