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The History of Cinematography

Updated on February 17, 2009

Moving Pictures

The cinema, or cinematography, depends on the principle of the persistence of vision, a phenomenon mentioned by Lucretius about 65 B.C., by which we often attribute to an object which moves very rapidly before our eyes, a size and a shape it does not possess. Or the object may be seen in more than one place at once, if it moves fast enough. All this is due to the fact that the retina retains images for a fraction of a second, according to the brightness and colour of the object seen).

Early in the nineteenth century a keen interest in optics led to the invention of many amusing toys which depended on these peculiarities, and which, like the earlier magic lantern, were steps in the evolution of the cinema.

The first was the thaumatrope, invented by Dr Fitton about 1826, though generally attributed to Dr Parris, who made it for sale. This is simply a cardboard disc painted with a bird, for example, on one side and a cage on the other; when twirled round rapidly by means of a cord fixed to the sides of the disc, the bird appears to be in the cage, because both sides of the disc are seen at once.

A more elaborate application of the principle was the phenakistoscope of the Belgian scientist Joseph Plateau, and the stroboscope of Simon Stampfer of Vienna, independently invented by them in 1832. In these a number of drawings of different phases of a movement were arranged round the edge of a cardboard disc and viewed through another disc with a number of slots corresponding to the number of pictures.

On making the discs revolve rapidly, the observer gains a momentary view of each picture in the series as each slot arrives opposite the respective image. Owing to the persistence of vision, all the pictures blend on the retina, giving a lifelike impression of a figure in motion. Another instrument for the production of animated pictures was devised by the mathematician W. G. Horner in 1833 (and named zoetrope in 1867); in this a similar series of drawings is arranged round the inside of a revolving slotted drum.

The first person to project animated effects on a screen, by painting figures round a glass disc and illuminating them by a magic lantern, was Franz von Uchatius, an Austrian officer, about 1850. His apparatus was put en the market by a Viennese optician in 1853, and soon after a showman named Ludwig Dobler gave public performances with it all over Europe - the first person to earn his living by moving pictures.

Fourteen years later an English amateur photographer, Alfred Pollock, suggested taking on a circular rotating plate a series of fifty instantaneous photographs of a walking man, and arranging the positive prints around a phenakisto-scope or stroboscope disc, remarking that if revolved and viewed through a slotted disc 'the image might walk at the same pace as the subject had done'.

Photographic Gun, designed in 1882 by the cinematograph pioneer E. J. Marey. This took pictures at a rate of 12 per second.
Photographic Gun, designed in 1882 by the cinematograph pioneer E. J. Marey. This took pictures at a rate of 12 per second.

Professor Janssen, the French astronomer, constructed such a camera for photographing the transit of Venus in 1874, and he foresaw the possibility of recording rapidly with his 'revolver' camera (in which 48 photographs were taken in succession) the movements of animals and birds, provided that faster plates were invented. His suggestion did not pass unheeded, for after the introduction of gelatine plates (which were twenty times faster than wet collodion) in 1880, the physiologist Dr E. J. Marey of Paris adapted Janssen's camera for recording birds in flight. In 1882 he devised a photographic gun which was aimed at the flying bird like an ordinary rifle, the pictures being taken round the edge of a circular glass plate at the rate of twelve per second. As these photographs were extremely small, Marey copied the different images in wax, and their animated effect was exceedingly realistic when viewed in the zoetrope.

Five years later he devised a camera to take photographs of moving animals and human beings on a roll of light sensitive paper, which in 1889 he replaced by transparent celluloid film. The camera had two spools, one containing the paper (or film), which was unrolled in a series of intermittent movements, coming to rest at the moment of exposure; on the other spool the exposed film was rolled up again. The film was kept tight by a compressor, and the feed motion was effected by a cam. The exposure of one thousandth of a second was made by two slotted discs rotating in opposite directions. The whole mechanism was put in motion by turning a crank, and the moment the subject (animal or human) began to run the operator pressed a trigger to start the film. Photographs were taken as long as pressure was maintained on the trigger. This camera, which Marey called the 'chronophotographe', enabled him to secure a much longer and more rapid series of pictures than had ever been possible before. As many as sixty exposures a second could be made.

