Early Cinema

Cinema represents a unique institution for examining technological development.  Unlike many other modern technologies, cinema achieved its standardized form in an extraordinarily brief period of time.  The Hollywood classical style was not established in cinema’s first 20 years, but continues as the dominant film style even today.  Moreover, cinema has routinely assimilated competing technologies like sound or digital images with almost no long-term change to its formal style.

An understanding of the historical moment of cinema is needed for cinematic technologies.  As mentioned earlier, cinema was standardized in an astonishingly brief time period unlike many modern media technologies.  Take, for example, that foundation for narrative cinema was technically and stylistically established by 1908 and it was only in 1895 that cinema is “invented”.  Moreover, cinema has successfully assimilated a nearly endless stream of mechanical, optical, chemical, and electronic technologies — often in short time periods and with only temporary disruptions to film style.  A better historical understanding of the evolution of cinema may prove informative for other media technologies since cinema paved the way for later technologies such as television, video, computer interfaces, and video games with a formal visual style.

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According to film Noël Burch, early cinema is “polycentric”[1]. Specifically, Burch refers to the earliest films’ uncentered, panoramic frames, but “polycentrism” also proves an apt metaphor for early cinema in general.  Far from a single definable genre, early cinema represents several geographically diverse and competing systems simultaneously experimenting with film form.  Of course, this diversity makes defining (however generally) early cinema challenging.  A stylistic innovation — a dissolve, for instance — might represent very different trends depending on the specific film’s nationality and year (or even month) of production.  To complicate matters further, only a small percentage of early cinema survives today.  Thus, it is more imperative to study film history in a non-linear fashion.  Cinema proceeds in a direction neither exclusively teleological nor evolutionary.  Instead, “progress” in one direction accompanies regression in another.  Some technical and formal traits appear early in film history only to disappear and then return years or even decades later.  To show this non-linear history, this paper focuses on early cinema’s development.  However, rather than exhaustively document cinema’s invention which is a nearly impossible task, this paper stresses early cinema’s extraordinary diversity.

Eadweard Muybridge, a respected British still photographer working in the United States, first experimented with serial photography in Palo Alto, California during 1871.  Like his contemporary, Etienne-Jules Marey, Muybridge had as his goal the analysis of individual locomotion.  Yet, the two men took significantly different approaches.  While Marey concentrated on a single camera/multiple exposure device, Muybridge used a series of cameras to capture distinct, incremental photographs of a moving subject.  His experiment arose from a bet made by his patron, railroad magnate Leland Stanford, who wagered that all four horse’s feet leave the ground during its gait.  Stanford commissioned Muybridge to prove this assumption.  Along with Marey, Muybridge established a new temporal and spatial index to visual measurement, an index exceeding natural human perception.  Muybridge (among others) transferred his individual photographs to an animating device — either his own projecting zoopraxiscope or a zoetrope — which effectively produced the illusion of movement.

Muybridge’s photographs represented an initial rupture from nineteenth-century representational practices, a rupture that goes unrecognized as “cinematic” until much later.  According to Burch, this break represented an aestheticism regarded as “untrue”, even “ugly” at the time.  Indeed, the earliest movies work against Muybridge’s cinematic aesthetic.  For instance, a short list describing the formal aspects of Muybridge’s work might include a mobile frame, centered action, careful matching, continuity, multiple perspectives, and most importantly, a singular, individual subject acting in a representation rather than presentational mode — nearly the complete antithesis of early cinema’s formal characteristics.  In fact, this description — on at least a formal level — sounds closer to classical Hollywood than to early cinema and perhaps this similarity is why Marta Braun refers to Muybridge’s work as early film narratives[2].

The period between Muybridge’s serial photography and the first public appearances of motion picture entertainment represented an extraordinarily rapid and varied period of experimentation.  Works like Deac Rossell’s Living Pictures admirably conveys the truly experimental sense of work done by both Muybridge and Marey, along with countless other pre-cinema innovators like Georges Demeny, William Friese-Greene, Charles Moisson, Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince, and Ottomar Anschütz.  In any case, by the late 1880s, Thomas Edison, after meeting with both Muybridge and Marey, emerged as an early innovator promoting motion pictures as a mass medium[3].

In the summer of 1891, Edison filed for two patents — one for a camerag called the kinteograph and the other for a viewing device called the kinteoscope.  Importantly, the kinteoscope was not a projector but a free-standing apparatus where individual patrons viewed films through a peephole[4].  By April 1894, the kinteoscope was being actively distributed by the Edison Manufacturing Company.  As a result, Edison constructed the Black Maria, a self-contained film studio with a black backdrop and an open roof that rotated to capture optimum sunlight.  With the Black Maria operational by February 1893, Edison’s films took on a decidedly more commercial form.  Many of the films drew on sporting events (especially boxing) as well as vaudeville and variety acts.  In 1895, Edison business associates Raff and Gamon filmed a flurry of historical subjects such as Joan of Arc (Edison #143, 1895) and The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (Edison #142, 1895)[5].

