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The Pre-History of Motion Pictures

Digital History TOPIC ID 121

For centuries, people wrestled with the problem of realistically reproducing moving images. A discovery by Ptolemy in the second century provided the first step. He noticed that there is a slight imperfection in human perception: The retina retains an image for a fraction of a second after the image has changed or disappeared. Because of this phenomenon, known as the "persistence of vision," a person would merge a rapid succession of individual images into the illusion of continuous motion.

The first successful efforts to project lifelike images on a screen took place in the mid-seventeenth century. By 1659, a Dutch scientist named Christiaen Huygens had invented the magic lantern, the forerunner of the modern slide projector, which he used to project medical drawings before an audience. A magic lantern used sunlight (or another light source) to illuminate a hand-painted glass transparency and project it through a simple lens. In the 1790s, the Belgian Etienne Gaspar Robert terrified audiences with phantasmagoric exhibitions, which used magic lanterns to project images of phantoms and apparitions of the dead. By the mid-nineteenth century, illustrated lectures and dramatic readings had become common. To create the illusion of motion, magic lantern operators used multiple lanterns and mirrors to move the image.

The first true moving images appeared in the 1820s, when the concept of the persistence of vision was used to create children's toys and other simple entertainments. The thaumatrope, which appeared in 1826, was a simple disk with separate images printed on each side (for example, a bird on one side and a cage on another). When rapidly spun, the images appeared to blend together (so that the bird seemed to be inside the cage). In 1834, an Austrian military officer, Baron Franz von Uchatius, developed a more sophisticated device called the "Phenakistiscope." It consisted of a disk, with a series of slots along its edge, which was printed with a series of slightly differing pictures. When the disk was spun in front of a mirror and the viewer looked through the slots, the pictures appeared to move. A simpler way to display movement was the flip book, which became popular by the late 1860s. Each page showed a subject in a subtly different position. When a reader flipped the book's pages, the pictures gave the illusion of movement.

These early devices were not very satisfactory. The slides used in early magic lanterns had to be painted by hand. The pictures displayed by the Phenakistoscope or flip books could not be viewed by more than one person at a time. The solution to these problems lay in photography. In 1826, a French inventor named Joseph Nicephore Niepce made the first true photograph. He placed a camera obscura (a box with a tiny opening on one side that admitted light) at his window and exposed a metal plate coated with light-sensitive chemicals for eight hours. During the 1830s, another French inventor, Louis Daguerre, improved Niepce's technique and created the daguerreotype, the first popular form of photography.

Unfortunately, the daguerreotype was not very useful to the inventors who wanted to produce motion pictures. The process used expensive copper plates coated with silver and required a subject to remain motionless for 15 to 30 seconds. During the mid-nineteenth century, however, two key technical advances radically improved the photographic process. The first was the replacement of copper plates with less expensive glass plates, light-sensitive paper, and, in 1880, flexible film. The second advance involved the development of new film coatings which significantly reduced exposure time and gave photographers greater mobility. By the late 1870s, the introduction of "dry-process plates" using gelatin emulsion reduced exposure time to just 1/25th of a second and freed photographers from having to immediately process their prints.

Animated Gif of Muybridge's horse.The first successful photographs of motion grew out of a California railroad tycoon's $25,000 bet. In 1872, California Governor Leland Stanford hired a photographer named Eadweard Muybridge to help settle a bet. An avid horse breeder, Stanford had wagered that a galloping horse lifts all four hoofs off the ground simultaneously. In 1878, the English-born photographer lined up 24 cameras along the edge of a race track, with strings attached to the shutters. When the horse ran by, it tripped the shutters, producing 24 closely spaced pictures that proved Stanford's contention.

Four years later, a French physiologist, Etienne-Jules Marey, became the first person to take pictures of motion with a single camera. Marey built his camera in the shape of a rifle. At the end of the barrel, he placed a circular photographic plate. A small motor rotated the plate after Marey snapped the shutter. With his camera, Marey could take twelve picture a second.

In 1887, Thomas Edison gave William K.L. Dickson, one of his leading inventors, the task of developing a motion picture apparatus. Edison envisioned a machine "that should do for the eye what the phonograph did for the ear." Dickson initially modeled his device on Edison's phonograph, placing tiny pictures on a revolving drum. A light inside the drum was supposed to illuminate the pictures. Then he decided to use the flexible celluloid film that George Eastman had invented in 1880 and had begun to use in his Kodak camera. Dickson added perforations to the edge of the film strip to help it feed evenly into his camera.

