Film History: Early Developments

Precedents to contemporary film include related projection and viewing devices such as:

The Camera Obscura: described by the arabic scholar lbn al Haiytham ca. 1000 AD as a projection formed in a completely darkened room through a small opening in one of the walls. The image produced by the camera obscura is always an inverse projection.

Shadowplay in China spreads to Asia ca. 1100

Camera Obscura is introduced to Europe ca. 1500

The magic lantern: an ancient device which used candle light to project and magnify small translucent paintings onto a screen. The illusion of movement was created by having a row of similar slides move back and forth across the lens.

Photography: in 1826 Joseph Niepce develops the first photograph. In 1839 Louis Jacques Daguerre patents the Daguerreotype which is a more permanent, fixed image.

The Stroboscope: a disc, where the illusion of motion is created when a sequence of similar or phased images are viewed through equally spaced slits along the outer edges of a spinning disc. Developed by Simon Stamfer and Joseph Plateau in 1833.

Zoetrope: a spinning cylinder with phased picture strips on the inside of the drum are viewed through equally spaced slits from the outside of the drum creating stroboscopic effect to achieve the illusion of motion.

Emil Reynaud successfully projects cartoon shorts onto a screen in 1888 using transparent filmstrips with perforated edges which allowed the film to be spooled onto another reel. The images were painted in a phase sequence directly onto the film which was lit by a magic lantern. Reynaud's, Optical Theatre, introduced some essentials of cell animation and of projection cinema.

In the 1870's Eadward Muybridge develops a method of sequential photography to study subjects in motion through the use of up to 100 cameras set off by trigger wires.

Thomas Edison perfects the use of perforated celluloid tape to achieve the illusion of motion in his Kinetoscope. The Kinetoscope Introduces the optimum 35rnrn width and the four perforations per frame measures which continue to be used today. The Kinetoscope is patented in 1891. 

Max and Emil Skladanowsky develop the Bioscope in 1885, a bulky double projector which alternates rapidly between two images to produce a stroboscopic effect. The Skladanowsky’s Bioscope, is the first development to approximate the motion picture effects of early film. Based on a dual lens system during which the illusion of movement was created by quickly alternations between one projection and another, the technology of the Bioscope was too cumbersome to establish itself. 

The development of the Cinematographe by Louis and Auguste Lumiere in 1895, is recognised as the first practical projection system for film. This was a “stop-frame” system which exposed each frame for 1/16th of a second. This negative was then placed directly over an unexposed film and both were run through the exposure sequence again to create the positive print. On December 8th 1895, the Lumiere brothers hold the first public showing of the Cinematographe films at the Grand Cafe, Boulvard des Capucines, Paris. 

1900: early attempts at color and sound film systems are demonstrated at the Paris Exposition. 

1901: First transatlantic wireless transmissions by Marconi from England to Newfoundland. 

1913: Italian directors, Guazzoni, "Quo Vadis" and Pastrone, "Calibria" confirm that there is a market for full length feature films. 

1915: David W. Griffith, inspired by the success of his Italian counterparts, creates,  “The Birth of A Nation" which signals the beginning of a new era in creative filmmaking. Griffiths" style incorporates a much wider range of camera shots, camera angles, scenic compositions etc. in combination with more refined editing principles to achieve a faster paced, but blended sense of narrative continuity. 

1916: Griffiths', "Intolerance", a three and one half hour episodal epic, is the most ambitious project of this era. 

1919: Robert Wiene's, "Dr. Caligari", is the first Expressionist film and influences later genres such as Film Noir and the horror film. 

1920: American film domination of the global market begins and attracts many European filmmakers to Hollywood. 

1921: Murnau's, "Nosferatu" establishes the vampire film genre. 

1922: Robert Flaherty's, "Nanook of the North" becomes the model for viable the feature-length documentary film form.

1923: Stroheim’s. “Greed”, is the forerunner of modern Realist film. 

1925: Sergei Eisenstein's, "Battleship Potemkin" introduces the notion of montage as a way of creating new ideas within the narrative of the film, as opposed to supporting a linear approach. Hence, for Eisenstein, montage is viewed as collision rather than linkage. Actors were selected more as "types" rather than on acting ability. 

1927: the introduction of sound in film in Warner Brothers' production of, "The Jazz Singer” 

1928: Louis Bunuel and Salvador Dali's masterpiece avant-garde film, "Un Chien Andalou", is released. Wait Disney's, "Steamboat Willie", is introduced to the screen for the first time. 

1929.. The concept of "voluntary censorship" is accepted by the American film industry. The list includes 11 acts which are banned and 25 cautionary points.


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