Early experiments

Camera obscura, Edinburgh

Along with flexible celluloid film, the older technological elements that came together to create cinema include the camera obscura (such as the famous old entertainment in Edinburgh, Scotland) and the Zoetrope, a  toy that takes advantage of the phi and  persistence of vision phenomena.  

Another important set of early experiments involved the the motion studies of California photographer Eadweard Muybridge, whosehorse in motion was originally shot with  a series of cameras using glass plate negatives. The horse tripped a wire connected to the shutter of the cameras.     

The Sneeze, 1894, is one of the first films ever made. It was shot in the “Black Mariah,” a tar-paper shack on the grounds of  Thomas Edison’s labs and studios in West Orange, NJ.  The Edison studios later expanded into Manhattan (1901) and the  Bronx  (1907).  Edison films were financially successful but not artistically ambitious.  While some broke new ground  (like Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, below) most had a sense of stagnation. One reason is that while Edison did not personally control the studios, he was culturally conservative and he worried about the effect of film on regular people.   He tried to control the film business through the Motion Picture Patents Company, but lost a major lawsuit in 1915.  At that point the creative energy was streaming towards Hollywood, and Edison sold off the Bronx studios by 1918.

The Lumière Brothers of Lyon, France were the first to invent a camera and theatrical projector system. In the summer of 1894, after a meeting with Thomas Edison in France, Antoine Lumiere told his sons (Louis and August) that they could do better, that they could “get the pictures out of the box,” or, in other words, get away from the one-viewer peep show system.  One of their first short features, The Waterer Watered  (L’Arroseur  was shot in Lyon and shown in theaters in 1895.  Not only did the Lumieres  create the first theatrical projectors, but they also took the camera outside the studio, sending it around the world in 1896.   This video by Thierry Fremaux of the Lumiere Institute is an excellent overview of the first and most innovative studios in film history.

Alice Guy-Blaché was among the first professional directors, making over 1,000 films in her lifetime. She was production director for Gaumont in France from 1896 – 1907, and then built her own studio in 1910, Solex Co. of Ft. Lee, N.J. Guy-Blaché was much admired in her time but forgotten shortly afterwards, and despite her significance, not mentioned in most cinema histories. Around 2012 she came to represent the foremost cast of the long-forgotten women directors in cinema, and her history is going through a process of rediscovery. Among her films are the Cabbage Fairy (1896), the Statue (1905), Falling Leaves (1912) and Algie the Miner (below), the first film about a gay man:

George Melies, From the Earth to the Moon, France, 1902. Notice the camera is stationary throughout the film. No closeups, no jump cuts. Its like being in a theater, which of course, is exactly what Melies was thinking, except that Melies was able to use film to improve on stage illusions he used before his film career.

Edwin S. Porter’s   Great Train Robbery, 1903,   broke new ground  with film narrative and storytelling techniques. Compare it to the Melies movie, From the Earth to the Moon.  The Porter movie is much more modern in appearance. Yet aside from the medium close-up at the very end, the camera keeps an uncomfortably long distance from the actors, and we rarely see their faces. Another thing to note is that many of the later conventions — the 180 degree rule or the jump to motion rule — are not always used. That’s because we are seeing the earliest attempts at cinematic  visual language.

Frankenstein 1910, was another Edison classic. Again, we see no real closeups, but we do see better film narrative technique. Remember that “Frankenstein” was the name of the doctor, not his creature, who was known in literature as “Frankenstein’s monster.”   The trick with mirrors at the end of the film is interesting but very crudely done, and of course, nothing like the plot in the book.

American History / CSpan looks at the Library of Congress’ “Paper Print” collection of 3,000 short films produced between 1894 – 1912.

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