The Origins of the Movies
Greenscreening Series #02
From novelty motion pictures to narrative filmmaking. From Muybridge to Méliès and Porter.
August 19, 2022
From novelty motion pictures to narrative filmmaking. From Muybridge to Méliès and Porter.
August 19, 2022
Get Greenscreening in your inbox every Friday, and you won't have to decide what to watch on Saturday.
We're going back to the beginning, to the earliest days of cinema. There's a lot to cover, so it's a long issue in this series, but this will serve as an important foundation for the rest of the series.
Our screenings include a series of early classics, all of them short, along with your choice of feature film. I will embed the short films directly in the reading, but you can find them linked here.
Option 1: Hugo (2011), directed by Martin Scorsese
Synopsis: In 1931 Paris, an orphan living in the walls of a train station gets wrapped up in a mystery involving his late father and an automaton.
I chose this film because it is partially about Georges Méliès and the early days of cinema. In fact, the film is a love letter to cinema. It should make a great companion piece to the short films. It's worth noting that the film was originally released in 3D, following on the heels of Avatar, and I believe it's Scorsese's only 3D film. Caveat: I've tried to watch it on at least three separate occasions and have always fallen asleep, so this will be my first time seeing it.
Find it via Reelgood or at your local library.
Option 2: Cinema Paradiso (1988), directed by Giuseppe Tornatore
Synopsis: A filmmaker recalls his childhood when falling in love with the pictures at the cinema of his home village and forms a deep friendship with the cinema's projectionist.
Find it through ReelGood. Also, most likely available at your library.
There are entire books covering the birth of film and its predecessors. It's a complicated history that spans continents. So this isn't going to be exhaustive or even that detailed.
Instead, I’m going to distill it down to a few individuals, innovations, and films that illustrate the rapid evolution of film from the earliest days to narratives as we know them today.
Most historians trace film history back to the dawn of mankind. Humans have been fascinated by visual storytelling for as long as we’ve existed. Our ancestors entertained themselves with shadow-plays on cave walls, making meaning from the shapes. Additionally, ancient cave paintings suggest that humans have always had the desire to preserve our stories. So filmmaking and moviegoing are logical extensions of our evolutionary development.
Humans also love optical illusions. For centuries, we’ve incorporated optical illusions into children’s toys. Think about kaleidoscopes, viewfinders, and flip books.
Scientists in the early 19th century studied and attempted to understand how we perceive motion, using items like wheels and some children's animation toys. Ultimately, these studies led to a theory called the persistence of vision.
When we look at something, our brains interpret rays of light reflecting off an object into our eyes. Our brains actually continue holding the perception of an image briefly after light has stopped entering the eye. This phenomenon is known as the persistence of vision.
Movies work because of the persistence of vision. If you’ve seen a film strip or a movie reel, you know that movies are actually composed of thousands of still images. When watching a movie, our eyes see a succession of images at just the right rate for our brains to ignore the flicker and instead interpret one continuous moving image.
So what we see when we watch a "motion picture" is actually not motion at all, but the illusion of motion our brain interprets from a sort of visual overload.
We can trace a direct line to cinema from two major 19th century inventions: the photograph and the phonograph.
Photography emerged in the early to middle 19th century. From its very beginnings, people were fascinated by the ability to depict life or preserve life on another surface. In fact, that’s how people thought about photography early on - that it was designed to preserve someone’s image, or to capture reality.
Later on in the 19th century, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, which enabled the recording and playback of sounds on a disc. Even the term used for this disc, the "record," gives a sense for how people viewed the device -- as a reproduction of reality, with formality, official-ness. However, Edison quickly realized the entertainment value of his device, and put coin-operated phonographs in “listening salons” around the country
It was only a matter of time before people would try to blend these two innovations, to put together sound and image for an even greater illusion of reality, and even more lucrative form of entertainment.
Fast forward to the late 19th century. A few things to note here. It was the late Industrial Revolution. City populations were exploding, with some of the most profound impact felt in Europe and the US. Waves of immigrants were streaming into the US. For the first time, there was a middle class with disposable income and leisure time. This was also the Gilded Age, with the first millionaire class wielding tremendous power over culture and politics.
Entertainment at the time was mostly driven by the stage. Primarily, this was chamber music, theatre, and opera. But there was also a distinct interest in spiritualism and magic; if you’ve seen the movies The Prestige or The Illusionist, you have an idea of how enamored audiences were of magic. And American audiences were enthralled by stories of the wild west, as the frontier was starting to disappear.
This was also an age of invention, and the emergence of globalization. The pace of knowledge was accelerating like never before. At World Expositions, inventors from across the globe would gather to showcase the future, to inspire and better their rivals, all serving to push forward technologies.
Enter Eadweard Muybridge, English photographer and pioneer of motion picture technology.
