Cinema has come a long way since it first originated in the 1800s. The last 200+ years have been marked with creative experimentation and technological advancement. Every new film movement and filmmaking technique helped pave the way for the next innovation, creating the art form we now know and love.
Let’s walk through the major moments in film history…
The Moving Image
Telling stories with shadows puppets have always been around but it’s the magic lantern shows that started in the 1600s that were crucial to the birth of cinema. Pictures painted on glass were projected by a lantern (just a candle and a lens) onto the wall. This lantern was an early version of today’s projectors.
From the 1830s onwards, more and more people were finding ways to make still images appear to be moving. They all used the scientific concept of “persistence of vision“. This just means that the eye takes a certain amount of time to see, so if images flash in front of our eyes before they have the chance to properly see them, it appears as though they are in motion.
Here are a few ways that concept was used:
The Thaumatrope from the 1820s
The thaumatrope was created by astronomer Sir John Herschel in 1824, but made popular by English physicist, Dr. John A. Paris. It was basically a piece of paper with designs on the front and back of it and two strings tied on either side of it. When turned, the designs on either side blended into one and it looked as though the picture was in motion. At the time, the toy was only meant for entertainment, but its invention peaked people’s interest in animation and the moving image.
The Phenakishoscope of the 1830s
This was a toy in the form of a giant magnifying glass. It had a disc with pictures on the edges which looked like they were in movement if you looked through the slots at its reflection in the mirror. It was first invented by Simon von Stampfer in 1832, but renamed the phenakishoscope by Joseph Plateau.
The Zoetrope in the 1830s
In 1834, William Horner invented the zoetrope as an improvement of the phenakishoscope. This optical toy didn’t have mirrors, which allowed the ‘motion picture’ to be viewed by several people at once.
The Praxinoscope in the 1870s
Pictures were attached to the rim of the drum and they looked like they were moving when the drum spun. Its design prevented distortion, so it quickly replaced the other optical toys.
Eadweard Muybridge & Etienne-Jules Marey
Photographer Eadweard Muybridge wanted to capture a horse in movement so he set up 24 cameras with some trip wire. In 1878, he produced a series of pictures that made it seem like the horse was in motion when viewed in a peep show machine.
Shortly after Muybridge did it, Marey photographed a bird in movement using a single camera. The camera was in the form of a rifle and it took 12 pictures per second.
In 1885, George Eastman created the first celluloid roll film, which allowed inventor Thomas Edison and assistant William Dickson to invent the first camera to record movement in 1891. The Kinetograph produced films that could only be seen by one person at a time through a peep show machine.
The Silent Era
The Silent Era marks the birth of cinema when cinema was all about experimentation and pushing boundaries. All of the new discoveries of this era helped shape the eras that followed and the filmmakers and films that came after them.
Named for its lack of sound, films from this era were in black and white and some of them were filmed on as little as a single reel of tape (averaging from a few minutes to just over an hour). This period began with the invention of the Cinématographe in 1895 by the Lumière Brothers. This device recorded film stock and projected the footage on screen. The silent era ended in 1929 when the “talkies” started (feature films with sound).
It is also important to mention the birth of Hollywood in 1913. American filmmakers Cecil B. De Mille and Oscar C. Apfel ended up in Los Angeles and decided to stay due to the constant sunshine (lighting all year) and the landscape. Several other filmmakers moved to L.A. and it quickly became the place for film.
Classic Hollywood Cinema
With World War I (or The Great War as it was called then) afflicting Europe, it comes as no surprise that American cinema dominated the scene during the 1910s, up until the 1960s. At first, the movement began on the East Coast, but the formation of the MPPC (Motion Pictures Patents Company) made it difficult to survive, especially for the small, independent companies like IMP (Independent Motion Pictures, which would become part of Universal Pictures) and Famous Players (which would later become part of the MGM corporation). So, the further away they were from the MPPC, the more successful they were. That is until the demand for films became too great.
The Further West, The Better
As the years rolled by, Americans wanted more filmed stories, and soon it became difficult to create films individually. So, the best decision, for those independent producers, was to merge with one another. From IMP, Bison, Powers, Nestor and a whole host of other companies, the Universal Film Company was born.
It was with this merger that the move to Hollywood began. With the opening of Universal City, the Hollywood Hills would soon become the hub of film production activity. Not only did Universal City take over the hills, but soon other conglomerates began to spring up in the desert. Studios like 20th Century Fox, Paramount and MGM followed in Universal’s footsteps. With demand so high, and the almost impossible nature of shooting films individually, these major studios began to mass-produce films, assigning producers and directors to each film, without thought for the details.
The Great Transition
By the late 1920s, the silent film industry reached its peak. Films like The Three Musketeers, The Covered Wagon, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ were some of the major box-office hits that the studios made during the Golden Age of Silent Films. However, these successes wouldn’t last for long. Something else was coming.
