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A Short History of Film

Updated on October 30, 2015

You could be someone who loves gushing over romantic comedies or crying over heavy drama. You could probably feel the adrenaline rush that comes with action films or the sudden increase of heart rate that horror flicks usually cause. Regardless of your preferences, it is undoubtedly true that no one can resist a good movie. So just imagine what life was like when this form of entertainment was not yet available. And considering how one new movie often outdoes the last, it is also amazing how movies have evolved into what it is today.

The Kinetoscope

If you enjoy watching movies with friends and loved ones, just imagine how it was over a century ago. One of the earliest devices that showed motion pictures—the kinetoscope—allows one person at a time to view films through a peephole. Although it was not exactly a movie projector, it is actually one of the predecessors of cinematic projection. Although some of the credit is sometimes given to Thomas Edison, it was actually one of his employees, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, who developed the concept. It was first demonstrated to the public in 1893 at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, immediately creating a stir both in the US and in Europe. One of the best decisions that Edison made was not to apply for a patent as this paved the way for other inventors to copy and improve on the technology that they introduced.

Similar to the kinetoscope are the kinetograph, a motion picture camera that was used mainly for in house experiments and the kinetophone, which was joined to the kinetoscope through the use of a cylinder phonograph. These were also developed by Edison’s team.

The Film Projector

Banking on the inspiration set by the inventions of Edison’s team, a number of British and European inventors found their own ways of improving the new technology. A scientific instrument maker and electrician from Britain named Robert William Paul thought about how great it would be to have a group of people enjoy the same film all at the same time, as opposed to having people view it one at a time. He then created his own film projector, trying it out in front of the public in 1895.

In France, brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere also invented a similar device which they called the cinematograph. The cinematograph was a portable device that combined the abilities of a camera, a printer, and a projector. They produced their first film together and showed it to the public in 1894. Eventually, they became major producers of film in Europe, with their films being exhibited using a large screen.

Other similar inventions were already sprouting from different areas in Europe and the US at the time, having features that are different from one another but all aiming for one basic thing: to show films. Berlin had the Bioscop as developed by Emil and Max Skladanowsky, while the US saw the birth of the Eidoloscope which was created by Woodville Latham.

The Silent Era

When films were being shown and devices to do so were being continuously improved and developed, the question of sound came into the picture. Both producers and inventors wanted to incorporate sounds with the imagery they produced but could not figure out how to synchronize them. Because of this, films were usually shown without sound, hence the term “The Silent Era” in the history of film. In place of spoken dialogue, title cards and muted gestures were used to give a clearer picture of what is going onscreen.

It was not until the late ’20s that the Vitaphone system was created and used for film. Warner Brothers used it in 1926 for the silent film Don Juan, adding symphony music and other sound effects to make the film more alive. Although there were no spoken dialogues throughout the film, the new technology drew in huge crowds, giving them a huge amount of money made at the box office. However, the amount of money that they made was not enough to cover production costs. Because of this, Harry Warner decided that they were not going to add sound to future Warner Bros. productions.

At this time, there were five major players in the film industry: MGM, Universal, First National, Paramount and Producers Distributing. When Warner made this decision, Adolph Zukor of Paramount decided to take advantage of the situation by approaching Harry’s younger brother Sam and offering him an executive producer post if he took the Vitaphone technology with him. Although Sam was eager to accept the offer, the deal was called off when Paramount lost a huge amount of money when Rudolph Valentino, their main star, died.

Sam then tried one more time to talk to Harry about producing more films with sound. This time, Harry reconsidered and proceeded to produce The Jazz Singer which immediately catapulted Warner Brothers into the big leagues.

The Rise of Feature Length Films

All this time, films remained to be short, usually lasting for around ten to fifteen minutes. In 1906, The Story of the Kelly Gang was released in Australia. The film lasted for 80 minutes. Other full-length films were released in Australia after this, but it wasn’t until 1911 that the rest of the world decided to make full-length movies as well. Queen Elizabeth was released in France in 1912, followed by Quo Vadis and Cabiria which were released in Italy in 1913 and 1914 respectively.

In the US, it was film director DW Griffith who first took a chance on feature-length films. He released The Birth of a Nation in 1915 and Intolerance in 1916. This was the time when film was slowly being accepted as an art form, with films also showing topics that were of cultural and social importance. The Birth of a Nation, for example, was much talked about because of its racial implications.

The Rise of Hollywood

Although film production was initially centered around Europe, World War I affected the industry greatly, causing an interruption in Europe’s usually busy film industry. This gave the US film industry the chance to catch up, with Hollywood quickly becoming known as the world’s film center. In the 1920s, Hollywood was already producing an average of 800 films every year, with the characters shown gaining fame worldwide.

Today, Hollywood is still regarded as the center of film production. Of course, the way movies are made have evolved since then. The industry was seen moving along with the speed at which technology was moving forward. The details that come into the production of every movie are incomparable, with sound and cinematography becoming more refined in every movie. Of course, the classics still hold an important place in the production of film and would always be the basis of how films will be made. Sadly, it is believed that majority of the original movies that came from the silent era of film have either been lost or damaged.

Special effects now play a big part of movie-making, and independent films are seen as a new form of art altogether. Animated films have also taken a life of its own, with everything from classic fairy tales to more modern adult animation playing a big role in reaping profit for major studios. Documentaries have also formed their own niche, discussing relevant issues that aim to inform and educate.

With the long journey that film has taken, a higher level of appreciation is definitely due to this ever-evolving form of art.

Who do you think should be given more credit for the early development of devices for film?

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