Marey was stimulated to animated photography by the pioneer work of Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), an Englishman, bred as Edward Muggeridge, who settled in America and in 1878 and 1879 had taken an extensive series of trotting and galloping horses on the private racecourse of Governor Stanford of California. Muybridge used a battery of twelve to twenty-four cameras in a row to record the movement; the horse itself making the exposures by breaking threads stretched across the track from the camera shutters. His photographs showed that the conventional 'rocking-horse' attitude in which galloping horses were represented was inaccurate; but to counter the scepticism aroused by the curious attitudes which are too rapid for the eye to perceive in nature, he devised a projection instrument, the zoopraxiscope, in which the photographs were arranged round the edge of a glass disc.

Muybridge demonstrated the zoopraxiscope to audiences in Paris, London, Berlin and New York in 1881 and 1882. Everywhere people flocked to see this animated projection of horses trotting, galloping and jumping over hurdles, deer leaping along, birds flying, athletes wrestling and turning somersaults, just as if it were all happening in real life. It was a sensation no one wanted to miss, and we may well regard these demonstrations as the first cinema shows. Between 1884 and 1885 Muybridge greatly extended the series of his animated photographs with the encouragement of the University of Pennsylvania, increasing the battery of cameras up to thirty-six for a still closer analysis of movement. He obtained more detailed pictures owing to the much faster gelatine plate which had meanwhile been introduced.

For the purpose of commercial shows the projection of photographs on a glass disc proved a dead end, for the number of pictures which could be placed on a disc was very limited; the most that was ever achieved, by a spiral arrangement, was 300, in Leo Kamm's Kammatograph (1898). His tiny photographs were taken and projected by the same camera, the performance of the movie lasting exactly forty seconds.

Inspired by Muybridge, a host of experimenters now took up animated photography; but as a battery of cameras was both expensive and impracticable, like Marey, they tried to secure similar results with a single camera and from one point of view. Complete success in the reproduction of motion was not possible until improvements in the manufacture of celluloid provided a long, thin strip of sensitized material upon which any desired number of photographs could be taken in rapid succession. This was placed on the market in the autumn of 1889.

Pre-eminent among the early experimenters and inventors of cinematographic apparatus using celluloid roll film were Marey and his assistant George Demeny, the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere in France, J. A. R. Rudge, William Friese-Greene and Mortimer Evans, Louis le Prince, Robert W. Paul and Birt Acres in England, and Thomas Edison in America.

As with so many inventions, there is some dispute about the credit for the invention of cinematography, and national feelings run rather high in these matters. Both Friese-Greene and Marey had perfected their cine-cameras using celluloid film by 1889, while the first perfected projector, the 'cinematographe', was introduced by the brothers Lumiere in 1895 when they gave the first public performances in France (and indeed anywhere). On 20 February 1896 followed the earliest public 'cinematographe' show in Britain, at the Polytechnic Institution in Regent Street. The same night R. W. Paul gave a semi-private show at the Finsbury Technical College with his 'theatrographe' (later called 'animatographe'). A fortnight later the Lumiere show (of fourteen short films) moved to the Empire Music Hall in Leicester Square, where it proved such a draw that the neighbouring Alhambra Music Hall, wanting a similar show, invited R. W. Paul to exhibit his moving pictures there.

During the next few years several London variety theatres added a moving picture show (usually news-reels) to their programmes. Motion pictures also became profitable attractions at restaurants, tea-places and fairgrounds. The Bal-ham Empire, in London, deserves mention as the first 'picture palace', dating from 1907.

Most of the early films were news-reels, humorous 'shorts', and travel items, averaging 75 to 150 feet. Many small firms, apparently, were in the habit of faking topical events in those days, for the Warwick Trading Co., then the largest film company in the world, explained that their news-reels from all parts of the world were taken 'on the spot, and not on Hampstead Heath or in somebody's back garden'. They sent their Bioscope men to the Boer War - the first war to be covered by cinematography.

The most ambitious attempt at a film drama before 1900 was due to the same enterprising-firm. Joan of Arc was a film 800 feet long, and 'A grand spectacular cinematograph production in twelve scenes, with about 500 persons, all superbly costumed'.

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      Uchechi lekwa 255 5 years ago

      Useful.it's helped me in my assimgment

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      cal 6 years ago

      Interesting