The Birth Pangs of Cinema


By Subir Ghosh
“Of everything other than thought, there can be no history.”
RG Collingwood, The Idea of History

Watersheds, when looked at closely – as film historian Eric Rhode wrote – become less distinctive once one delves deep into them. And to be just to the progenitors of cinema, no single discovery or invention was isolated – everything was built on a previous milestone or observation.

The roots of cinema were lost in spools of films when the world paid homage to Auguste and Louis Lumiere on December 28, 1995. This commemorated 100 years of the so-called birth of cinema, opening a Pandora’s box of claims and counter-claims.

But, cinema was not the invention of any single man, but one long evolution – one that is for sure yet to culminate. The efforts to recreate life – create a living image of reality – had begun with the crude sketches of the prehistoric caveman. By the 18th century, people had started admiring visual images for their uncanny resemblance to life. Shadow shows gathered huge crowds at fairs, and optical instruments like the panorama, the diorama and the magic lantern produced dramatic effects on painted scenes by using light and shade.

To replace drawings, the camera became a necessity. The basic idea was Aristotle’s. He had noticed that the sun’s image could pass through a small hole and be seen on a surface behind it. However, the principle which made motion pictures possible was persistence of vision. Joseph Plateau and Peter Roget found that the eye retained an image for a brief period even after it was removed. If a new image was presented quickly enough, the eye would not be able to perceive the interval between them. Emile Reynaud’s praxinoscope used this scientific principle.

After WHF Talbot created a negative where light areas of the scene appeared dark and dark ones light, astronomer John Herschel fixed his images (calling them photographs) and Abel Victor devised a method for producing negatives on glass.

The first step towards providing the essential link between still photographs and motion pictures came from Edward Muybridge, rightly regarded as the first cameraman in film history. In 1877, he set up a battery of 12 cameras in a long shed along a racecourse. Opposite was a slanting background of white against which horses were photographed. Wires were stretched across the track to operate the shutters. As a horse galloped past, its hooves tripped each shutter to expose successive photographs of its movement. Muybridge mounted these images on a rotating disc and projected them on a screen with the magic lantern.

Soon, Etienne Marey devised an apparatus resembling an automatic rifle with a multichamber revolving disc capable of shooting 12, and later 100, pictures per second. Once Hannibal Goodwin used celluloid as a base for a film strip’s light sensitive emulsion, George Eastman perfected it and mass produced transparent roll films for still photography.

As film strips stopped briefly when the light shone through each frame, there was still the need for a mechanism to move the film in the intervening pauses. A camera had to advance rapidly enough to permit at least 16 separate exposures per second as well as bring each frame to a full stop to record a sharp image. Marey’s Maltese cross dispelled with this problem.

With inventions of a flexible, transparent film base, fast exposure time, a mechanism to pull the film through the camera, an intermittent device to stop the film and a shutter to block off the light, cinema could only be a step away.

Thomas Alva Edison and his assistant WKL Dickson built upon the works of Muybridge and Marey, combining the two final essentials of motion picture camera and projection technology. Dickson used the mechanism of a clock to ensure intermittent but regular motion of the film strip through the camera, and a regularly perforated celluloid film strip for precise synchronisation with the shutter. In 1891, the kinetograph, a motion picture camera, and the kinetoscope, a motion picture viewer, were devised. The patents were granted two years later.

Englishman William Friese-Green, among others, also applied for patents on various cameras, projectors and camera-projector combinations around the same time. These claims were not properly documented and lacked credibility.

Edison’s invention became popular and was marketed commercially. Black Maria, the world’s first film studio, was constructed and performances by sports figures and vaudeville entertainers were filmed there. The films, simple in form and style, consisted of a single shot framing a single action, usually at long shot. The first kinetoscope parlour was opened on April 14, 1894, in New York where for 25 cents a customer viewed 30 seconds of motion. Edison did not develop a system to project films on a screen since he thought movies were a passing fad.

In early cameras and projectors only a small amount of film footage could be rapidly jerked and stopped in the back of the lens without tearing the film. Woodville Latham and his two sons solved this problem. Around this time, the German brothers Max and Emil Skladanowsky, Englishman Robert Paul, and the Lumiere brothers of France came up with their bioscope, theatrograph and cinematographe respectively.

The Lumiere brothersshowed 10 short films on December 28, 1895 in the Salon Indien, the basement lounge of the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. Thirty people watched the screening, the seats for viewing being priced at one franc each. They combined the experiments of many pioneers. Their only original innovation was using sprocket holes in the film strip and a mechanical claw to pull it through the gate.

Nor was their instrument an end in itself. Technical innovations and inventions after that are legion: the advent of sound, the arrival of colour films, to name two. The evolution is still on.

Cinema as a technology, was born out of the Industrial Revolution which, as Bertrand Russell had said, was “to make instruments to make other instruments, to make still other instruments ad infinitum.”

Film annals, like general history, fall little short of acceptable fiction. The sweeping judgments they make are not always justified. The Lumiere brothers must be given credit for their contribution to cinema. But heralding their historic screening as the birth of cinema is carrying things too far. An isolated incident in which almost everything was modelled on a previous invention is not a birth. If a starting point is necessary, either Muybridge’s experiment or Edison’s commercial shows – which predate the Lumieres’ by a year – are safer bets.

The Americans understood this better and celebrated the 100 years of Hollywood movies a year before the world celebrated the so-called centenary of cinema. Could we assume that Hollywood cinema is older than world cinema? Cinema savants will argue, maybe for another 100 years and more. But as Henry Ford said, “History is all bunk.”]


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