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A Few Words About Early Cinema

Updated on July 1, 2016
An advertisement for Edison's Vitascope, which was able to project moving pictures for a large audience.   The Vitascope was originally called the Phantoscope. It was not Edison's invention, but he took credit for it anyway.
An advertisement for Edison's Vitascope, which was able to project moving pictures for a large audience. The Vitascope was originally called the Phantoscope. It was not Edison's invention, but he took credit for it anyway.

Flickering images. Funny, jerky movements. Car chases. Slapstick. Pratfalls. Last-minute rescues. Is this what comes to mind when you think about silent movies? Part of this is true. Part of it is not. Let’s first address the former.

Chaplin, Keaton, The Keystone Cops. Yes, pratfalls, slapstick, last-minute rescues and car chases were part of silent cinema. But aren’t they also elements of modern movies? The fact is, people have found these things to be entertaining for decades. But the body of work in the pre-sound era also included drama, adaptations of classic literature and plays, westerns, historical pieces, adventure, horror, science fiction, fantasy – in truth, all of the genres we know today. Comedy was certainly there too, but didn’t occupy an inordinate number of movie screens.

Now let’s address the matter of jerky movements and flickering images. Stick with me; this is going to get just a wee bit technical. Up until about 1926, there was no standard frame-per-second (fps) rate of filming or projection. Cameras were most often cranked by hand, so for optimal viewing, the film would have to be projected at the same rate the cameraman used when filming. Problem was, every cameraman had his own “rhythm.” Movies could be filmed at a rate as slow as 12 fps, or as fast as 24 fps. The average was 16 fps.

All of this changed around 1926. Why? Because sound film, although still nascent, was about to take over the industry. Previous attempts at “sound film” included a recording played on a separate device and synchronized with the film. But sound film meant just that – the soundtrack was on the film itself. Since the human ear is very sensitive to changes in audio frequency, a change in projection speed would mean a change in the sound as well. Like playing a record at slightly the wrong speed. Now, a movie which was filmed at 14 fps but projected at 18 fps would look odd, but a film with an audio track projected at the wrong speed would sound ridiculous. So an industry standard had to be established. And established it was, at 24 fps. Projectors were made or modified to accommodate this standard.

Okay, so what happens when a movie that was filmed at 16 fps is projected at 24 fps? That’s right – jerky, unnatural movement and flickering images. But for decades afterward, when films from the silent era were screened, they were often just loaded onto a 24fps projector and shown at the wrong speed. Add to that the possibility that the print was a fourth- or fifth-generation copy (or even more), and the experience of viewing a silent film was highly altered from what audiences in the teens and twenties enjoyed. Sadly, because of this inauthentic, bastardized viewing experience, several generations of people developed a completely wrong – and somewhat negative – impression of what it was like to watch movies in the pre-sound era.

It is a singular experience to sit in a theatre and view a silent film at proper projection speed, with all the clarity and subtlety of a print which is as close to the original as possible, and with live music accompanying the performance. This could be a solitary piano, small band or orchestra, or full symphony orchestra. Only this type of viewing experience begins to approach what pre-sound audiences saw, heard, and felt when they went to the cinema for an evening. It is beautiful and magical. Only in this setting can one begin to appreciate the lost art of silent film.

Small Beginnings

In the 1890s, the Wizard of Menlo Park, Thomas Edison, began making movies. He constructed a moving movie “studio” in West Orange, New Jersey nicknamed “The Black Maria.” It had a retractable roof and was built on tracks, enabling it to turn. This was to take advantage of optimum sunlight at any time of the day. The first film made here was deposited at the Library of Congress in August, 1893. It was called Blacksmith scene, and featured three men hammering on an anvil and then stopping to pass a bottle of beer around. It was just 34 seconds long. Edison and his partner, W. K. Dickson, made short films of excerpts of plays and magic shows, vaudeville performances, and boxing matches. Within a short period of time, Edison took the camera outside and began “location” filming of short films that were called “actualities.” These were simple films of slices of day-to-day life and other scenes: street scenes, a train coming into the station, a lifeboat being rowed in, horse races, panoramic views, etc.

