Early cinema  

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 L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station is an 1895 French short black-and-white silent documentary film directed and produced by Auguste and Louis Lumière. It was first screened on December 28 1895 in Paris, France, and was shown to a paying audience January 6 1896.
L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station is an 1895 French short black-and-white silent documentary film directed and produced by Auguste and Louis Lumière. It was first screened on December 28 1895 in Paris, France, and was shown to a paying audience January 6 1896.
Extreme close-up from the movie "The Big Swallow" (1901), produced and directed by James Williamson (1855-1933)
Extreme close-up from the movie "The Big Swallow" (1901), produced and directed by James Williamson (1855-1933)

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

In the early film era, from 1895 until 1930 - roughly coinciding with the silent film era - "motion pictures" developed gradually from a carnival novelty to one of the most important means of consuming fiction.


Influence of Symbolism

Many early motion pictures, also, contain a good deal of Symbolist visual imagery and themes in their staging, set designs, and imagery. The films of German Expressionism owe a great deal to Symbolist imagery. The virginal "good girls" seen in the films of D. W. Griffith, and the silent movie "bad girls" portrayed by Theda Bara, both show the continuing influence of Symbolist imagery, as do the Babylonian scenes from Griffith's Intolerance. Symbolist imagery lived on longest in the horror film; as late as 1932, a horror film such as Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr shows the obvious influence of Symbolist imagery; parts of the film resemble tableau vivant re-creations of the early paintings of Edvard Munch.

Film history from 1895 to 1906

The first ten years of motion pictures show the cinema moving from a novelty to an established large-scale entertainment industry. The films themselves represent a movement from films consisting of one shot, completely made by one person with a few assistants, towards films several minutes long consisting of several shots, which were made by large companies in something like industrial conditions.

Film business up to 1906

In 1896 it became clear that more money was to be made by showing motion picture films with a projector to a large audience than exhibiting them in Edison's Kinetoscope peep-show machines. The Edison company took up a projector developed by Armat and Jenkins, the “Phantoscope”, which was renamed the Vitascope, and it joined various projecting machines made by other people to show the 480 mm. with films being made by the Edison company and others in France and England.

However, the most successful motion picture company in the United States, with the largest production until 1900, was the American Mutoscope company. This was initially set up to exploit peep-show type movies using designs made by W.K.L. Dickson after he left the Edison company in 1895. His equipment used 70 mm. wide film, and each frame was printed separately onto paper sheets for insertion into their viewing machine, called the Mutoscope. The image sheets stood out from the periphery of a rotating drum, and flipped into view in succession. Besides the Mutoscope, they also made a projector called the Biograph, which could project a continuous positive film print made from the same negatives.

There were numerous other smaller producers in the United States, and some of them established a long-term presence in the new century. American Vitagraph, one of these minor producers, built studios in Brooklyn, and expanded its operations in 1905. From 1896 there was continuous litigation in the United States over the patents covering the basic mechanisms that made motion pictures possible.

In France, the Lumière company sent cameramen all round the world from 1896 onwards to shoot films, which were exhibited locally by the cameramen, and then sent back to the company factory in Lyon to make prints for sale to whoever wanted them. There were nearly a thousand of these films made up to 1901, nearly all of them actualities.

By 1898 Georges Méliès was the largest producer of fiction films in France, and from this point onwards his output was almost entirely films featuring trick effects, which were very successful in all markets. The special popularity of his longer films, which were several minutes long from 1899 onwards (while most other films were still only a minute long), led other makers to start producing longer films.

From 1900 Charles Pathé began film production under the Pathé-Frères brand, with Ferdinand Zecca hired to actually make the films. By 1905, Pathé was the largest film company in the world, a position it retained until World War I. Léon Gaumont began film production in 1896, with his production supervised by Alice Guy.

In England, Robert W. Paul, James Williamson and G.A. Smith and the other lesser producers were joined by Cecil Hepworth in 1899, and in a few years he was turning out 100 films a year, with his company becoming the largest on the British scene.

