History of films: before the cinema
The history of films begins well before the Lumière brothers, and is lost in the mists of time. The power of mental images that will manifest itself to its maximum degree with cinema has always been part of man’s nature. From the myth of Plato’s cave to the insights of other ancient Greek philosophers. From cave paintings of cavemen to the Trajan’s column of ancient Rome, man has always tried to give movement to painted or sculpted images, in the way he saw them moving in his mind, daydreams, in activity dream or in everyday intuitions.
The pre-cinema is everything that happened before the invention of cinema. Ah, it was only the Lumière brothers who invented it but there were dozens of men around the world who had already patented different inventions to achieve the same result: the projection of images on the big screen.
The first stage of what is perhaps the greatest invention in the history of films and the photographic technique reached Leonardo da Vinci, inventing the camera obscura and the Atlantic code for his projects. But the birth of the real camera was still a long way off.
The inventions of the pre-cinema
In the 19th century, inventions and contraptions that progressively approached the cinema followed one another at a fast pace.
The magic lantern
The magic lantern was invented, a box into which a light was inserted which, projecting its beam outwards, projected on a wall the images drawn on a glass plate between the light source and the outside.
A particular type of Magic Lantern that worked for individual rather than collective views, much like our internet-connected devices today, was the New World. A box in which it was necessary to look one person at a time inside a hole to see the phantasmagoria of images.
But the most exciting idea seemed to be to invent something that perfects the collective spectacle axis. The barker was a cross between a TV presenter and a theatrical actor who commented and entertained the audience during the projections of the images of the magic lantern. His function was to give life to the dialogues of the characters and to give emotional nuances to the show. This professional figure would have continued to exist even in the first years of the cinema’s life.
At the basis of all these inventions was the discovery of the phenomenon of retinal persistence according to which images persist in the human eye for a fraction of a second. This is the principle that allows the human eye to perceive moving images, and was subsequently perfected by choosing the optimal frequency one frame every 25th of a second.
In the first half of the 19th century the inventions to see moving images multiply. Thaumatrope kinethoscope, zoetrope, praxinoscope, optical theater. Paris seemed to be the center of all these inventions that preceded the Brothers Lumiere Cinematograph. Reynaud’s optical theater that united the principles of praxinoscope and optical theater by sliding glass plates inside the device was a huge success but the invention of photography that arrived soon after determined its failure. Reynaud, desperate, destroyed all his creations on glass plates and only 2 have come down to us. But he was a great inspiration for the invention of animated Cinema and for the Lumière brothers.
The invention of photography
The invention of photography perfected by Niépce and Daguerre laid the foundations for the cinema. The first photograph was taken in 1826 by Niépce and portrayed a window. It took many hours to develop the photographic plates which were made of metal. Daguerre greatly improved the invention with his copper plates which allowed development in much faster times.
To be able to see moving images, however, it was necessary to impress a large number of photographs one after the other quickly. A great contribution came from George Eastman with the invention of the sensitive paper photo roll that allowed many photographs to be taken without changing plates.
Impressing and scrolling through the individual photographs in rapid succession was the most difficult challenge to get to the first cinematic projections. Muybridge for example, he had the idea of placing 12 cameras side by side to film the race of a horse. Étienne-Jules Marey invented the photographic rifle which was capable of impressing 12 photographs in one second. It looked a lot like a real shotgun. It became clear in his experiments of him, however, that 12 frames in a second weren’t enough and the motion in his footage of him was jerky.
History of films and Thomas Edison
The device that best made the impression of moving images was invented by Thomas Edison in the United States and was called the kinethoscope. A large box where, by inserting a coin and turning a crank, people could slide the imprinted images on a roller. Edison focused on the commercial exploitation of his invention which was immediately a great success. But the limitation of him was that it was not designed for collective projections.
Meanwhile, in various countries around the world, other inventors were trying to perfect their inventions to project moving images and they would carry on the history of cinema.
The Lumière brothers
The Lumière family owned a thriving photographic industry in Lyon. One evening, returning home, the father of the Lumière Brothers, Antoine, told them about Edison’s invention. He was fascinated by it, but he thought it was imperfect, it was necessary to overcome the limit of individual use and be able to obtain collective projections.
