Film School 101: Where Movies Come From

on Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Film School 101 highlights overlooked aspects of film and television to enhance your understanding and appreciation of the screen. Well, that's the idea anyway.

Words: Ced Yuen

Think about the last film that you watched. Has the fact that pictures can move ever amazed you? Probably not. Every day people see moving images, but they never think twice about it because it is so commonplace. Movies are now a standard form of entertainment, but they were never meant to entertain. It is a billion-dollar industry, but nobody thought that could ever happen. Everyone knows Hollywood, yet it has nothing to do with the creation of the medium itself. So let’s rewind, and go back to 1872.

It all started with a question - do all four of a horse’s hooves leave the ground when it gallops? Yes, thought Leland Stanford, a former Governor of California. But this question bugged him. He wanted to prove his answer, so he sought the help Eadweard Muybridge, a talented photographer. Muybridge proved him correct using a system of 24 cameras, placed along a track parallel to a horse’s path. The result was a series of photos, each taken in sequence at one thousandth of a second. As you can see above. This was chronophotography, and it was the link between the still photography of the time, and the cinematography of the future. All they had that day was a line of still photos, but this was how cinema came into the world - as a science experiment.

The next, natural step was to get those pictures moving. In 1879, Muybridge created the Zoopraxiscope, a machine considered by many to be the first ever projector. The concept involved shining light through glass discs. Images were drawn on glass discs, and when rotated at speed, projected silhouettes would create an illusion of movement. This was incredibly basic, and still very far away from properly reproducing moving scenes, but you can see where they were going with this.

Muybridge’s work inspired Thomas Edison. He and an employee, William Dickson, expanded on Muybridge’s idea of rapidly moving still images. They created two machines: one to record images, the other to display them. Instead of using a line of single-shot cameras, the Kinetograph used running film. Using a wheel system, strips of 35mm celluloid film could be fed through the camera, allowing multiple images to be captured, sequentially, in the same apparatus.

Unveiled in 1893, the Kinetoscope was the machine used to play back Kinetographic film. The film was fed through the machine past a light, and a peephole on top of the machine allowed a single person to view the images inside. The whole unit was housed in a large, cumbersome box. A Kinetoscope parlor is shown above.

This was America’s claim to the creation of cinema. Indeed, as far as capturing and recreating moving scenes is concerned, this got there first. The problem with the Kinetoscope was that the images were not projected. Being accessible to one person at a time limited the interest in the machine. The only solution was to increase the number of units, and so Kinetoscope parlours were created. This was impractical and cost ineffective, so it never took off. They were close to bring moving images to the general public, but didn’t quite get there.

Auguste and Louis Lumière’s Cinematographe is credited with spreading the celluloid love, because this was a machine that could shoot and project images. Fast forward to December 1895, the Lumières’ first public screening, and they show ten of their experimental films. The first, 'La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière', lasted 46 seconds, and showed some people walking through a gate.

Big deal, you might think. But to the general public, this was magic. Witchcraft. At a time when still photographs were considered advanced, motion pictures belonged in the realm of the unimaginable. Some people were frightened. All of a sudden, the dead could be brought back to life. People didn’t know what to make of it. Whatever the public thought of this new medium, a film played a month later showed the world that cinema had potential. 'L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat' was 50 seconds of footage showing a train pulling into a station. It begins with a train in the distance, moving towards the camera.

Reports state that when people saw the train coming towards them, they ran away from the screen. The Lumières had apparently said that “the cinema is an invention without any future”. The rest of the world seemed to disagree. Cinema was the biggest bandwagon that everybody had to jump on, keen to see what they could do. The moving picture, or “movie” as it was called, had arrived, and there was no stopping it.

Watch more footage of the Lumière Brothers on YouTube.

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