Film exhibition

Initially films were mostly shown as a novelty in special venues, but the main methods of exhibition quickly became either as an item on the programmes of variety theatres, or by travelling showman in tent theatres, which they took around the fairs in country towns. It became the practice for the producing companies to sell prints outright to the exhibitors, at so much per foot, regardless of the subject. Typical prices initially were 15 cents a foot in the United States, and one shilling a foot in Britain. Hand-coloured films, which were being produced of the most popular subjects before 1900, cost 2 to 3 times as much per foot. There were a few producers, such as the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, which did not sell their films, but exploited them solely with their own exhibition units. The first successful permanent theatre showing nothing but films was “The Nickelodeon”, which was opened in Pittsburgh in 1905. By this date there were finally enough films several minutes long available to fill a programme running for at least half an hour, and which could be changed weekly when the local audience became bored with it. Other exhibitors in the United States quickly followed suit, and within a couple of years there were thousands of these nickelodeons in operation. The American situation led to a worldwide boom in the production and exhibition of films from 1906 onwards.

Film technique

The first movie cameras were fastened directly to the head of their tripod or other support, with only the crudest kind of levelling devices provided, in the manner of the still-camera tripod heads of the period. The earliest movie cameras were thus effectively fixed during the course of the shot, and hence the first camera movements were the result of mounting a camera on a moving vehicle. The first known of these was a film shot by a Lumière cameraman from the back platform of a train leaving Jerusalem in 1896, and by 1898 there were a number of films shot from moving trains. Although listed under the general heading of “panoramas” in the sales catalogues of the time, those films shot straight forward from in front of a railway engine were usually specifically referred to as “phantom rides”.

In 1897, Robert W. Paul had the first real rotating camera head made to put on a tripod, so that he could follow the passing processions of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in one uninterrupted shot. This device had the camera mounted on a vertical axis that could be rotated by a worm gear driven by turning a crank handle, and Paul put it on general sale the next year. Shots taken using such a "panning" head were also referred to as ‘panoramas’ in the film catalogues of the first decade of the cinema.

The standard pattern for early film studios was provided by the studio which Georges Méliès had built in May 1897. This had a glass roof and three glass walls constructed after the model of large studios for still photography, and it was fitted with thin cotton cloths that could be stretched below the roof to diffuse the direct rays of the sun on sunny days. The soft overall light without real shadows that this arrangement produced, and which also exists naturally on lightly overcast days, was to become the basis for film lighting in film studios for the next decade.

Filmic effects

Unique amongst all the one minute long films made by the Edison company, which recorded parts of the acts of variety performers for their Kinetoscope viewing machines, was The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. This showed a person dressed as the queen placing her head on the execution block in front of a small group of bystanders in Elizabethan dress. The executioner brings his axe down, and the queen's severed head drops onto the ground. This trick was worked by stopping the camera and replacing the actor with a dummy, then restarting the camera before the axe falls. The two pieces of film were then trimmed and cemented together so that the action appeared continuous when the film was shown.

This film was among those exported to Europe with the first Kinetoscope machines in 1895, and was seen by Georges Méliès, who was putting on magic shows in his Theatre Robert-Houdin in Paris at the time. He took up film-making in 1896, and after making imitations of other films from Edison, Lumière, and Robert Paul, he made Escamotage d’un dame chez Robert-Houdin (The Vanishing Lady). This film shows a woman being made to vanish by using the same stop motion technique as the earlier Edison film. After this, Georges Méliès made many single shot films using this trick over the next couple of years.

The other basic set of techniques for trick cinematography involves double exposure of the film in the camera, which was first done by G.A. Smith in July 1898 in England. His The Corsican Brothers was described in the catalogue of the Warwick Trading Company, which took up the distribution of Smith's films in 1900, thus:

“One of the twin brothers returns home from shooting in the Corsican mountains, and is visited by the ghost of the other twin. By extremely careful photography the ghost appears *quite transparent*. After indicating that he has been killed by a sword-thrust, and appealing for vengeance, he disappears. A ‘vision’ then appears showing the fatal duel in the snow. To the Corsican's amazement, the duel and death of his brother are vividly depicted in the vision, and finally, overcome by his feelings, he falls to the floor just as his mother enters the room.”

The ghost effect was simply done by draping the set in black velvet after the main action had been shot, and then re-exposing the negative with the actor playing the ghost going through the actions at the appropriate point. Likewise, the vision, which appeared within a circular vignette or matte, was similarly superimposed over a black area in the backdrop to the scene, rather than over a part of the set with detail in it, so that nothing appeared through the image, which seemed quite solid. Smith used this technique again a year later in Santa Claus.

Georges Méliès first used superimposition on a dark background in la Caverne maudite (The Cave of the Demons) made a couple of months later in 1898, and then elaborated it further with multiple superimpositions in the one shot in l’Homme de têtes (The Troublesome Heads). He then did it with further variations in numerous subsequent films.

