Cinema, Early Development of, the historical development of the medium known variously as cinema, motion pictures, film, or the movies.
II THE BEGINNING OF CINEMA
As a result of the work of Etienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge, many researchers in the late 19th century realized that films, as they are known today, were a practical possibility, but the first to design a fully successful apparatus was W. K. L. Dickson, working under the direction of Thomas Alva Edison. His fully developed camera, called the Kinetograph, was patented in 1891 and took a series of instantaneous photographs on standard Eastman Kodak photographic emulsion coated on to a transparent celluloid strip 35 mm wide. The results of this work were first shown in public in 1893, using the viewing apparatus also designed by Dickson, and called the Kinetoscope. This was contained within a large box, and only permitted the images to be viewed by one person at a time looking into it through a peephole, after starting the machine by inserting a coin. It was not a commercial success in this form, and left the way free for the Lumière brothers, Louis and Auguste, to perfect their apparatus, the Cinématographe. This was the first successful projector, as well as being the apparatus that took and printed the film beforehand. With their Cinématographe they gave the first show of projected pictures to an audience in Paris in December 1895.
After this date, the Edison company developed its own form of the projector, as did various other inventors. Some of these used different film widths and projection speeds, but after a few years the 35-mm wide Edison film and the 16-frames-per-second projection speed of the Lumière Cinématographe became standard. The other important American competitor was the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company, which used a new camera designed by Dickson after he left the Edison company.
III EARLY CINEMA
The earliest films showed just one scene, which ran for about a minute, which was all that the standard lengths of the film (65 or 80 ft/around 20 or 25 m) produced by Eastman Kodak or other manufacturers allowed. From the beginning, some of these films showed specially staged and acted scenes, such as the Edison Barbershop Scene and the L’Arroseur Arrosé (A Trick on the Gardener) by the Lumières. However, the majority of early films were simple records of real-life scenes or stage acts. Some of these showed different views of related places and actions, and, although sold separately, they were probably joined together in succession by the showmen who bought them and projected them. It seems that the step forward from this, to joining a number of staged scenes together to tell a longer story, was taken in 1898 by the Robert Paul company in Britain with Come Along Do! In this, the action moves from a scene outside an art gallery to a scene inside by means of a cut. However, most of the early multi-shot films were made by Georges Méliès. In his films, well-known stories such as Cinderella (1899) were told in a series of disconnected scenes joined by dissolves (see Special Effects), as was done at the time with slides in a magic-lantern show. Méliès’s long story films with their trick effects were the most commercially successful of all in the first few years of cinema, and they led other film-makers towards producing longer films. However, Méliès’s films made no real contribution to the development of film construction as we know it.
The important figures in doing this were G. A. Smith and James Williamson, working independently in Brighton, East Sussex. Smith invented the basic technique of breaking a filmed scene down into a number of shots taken from different camera positions in his films Grandma’s Reading Glass (1900), As Seen Through a Telescope (1901), and The Little Doctors (1901). The first two of these introduced the view of things looked at through a magnifying glass and a telescope by one of the actors, by taking close shots inside a black circular mask. The Little Doctors used a close shot of a kitten being fed medicine that was cut into the middle of the shot showing the whole scene and constitutes the first such use of a “close-up” cut into a scene. By 1903 Smith was making a conscious effort to get some sort of continuity matching in the actor’s position across the cut. Smith then gave up ordinary film-making in 1903 to produce a system of colour cinematography called Kinemacolor that was quite successful up to World War I.
James Williamson developed the movement of action through a series of shots taken in various locations in his films Attack on a Chinese Mission Station, Stop Thief!, and Fire!, all made in 1901. In these films the leading character was shown running out of one shot, then there would be a cut to another scene set somewhere else, and the character would then run into the frame to continue the story. Méliès also used a similar technique on one occasion in the same year, but in this case, the shots were joined with a dissolve rather than a cut.
Other film-makers in Britain took up these techniques in 1903 and developed longer films by having characters pursued through more and more different scenes. These were referred to as chase films. Afterward, other less inventive filmmakers in France and the United States such as Edwin S. Porter copied these techniques in various films, such as The Great Train Robbery. In France, Charles Pathé built a large company by plowing back his profits to raise the production values of his films, and the film-makers he employed, led by Ferdinand Zecca, added extra polish to the continuity devices developed by the British. By building more studios and setting up multiple production teams, Pathé produced more films than any other firm in the world. A form of comedy unique to film began to develop, particularly at Pathé, by combining theatrical slapstick with the chase film.
IV THE NICKELODEON BOOM
In the early period, prints of films were sold outright by length, at so much per foot, through specialist film sales organizations to the showmen who exhibited them as items on a variety bill, or who traveled the countryside showing them intent theatres. There were no permanent theatres dedicated solely to showing films. This changed in 1905 because by that time there were enough films that were several minutes long to provide the programming for cinemas running full time. Beginning in the United States with the original Nickelodeon in Pittsburgh, there followed a worldwide boom in film exhibition and production. Up to this time the only countries to have a film industry were France, Britain, and the United States, but now film-makers went into regular production in Italy and Denmark, followed fairly closely by Germany, Sweden, and Russia.