Muybridge lived a colorful life, one that seems worthy of a biopic.
As a young entrepreneur, Muybridge was nearly killed in a stagecoach accident, and needed years to recover from serious head injuries. After recovering, he became a legendary photographer and researcher, inventing new photographic technologies and traveling all over the world taking photographs and making demonstrations. He was, quite literally, world famous. He also killed his wife’s lover and was acquitted for it even though he admitted it and showed no remorse (apparently, the jury sympathized with the cuckold, particularly given his head injuries).
I said his life was colorful, not admirable.
Anyway, in the 1870s, Leland Stanford (yes that Stanford) hired Muybridge to photograph his vast California farm, including his horses. Stanford bred and raced horses, and through this passion had developed a lot of theories about how horses moved. Stanford wanted to prove that when a horse runs at full gallop, all four hooves leave the ground simultaneously. Prior depictions of a galloping horse apparently tended to show one hoof on the ground. So Stanford hired Muybridge to test his theory.
Muybridge spent several years on the project, working on ways to take high speed photos and improve the image quality. He pioneered several important advancements in camera technology that would enable movies to exist. First, Muybridge found ways to increase a camera's shutter speed, which allowed the camera to capture a clearer image of a subject in motion. Muybridge used a series of cameras lined up next to one another to capture the following photographs:
Second, Muybridge also developed ways to project successive images of the horses at a rapid enough speed to give the illusion of continuous motion - the persistence of vision at work.
Here is a re-creation of Muybridge's photographic series, The Horse in Motion:
Muybridge became famous for these images and for pioneering ways to capture motion. As I mentioned earlier, he traveled around the world and gave demonstrations of his technology, the zoopraxiscope.
Next, we come back to Thomas Edison, inventor of the phonograph, among many other things.
In the mid-1880s, Edison attended one of Muybridge's lectures and demonstrations, and the men discussed collaborating on a device to blend moving images and sound. While the partnership didn’t work out, Edison had some engineers at his lab begin working on motion picture cameras and projectors. The results were silent motion pictures, but it’s worth noting that the vision always included sound.
Several Edison innovations became movie industry standards, like perforated film strips that helped projectors drag film across the light source without tearing it, and further advances to high speed shutter technology to better capture the illusion of motion between images. Coupled with the development of the plastic-based celluloid, which gave a more pliable, durable, and cheaper film stock, motion picture making accelerated.
But Edison’s most impactful innovation was the kinetoscope, a large cabinet-like device the viewer would stand beside, with a peep hole for looking inside to see the projection. Edison of course made the kinetoscope coin operated and put them in parlors around the country.
The kinetoscope was a novelty; the films were short and inexpensive to view. Which meant that Edison needed lots of them to keep people coming back.
Edison built the first movie production studio, which created over 1,000 films between the 1880s and 1910s. It was a large black building in New Jersey, called the Black Maria because it looked like a late 19th century police van. Importantly, shooting films in those days required a lot of light and high contrast, so the Edison Studios team covered the walls with black tar paper, added a retractable roof to let in sunlight, and built the studio on rails so it could turn with the sun, allowing crews to film throughout the day - as long as it was sunny, of course. Since the studio was in New Jersey, you can imagine that most filming took place during late spring, summer, and fall, and it was frequently hot and humid.
What were these films like? Let's take a look.
Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894, dir. William K.L. Dickson) is an early film from Edison Studios. In fact, it is the oldest film to have a copyright. It’s a short, slightly comedic documentary of someone sneezing. It’s unknown whether it was a real sneeze or pantomimed.
That's the whole film, by the way. It's 5 seconds in length. People would pay money into a kinetoscope, look down inside the peep hole, and watch Fred Ott sneeze.
As you can see from this film, early Edison Studios productions were novelties. They weren't particularly well-regarded. The kinetoscope and its films were cheap entertainment, looked down upon as fodder for the masses. Edison didn't particularly care about this - they were incredibly popular, and he was more interested in owning patents for the equipment, the format, and the films, and in making piles of money.
Edison Studios did dabble in more novelties, in an attempt to give audiences cheap thrills. The film The Kiss (1896) is largely considered the first on-screen kiss, and was followed by shorts like a strip tease and the spiritual sequel to The Kiss, 1900's Kissing, which according to legend, was banned shortly after its release for being too risque.
Next up, we meet Auguste and Louis Lumière. These French brothers manufactured photography equipment and patented several important pieces of motion picture technology, including a more mobile camera, and a camera-printer-projector hybrid called a Cinematographe.
Legend has it that their father went to see an Edison kinetoscope when it debuted in Paris, and was seriously disappointed by the gimmick, and suggested the idea to project film instead.
The Lumière Brothers are best remembered for organizing the earliest known public film screenings; that is, films projected onto a screen for a group of people to watch simultaneously.
