In the Beginning - The History of Film



Georges Méliès and the Birth of Filmmaking


Film is essentially a twentieth century phenomenon, though early attempts to capture light can be traced right back to the sixteenth century.

It's hard to say what the first 'film' was. In 1872, Eadwerd Muybridge photographed a horse (called Sallie Gardner) using 24 static cameras in order to settle a bet about whether all of a horse's hooves leave the ground simultaneously as it gallops.

Usually regarded as the first 'real' film, however, is Louis le Prince's 'Roundhay Garden Scene', filmed in 1888 in Leeds, England.

Such experiments were exciting; many companies and inventors (including Thomas Edison, a very important figure in the history of film) were essentially racing to develop the first usable film camera. Edison's team led the way in America, producing such works as Fred Ott's Sneeze (1894):

In France, the Lumiere Brothers were working on their own version of the technology. They produced such films as 'Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory' in 1895:

They also produced 'The Sprinkler Sprinkled' in the same year: this might offer evidence of a burgeoning realisation that film could be used for entertainment rather than a mere technological novelty... once that that was realised, of course, it could only be a matter of time until 'Transformers 2' was made.

Clearly, however, these films are lacking a certain something. The cameras of the time could only cope with short reels of film, and the films being produced were seen as little more than novelties. Nonetheless, the industry continued to grow through the remainder of the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century. Cinemas (called 'Nickelodeons' in America' were built; experiments with coloured film, camera movement and various uses of sound moved the form on somewhat. Filmmakers had been thinking about how they could stretch their capabilities; for example, see 'The Execution of Mary, queen of Scots', made by Edison's company in 1895; an early use of special effects and still a truly terrifying cinematic experience (ahem):

Directors (if there actually was such a thing) were grasping the idea that it was possible to do more than record reality... they were also starting to realise the potential of film as a narrative medium. Georges Melies in France was particularly well known for producing longer films, like his take on the Dreyfus affair. Basically, these are lots of short films shown one after another. Vitally, there is still no attempt to make action pass from one cut to another; there is no continuity. Even as early as 1899, howver, filmmakers were slowly starting to realise that different shots and sequences could be added together to make one story. See George Albert Smith's breathtakingly romantic 'The Kiss in the Tunnel':

Or, Smith's 'Seen Through a Telescope' from 1900. It seems simple, but this realisation that a scene can be 'broken' into smaller units - is vital for the development of narrative film. What we have here is the beginnings of FILM LANGUAGE or FILM GRAMMAR.

So, someone - a genius - was needed to make the next great leap, to really understand how cameras could be used to tell storiesPerhaps the most important figure in this period of film development - indeed, perhaps the single most important figure in the development of film language and narrative film-making - is DW Griffith. He's important enough for his own page...


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