In the United States, other film-making companies had been set up to compete with the Edison and Biograph companies, and the most important of these was Vitagraph. This company was modeled on Pathé, and as soon as Albert Edward Smith and James Stuart Blackton had established it with the films they directed themselves, it too moved over to a multiple-production unit structure with specialized departments for scripting, set construction, wardrobe, and so on. Smith and Blackton were responsible, along with the Pathé film-makers, for speeding up film narration and introducing the beginning of the technique of cross-cutting between scenes of parallel action.
As the number of nickelodeons in the United States increased into the thousands by 1908, the standard pattern of exhibition became the one-hour show costing 10 cents, made up of several films one reel long. A reel of film was towards 300 m (1,000 ft) long and ran for between 10 and 15 minutes.
V THE MOTION PICTURE PATENTS COMPANY
Almost since the beginning of cinema, there had been litigation between the American companies over the basic patents for camera and projector mechanisms, and this was finally resolved in the formation in 1908 of a trust called the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), which was intended to control totally the now immensely profitable film business. The models for this were the oil, steel, and railway trusts set up at the end of the 19th century in the United States. However, the members of the MPPC were unable to supply sufficient films to fulfill the demand, and new independent production and distribution companies were set up that had about half of the film business by 1912. At this point, the American government took legal action against the MPPC, which had really only succeeded in its aims for two years.
VI FILM ART
At the beginning of the nickelodeon period, various authors began to write about the cinema as a new art form, rather than as an interesting technical novelty. In France, in 1908, a new company called Film d’Art began production with L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise (The Assassination of the Duc de Guise), under a programme using artistically recognized writers, musicians, and actors, with a special theory about how films should be acted. This impressed film-makers even in the United States and eventually led to the creation by the film industry of a special category of films called art films. (This description is still used today for films of higher artistic intent, made on lower budgets for the minority audience that will appreciate them.) In the nickelodeon period, films from Italy, as well as France, showed an influence from the middlebrow or Salon Art of the time, particularly in set design and staging.
VII THE ONE-REEL FILM
As part of its expansion, the Biograph company engaged an actor and playwright called D. W. Griffith to direct its films. Griffith was the first film-maker to appreciate fully and apply the existing techniques of film construction to dramatic storytelling. In particular, he used and invented acting gesture in a powerful way, and he also got more shots into a given length of the film than others, both by moving his actors from space to space and also by developing the technique of cross-cutting between parallel actions into a powerful motor for screen drama. For a couple of years, he directed all Biograph films, a total of 30 minutes of finished film per week. Eventually, some of his actors shared some of the directing load, including Mack Sennett, who took over the comedies at Biograph. The other major American film companies followed behind Griffith with respect to the increase in the number of shots in films, but an increase in camera closeness to the actor developed simultaneously in films from Biograph and Vitagraph. The latter company also made a conscious attempt at greater realism in its films, including the acting, and pushed this rather further than Griffith. However, Griffith was the leader in using changes in the closeness of the camera to emphasize the drama at appropriate points, and also in employing changes in the speed of cutting the film for the same purpose.
In 1907 the Selig company of Chicago moved some of its production to California, and it was gradually followed by most of the others, who appreciated the advantages of the new locations and the long hours of bright sunlight there.
It was in Westerns shot in California in 1912 that some of the final major developments in film construction took place. One of these was the use of reverse-angle shots, that is, shots were taken in the opposite direction to the preceding shot. Although this sort of shot had appeared before on rare occasions, it was not used as a standard method. Shooting a continuous scene with reverse-angle shots has a number of advantages, including presenting the actor’s facial expressions more forcefully, enabling smoother continuity as actors move about the set, and drawing the audience of the film more fully into the action.
Another development allied with this was the use of point-of-view (POV) shots, which meant taking a shot within a scene from the position of one of the actors seen in the preceding (or following) shot. Although point-of-view shots, with a black mask around them simulating the view through an optical instrument or a keyhole, had been used when appropriate since the beginning of the century, the idea of showing what a character in a film sees in an ordinary shot without masking had never been standard practice until this time. POV shots may also be reverse-angle shots and vice versa, but not necessarily so. A number of little-known filmmakers developed these new techniques, but it is certain that D. W. Griffith was not responsible, and in fact, he never really used POV shots after they were developed by others. The acting in scenes within D. W. Griffith’s films continued to be organized towards the front, following the theatrical manner.
