Ask this question to ten different historians and you will receive ten different answers. For years it was fashionable to say that cinema was "born" on the night of December 28, 1895 in Paris, when the Lumieres held their famous first screening (in actuality, it wasn't even the Lumiere's first screening, let alone the first screening before an audience anywhere in the world).
Others will say that it was Edison, with films like "The Sneeze" and "Sandow", although of course Edison's own output goes back earlier than that.
Still some will make a case for one of the sadly neglected, often overlooked pioneers like Max Skladanowsky in Berlin, or William Friese-Greene in England, or France's Augustin Le Prince (who actually did succeed in capturing a few frames of motion as early as 1888, but never perfected playback of his device-despite persistent rumors to the contrary-and disappeared under mysterious circumstances before he could make any more progress).
Thanks to a joint effort between Kino on Video and the Museum of Modern Art, we can now get a little closer at looking at the beginning of film, at least from the Edison company.
The two earliest experiments on the set are called "Monkeyshines" (nos. 1 and 2). Dating from sometime in late 1889 or early 1890, the fragments (or what survives of them, at least), represent nothing so much as a series of very blurry still photographs.
An important development came in 1891, when Dickson completed the "Dickson Greeting" test, in which the inventor steps before the camera and removes his hat. This film has the distinction of being the first test shown to a larger audience. Edison's wife was a member of the Federation of Womens' Clubs, and Edison arranged a demonstration for the members at his Orange facility. The event was recorded in the news of the time.
Viewed today, the film is extremely brief when projected at its proper speed. The important step is that the movement appears entirely natural. The Kino DVD offers the opportunity to view the film in a "slow motion" playback to better appreciate the individual frames.
What's most interesting about Edison and Dickson's "Blacksmithing Scene" from 1893 is that Dickson chose to use costumed actors for his subject. The artifice of the medium is already apparent in the staged scene, with actors (most likely other technicians) dressed in blacksmith garb, and passing around a bottle of alcohol after finishing their work. (It's also worth noting in passing that another one of Dickson's technicians-maybe even Dickson himself!-is visible in silhouette, blocking part of the image by standing in front of the camera during the first half of the film, an error oddly overlooked in many accounts of the film).
Most importantly, Dickson had discovered the ease of shooting in a studio. Due to the incredible size of the early camera, it made sense. The "Black Maria", Edison's studio, provided an ideal means of shooting each film, as it could turn to face the sunlight, and even had a dressing room attached for the various celebrities who would
come to be photographed before Edison's camera. Dickson's preference for shooting in the studio was certainly echoed by whole generations of filmmakers, including Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick, who found the artifice and controlled conditions of filming on a stage to be preferable to working on location.
The "Blacksmithing Scene" was also notable for being displayed at the Brooklyn Institute of Technology in 1893, providing an important step up in the public awareness of motion picture development.
Examining these early tests provides an interesting glimpse into the development of the medium in its earliest days, and as is apparent by looking at the work of just one of the people developing the motion picture at that time, we can see why it's impossible to point to any one film as the "first".