The Cinema was born. The Lumière brothers began shooting their first films in early 1895 and in December of the same year they organized the famous screening showing the workers leaving their factory at the Capuchin café in Paris, on December 28th. the release from the Lumiere workshops was the first documentary in history, followed by many others.
The amazement of the audience in the hall and the immediate success of the invention made the cinema famous all over the world in just a few months. That extraordinary device reproduced life. The history of films had begun. Among the audience of that first screening there was a gentleman named Georges Melies, who enthusiastic about what he had seen, decided to ask the Lumiere Brothers if it was possible to buy one of their devices. He got a refusal, but after a short time, with obstinacy, he would have his own one built.
The Lumière brothers hired many cameramen and sent them around the world to make documentary shorts for their shows. But they were not convinced that the Cinematograph was an invention with a great future and they left the business as early as 1901, returning to work with photography and the development of color films.
History of films: George Méliès
George Méliès had been a rebellious kid. Ran away from home due to an authoritarian father to become a merchant and had followed your passion for magic and theater by traveling to England and other European countries. Back in Paris he had started working at the Houdini theater, of which he later became the owner, where he staged his magic shows.
Fascinated by the cinema, he had a similar device built by his engineer and started using it to film his shows. Many inventions are due to him that contributed to making cinema a magical spectacle: disappearances, superimpositions, animations and coloring of the films. Méliès really believed in the Cinematograph to the point of having a large soundstage built exclusively in glass in the garden of his villa outside Paris. The sun’s rays penetrated at any time of day and he could shoot all his films of him inside, in which he acted and took care of all the details.
Someone said that if the Lumière invented cinema, Méliès invented cinema. With him, fiction films and the fantastic, historical and adventure genres are born. His films, made up of still shots that follow one after the other like stages on a journey, stage extraordinary and poetic fantasy worlds, with incredible narrative and visual inventions.
Méliès is a craftsman who takes care of all aspects of the creation of his films. He even has them hand colored frame by frame. He is the first film artist to create real masterpieces, such as “Journey into the Impossible” and “The Conquest of the Polo” and others.
He makes over 500 short films, many of which have been lost. Unfortunately, like other pioneers-artisans of the history of films, he will not be able to withstand the competition with the industrial development of cinema that developed very rapidly in the early 1900s, both in France with Pathè and Gaumont, and in other countries of the world. He will end up meeting his actress again with whom he had collaborated many years before he had opened a drinks kiosk in a Paris station and will help her manage the kiosk.
The Brighton school
Meanwhile in Brighton, England, George Albert Smith and James Williamson had created a club of directors who had a great impact on the history of films. The directors of the Brighton school created fundamental innovations in the language of cinema: the shooting in motion, or trolley, of which we have a first example in the short film A Kiss in the Tunnel and the use of editing within the same scene, with close-ups of the actors and details of the main shot. Even the subjective, the shot that represents the point of view of a character in a film, and the field and reverse, fundamental codes of modern cinema, are novelties invented by them. The cinematic story and the individual scenes, with the registers of the Brighton school, become more articulated and structured.
The history of cinema becomes industry: Pathè and Gaumont
In France, meanwhile, there is great excitement. The country is the cultural epicenter of the world. Two major film productions are born with the intention of industrializing the cinema and making it a commercial product for the public of Massa: the Pathè la Gaumont. A third, Les films D’art, was instead specialized in arthouse films. It was created and developed by the theatrical actors who worked at the Comèdie Francaise to make films aimed at an elite, more cultured and demanding audience.
To make Pathè and Gaumont famous in the history of films were above all the films by Ferdinand Zecca, Segundo De Chomon, Alice guy and the animated films of Emil Cohl. Other directors and writers invented cinematic characters that became very popular, such as Fantomas and the Vampires. Les Films D’art, on the other hand, relied heavily on its actors, already known throughout France, whom they carefully advertised on the posters and advertising material of their films. Les Films D’art created the first Star System, which would have conditioned the birth of Hollywood cinema in the United States and which still influences the production of films everywhere today.
cinema was losing its artisan and artistic vocation of the pioneers to transform itself into a phenomenon of mass commercial entertainment. A machine for making dreams and making money.