To display their films, Dickson and Edison devised a coin-operated peepshow device called a "kinetoscope." Because the kinetoscope could only hold fifty feet of film, its films lasted just 35 to 40 seconds. This was too brief to tell a story; the first kinetoscope films were simply scenes of everyday life, like the first film "Fred Ott's Sneeze," reenactments of historical events, photographed bits of vaudeville routines, and pictures of well-known celebrities. Nevertheless, the kinetoscope was an instant success. By 1894, coin-operated kinetoscopes had begun to appear in hotels, department stores, saloons, and amusement arcades called nickelodeons.

Eager to maximize his profits, Edison showed no interest in building a movie projector. "If we make this screen machine," he argued, "...it will spoil everything." As a result, Edison's competitors would take the lead in developing screen projection.

In devising a practical movie projector, inventors faced a serious technical problem: the projector had to be capable of stopping a frame momentarily, so that the image could be clearly fixed in the viewer's retina, and then advance the film quickly between frames. Two French brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumiere, were the first to solve this problem. They borrowed the design of their stop-action device from the sewing machine, which holds the material still during stitching before advancing it forward. In 1894, the Lumiere brothers introduced the portable motion picture camera and projector.

Finally recognizing the potential of the motion picture projector, Edison entered into an agreement with a Washington, D.C. realtor, Thomas Armat, who had designed a workable projector. In April, 1896, the two men unveiled the Vitascope and presented the first motion pictures on a public screen in the United States.

Competition in the early movie industry was fierce. To force their competitors out of the industry, moviemakers turned to the courts, launching over two hundred patent infringement suits. To protect their profits and bring order to the industry, Edison and a number of his competitors decided to cooperate by establishing the Motion Picture Patents Company in 1909, consisting of six American companies and two French firms. Members of the trust agreed that only they had the right to make, print, or distribute cameras, projectors, or films. The trust also negotiated an exclusive agreement with Eastman Kodak for commercial quality film stock.

Led by Carl Laemmle, later the founder of Universal Pictures, independent distributors and exhibitors filed a restraint of trade lawsuit under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. A court ruled in the independents' behalf in 1915 and the decision was affirmed by a higher court in 1918.

Yet even before the courts ruled in their favor, the independents broke the power of the trust in the marketplace. The trust viewed movies, in the famous words of director Erich von Stroheim, as so many sausages to be ground out as quickly as possible and rented at ten cents a foot. But the independent moviemakers succeeded in defeating the trust with two potent weapons: the introduction of longer films that told complex stories and the emergence of the star system.

During film's first decade from 1896 to 1905 movies were little more than a novelty, often used as a "chaser" to signal the end of a show in a vaudeville theater. These early films are utterly unlike anything seen today. They lasted just seven to ten minutes -too brief to tell anything more than the simplest story. They used a cast of anonymous actors for the simple reason that the camera was set back so far that it was impossible to clearly make out the actors' faces. As late as 1908, a movie actor made no more than $8 a day and received no credit on the screen.

In 1905, hundreds of little movie theaters opened, called nickelodeons, since they sold admission nickel by nickel. By 1908, there were an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 nickelodeons. Contrary to popular belief, the nickelodeon's audience was not confined to the poor, the young, or the immigrant. From the start, theaters were situated in rural areas and middle class neighborhoods as well as working-class neighborhoods. Nevertheless, the movies attracted audiences of an unprecedented size, as a result of their low admission prices, "democratic" seating arrangements, convenient time schedules (films were shown again and again), and lack of spoken dialogue, which allowed non- English speaking immigrants to enjoy films.

By 1907, narrative films had begun to increase in number. But most films still emphasized stunts and chases and real life events-like scenes of yacht races or train crashes--and were rented or sold by the foot regardless of subject matter. Exhibitors were expected to assemble scenes together to form a larger show.

The formation of the movie trust ushered in a period of rationalization within the film industry. Camera and projecting equipment was standardized; film rental fees were fixed; theaters were upgraded; and the practice of selling films outright ended, which improved the quality of movies by removing damaged prints from circulation. This was also a period intense artistic and technical innovation, as pioneering directors like David Wark Griffith and others created a new language of film and revolutionized screen narrative.

