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Motion Pictures

The Invention Of Motion Pictures

Many of the principles behind motion pictures were understood well before the invention of "the movies." In 1832, Simon Ritter von Stampfer of Vienna created the stroboscope. Images spinning on a disc were viewed through slits in a second disc. This displayed the images sequentially at a fast enough rate to simulate a couple seconds worth of motion. A primitive kind of slide projector called a magic lantern had been invented around 1640 in Rome by Athanasius Kircher. In 1853, these two inventions were combined by Austrian inventor and solider Franz von Uchatius (1811-1881), who used a magic lantern to cast stroboscopic images onto a wall. These were essentially cartoons, since they were animated drawings.

The invention of photography and improvement over the next several decades was another crucial ingredient. In 1877 photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), working with an engineer, created a sequence of 24 images of a running horse, taken by 24 cameras. Soon these photographs were being projected by a device like the stroboscope. With Etienne Jules Marey's creation in 1882 of a camera that took bursts of sequential photographs, the basic building blocks for the creation of motion pictures had been invented. Inventor Thomas Edison (1847-1931), aware of these innovations, decided to create the visual equivalent of the phonograph: a camera and projection system that reproduced vision the way the phonograph he was working on reproduced sound.

Edison's assistant William Kennedy Dickson succeeded in 1889. He used a type of celluloid roll film developed for cameras, adding a series of perforations along the sides that held the film steady and moved it through a special camera. Once shot, the film was made into an endlessly running loop, and viewed through a magnifying glass. The device, called the kinetoscope, could only be viewed by one person at a time. It was not shown publicly until its patent came through in 1893.

Edison built a small motion picture studio in New Jersey, where his company created 50 ft (15 m) film loops. They were viewed at kinetoscope parlors at individual projectors. The first motion picture was of one of Edison's assistants sneezing. Soon they were filming acts from variety shows. Not realizing the potential of his invention, Edison had not taken out foreign patents on it. Soon it was being copied—and improved upon—in England, Germany, and France. Robert W. Paul (1869-1943) in England built a projector that made the film pause as each frame was shown. This made the frames show for longer than the space between them, lessening the flicker of earlier projectors.

In France, Auguste (1862-1954) and Louis Lumière (1864-1948), who manufactured photographic equipment, created their own projector and camera. They reduced Edison's 48 frames-per-second to 16, and called their projector the cinématographe, from the Greek word for movement (kinema) and drawing (grapheca). Paul and the Lumières projected their motion pictures onto a screen. This meant many people at once could watch a large image, and do so while seated. Not surprisingly, this motion picture experience proved more popular than Edison's kinetoscope. Edison unveiled his competing projector in April 1896, creating a tremendous stir. Photography itself was still relatively new; motion pictures were an experience no one had a comparison for. Short films of dancers and breaking waves were enough to fill audiences with amazement.

Though the basic machinery for motion pictures had been invented, the inventors realized that people would not be satisfied for long with the sheer novelty of the experience. Motion picture equipment was like a computer without any software. To make the invention useful, its software—namely interesting motion pictures—needed to be created.

French theater director and magician Georges Méliès (1861-1939) became the first true master of cinematic techniques during the 1890s. He filmed theater acts, but changed them to fit the motion picture format, arranging objects and backgrounds for the camera. He invented special effects, doing things like stopping the camera, changing the scenery and turning the camera back on. He discovered the fade in and fade out, wherein the scene gradually goes dark or comes up from darkness, and used them as a transition between scenes. Méliès used painted cut-outs and backdrops in his studio to enhance the fantasy effect created by his trick photography.

His A Trip to the Moon, (1902) became the first internationally successful motion picture, and the first science fiction film. In such work, Méliès showed how much the new medium could do beyond showing real events passing in front of a camera. Following his example, others turned to telling stories with motion pictures, and they quickly became more sophisticated. The first Western, Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery, (1903) used a camera that moved with the action, rather than being fixed. It even included shots using a camera on a moving train. The popularity of these motion pictures spurred others to use similar techniques. Gradually the motion picture evolved its own visual language.

As the public began spending money to see films, motion picture distribution networks sprang up. Middlemen bought films and rented them to theaters that did not want to buy them outright. In 1907, over 100 distributors did business in the United States alone. A Pittsburgh firm created the nickelodeon when it began charging patrons five cents to watch a series of short motion pictures. The formula proved so successful that nickelodeons spread throughout the country. By 1908, motion pictures were becoming a large and rapidly changing business. A group of filmmaking studios and distributors, along with Edison, formed the Motion Pictures Patent Company to regulate copyrights, patents, and royalties. The group tried to take over the motion picture industry, but by 1910 of about 9,000 U.S. theaters, only half were licensed. These theaters used films by independent filmmakers and distributors.

The Patent Co. kept its actors anonymous to prevent them from becoming personally important and therefore able to command higher salaries. But an independent studio, the Independent Moving Picture Company, lured away a star, revealed that her name was Florence Lawrence, and gave her publicity. This started what became known as the star system, in which the primary actors were as, or more, important than whatever story was being told. Other stars followed, including Charlie Chaplin in the late 1910s. The importance of stars continues to this day. Some, such as Marilyn Monroe, have become mythic figures in modern culture.

By 1914 the Patent Co. collapsed as the more innovative independents grew. Motion pictures became longer and more ambitious. Film companies like Fox, Universal, Paramount, and MGM sprang up. Nickelodeons proved too small for the vast popularity of motion pictures, and were replaced by new theaters, some with thousands of seats and elaborate decor.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Molecular distillation to My station and its duties:Motion Pictures - The Invention Of Motion Pictures, Sound Joins The Image, Color Comes To Film, Later Film History - Equipment