Other special techniques

The other special effect technique that G.A. Smith initiated was reverse motion. He did this by repeating the action a second time, while filming it with an inverted camera, and then joining the tail of the second negative to that of the first. The first films made using this device were Tipsy, Topsy, Turvy and The Awkward Sign Painter. The Awkward Sign Painter showed a sign painter lettering a sign, and in the reverse printing of the same footage appended to the standard print, the painting on the sign vanished under the painter's brush. The earliest surviving example of this technique is Smith's The House That Jack Built, made before September 1900. Here, a small boy is shown knocking down a castle just constructed by a little girl out of children's building blocks. Then a title appears, saying “Reversed”, and the action is repeated in reverse, so that the castle re-erects itself under his blows.

Cecil Hepworth took this technique further, by printing the negative of the forwards motion backwards frame by frame, so producing a print in which the original action was exactly reversed. To do this he built a special printer in which the negative running through a projector was projected into the gate of a camera through a special lens giving a same-size image. This arrangement came to be called a “projection printer”, and eventually an “optical printer”. With it Hepworth made The Bathers in 1900, in which bathers who have undressed and jumped into the water appear to spring backwards out of it, and have their clothes magically fly back onto their bodies.

The use of different camera speeds also appeared around 1900. To make Robert Paul's On a Runaway Motor Car through Piccadilly Circus (1899), the camera was turned very slowly, so that when the film was projected at the usual 16 frames per second, the scenery appeared to be passing at great speed. Cecil Hepworth used the opposite effect in The Indian Chief and the Seidlitz Powder (1901), in which a naïve Red Indian eats a lot of the fizzy stomach medicine, causing his stomach to expand vastly. He leaps around in a way that is made balloon-like by cranking the camera much faster than 16 frames per second. This gives what we would call a “slow motion” effect.


The most important development in this area of special techniques did not happen until 1905, when Edwin Porter made How Jones Lost His Roll, and The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog. Both of these films had intertitles which were formed by the letters moving into place from a random scattering to form the words of the titles. This was done by exposing the film one frame at a time, and moving the letters a little bit towards their final position between each exposure. This is what has come to be called “single frame animation” or “object animation”, and it needs a slightly adapted camera that exposes only one frame for each turn of the crank handle, rather than the usual eight frames per turn.

In 1906, Albert Edward Smith and James Stuart Blackton at Vitagraph took the next step, and in their Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, what appear to be cartoon drawings of people move from one pose to another. This is done for most of the length of this film by moving jointed cut-outs of the figures frame by frame between the exposures, just as Porter moved his letters. However, there is a very short section of the film where things are made to appear to move by altering the drawings themselves from frame to frame, which is how standard animated cartoons have since been made up to today.

Narrative film construction

The way forward to making films made up of more than one shot was led by films of the life of Jesus Christ. The first of these was made in France in 1897, and it was followed in the same year by a film of the Passion play staged yearly in the Czech town of Horitz. This was filmed by Americans for exhibition outside the German-speaking world, and was presented in special venues, not as a continuous film, but with the separate scenes interspersed with lantern slides, a lecture, and live choral numbers, to increase the running time of the spectacle to about 90 minutes.

Films of acted reproductions of scenes from the Greco-Turkish war were made by Georges Méliès in 1897, and although sold separately, these were no doubt shown in continuous sequence by exhibitors. In 1898 a few films of similar kind were made, but still none had continuous action moving from one shot into the next. The multi-shot films that Georges Méliès made in 1899 were much longer than those made by anybody else, but l’Affaire Dreyfus (The Dreyfus Case) and Cendrillon (Cinderella) still contained no action moving from one shot to the next one. Also, from Cendrillon onwards, Méliès made a dissolve between every shot in his films, which reduced any appearance of action continuity even further. To understand what is going on in both these films, the audience had to know their stories beforehand, or be told them by a presenter.

Film continuity

Real film continuity, which means showing action moving from one shot into another joined to it, can be dated to Robert W. Paul's Come Along, Do!, made in 1898. In the first shot of this film, an old couple outside an art exhibition follow other people inside through the door. The second shot showed what they do inside.

