Early Cinematic Origins

The Origin of Film

To begin, these entries from the Dictionary of film studies will provide some basic background information regarding the nature and origins of film:

Film is a technological medium that developed out of early photography to bring together concepts of persistence of vision to create a sense of motion by combining images. The technology developed through a series of unique inventions that built toward story telling. Please read this article about Early Cinematic Origins and the Infancy of Film.  The link will take you to the first of five parts describing cinema before 1920, please read all five parts. (Parts 1 and 2 are about the development of cinematic technology, while parts 3-5 discuss the early studios more generally and some of the films that we will watch in the next 2 weeks.)

In 2013, the notable director Martin Scorsese gave a wonderful lecture on the subject of early cinema. Please watch the below video of the 2013 Jefferson Lecture:

To see a transcript of the lecture,Click here.

Optical Toys

Optical toys, sometimes called philosophical toys, were wide-ranging both in their availability and in their forms. The thaumatrope, for instance, blended two separate images into one here, during the presentation I handed around an example, which—not coincidentally—features the Cheshire cat. The zoetrope (Slide 6) created the illusion of movement from numerous individual still images revolving around the interior of a drum with viewing slots. Like the photographic camera, these and other optical toys represent early motion picture technologies and paved the way for cinema.

6: Zoetrope

Significantly, several manifestations of optical toys relied on mirrors to create the animated illusion. First developed in the 1830s, the phenakistoscope (Slide 7) is a handheld cardboard wheel, which requires the viewer to spin the disc in front of a mirror in order to perceive the motion through slots.

7: Phenakistoscope

The more refined praxinoscope (Slide 8), some featuring a lamp and elaborate viewing “theatre,” worked with a similar reflective concept and hybridized the functioning of the zoetrope and phenakistoscope.

8: Praxinoscope

All of these devices necessitated the mechanical involvement of a viewer, and I want to suggest that Carroll’s Alice books, relying as they did (and do) on both our hands and our eyes, can be considered optical toys that also participated in the development of cinema. Please read this short article about Pre-Cinema Optical "Toys" which expands on these developments.

This short video demonstrates how the Zoetrope works:

To expand on the development of moving pictures before film, please read the following articles and watch the short videos at the bottom of each link:


Below you will find a 1894 film from Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope collection:

For further recordings of Thomas Edison, here is a link to the Library of Congress' YouTube Channel that features many of Thomas Edison's early films.  Follow the link and watch several by clicking here.

The Lumiere Brothers

The Lumiere Brothers were pioneers in film making.  Here are some of the first films they shot and showed to the public:

Georges Méliès

Georges Méliès saw film as a new art medium and envisioned doing more with it than just showing scenes from real life.  He began shooting his first films in May 1896, and screening them at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin by that August.  As he made more films he began to realize how much he could do regarding "movie magic."  Watch the video below as an example of some of his more famous effects.  Remember, while these may seem to be simple tricks today, they were new for the time.

Below is a restored version of George Melies' 1902 Trip to the Moon.  Both a black & white and a hand-colored version was made.  This is a restoration of the hand-colored version set to more contemporary soundtrack.  Watch how Melies is the first to really embrace camera tricks in his film.

Pre-Classical cinema explained by A Timeline of Cinema produced by the Minestry of Cinema:

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