With just six months of film experience, Griffith, a former stage actor, was hired as a director by the Biograph Company and promised $50 a week and one-twentieth of a cent for every foot of film sold to a rental exchange. Each week, Griffith turned out two or three one-reelers. While earlier directors had used such cinematic devices as close ups, slow motion, fade-ins and fade-outs, lighting effects, and editing before, Griffith's great contribution to the movie industry was to show how these techniques could be used to create a wholly new style of storytelling, distinct from the theater.

Griffith's approach to movie storytelling has been aptly called "photographic realism. "This is not to say that he merely wished to record a story accurately; rather he sought to convey the illusion of realism. He used editing to convey simultaneous events or the passage of time. He demanded that his performers act less in a more lifelike manner, avoiding the broad, exaggerated gestures and pantomiming of emotions that characterized the nineteenth century stage. He wanted his performers to take on a role rather than directly addressing the camera. Above all, he used close-ups, lighting, editing, and framing and other cinematic techniques convey suspense and other emotions and to focus the audience's attention on individual performers.

By focusing the camera on particular actors and actresses, Griffith inadvertently encouraged the development of the star system. As early as 1910, newspapers were deluged with requests for actors' names. But most studios refused to divulge their identities, fearing the salary demands of popular performers. But the film trust's leading opponent, Carl Laemmle, was convinced that the key to the financial stability lay in producing films featuring popular stars. As one industry observer put it, "In the 'star' your producer gets not only a 'production' value...but a 'trademark' value, and an 'insurance' value which are...very potent in guaranteeing the sale of this product." In 1910, Laemmle produced the first star; he lured Florence Lawrence, the most popular anonymous star, away from Biograph, and launched an unprecedented publicity campaign on her behalf. As the star system emerged, salaries soared. In the course of just two years, the salary of actress Mary Pickford rose from less than $400 a week in 1914 to $10,000 a week in 1916.

Meanwhile, an influx of feature-length films from Europe, which attracted premium admission prices, led a New York nickelodeon owner named Adolph Zukor to produce four and five reel films featuring readily identifiable stars. By 1916, Zukor had taken control of Paramount Pictures, a movie distributor, and had instituted the practice of "block-booking" requiring theaters to book a number of films rather than just a single film. Within a few years, Zukor's company had achieved vertical integration - not only producing films, but distributing them and owning the theaters that exhibited them.

During the second decade of the twentieth century, immigrants like Laemmle and Zukor came to dominate the movie business. Unlike Edison and the other American-born, Protestant businessmen who had controlled the early film industry, these immigrant entrepreneurs had a better sense of what the public wanted to see. Virtually all of these new producers emigrated to the United States from central Europe and were Jewish. Not part of the Victorian ethos that still held sway in "respectable" Protestant America, they proved better able to exploit ribald humor and sex in their films. Less conservative than the American-born producers, they were more willing to experiment with such innovations as the star system and feature-length productions. Since many had come to the film industry from the garment and fur trades where fashions change rapidly and the successful businessman is one who stays constantly in touch with the latest styles, they tried to give the public what it wanted.As Samuel Goldwyn, one of the leading moguls, noted, "If the audience don't like a picture, they have a good reason. The public is never wrong. I don't go for all this thing that when I have a failure, it is because the audience doesn't have the taste or education, or isn't sensitive enough. The public pays money. It wants to be entertained. That's all I know." With this philosophy the outsiders wrestled control over the industry away from the American-born producers.

During the 1920s and 1930s, a small group of film companies consolidated their control. Known as the "Big Five" - Paramount, Warner Brothers, RKO, 20th Century-Fox, and Lowe's (MGM) and the "Little Three" - Universal, Columbia, and United Artists, they formed fully integrated companies. With the exception of United Artists, which was solely a distribution company, the "majors" owned their own production facilities, ran their own worldwide distribution networks, and controlled theater chains that were committed to showing the company's products. And at the head of each major studio was a powerful mogul such giants as Adolph Zukor, Wiliam Fox, Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, Carl Laemmle, Harry Cohn, Joseph Schenck, and the Warner Brothers who determined what the public was going to see. It was their vision - patriotic, sentimental, secular, and generally politically conservative which millions of Americans shared weekly at local movie theaters. And as expressed by such producers as Irving Thalberg, Darryl F. Zanuck, and Daivd O. Selznick, it was a powerful vision indeed.

Copyright Digital History 2014