The history of film technology
As creator of the kinetograph, the gramophone, and color films, Thomas Edison contributed greatly to the first era of film technology. Auguste and Louis Lumière, however, became the first filmmakers, using the cinematograph to allow multiple parties to view a film simultaneously. Georges Méliès experimented with various filming and editing techniques to expand films’ expressive range. Through the various contributions of these inventors, films became a mechanical process that allowed the world to both record and imagine.
With the twentieth century, films became equipped with sound and color. Their technology not only expanded our sense of sight but our senses of sound and feeling as well. In the twenty-first century, films are seen converging with the cyber world through the use of computers and mobile devices. We are now entering the age of 4-D movies, with films increasingly becoming an experience of the entire body, rather than just something you see and hear.
When examined alongside media that emerged among multiple civilizations and sometimes multiple centuries, film is distinctive for being the only art form with an exact birth date: December, 28, 1895. On this day, at the Grand Café in Paris, the Lumière brothers premiered their cinematograph to the masses. Living up to its designation as a “motion picture,” the Lumière brothers’ invention was a scientific reproduction of the motion found in real life. For the first time in history, humanity had successfully produced a mechanical copy of an image in reality, which was then projected to the masses using a screen.
On the night of the first film screening, visitors paid a mere 1 franc to watch 10 short films that lasted just over 20 minutes, with each portraying the daily lives of average people. The first films lasted around 40 to 50 seconds—a single shot and scene filmed using a fixed frame. There were no cinematographic techniques used, nor was there any editing technology. People gave these first films titles such as Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, and The Waterer Watered, but in reality they were just interesting but simple clips of daily life, as opposed to work adhering to more traditional aesthetic values.
If the Lumière brothers were the creators of realist films, then Georges Méliès can be called the first expressionist filmmaker (Louis Giannetti, 1999). While the Lumière brothers’ films were slices of life akin to documentaries, Méliès made films using magic tricks and fantasy. The former explored realism and documentation, while Méliès experimented with various techniques to expand the range of film’s expression.
Méliès was the sole owner of the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, the best magic theater in France at the time, as well as a magician himself. In 1896, he opened the production company Star Film, and by 1913 had made over 500 films. He set up his own studio on the outskirts of Paris, blending magic apparatuses with film equipment and theatrical design. For special effects he installed special exits in the stage floor, and utilized cables, portable rails, mannequins, gunpowder, and various other stage tactics to create his desired imagery. He contributed greatly to the techniques of modern filmmaking, employing fast- and low-motion, the stop-trick method, double exposure, fading, dissolving, and various other devices still used in cinematography and editing.
Méliès turned camera manipulation, special effects, and mise-en-scène techniques to apply a magician’s illusions in the world of film. Combining a writer’s imagination with mechanical manipulation, he developed multiple ways to recreate motion pictures. His films offer the audience the pleasure of fantasy in such a way that, rather than offering a portrait of reality, presented imaginative art supplemented by the power of magic.
In 1902, Méliès released what is perhaps his most well-known work, the 13-minute Voyage to the Moon, which is regarded by many as the first science fiction film. Composed of around 30 shots, the film is understood to have borrowed ideas from the science fiction writers such as Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. For actors, he employed clowns, singers, and dancers, moving away from simple documentation techniques and instead turning to theatrical and literary elements. Voyage to the Moon was an avant-garde endeavor that combined imagination and special effects to create a cinematic narrative. Mechanical experimentation and skill surpass simple realism to create a space of the imagination.
Yet Méliès had his limits, for he viewed films strictly within the context of magic performances and theater. He made no attempt to develop cinematography or editing techniques that rearranged the space and time of real life; using an indoor studio and a fixed camera, he mostly stuck to simple long-shot techniques. Furthermore, his transitions between shots give a feeling of flimsiness. Rather than restructuring real space and time through his films, Méliès seems to fixate on simply exhibiting images from the imagination. Films still required further evolution before fully developing the narrative elements shown in modern theaters.