The further development of action continuity in multi-shot films continued in 1899. In the latter part of that year, George Albert Smith, working in Brighton, England, made The Kiss in the Tunnel. This started with a shot from a “phantom ride” at the point at which the train goes into a tunnel, and continued with the action on a set representing the interior of a railway carriage, where a man steals a kiss from a woman, and then cuts back to the phantom ride shot when the train comes out of the tunnel. A month later, the Bamforth company in Yorkshire made a restaged version of this film under the same title, and in this case they filmed shots of a train entering and leaving a tunnel from beside the tracks, which they joined before and after their version of the kiss inside the train compartment.

In 1900, continuity of action across successive shots was definitively established by George Albert Smith and James Williamson, who also worked in Brighton. In that year Smith made Seen Through the Telescope, in which the main shot shows street scene with a young man tying the shoelace and then caressing the foot of his girlfriend, while an old man observes this through a telescope. There is then a cut to close shot of the hands on the girl's foot shown inside a black circular mask, and then a cut back to the continuation of the original scene.

Even more remarkable is James Williamson's Attack on a China Mission Station, made around the same time in 1900. The first shot shows the gate to the mission station from the outside being attacked and broken open by Chinese Boxer rebels, then there is a cut to the garden of the mission station where the missionary and his family are seated. The Boxers rush in and after exchanging fire with the missionary, kill him, and pursue his family into the house. His wife appears on the balcony waving for help, which immediately comes with an armed party of British sailors appearing through the gate to the mission station, this time seen from the inside. They fire at the Boxers, and advance out of the frame into the next shot, which is taken from the opposite direction looking towards the house. This constitutes the first “reverse angle” cut in film history. The scene continues with the sailors rescuing the remaining members of the missionary's family.

G.A. Smith further developed the ideas of breaking a scene shot in one place into a series of shots taken from different camera positions over the next couple of years, starting with The Little Doctors of 1901. In this film a little girl is administering pretend medicine to a kitten, and Smith cuts in to a big Close Up of the kitten as she does so, and then cuts back to the main shot. In this case the inserted close up is not shown as a Point of View shot in a circular mask. He summed up his work in Mary Jane's Mishap of 1903, with repeated cuts in to a close shot of a housemaid fooling around, along with superimpositions and other devices, before abandoning film-making to invent the Kinemacolor system of colour cinematography.

James Williamson concentrated on making films taking action from one place shown in one shot to the next shown in another shot in films like Stop Thief! and Fire!, made in 1901, and many others.

Film continuity developed

Other film-makers then took up all these ideas, which form the basis of film construction, or “film language”, or “film grammar”, as we know it. The best known of these film-makers was Edwin S. Porter, who started making films for the Edison Company in 1901. When he began making longer films in 1902, he put a dissolve between every shot, just as Georges Méliès was already doing, and he frequently had the same action repeated across the dissolves. In other words, Edwin Porter did not develop the basics of film construction. The Pathé company in France also made imitations and variations of Smith and Williamson's films from 1902 onwards using cuts between the shots, which helped to standardize the basics of film construction.

In 1903 there was a substantial increase in the number of film several minutes long, as a result of the great popularity of Georges Méliès’ le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), which came out in early 1902, though such films were still a very minor part of production. Most of them were what came to be called “chase films”. These were inspired by James Williamson's Stop Thief! of 1901, which showed a tramp stealing a leg of mutton from a butcher's boy in the first shot, then being chased through the second shot by the butcher's boy and assorted dogs, and finally being caught by the dogs in the third shot.

Several English films made in the first half of 1903 extended the chase method of film construction. These included An Elopement à la Mode and The Pickpocket: A Chase Through London, made by Alf Collins for the British branch of the French Gaumont company, Daring Daylight Burglary, made by the Sheffield Photographic Company, and Desperate Poaching Affray, made by the Haggar family, whose main business was exhibiting films made by others in their travelling tent theatre. All of these films, and indeed others of like nature were shown in the United States, and some them were certainly seen by Edwin Porter, before he made The Great Train Robbery towards the end of the year. The time continuity in The Great Train Robbery is actually more confusing than that in the films it was modelled on, but nevertheless it was a greater success than them worldwide, because of its Wild West violence.

From 1900, the Pathé company films also frequently copied and varied the ideas of the British film-makers, without making any major innovations in narrative film construction, but eventually the sheer volume of their production led to their film-makers giving a further precision and polish to the details of film continuity.

See also

cinema, history of film, cinematic effects in literature, precursors of film
Louis Le Prince, Léon Bouly

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Early cinema" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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