As American filmmakers cut their films up into more and more shots, they had to improve the continuity between these shots. The idea of cutting on action was refined, and the use of reverse-angle shots helped as well. Also, as American films were shot closer and closer to the actors, the acting in them became even more naturalistic and less restrained. The final feature of standard silent cinema was the increasing use of inter-titles, which represented what the actors were saying within the film scene. By 1914 these dialogue titles were being cut into the film at the instant the actors spoke the words, and so the effect was essentially the same as a stage play. Using all these devices, American films brought the audience right up and into the action, and by also leaving out the boring sections with their faster cutting, they proved irresistible to audiences worldwide. By the end of 1914, American films took first place at the box office in Europe and were taking over from the previously dominant French cinema even in France. The onset of World War I only clinched the inevitable world domination of American cinema.
VIII FILM COMEDY
The Griffith style of filming was applied to comedy by Mack Sennett and combined with the French comedy approach to producing something purely American. The comedy effect was intensified by speeding up the action at the climaxes by turning the camera at a slower rate when the shots were filmed (undercranking). In Europe, the most popular comics had been music-hall clowns such as Boireau (André Deed), also known as Cretinetti and Foolshead, but from 1909 comedians who created a developed character in a more naturalistic style had begun to appear, led by Max Linder. Charlie Chaplin followed the approach of Max Linder within a Sennett-type framework.
IX THE FEATURE FILM
The new developments described above were limited to the United States before World War I, but European film-makers led the way towards longer films lasting several reels. The most notable of these were the Italian films dealing with subjects from Greek and Roman antiquity, such as La Caduta di Troia (1910; The Fall of Troy), and Cabiria (1914), both made by Giovanni Pastrone.
In French and Scandinavian cinema there were also long films made on modern subjects, and although the American system of film exhibition discouraged it, film-makers there joined in a year or two later. This only really began in 1913, with films such as the sensational Traffic in Souls, dealing with the entrapment of girls into prostitution in New York.
As films several reels long became common in the United States, scriptwriting became more important, and here the tradition of the well-made play, as refined in the American theatre from European models, was taken over into the cinema. A basic feature of the well-made play was a well-developed causality in the plot, which ideally had two simultaneous tasks for the hero—to overcome a challenge and to get the girl as well. Also, the script should alternate action, comedy, drama, and romance from scene to scene throughout the screenplay, and indeed even within the individual scenes if possible. These features were well understood by the people that had come from the theatre, such as D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and Mary Pickford. One of Griffith’s first attempts at a real feature-length film was The Avenging Conscience (1914), which developed the use of Symbolism in the film, and made use of giant close-ups of objects to convey the thoughts and emotions of the characters.
Film-makers in many countries took up these ideas, and the war years produced many films that utilized Symbolism, allegories, and parables. As part of this first explosion of interest in the possibilities of a truly film art, other technical devices were developed by American film-makers. One of these was the flashback, in the sense of an episode from the past inserted into the middle of a film when one of the characters remembers it. Around 1914 American film-makers tried out multiple flashbacks and even flashbacks inside flashbacks. Moving the camera about while filming (the tracking shot) also became popular for a few years from 1914. Although first developed in the United States, the tracking shot was particularly associated with the Italian epic Cabiria.
After his The Birth of a Nation proved an immense commercial success in 1915, Griffith used the profits to construct a grandiose four-hour film around the subject of Intolerance (1916), with four different stories told simultaneously by cross-cutting between them. There was also cross-cutting between different strands of action of the four stories themselves so that in the latter part of the film there are long strings of shots that have no immediate connection with one another. This proved too much for the general public, as did other similar films, and after this American cinema retreated to a more straightforward form of story presentation.
During the years from 1915 to 1925, the final polish was put on all the features of standard film construction by the brighter young directors who had come into the industry such as Frank Borzage and Marshall Neilan, and some of the older directors such as DeMille picked up these techniques as well. Others who could not drop out of the business. By the late 1920s the basic techniques of film construction, as the standard method of telling dramatic stories, were complete, and they came to be used everywhere, right up to the present. This is often referred to as “classical cinema”.
X EUROPE AFTER WORLD WAR I
During World War I the film industries in the various European countries were badly damaged by the war effort’s demand for manpower and materials, and also by the loss of markets. This was particularly true in Danish and Russian cinema, but all the other countries except Italy were also affected. Italian producers took advantage of their privileged position to make more and more grandiose films, and much effort was expended on a peculiar genre of diva films. In these dramas of unhappy love, the female star suffered and struck endless anguished Art Nouveau poses surrounded by male admirers and luxury. Because the Italians had at that time still not adopted the new American style of film construction, their films were unsaleable in the major markets, and their industry was ruined. Production in Italy fell away to a few dozen films by 1925, and Italian cinema did not recover until the sound period. Towards the end of the war, new talents and ideas found their way into German cinema and French cinema.
See also African Cinema; Art Cinema; Australian Cinema; Chinese Cinema; Eastern European Cinema; Indian Cinema; Irish Cinema; Japanese Cinema; Latin American Cinema; Neo-Realism; New Zealand Cinema; Spanish Cinema.