One of the greatest development in film production was the introduction of sound on film. This meant that not only would audiences be able to see a story unfold on the big screen, they’d be able to hear it too. The studios were at the top of their game, by the time sound stepped onto the scene. It was a new element, and the major studios began to trip up, thanks to the new addition. Not only were they slow on the uptake, they were furious about it, even to the point of not using it altogether. The only exception to this was Warner Bros.
Introducing… The Talkies
Everything changed once the first Vitaphone film with sound released in 1927 (The Jazz Singer).
Filmmakers had to adapt to the new technology and actors had to adapt as well. Some actors had to quit because their voices did not match well with their image and the audience didn’t like them anymore. Others couldn’t find work because their acting was too over-the-top and theatrical (as it needs to be in silent films, but not in sound films). It was a major success, one that saw sound as an important tool in film production. The Jazz Singer not only opened new doors for film studios, it paved the way to the second wave of the Golden Age, but that wouldn’t be until the middle of the 1940s.
German Cinema in the 1920s
Up to now, films were either about everyday life or stories of supernatural places. German cinema did something brand new; they introduced German Expressionism. Filmmakers came up with original indoor film sets and they mastered lighting like no one else had. They realised that the way a scene is lit drastically affects how it makes people feel. They played around with soft and harsh lighting to get their desired effect.
The Influence on Genre
The horror genre probably wouldn’t have become a major player in the film industry if it weren’t for the influence of German Expressionism. In fact, one of horror’s most famous directors, Alfred Hitchcock, probably wouldn’t have made his most famous masterpieces, if it weren’t for the German Expressionist movement. Films like Psycho or I Confess were heavily influenced by German Expressionism and it is rather evident in the way the films are lighted. The high contrast and the eerie use of shadow figures all hark to the strange shapes and distorted sets of the old German Expressionist films.
Not only did Expressionism inspire the classic horror films, but it also inspired other genres like film noir, and would go on to inspire thrillers and other fantasy related films. For example, in the modern day, Tim Burton’s gothic styled films are inspired by German Expressionism, since films like Batman Returns and Sleepy Hollow all have some elements of the distorted shapes that defined German Expressionist films.
French Cinema in the 1930s
French films made in these years reflected how ordinary people were dealing with the war. They employed Poetic Realism, meaning that they treated real subjects in an imaginative way.
Read about Poetic Realism here.
Technicolor was first introduced in 1932. Before then, colour was added to film by painting the photographs or using a stenciling system that cut out sections of the frame and tinted them. Both options were time-consuming and produced colour that did not look natural.
Films shot in technicolor used a three-strip camera that captured the scene in cyan, magenta and yellow, then put these colours together. With Technicolor, red and yellow looked brilliant so nearly every film from the 30s onwards had a fire scene.
Three strip cameras were very heavy and usually supported by a tripod. As a result, Technicolor films were rarely shot outside. The Three Little Pigs was one of the first films made in Technicolor.
Read about the use of Colour in Film here.
Film Noir in the ’40s and ’50s
Post WWII, filmmakers in the US began to base films on darker themes. The films released in this time dealt with crime, corruption, greed and cruelty.
Film noir translates to “dark film” and it inspired by both the French New Wave and German Expressionist movements. The Great Depression made times for working Americans very difficult. The noir story arch and underlying themes aligned with the burden felt by most Americans.
Hollywood’s film noir is mostly about a crime and drama story arc, a detective/private eye and a femme fatale character. However, the definition of film noir isn’t based on their context. Other studios use noir techniques in more established genres such as parodies, comedies, and horrors. Yet, the underlying similarities between these genres using noir techniques are their themes and directors’ approach in cinematography.
Italian filmmakers dealt with the aftermath of the war differently from those in the US; their work became what we now call Neorealism. They highlighted actual problems faced by ordinary people after the war.
Read about Italian Neorealism here.
French New Wave in the ’50s and ’60s
New Wave started in the ’50s and ’60s. It broke the conventional film rules (i.e a structured story, fixed dialogue, good editing,…), and often left the audience confused by its lack of structure. Filmmakers used hand-held cameras, a non-linear timeline, improvised acting and minimal editing, making it unlike anything out there at the time.
Read about French New Wave here.
Screens and the Cinema Viewing Experience
Various methods developed from the 1950s to the 1970s in order to enhance the viewing experience. Cinerama arrived in 1952, followed by Cinemascope in 1953 and Omnimax in 1970.
How has cinema changed since then? Check out our exclusive e-book below for the complete cinematic timeline!
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We’ve put together this FREE (printable) timeline about film’s most shining moments, including the Silent Era, the influence of Editing and the rise of Amateur Filmmaking.