In 1895, the Lumières showed 10 short films to a paying audience. The most famous of these films is probably Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, probably the first film ever shown publicly.
Compare this film with Fred Ott's Sneeze. To me, it’s at least 10x more interesting, even though it's just a still shot of people walking past. The picture quality seems much better. And look, a dog!
The 10 films shown that night were very short films, all running about 45-60 seconds. They ranged in subject, but were mainly documentaries; simple natural scenes that seem to demonstrate what a movie camera is capable of. It's worth noting that this screening makes the documentary the oldest film genre.
The major exception to this is the Lumières’ The Sprinkler Sprinkled (L'Arroseur Arrosé). It's one of the first fiction films made; certainly the first comedy shown publicly. This film shows even in the earliest days of the medium, filmmakers saw the medium's potential to entertain through story.
The Lumière Brothers made hundreds of short films in the late 19th century. Their most famous film is The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat) from 1896. Note that on this YouTube clip, the film is numbered as "Lumière No. 653" -- that's a lot of films in a very short period of time. But when you can only create a 40-60 second film, it’s only natural to prioritize quantity.
According to legend, at an early screening, people in the audience thought the approaching train was about collide with the theater, so some of them screamed and ran out of the theater. A great story, but it’s almost certainly untrue. In fact, it’s such a good “birth of the movies” story that in my collegiate film history class, the textbook claimed this was the first film ever shown publicly, and people ran out screaming. Amazing story, yet the film wasn’t even part of the first public screening, and wasn’t shown until 1896. Alas.
But this film is also important as an illustration of several storytelling breakthroughs. First, consider the composition in Arrival of the Train at La Ciotat Station. The placement of the camera matters; rather than just plop down the camera perpendicular to the train, they chose a much more interesting angle, something more akin to a waiting bystander’s perspective. Second, consider the depth of field in contrast to The Sprinkler Sprinkled or Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. In this film, you can see the train approaching from the distance, where in the previous two films, there's a shallow depth of focus, with the action in the foreground. The other Lumière films seem to mimic a stage production, where Arrival of the Train at La Ciotat Station feels much more open and authentic. With these advancements, the Lumières unlocked the possibility that the camera could go anywhere and show just about anything.
What do you notice about the films we’ve viewed thus far?
A few characteristics I would point out: * Short runtime (very short!) * Single shot; there's no cutting. Also a single location. * These films are mostly documentaries. As mentioned before, they're slices of life. Even The Sprinkler Sprinkled is a slice of life comedy. * Kinda gimmicky, right? These films feel like a novelty. Beyond "hey look, it's footage of some people," there's not much entertainment value. There's not a lot of drama. There’s not a lot of story going on here. * The character's motion appears jerky. The motion isn't quite as smooth as we see today. This is due to the frame rate.
Some of these characteristics were determined by the form factor. In the early days, cameras and projectors were large devices and could only hold a tiny amount of film.
But film was born of invention and the form rapidly developed, both technologically and artistically. Engineers worked tirelessly to push the technology forward, and it wasn't long before filmmakers got much more ambitious with the kinds of stories they would tell.
Soon, filmmakers learned to splice together multiple shots to tell a story, and the language of film instantly became more complicated. For example, filmmakers learned quickly that audiences would intuitively interpret successive shots linearly -- A -> B -> C -- progressing a story in time, which gave them freedom to tell more complicated stories, no longer bound by a single space or a single angle within the same space.
Which brings us to the first major narrative filmmaker, Georges Méliès.
Méliès was a theater owner and magician. Remember what I said earlier: in the late 19th century, the world was enamored with magicians and spiritualists, and Méliès was one of the more famous in Paris. Early in his career, he had already incorporated projections into his act, using what was known as a magic lantern.
Allegedly (again, much of early film history is more legend than fact) upon attending the Lumière Brothers’ first public screening, Méliès was blown away by the new medium, and wanted to incorporate motion pictures into his theater. Some stories say he tried to buy a cinematographe from them on the spot.
He did procure a cinematographe at some point, and Méliès began making films. Most of his work over his first few years was just dabbling and copying the Lumière Brothers’ documentary style.
Then one day while filming, his camera jammed, a fairly frequent occurrence in those days. When he resumed recording, the film was run through again, resulting in multiple exposures on the same frames. When Méliès watched his footage, he may have seen something unexpected appear, like a blurry ghostly image, or a strange appearance of something that wasn't there before. The magician was inspired, and he began investing more heavily in filmmaking and experimenting with techniques and visual trickery, in the process creating the earliest special effects.
One example was a “disappearing” trick, or splice editing, which by keeping the camera static between shots, but moving an actor out of the shot, gives the illusion that the character has disappeared. Méliès also invented many of the transitions used to make films today: the fade, the dissolve, and the time lapse.
