The beginning of cinema is a story of murder, mystery, and miraculous invention. Before starting into a series of blogs exploring film through each year of its existence, I want to take a step back and learn how it came to be.
The Awe of Creation
We will never know what it was like to stand in the first cave where the first human painter thought to press her dirt-covered covered hands to the wall, transforming the cold bare stone into a sacred object. Was it that same evening she discovered the magic she could create if she moved her palms across the stone? Across and upward, she could create a deer. Palms spread out, a buffalo would appear.
Rhinos from Chauvet Cave in France. c. 30,000 BC or earlier
How long did the experimentation continue before the usefulness of ochre was discovered? Who was the first to develop the stencil technique? How did they discover the way animal fat could bind colored minerals to create paint? Was it an accident, or something developed through experimentation? And what did these fingerprints, handprints and creatures mean?
The inventions of literature, drama, and music are easier to imagine. It makes sense to chart a gradual process from the guttural noises of the lower mammals through to chants and stories played out around a Neolithic campfire, being first written in stone and papyrus, and later flowering among the theatres of Athens. Painting though, seems to require a brilliant “monolith” moment, when our species went from scratching randomly in the dirt to creating art.
Film is closest to painting in that regard. It’s difficult to see how you can have many proto-films without suddenly getting straight to the developed product. As the Pettakere and Chauvet caves provoke a sense of wonder at the dawn of a new art, so the early zoopraxiscopes create amazement at the creation of the Seventh Art.
During the 19th Century, several moving-picture toys were invented. They featured brief, looping animations that seem closer to a GIF animation than a full-length feature film. However, they operated on the same principles as today’s cinema; when distinct frames are played in rapid succession, they create the illusion of movement.
A Thaumatrope from 1825
In the late years of the Regency era, several scientists observed an optical illusion that takes place while looking at spinning wheels. As Michael Faraday described it in 1831, there is a “persistence of a visual impression for a determinate interval’ after an object has been withdrawn or changed its place. We see the trail of a shooting star and can create a fiery circle by waving a match. A disc with two sides, called a Thaumatrope was invented. Spinning the disc rapidly could create the illusion that there was a single image, instead of two images.
In 1832, animation was born. Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau created the very first moving picture – the image of a spinning doll. Plateau published his invention in the journal Correspondance Mathématique et Physique.
Joseph Plateau’s Phenakistiscope
Those early Phenakistiscopes quickly sold out. Several others expanded and improved upon this concept. Beginning in 1867, the Zoetrope was marketed by Milton Bradley and the following year, English lithographer John Barnes Linnett patented the flip book. And in 1877, Charles-Émile Reynaud improved the Zoetrope by adding mirrors to simplify the viewing process.
The second monolith moment for cinema came just a year after Reynaud’s invention. This step went form simply animating drawings to animating the world.
Photographer Eadweard Muybridge and his patron Leland Stanford worked through the 1870s to create cameras that could take photographs of objects in motion. The earliest film had to be exposed to the light for long periods of time. Moving objects would not show up, or would show up as a blur. In 1877, Muybridge was able to take a picture of the horse Occident with a negative that was exposed to the light for less than 1/1000 of a second, freezing a horse mid-trot.
Stanford paid $20,000 (about $4.5 million in 2016 dollars) to rig up a new shutter system at a racetrack at Palo Alto, California. The system would allow Muybridge to take 12 of these high-speed photos nearly instantaneously, capturing a horse in motion. Muybridge took photos of several horses, other animals, and later athletes. He published the frames in strips. The results were an international sensation.
Several people printed copies of Muybridge’s photos for use in Zoetropes. In fall 1879, Muybridge started showing off his photos in his own invention, called a “zoopraxiscope,” which projected the images onto a wall.
A galloping horse is a fitting subject for a new art. It is universal, totemic. It hearkens back to those earliest paintings in our caves. And to be created in California is another boon. With Muybridge, the Golden State began to take the baton from Paris (previously held by Florence and Athens) and has dominated as the creative capital of the world for the past century.
(The moment’s drama is heightened further by the past of the two men involved. Muybridge was a murderer who had killed the man his wife was cheating on him with. The jury decided it was justifiable homicide. Stanford drove in the ‘Golden Spike’ that finished the Transcontinental Railroad.)
Louis Le Prince
In 1888, Louis Le Prince built a camera with a single lens that could take photos with a short-shutter speed in rapid succession. Many historians consider this the true beginning of film. On October 14th, 1888, Le Prince captured a few seconds of his family walking around a garden in Leeds, England.
Le Prince followed this up with other similarly prosaic scenes of Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge and Man Walking Around the Corner. At this time, other inventors started to create their own single-lens movie cameras. Those included the German Ottomar Anschütz and the American Thomas Edison.
Edison features into conspiracy theories surrounding what happened next. In September 1890, Le Prince planned a trip to the UK to patent his camera and then to the U.S. to promote it. He boarded a train and was never seen again. His body, his luggage, and his invention were never found. Le Prince’s family blamed Edison, who they believed wanted to claim invention of the movies for himself.
Edison would soon create the world’s first movie studio – a subject I’ll explore in later posts. But these early years of cinema are an unprecedented look at the creation of a new art form. We have a level of knowledge about the birth of motion pictures that we never can about painting or sculpture. We don’t know who the Eadweard Muybridge of poetry or architecture was. But the way these breakthroughs spread rapidly and were developed in similar ways by different inventors working continents apart, could provide a model.
The next posts will focus on the rest of cinematic history, one year at a time, from 1890 to today. (Whichever year ‘today’ is when I catch up.)
Ball, Edward. 2013. The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures. New York: Doubleday.
- “Cave painting.” New World Encyclopedia. Oct 4. Accessed Sept 7, 2016. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Cave_painting.
Herbert, Stephen. 2000. A History of Pre-Cinema. Taylor & Francis.
Herbert, Stephen, and Luke McKernan. 2016. Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema. Accessed Sept 6, 2016. http://www.victorian-cinema.net/.
Solnit, Rebecca. 2003. River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. New York: Viking Penguin.
Walters, Jonathan. 2002. EarlyCinema. Accessed Sept 6, 2016. http://www.earlycinema.com.