The Birth of Cinema
The Birth of Cinema: 19th Century Visual Culture
September 2014, circa 2,000 words
Institutional film researchers and film curators are both operating in a tradition that started in 1895. Both groups should have a basic idea and feeling about the roots of cinema, the body of work and its context. The point of departure is the question: Where and how did the cinema start as medium and art form? And what are the consequences of these historical developments for our time?
The generally accepted basic definition of cinema is it is a series of moving images and optional sounds, projected on a screen for a paying audience. In this line of thought the ‘Cinématographe’ presentation of the brothers Lumière on 28th December in a café in Paris was the very first cinema event because they screened a programme of ten of their short films and charged an admission fee. It is also generally accepted that two month earlier the brothers Skladanowski presented in Berlin their ‘Bioskop’ invention for the first time to a paying audience. On 1st November 1895 they screened a compilation of their short film clips, as the final part of a variety programme in the Wintergarten music hall. It was a very successful attraction, but strictly speaking it does not count as a pure cinema event. In the years following 1895, there were a lot of different successful pioneers of early cinema to note. In the United States Dickson & Casler invented the ‘Biograph’ and started to operate as the American Mutoscope Company. Their rivalsThomas Edison and Thomas Armat tried to capture the new market with their ‘Vitascope’. In England R.W. Paul and Birt Acres invented their own projector and started to produce films. In France illusionist Georges Méliès started his film career in 1896 as an all-round businessman and artist, combining production of a large quantity of innovative fantasy films in his own studio and programming them in his own theatre and distributing them around the world.
During the first years of existence, cinema quickly became a mass entertainment attraction. How did all this begin? What made this possible, what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for the germination and growth of cinema? The genesis of cinema started as a scientific experiment, demonstrated as a curiosity. Innovation is in many ways embedded in artistic and artisan traditions. The birth of cinema was made possible by the combined existence of adequate technology and a receptive spirit in 19th century society. The technology for constructing the new medium of cinema required knowledge of lenses, electric lighting, a flexible photographic filmstrip and a projection device. The last item proved to be the toughest barrier. It is difficult to built a machine which is able to stop at least sixteen consecutive frames before the projection lamp in one second. This requirement is comparable with the function of a sewing machine (invented in 1846) or an automatic machine gun (invented in 1883). You could say that at the end of the 19th century the time was ripe to combine all existing knowledge to obtain what had been a long time obsession: to catch movement from reality and be able to show this movement on a screen, as often as there is an audience to watch it. The invention of cinema is the result of a happy coincidence of circumstances. The mindset of the 19th century audience was influenced by the invention of communication technology such as the telegraph, telephone, and gramophone, which made it possible to bridge distances and capture sounds. The transportation technology of trains, planes and automobiles introduced the concept of velocity and the phenomenon of the immobile spectator watching a moving landscape. On the cultural level it is possible to indicate the influence of fantasy fiction such as the publication of the novels of Jules Verne, starting from 1863, and H.G. Wells, who published his first novel The Time Machine in 1895. Early cinema was certainly influenced by the 19th century theatrical entertainment traditions of variety, vaudeville, burlesque, revue and féeries. Also the 19th century visual culture prepared the way for the arrival of cinema, especially the tradition of magic lantern shows and the invention of photography. The research in this field is called the ‘archaeology of cinema’ or the historiography of pre-cinema, resulting in reference books such as Herbert (1999), Mannoni (2000), Gaudreault (2011) and Huhtamo (2013) among others. For a concise introduction to Early Cinema, see Popple & Kember (2003), recent discussions are compiled in Strauven (ed) (2006).
The capturing of movement was stimulated by the simultaneous desire to be able to fix movement in still images. American photographer Eadweard Muybridge is the most famous pioneer in this area. He started in 1878 to deconstruct the movement of animals and people into a sequence of still images, each a fraction of seconds apart. In his work, he laid the foundations of the principle of stop motion film, but he did not realise this next step of reproducing movement. Neither did the French scientist Jules Etienne Marey who invented in 1882 a ‘photographic rifle’, which made a blurred sequence of twelve photos on one photo negative. The creating of the illusion of movement has a long tradition, starting with the several varieties of flipbooks (German: ‘Daumenkino’, French: ‘Folioscope’), consisting of a sequence of drawings. The Belgian scientist Joseph Plateau designed in 1832 the ‘Phenakistoscope’, which is an amelioration of this principle. He designed a disc with drawings which, when rotated gives the illusion of movement. The historical collection of his experiments is a valuable artistic and cultural heritage. It is also a timeless diversion, suitable for both children´s workshops and fun for adults in the 21st century. The same could be said of the experiments of the English mathematician William George Horner (England) who in 1834 designed the ‘Zoetrope’, consisting of a cylinder with slits cut vertically in the sides. On the inner side of the cylinder is a strip with images of sequenced pictures. As the cylinder spins, the spectator looks through the slits at the pictures and sees a rapid succession of images, producing once again the illusion of motion. In 1893, fifty years later, Thomas Edison and Dickson introduced the use of photographic images in their ‘Kinetoscope’. At the same time another pioneer, August Fuhrman, was successfully exploiting his ‘Kaiser Panoramas’ in Berlin, with customers sitting around a large cylinder, watching stereoscopic projections through peeping holes. For a cinema curator all of these efforts are just partly interesting, because these devices were meant for use by one person at the time. The first moving images presented for a large audience were shown by Emile Reynaud in his ‘Théâtre Optique’, the result of many years of research. His first program at the Musée Grévin in Paris on 28 October 1892 consisted of the animated film, Pauvre Pierrot. He was successfully in business for eight years, but his life ended in misery and he died in 1918 as a disappointed and bitter man.
