Cinema has come a long way since it began in the 1800’s. It didn’t just happen; it developed from other art forms like Literature and Photography. It was inspired by what came before it, and so it is also important to mention its influences.
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.
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. What he produced in 1878 was a series of pictures that made it seem like the horse was in motion when they were 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 is marked as 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.
Once the first Vitaphone film with sound was released in 1927 (The Jazz Singer), everything changed. 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).
German Cinema in the 1920s
At the time, German cinema was producing things no one had ever seen before. Up to now, films were either about everyday life or stories of supernatural places. The Germans did something brand new; they introduced horror films. They 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 can drastically effect how it makes people feel, so they played around with soft and harsh lighting to get their desired effect.
See German Expressionism for more about early German cinema.
Another thing that was mastered in the 1920s was editing, particularly by Sergei Eisenstein. He was one of the first to realise that editing is an equally important part of making a film. He understood that when the sequence is right, good editing can evoke real emotion amongst the audience.
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.
Technicolor was first introduced in 1932. Films shot in Technicolor used a three-strip camera that captured the scene in cyan, magenta and yellow. When the strips are put together it created this great effect.
Film Noir in the 1940s and 1950s
After witnessing the violence and destruction of World War 2, filmmakers in the US began to base films on darker themes. The films released in this time dealt with crime, corruption, greed and cruelty.
See Genre: Film Noir for more about the genre and its contemporary influences.
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.
New Wave in France
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. These films often were done with hand-held cameras, a non-linear timeline, improvised acting and minimal editing, making it unlike anything out there at the time.
Various methods were developed from the 1950s to the 1970s in order to enhance the viewing experience. Cinerama was invented in 1952, followed by Cinemascope in 1953 and Omnimax in 1970.
As technology advanced, computers were being used to create elements that didn’t exist in the real world, allowing for a new kind of film: science fiction.
See Genre: Science Fiction for more about the genre and its contemporary influences.