Sunday, December 03, 2006

Early developments in technique, form and business
Paris stage magician Georges Méliès began shooting and exhibiting films in 1896. His stock-in-trade became films of fantasy and the bizarre, including A Trip to the Moon (1902), possibly the first movie to portray space travel. He pioneered many of the fundamental special effects techniques used in movies for most of the twentieth century, demonstrating the revolutionary point that film had unprecedented power to bend visible reality rather than just faithfully recording it (Cook, 1990). He also led the way in making multi-scene narratives as long as fifteen minutes.

Edwin S. Porter, Edison's leading director in these years, pushed forward the sophistication of film editing in works like Life of an American Fireman and the first movie Western, The Great Train Robbery (both 1903). Porter arguably discovered that the basic unit of structure in a film is the shot, rather than the scene (the basic unit of structure in a play).

These developments helped establish the medium as more than a passing fad and encouraged the boom in nickelodeons, the first permanent movie theaters. There were 10,000 in the U.S. alone by 1908 (Cook, 1990). The previously anarchic industry increasingly became big business, which encouraged consolidation. The French Pathé Frères company achieved a dominant position worldwide through methods like control of key patents and ownership of theaters. In the U.S., Edison led the creation of the Motion Picture Patents Company, which achieved a brief, virtual monopoly there, using not just aggressive business tactics but sometimes violent intimidation against independent competitors (Parkinson, 1995).
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The Silent Era

Inventors and producers had tried from the very beginnings of moving pictures to marry the image with synchronous sound, but no practical method was devised until the late 1920s. Thus, for the first thirty years of their history, movies were more or less silent, although accompanied by live musicians and sometimes sound effects, and with dialogue and narration presented in intertitles.

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The Birth of Film

W.K. Laurie Dickson, a researcher at the Edison Laboratories, is credited with the invention of a practicable form of celluloid strip containing a sequence of images, the basis of a method of photographing and projecting moving images. In 1894, Thomas Edison introduced to the public two pioneering inventions based on this innovation: the Kinetograph, the first practical moving picture camera, and the Kinetoscope. The latter was a cabinet in which a continuous loop of Dickson's celluloid film (powered by an electric motor) was projected by a lamp and lens onto a glass. The spectator viewed the image through an eye piece. Kinetoscope parlours were supplied with fifty-foot film snippets shot by Dickson, in Edison's "Black Maria" studio. These sequences recorded mundane events (such as Fred Ott's Sneeze, 1894) as well as entertainment acts like acrobats, music hall performers and boxing demonstrations.

Kinetescope parlors soon spread successfully to Europe. Edison, however, never moved to patent these instruments on the other side of the Atlantic, since they relied so heavily on previous experiments and innovations from Britain and Europe. This left the field open for imitations, such as the camera devised by British electrician and scientific instrument maker Robert W. Paul and his partner Birt Acres.

Paul hit upon the idea of displaying moving pictures for group audiences, rather than just to individual viewers, and invented a film projector, giving his first public showing in 1895. At about the same time, in France, Auguste and Louis Lumière invented the cinematograph, a portable, three-in-one camera, developer/printer, and projector. In late 1895 in Paris, the brothers began exhibitions of projected films before the paying public, sparking the wholesale move of the medium to projection (Cook, 1990). They quickly became Europe's leading producers with their actualités like Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory and comic vignettes like The Sprinkler Sprinkled (both 1895). Even Edison, initially dismissive of projection, joined the trend with the Vitascope within less than six months.

The movies of the time were seen mostly via temporary storefront spaces and traveling exhibitors or as acts in vaudeville programs. A film could be under a minute long and would usually present a single scene, authentic or staged, of everyday life, a public event, a sporting event or slapstick. There was little to no cinematic technique: no editing and usually no camera movement, and flat, stagey compositions. But the novelty of realistically moving photographs was enough for a motion picture industry to mushroom before the end of the century, in countries around the world.
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