Méliès began telling more ambitious stories. The high water mark of his career is the famous, A Trip to the Moon (1902). Take a moment to watch the film.
You probably recognize the image of the spaceship landing on the moon, hitting the man in the moon right in the eye. It's one of the most famous images in all of cinema.
Audiences around the world loved the film. Pirates made fortunes circulating copies of the film as well.
One thing you probably notice about this film is its duration is significantly longer than films by the Lumières. As filmmakers became more ambitious and experimented with story form, studios and exhibitors learned that their audiences would pay more to see a longer picture. The industry began to settle on the reel as the standard filmmaking and projection form factor, and settled on one reel as the maximum length of a single film. This was about 12 minutes.
Méliès’ influence is debated by film scholars - some see Méliès as the true father of cinema, the first true auteur, or artistic author of films. Others look at the content of his films and see innovative techniques used solely for cheap thrills, with little in the way of artistry or narrative ambition. Whatever the artistic merits of his films, it’s not hard to watch Méliès alongside his contemporaries and see a filmmaker pushing the medium into new and innovative directions.
On the other side of the Atlantic, at nearly the same time, we meet Edwin S. Porter.
Porter worked for Edison Studios. He started as a projection engineer, but seized the opportunity to move behind the camera. Like most early filmmakers, his early work consisted of actualities. But as competition domestically and abroad pushed the medium forward, with more complicated narratives, Edison Studios approved Porter's requests to try more ambitious narratives, pushing the studio towards making one-reelers.
Porter didn't invent a lot of the techniques that he implemented, but he did put them to tremendous artistic use, helping to shape the language of film and inspiring many subsequent filmmakers.
First, Porter helped conceptualize “the shot” as the primary unit of film language. A shot is a single uninterrupted motion image, and consists of things like camera positioning, set design, actors, and action taking place within the frame.
Second, he helped advance continuity editing, the techniques which preserve the integrity of the story within a scene. These include a combination of individual shot composition, the flow between shots within a scene, and the timing of edits. You can consider this the fundamentals of film grammar.
And third, by popularizing the narrative technique "cross cutting." Cross cutting involves editing back and forth between action occurring simultaneously in two separate locations. This technique is ubiquitous today in almost all genres, but particularly in action movies. Consider the editing in A Trip to the Moon, and then contrast with that in Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903).
It's incredible to consider the leap forward from Fred Ott's Sneeze to Méliès and Porter in under 10 years. You can see both of these filmmakers expanding the bounds of what a movie can be.
For Méliès, films are flights of whimsy and escape, they’re spectacles filled with wonder (or taking the position of a revisionist critic, they're cheap, shallow amusement through special effects). For Porter, films are excitement and danger, stories of crime and justice. These films are early examples of important genres, science fiction and the western. And these two films forecast the future of cinema, filled with fantasy, special effects, stunt work, action, adventure, and violence.
In particular, on rewatching, the violence in The Great Train Robbery really stood out to me. After all, it was made during the late Victorian era, which was notoriously prudish. However, the other entertainment of the time was fairly violent -- operas can be incredibly bloody, and so can the theater; consider that Shakespearean theater had a revival during the Victorian era, and if you know Shakespeare, you know how violent his tragedies are. So filmmakers may have discovered the potential to shock audiences with realistic violence, but films were by no means the only medium trading in it at the time.
Remember that earlier we briefly discussed the banning of Edison Studios' Kissing just three years earlier, for being too risque. Kissing (and the suggestion of sex) was too provocative, where violence was much more acceptable. We'll see this debate continue throughout film history, particularly in the US; the debate over what audiences should be able to see, the concern over the effect of certain types of content, and over ratings and censorship.
One final observation: guns have played a central role in American cinema since the very beginning, and in the mythology of America on film; a role which continues to this day.
As you watch the short films (and/or the features), consider: * What is the story told in each of the films? * How would you describe the style of each film? * What genre(s) are these films? * What did you notice about the actors / characters in these films? Was there a clear “hero” or “lead”? How do the actors’ performances differ from contemporary actors? * Were there particular images that stood out to you in each of the films? Why? * What films have you seen that seem to be inspired by A Trip to the Moon or The Great Train Robbery? Where do you see their influence?
Read more about Muybridge
Read more about George Méliès
Read more about Edwin S. Porter
We'll dig into the birth of feature films, and the next major leap forward in American film form, as we meet one of the most influential filmmakers in history, D.W. Griffith. We'll look at one of his most successful short films, A Corner in Wheat, and also discuss and view clips from one of the most important, but controversial films ever made, The Birth of a Nation. Those films are on YouTube, so no need to rent or track down at the library.
Get Greenscreening in your inbox every Friday, and you won't have to decide what to watch on Saturday.