Cinema has always been a child of tech

Pamela Hutchinson

Pamela Hutchinson on the early innovations that gave birth to the movies

09 October 2018 13:00

We’ll never know whether any hick really did run away from the screen in terror at a moving image of an oncoming train. It’s a persistent cinema myth, like the tales of people who gratifyingly faint and vomit at the first screenings of a new horror movie, or the whispers of a twist so wild that you’ll never see it coming, and you’ll have to watch the film twice. Which is to say, it’s a wonderful way for the industry to sell tickets, and for audiences to feel superior to other, less sophisticated crowds. So it’s a win-win scenario and no-one has any interest in disproving it.

What we do know is that the Lumière brothers were aiming for a quasi-stereoscopic effect with that train composition in L’arrivée d’un train en gare de la Ciotat (1896), and they wanted their projected images to move the audience – not emotionally but viscerally. To excite them and maybe even get them on their feet. The name of their device, the Cinématographe name, was actually coined by another inventor, Léon Bouly, and it was derived from a Greek phrase meaning ‘writing in movement’.

The race to create the first moving images was not primarily about storytelling, or even artistic beauty – it was about the thrill of movement. And all kinds of technologies were used to create this new sensation. The Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, had a photographic factory in the south of France, so were well placed to experiment with film and cameras. They weren’t the only people in the race – they weren’t even the winners, depending on your perspective.

L’arrivée d’un train en gare de la Ciotat (Auguste and Louis Lumière, 1896)

Victorians were familiar with moving images of several kinds – the ‘sliding’ magic lantern slides that dissolved one picture into another, revealing views of faraway landmarks or animated scenes from literature. You could watch Shakespeare plays on glass slides, one tableau at a time, if you wanted. Children had toys, too, which used the persistence of vision to create dancing figures and leaping animals at the spin of a wheel: the Zoetrope or the Phenakistiscope. For older scopophiles there were flick-book ‘What the Butler Saw’ machines at the end of pier.

Towards the end of the Nineteenth Century, the development of photography prompted a desire to combine its unprecedented realism with the naturalism of movement, to see the leaves rustle in the trees and the waves crash on the shore every bit as much as the kind of human action that could be viewed in the theatre. Eadweard Muybridge’s photography experiments, which broke down human and animal movements, showed the pioneers what a moving picture would look like – the step-and-repeat images that would glide into action when spun in front of a viewer.

In Leeds, a Frenchman called Louis Le Prince shot short moving scenes on a kind of paper film that was too delicate to withstand repeated projection. In New Jersey, Thomas Edison and William K-L. Dickson used a new invention, celluloid film, and designed machines that could show a loop containing a moving image to one isolated viewer at a time. The genius of the Lumiéres’ Cinématographe was that the same machine could both record motion pictures and project them to a screen in front of an audience. They took a technological novelty and transformed it into a communal experience. They may not have invented film, but perhaps they invented cinema.

And others were close behind them. Soon there were several different models of moving image camera and gauges of film on the market – in the early cinema format wars, inventors made the misstep of assuming that audiences would flock to see the marvellous technology itself. As we know, soon content, not format, became the key attraction.

These film pioneers were ambitious, though, and were not satisfied with monochrome, silent, two-dimensional images for long. If early filmmakers such as Alice Guy-Blaché and Georges Méliès wanted to put fairies and devils on screen, the films themselves had to be suitably spectacular. Films were coloured by hand, with stencils and tiny brush-strokes; a painstaking effort that creates a luminous stained-glass effect. Even at the turn of the century, films were shown with sound, courtesy of wax-cylinder recordings playing next to the screen. Edison was making sound films for his Kinetophone device from 1894. At the Paris Exposition of 1900, one could see Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet on screen, and hear the clash of her sword in the duel scene.

If early filmmakers such as Alice Guy-Blaché and Georges Méliès wanted to put fairies and devils on screen, the films themselves had to be suitably spectacular.

By the 1910s, there were many more systems for recording and playing sound along with film. Edison’s laboratory continued to innovate with synchronisation – recording skits and musical acts on film and wax with remarkable success. Later in the silent era, records of music or special effects were played along with movies at premieres. War movie Wings (William Wellman, 1927), the first Oscar winner for Best Picture, used this system, as well as splashes of hand-painted colour to add fire to its aerial warfare scenes. Many prestigious late silents were released with recorded musical soundtracks too, an audio track that was timed to play with the images but had not been recorded in the studio.

There were early colour processes too: Kinemacolor, Prizmacolor and early Technicolor too – which all used limited palettes, but produced striking effects. By the mid-1920s, two-strip Technicolor sequences were inserted into several Hollywood features and some complete films, such as The Black Pirate starring Douglas Fairbanks. With no blue to complete the red and green hues, the effect is of two-strip is something like the teal-and-orange schemes of many a modern blockbuster, but with a delicate, creamy quality to skin tones. In 1922, two competing methods for creating 3D cinema were debuted by competing inventors.

The square format of film was no limit for the director who was determined to break it. Artistic uses of masks and vignettes meant that films could be whatever shape the director wanted. And at the climax of his epic Napoléon (1927), French director Abel Gance projected three films on adjacent screens to create an early, and breathtaking, form of widescreen.

The idea of silent black-and-white film was never taken for granted – but for years many of these innovations were considered novel diversions rather than the natural evolution of the form. The coming of synchronised sound in 1927, with Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, changed all that. And reflected the fact that film was now used primarily as a medium for telling stories, rather than an attraction in itself. Adding dialogue and music was essential if the cinema was to mimic, and outdo, the theatre. That was famously the industry earthquake that caused the film business to topple and rebuild itself within the space of two or three tumultuous years. But, as becomes clear, it was merely the biggest in a series of shocks designed to keep the audiences thrilled, and surprised, by the moving image.