American film historian Tom Gunning reflected in 1995 on the possible future of cinema seen from the position of a century earlier:“We now possess only a fragment of our film culture, with less than 20 per cent of silent cinema existing. No art form has ever been placed so directly in harm’s way, the result of a combination of material fragility (-) and institutional indifference. But excavating the first years of cinema history uncovers not only a neglected past, but a forgotten future, an often troubling vision of its potentials and perils. If there is a rationale for celebrating cinema’s centennial, remembering the complexities of an earlier imagined future may supply one.”
(Gunning 2000: 316-331).
American media researcher Lev Manovich compared the advent of new media at the end of the 20th century with the advent of cinema at the end of the 19th century: “The introduction of Quick Time by Apple in 1991 can be compared to the introduction of the Kinetoscope in 1892: both were used to present short loops, both featured the images approximately two by three inches in size, both called for private viewing rather than collective exhibition. Culturally, the two technologies also functioned similarly: as the latest technological marvel. If in the early 1890s the public patronized Kinetoscope parlors where peep-hole machines presented them with the latest invention of tiny moving photographs arranged in short loops; exactly a hundred years later, computer users were equally fascinated with tiny Quick Time Movies that turned a computer in [xxx into?] a film projector, however imperfect. [...] The Lumières first film screenings of 1895 which shocked their audiences with huge moving images found their parallel in 1995 CD-ROM titles where the moving image finally fills the entire computer screen for instance, in Johnny Mnemonic computer game, based on the film by the same title. Thus, exactly a hundred years after cinema was officially born, it was reinvented on a computer screen.“ (Manovich 2002).
We know very little about the reception of early cinema and the thoughts of the general public. What impression did the screenings make on the first visitors? Manovich assesses in his description of‘Cinema as Cultural Interface’ a lack of information: “Don’t you wish that somebody, in 1895, 1897 or at least in 1903, realized the fundamental significance of cinema’s emergence and produced a comprehensive record of the new medium’s emergence? Interviews with the audiences; a systematic account of the narrative strategies, scenography and camera positions as they developed year by year; an analysis of the connections between the emerging language of cinema and different forms of popular entertainment which coexisted with it, would have been invaluable. But, of course, these records do not exist. Instead, we are left with newspaper reports, diaries of cinema’s inventors, programs of film showings and other bits and pieces - a set of random and unevenly distributed historical samples.” (Manovich 2001: 6-7).
The most famous of the preserved bits and pieces is the reaction of Russian novelist Maxim Gorki. He visited a cinema show in 1896, and was not very enthusiastic about this experience: “Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows.%u2028If you only knew how strange it is to be there. It is a world without sound, without colour. Every thing there - the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air - is dipped in monotonous grey. Grey rays of the sun across the grey sky, grey eyes in grey faces, and the leaves of the trees are ashen grey. It is not life but its shadow, It is not motion but its soundless spectre.%u2028[...] This mute, grey life finally begins to disturb and depress you. It seems as though it carries a warning, fraught with a vague but sinister meaning that makes your heart grow faint. You are forgetting where you are. Strange imaginings invade your mind and your consciousness begins to wane and grow dim ...%u2028”. (Gorki 1896).
In this paragraph the foundation of cinema as a medium and art form were sketched, related to a 21th century perspective. As a film curator you should naturally have a thorough knowledge of the film heritage between 1895 and today, but a complete introduction to this subject is beyond the scope of this publication.
- Gaudreault, André (2011) Film and Attraction: From Kinematography to Cinema, Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Originally: Paris: CNRS Editions, 2008.
- Gorki, Maxim (1896) ‘The Lumière Cinématograph’, 4 July, 1896. URL: Source: http://www.seethink.com/stray_dir/kingdom_of_shadows.html
- Gunning, Tom (2000) ‘Animated pictures: Tales of Cinema’s Forgotten Future after 100 Years of Films’, in C. Gledhill & L. Williams (eds.) Reinventing Film Studies, London: Arnold, pp. 316-331.
- Huhtamo, Erkki (2013) Illusions in Motion: Media Archaeology of the Moving Panorama and Related Spectacles, Cambridge: MIT Press.
- Mannoni, Laurent (2000) The Great Art of Light and Shadow: The Archaeology of the Cinema, University of Exeter Press.
- Manovich, Lev (2002) ‘New Media from Borges to HTML’, in Noah Wardrip-Fruin & Nick Montfort (eds.) The New Media Reader, Cambridge: MIT Press, pp. 13-28. URL: www.manovich.net
- Manovich, Lev (2001) The Language of New Media, Cambridge: MIT Press. URL: www.manovich.net/text/cinema-cultural.html.
- Popple, Simon & Joe Kember (2003) Early Cinema: From Factory Gate to Dream Factory, London: Wallflower Press.
- Strauven, Wanda (ed.) (2006) Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP. URL: http://dare.uva.nl/aup/en/record/216719
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