These short films were not made to be projected on a screen for an audience – that was yet to come – but were viewed by looking into a machine called a Kinetoscope, also invented by Edison. This was a single-viewer experience. The viewer would bend over, look into a peephole, crank the machine by hand, and view a short film. The first Kinetoscope parlor was opened on the corner of Broadway and 27th Street in New York City in April, 1894. There were ten Kinetoscope machines on the premises, each showing a different film. For 25 cents a patron could watch five films, and fifty cents entitled him to all ten. Parlors soon opened in Chicago and San Francisco, and then started popping up all over the country. This was a curious new form of entertainment, and people flocked to see it. A new industry – making, distributing, and exhibiting films for a fee – had been born.

Within a few short months, however, the Kinetoscope craze was fast losing steam. By the end of 1894, sales of the machines had dropped off, and patronage was down. The new business had got up, sprinted a short distance, but was already tiring out. Something new was needed. What if the moving image could be projected onto a large surface, and the viewing experience shared by many people at the same time?

Early Projection

The Magic Lantern

Projecting images for entertainment can be traced all the way back to the 17th century. A “magic lantern” was a device that used a light source (candle or oil lamp), mirror, lens, and glass slide to project an image onto a surface. Multiple slides were often constructed into a narrative and accompanied the verbal telling of a story. Improvements were made over the decades – better light sources, better lenses, better slides – and by the 1880s there was a magic lantern which could project three separate images and even dissolve from one to another. Some lanterns enabled the operator to pull a long slide of successive images through the gate of the lantern, giving the illusion of movement. Lantern shows were a popular form of entertainment right into the 19th century, and continued on a more limited scale into the 1920s. This was, by all accounts, the direct predecessor to moving pictures. The marriage of film and projection was a foregone conclusion; what was needed was the technology to do so.

The Race to Film Projection

To say that Edison invented motion pictures is simply not true. British photographer Eadwaerd Muybridge invented the Zoopraxiscope as far back as 1879. This device projected images from rotating glass discs, thus giving the illusion of movement. In 1888, several years before Edison, Frenchman Louis-Aimé-Augustin Le Prince shot the first moving pictures on paper film using a single lens camera. That same year he was granted a patent on a combination camera/projector. (His mysterious disappearance two years later meant that the project never came to fruition.) Other inventors with their devices were in the mix as well. But the first successful “movie” projector was invented by brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière. It was called the Cinématographe, and the first public, commercial screening took place in Paris on December 28, 1895. It took place in a basement room, with only about 35 people present.

Other projection devices followed, including the Theatrograph – later renamed the Animatograph – and the Kinematograph. These devices and their inventors were in stiff competition throughout Britain in the first months of 1896. And they all wanted to be the first to show projected moving pictures in America, but that honor went to Edison himself, who, on April 23, 1896 in a music hall in Herald Square, New York City, debuted the Edison Vitascope. Several films were projected, including an umbrella dance, boxing footage, a hand-colored skirt dance, and a scene of the sea at Dover, England. The detail and movement was far beyond anything audiences had seen in magic lantern shows, and they were thrilled and awed beyond description.

Eventually, the Cinématographe made it across the pond and joined the growing competition. This included the Eidoloscope, Kineopticon, and Biograph. Starting in the summer of 1896, these various projection devices were used in vaudeville theatres across the United States.

With the technology – although rudimentary – now in place, the stage was set for one of the most fascinating and lightning-fast evolutions of any industry before or since. The growth and maturation of the motion picture as both an industry and art form took place inside of twenty years. Indeed, within fifteen years after the Lumière brothers’ grand presentation in 1895, the basic language and grammar of cinema had, for all intents and purposes, been established and codified. These aspects of early cinema will be discussed in a future article.

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Early Kinetoscope Films. This is a compilation of early Kinetoscope films, 1894-1896. The Kinetoscope had a relatively short life, and became all but obsolete o


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