Friday, March 27, 2009

The First Films

Question: when was the first movie made?

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.

The second film offers a slight improvement on the sharpness of the image, but is still a blur in terms of its movement.

These images were played back on a cylindrical device that could be cranked by hand. The images were run in front of a little viewer, creating the illusion of continuous movement-sort of a "live action" version of the Zoetrope. While these represent an important step toward the eventual development of the full blown movie, I feel that they are closer to the "series photography" of Eadweard Muybridge or Jules-Etienne Marey than they are to the moving picture that Edison and his chief developer, W.K.L. Dickson, would eventually arrive at.

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.

Two more of these early camera tests are included on the disc, "Newark Athlete" and "Men Boxing", both from 1891 and both demonstrating a "natural" movement upon playback, along with a photographic clarity, missing from the first tests.

With the invention of the Kinetograph, Edison and Dickson succeeded in perfecting playback of their films within the "peepshow" viewing format. Edison, of course, preferred the "single person" viewing option of the Kinetoscope as he thought it would increase revenue by charging admission to each individual viewer rather than screening it for an entire audience. At the time (1893), it was surely enough to have perfected not only the photographing but the playback of the moving image with such natural movement, such image clarity, and for such a sustained amount of time.

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).

By choosing to re-create a scene from the past, Dickson was already getting at the possibilities that moving pictures provided to stage fiction as well as record reality, and how often that line would be blurred over the years. Although it may not be apparent to viewers today, at the time people would have recognized the blacksmith scene as deliberately hearkening back to a "simpler time", especially in the allowance of alcohol in the workplace (which was already frowned upon by 1893). Dickson also draws a parallel between the simpler "industrial" workers of an earlier era, and the craftsmanship of his own team of inventors who developed and built the camera being used to film it.

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".

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