Meanwhile, in Europe, several other individuals demonstrated (almost simultaneously) their own inventions.  Britains’ Rovert William Paul and Birt Acres manufactured equipment compatible with Edison’s kinteoscope standard[6].  In Germany, brothers Max and Emil Skladanowsky tested their bioscop projector in July 1895 and then publicly exhibited it at the Berlin Wintergarden that November.

In 1895, Auguste and Louis Lumiére publicly premiered their cinématographe on Boulevard du Capucines[7].  The cinématographe was developed in the Lumiére’s Lyon-based factory beginning in early 1895.  It allowed for longer running times of roughly 60 seconds per film by performing at a somewhat slower frame rate (approximately 16 frames per second) than its competitors.  Also, the apparatus was small, light, and portable — allowing for more spontaneous photography.  And perhaps, due in part to its flexible, economic design and expanded capacity, the cinématographe produced a radically different filmmaking aesthetic than those films made by Edison and others.  For instance, unlike the enclosed and isolated studio “look” of Edison’s films, the first Lumiére film, Sortie d’usine (Lumiére #1a-c, 1895), shows quite symbolically, the Lumiéres’ workers pouring out from the darkened interior recesses of the Lumiére factory.  Not only did Sortie d’usine, along with hundreds of other Lumiére “actualities”, move the pro-filmic space from an artificially created interior to a natural exterior environment, but — quite unlike the Edison productions — they emphasized everyday occurrences: workers going on their lunch break, children playing at the beach, Sunday patrollers on a busy boulevard, and the feeding of an infant child[8].

Perhaps more than anything else, with the Lumiéres’ cinématographe came an initial stabilization of film technology.  Admittedly, there were still several challengers to what would define the cinematic apparatus, most notably The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company’s 70mm Biograph projector which briefly thrived in the United States from 1897 to 1900.  While a seemingly endless variety of delivery systems appeared, the basic format of a 35mm projector running (very) roughly at 16 frames per second endured.

But if the cinematic hardware slowly stabilized after the cinématographe, software innovations were just beginning.  In fact, cinema’s early exhibition context — fairgrounds, music halls, travelling shows, variety theatres, and vaudeville — promoted a wide array of genres[9].  Indeed, that variety format encouraged not only the side-by-side placement of divergent film genres, but eventually let to their combination: travel films mixed with comic bits or actuality footage inserted into a fictional narrative.

With this brief history, this paper attempted to show early cinema’s diversity both in terms of its technologies and formal styles.  While Tom Gunning groups the technical and stylistic options described above under the banner “cinema of attractions”[10], these options can be examined in a more sophisticated way.  While Gunning primarily links early cinema to various avant-garde practices, he also comments that the cinema of attractions reemerges at specific moments in narrative cinema.  Unfortunately, however, he does not elaborate on this re-emergence beyond citing the 1930s musical and the 1970s special effects films as example[11].  This paper presents early cinema’s diversity as a starting point for explaining why a cinema of attractions goes underground and why it reemerges at other moments in film history.

BRAUN, MARTA, Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

BURCH, NOEL, ‘How We Got into Pictures: Notes Accompanying Correction Please’, Afterimage, 8/9 (1981).

CHANSEL, DOMINIQUE, Europe on-screen : cinema and the teaching of history (Strasbourg Cedex: Council of Europe, 2001) 217 p.

GUNNING, TOM, ‘The Cinema of Attractions: Early Cinema, its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde’, in Thomas Elsaesser (ed.), Early Cinema: Space-Frame-Narrative (London: British Film Institute, 1990).

HANSEN, MIRIAM, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).

MARCHAND, PIERRE, One hundred years of cinema (London: Kingfisher, 1995) 47p.

MUSSER, CHARLES, The Emergence of Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

RICHTER, HANS and RÖMHILD, JÜRGEN, The struggle for the film : towards a socially responsible cinema (Aldershot: Scolar, 1986) 192 p.

ROSSELL, DEAC, Living Pictures: The Origins of the Movies (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998).

[1]Noel Burch, ‘How We Got into Pictures: Notes Accompanying Correction Please’, Afterimage, Vol. 8, no. 9, 1981.

[2] Marta Braun, Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (University of Chicago Press; Chicago, 1992).
[3] Pierre Marchand, One hundred years of cinema (Kingfisher; London, 1995).
[4] Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema (University of California Press; Berkeley, 1990).
[5] Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, 86.
[6] Dominique Chansel, Europe on-screen : cinema and the teaching of history (Council of Europe; Strasbourg Cedex, 2001).
[7] Deac Rossell, Living Pictures: The Origins of the Movies (State University of New York Press; Albany, NY, 1998).
[8] Hans Richter and Jürgen Römhild, The struggle for the film : towards a socially responsible cinema (Scolar; Aldershot, 1986).
[9]Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Harvard University Press; Cambridge, MA, 1991) 85.
[10] Tom Gunning, ‘The Cinema of Attractions: Early Cinema, its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde’, In: Early Cinema: Space-Frame-Narrative. Thomas Elsaesser (ed.) (British Film Institute; London, 1990) 57.
[11] Gunning, The Cinema of Attractions 61.



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