The history of film reaches as far back as ancient Greece’s theatre and dance, which had many of the same elements in today’s film world. But technological advances in film have occurred rapidly over the past 100 years. Starting in the Victorian era, many camera devices, projectors and film sizes have been developed and mastered, creating the film industry we know today.
From classical Greek plays performed live in ancient amphitheaters and five-cent machines at carnivals, flashing images that created the illusion of a dancing nude, to our modern digital technology and special effects, the history of film is a long and successful story. If you’re an international student looking to study film in the U.S., chances are in your classes you will learn all about the zoetrope, the kinetoscope and many other “scopes” and “tropes,” as well as the rich history of the art of storytelling.
Theatre and dance have been around for thousands of years. Many of the elements of theatre and dance are the basis of the modern movie-making industry such as scripts, lighting, sound, costumes, actors and directors. Like today’s technological inventions, the Greeks had to invent the perfect amphitheater in order for its large-scale audiences, sometimes 1,400 people, to be able to hear the play. Mathematicians spend days creating a flawless stage for acoustics.
In the Victorian era, inventions of cinema seemed to spring up rapidly, each one building off another, creating a monumental era in the history of film. One of the first inventions involving still pictures which appeared to be moving was the thaumatrope, in 1824. The thaumatrope may sound high-tech, but it was as trivial as a toy. In fact, it was a toy! The thaumatrope was a disk or card with images on both sides and strings attached to the side. To operate, one simply twisted the strings and the two images would blend together to create one.
Less than a decade after the invention of the thaumatrope, Joseph Plateau invented the fantascope, which was a slotted disk with pictures situated around the perimeter of the disk. When the disk was spun the pictures appeared to be moving. Shortly after, the zoetrope was created. It was very similar to the fantascope, except it consisted of a hollow drum with a crank.
Film is synonymous for motion picture, so you can’t have a movie without a picture! That’s where the daguerreotype comes in. The daguerreotype, invented in 1839 by French painter Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, was the first commercially successful photographic process. It worked by capturing still images on silvered copper plates. But before the daguerreotype, as early as 470 BCE, there was the camera obscura. It was a primitive contraption where a box with a hole in one side allowed light to pass through, striking a surface inside which created an upside down colored image.
In 1878, Eadweard Muybridge conducted an experiment to determine if a running horse ever had all four legs lifted off the ground. Taking pictures at one-thousandth of a second, cameras were arranged alongside the horses track, being tripped by a wire when the horse’s hooves came in contact with it. It was a success for film development. Incidentally, Mr. Muybridge was able to prove that the horse’s legs did lift off the ground all at once.
All these inventions were tricking the eye into believing that stills were moving. A true motion picture needed to have split-second pictures on transparent film. Etienne-Jules Marey invented the chronophotographic gun in 1882, which took 12 frames per second on the same picture. This was a huge step for cinema and a landmark in the history of film.
Charles Francis Jenkins invented the first patented film projector, called the phantoscope, in the early 1890s. The Lumiere brothers in France invented the cinematographe around the same time, which was a portable, hand-held projector. The word cinema was born from this invention and the brothers showed ten short films on their projector in the world’s first movie theatre, the Salon Indien.
For thirty years, the silent era reigned until 1923. Until then narration and dialogue were presented in intertitles.
In 1903, the ten-minute-long “The Great Train Robbery,” was shown, and it was the first Western narrative with a plot. Previously, films were just actions of mundane things like a short dance, a greeting or a kiss.
In the early 1900s, nickelodeons became an escape for the middle class, staying open from morning to midnight. But they often got a bad reputation for their shows, which involved crimes, violence and sexual conduct. And so they were transformed into nicer, lavish movie houses that charged higher admission.
A decade later, the industry decided to override their fears that the American public would not sit through an hour-long show, and begin releasing longer films such as Dante’s Inferno, Oliver Twist and Queen Elizabeth.
In the 1920s, film stars were being made, their face recognized and praised. Also in the 1920s, sound made its appearance in “The Jazz Singer,” which used the vitaphone system. “Talkies” were the movies of the future and sound-on-film methods were developed including the movietone, phonofilm and photophone. With the introduction of sound, the Golden Age had begun.
During the 1940s, a rise of propaganda and patriotic films appeared. “Woman’s pictures” also reached their peak during this time.
During the 1950s, television caused many film theatres to close.
In the 1960s, many films were being shot in foreign countries on location and there was an increase in popularity among foreign films.
The 1970s saw a revival of traits of the Golden Age films. Called the “post-classical” era, films from this decade were characterized by shady protagonists, endings with a twist and flashbacks. Adult cinemas also begin to take root. They died out in the 1980s when the VCR allowed home viewing.
The 1990s saw the success of independent films, such as “Pulp Fiction.” Special effects films wowed audiences. DVDs replaced VCRs for home viewing media.
In the early 21st century, documentary films and 3D films have become widely popular. IMAX technology also has been increasingly used. Now we enjoy watching movies in many different forms, such as on the computer or on a mobile phone. With the inventions of online streaming, handheld, portable cameras and file sharing, copyright infringement of films has run rampant.