History of films: the origins, inventions and pioneers of cinema

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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.

The Barker


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.

Other inventions

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 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.

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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

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.

Avant-garde cinema


In the 1920s a vast panorama of experimentation of European cinema was born by artists from other artistic disciplines such as Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism, who made important contributions to the development of the history of cinema of the time and of the following decades, up to the present day: the avant-garde cinema.

Impressionism and new forms of cinematographic research replaced industrial film in France in the 1920s. The production of French films in the 1920s drops dramatically. Cinema is produced much more in the United States and Germany.

Industrial films often had very high costs and financial failures were frequent. Executives at Pathé and Gaumont understood that there was a lot less risk involved in distributing than making new films.

Although in the mid-1920s France produced only about fifty feature films and the United States 729, there was a great cultural ferment on the streets of Paris and other cities. More film clubs were born than in any other part of the world. There was the opportunity to attend debates, film reviews, avant-garde magazines were born.

The Russian avant-garde was born after the revolution, in the context of the October of the arts. It is one of the most radical avant-gardes. The October of the Arts is a rich season for many unconventional directors: cubofuturism, experimental theater, cinema. The Proletkult movement, of which it is a part Eisenstein, will seek the spectacularity of the culture linked to the proletariat.

In all this ferment, the common intentions were to bring art closer to the man of the street and the popular masses. The cinema thus comes into contact with the soldiers of the revolution and with the entire proletariat. Dziga Vertov comes from a musical background and is influenced by Italian Futurism and Constructivism.

Andrè Breton was the founder of the surrealism. All his colleagues were interested in the dream world, in everything that manifests itself in the unconscious and outside the ordinary meanings of the world, in the automatic associations of ideas that occur beyond consciousness, in what happens after the loss of any rationality or control. of thought.

The Spanish director Luis Buñuel and the painter Salvador Dalì made together in 1928 Un Chien andalou, a film destined to mark the surrealist cinema. Other surrealist films are Jean Cocteau ‘s Le Sang d’un poète (1930), and partly also L’Atalante ‘s Jean Vigo.

Outside the main ones avant-garde there are several directors who work elsewhere, like Carl Theodor Dreyer. In Italy there is a profound production and distribution crisis. Even English cinema has no interesting cinematic movements, even if in the meantime he began his career at a very young age Alfred Hitchcock. It is above all in Northern Europe that we find the most important filmmakers such as Dreyer, Sjostrom, Christensen.

History of the cinema of the origins in Japan


The history of Japanese cinema also begins with Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope which was exported to Japan in 1896. Lumière’s cameramen also make films in Japan. The first Japanese film dates back to 1897. Ghosts were the most popular theme.

The Benshi stood next to the screen and told the silent moving images. The Benshi could be accompanied by music like the mythical films in Western cinemas. In 1908, Shōzō Makino, the pioneering director of Japanese cinema, started his business.

Onoe became the first Japanese film star, appearing in over 1,000 films, mainly short films, between 1909 and 1926. The first Japanese film production studio was created in 1909 in Tokyo.

Japanese films were successful in the mid-1920s, thanks to the charm of some stars. Directors such as Daisuke Itō and Masahiro Makino have made samurai films such as A Diary of Chuji’s Travels and Roningai with battle scenes that were successful Some stars, such as Tsumasaburo Bando, Kanjūrō ​​Arashi, Chiezō Kataoka, Takako Irie and Utaemon Ichikawa, are were hired by Makino Film Productions and formed their own independent production with directors such as Hiroshi Inagaki, Mansaku Itami and Sadao Yamanaka.

A Page of Madness is one of the most significant avant-garde Japanese films. It is a silent film work by horror genre 1926 Teinosuke Kinugasa. For over 45 years the film was lost, then found by the same director by chance in 1971. It is a film designed by the Japanese Artists Movement called Shinkankakuha, which means school of new perceptions

Hollywood: stars and movie genres

In the 1920s the industry dominated Hollywood that presents itself as a dream factory that proposes the realization of the American dream. A series of characters, heroes and heroines almost always good-looking, with which the public identifies and who often embody models to be achieved. Hollywood factory of the imagination where films classified into easily codable genres are made. The artistic research takes place in Hollywood thanks to the merit of more daring directors, often foreigners. 


Hollywood is an entertainment business in a universe of upbeat, often unrealistic dreams. Films rarely take a negative point of view, but rather a sweetened worldview. The rise of Hollywood cinema is favored by the crisis of the great war. The world economy is on its knees and the United States positions itself as a world leader in several sectors. A policy of liberalism is established which allows American industrial products to impose themselves on foreign markets. 

Film genres were invented in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s for marketing needs and target audiences. The genres of films allowed the Studios to reach a very specific audience interested in that type of film. To each genre, producers always try to connect Stars and divas that the public instinctively associates with that genre. The association between a certain gender and a certain face becomes a mechanism unconscious. The production is organized into a few essential genres and sub-genres: each genre includes a branching of many sub-genres, actors, directors and audience lifestyles. 

Together with the genres, the Star System. Stardom is one of the main phenomena of 1930s and 1940s cinema. Industrial cinema is the opposite of independent cinema and secures the most attractive and sensual stars. While in independent productions the protagonist is the director, in mainstream cinema the director is almost a simple employee and remains in the shadows behind the stars. 

The classic American cinema is a system that controls films from their conception to theatrical distribution. Large movie studios own numerous movie theaters across the United States and have total control of the film market. 

Between 1930 and 1945 the Hollywood industry begins to produce classic films. In 1929 the collapse of the Wall Street stock market overwhelms the United States and the period of the great depression begins. The crisis until the end of the thirties, with a resumption in the early 40s with the Second World War. 

Cultural dominance in the US film market stems from the power it gained after World War II. The victory will make it possible to export classic American films all over the world and to increase the paying audience dramatically. President Roosevelt creates incentives to foster control of various sectors with vertical monopolies and oligopolies. 

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