motion pictures: Origins

Experiments in photographing movement had been made in both the United States and Europe during the latter half of the 19th cent. with, at first, no exploitation of its technical and commercial possibilities. Serial photographs of racehorses, intended to prove that all four hooves do leave the ground simultaneously, were obtained (c.1867) in California by Eadweard Muybridge and J. D. Isaacs by setting up a row of cameras with shutters tripped by wires. The first motion pictures made with a single camera were by E. J. Marey, a French physician, in the 1880s, in the course of his study of motion.

In 1889 Thomas Edison and his staff developed the kinetograph, a camera using rolls of coated celluloid film, and the Kinetoscope, a device for peep-show viewing using photographs that flipped in sequence. Marketed in 1893, the Kinetoscope gained popularity in penny arcades, and experimentation turned to ways in which moving images might be shown to more than one person at a time. In France the Lumière brothers created the first projection device, the Cinématographe (1895). In the United States, similar machines, notably the Pantopticon and the Vitascope, were developed and first used in New York City in 1896.

At first the screenings formed part of vaudeville shows and arcades, but in 1902 a Los Angeles shop that showed only moving pictures had great success; soon movie houses (converted shoprooms) sprang up all over the country. The first movie theater, complete with luxurious accessories and a piano, was built in Pittsburgh in 1905. A nickel was charged for admission, and the theater was called the nickelodeon. An industry developed to produce new material and the medium's potential for expressive ends began to assert itself.

The earliest films were used primarily to chronicle contemporary attitudes, fashions, and events, and ran no longer than 10 minutes. At first, simple actions were filmed, then everyday scenes and, pivotally, gag films, in which a practical joke is staged as a simple tableau. The camera was first used in a fixed position, though soon it was pivoted, or panned, on its tripod or moved toward or away from a subject.

The medium's potential as a storytelling mechanism was realized very early in its history. The Frenchman George Méliès created the earliest special effects and built elaborate sets specifically to tell stories of a fantastic nature, usually as a series of tableaux. His Cinderella (1900) and A Trip to the Moon (1902) were major innovative accomplishments. The American Edwin S. Porter demonstrated that action need not be staged for cinema screen as for theater and early realized that scenes photographed in widely separate locales could be cut, or edited, together yet still not be confusing to the audience. His subject matter tended toward depictions of modern life; his Life of an American Fireman (1902) and The Great Train Robbery (1903) are among the first works to use editing as well as acting and stagecraft to tell their stories.

As business increased, the demand for product was met by many new companies incorporated to create the supply. Cooperation among the early filmmakers yielded to the demands of the marketplace, and each company tried to secure continued success through innovations meant to distinguish its product. Out of these efforts developed the star system, the establishment of physical plants (studios) where the films would be made, and the organization of the filmmaking process into interlocking crafts. The crafts people include actors, producers, cinematographers, writers, editors, and film laboratory technicians who work interdependently in a production effort overseen and coordinated by the director.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Film and Television