Early Cinema


Building on the advancements made in series photography by such figures as Étienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904) and Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904) in the 1870s and 1880s, coupled with the animation principles at the center of motion toys like the zoetrope, numerous inventors in the late nineteenth century attempted to devise an instrument that could produce the illusion of movement through the recording and playback of many photographic images in rapid succession. The process required a flexible base medium, made available with the patenting of celluloid stock by George Eastman (1854–1932) in 1889, and an intermittent mechanism that would allow the film to pass through the camera, pause for recording, and then proceed without tearing. Parallel experimentation resulted in workable motion picture cameras in many countries at virtually the same time: William Kennedy Laurie Dickson (1860–1935), working for Thomas Alva Edison (1847–1931), developed the kinetograph in the United States, while Louis and Auguste Lumière perfected the cinématographe in France, and Robert W. Paul (1869–1943), in collaboration with Birt Acres (1854–1918), and William Friese-Greene (1855–1921), working separately, devised cameras in England.

The kinetograph and the cinématographe proved the most successful of these inventions, the former propelled by the business acumen of Edison and the latter spurred by its incorporation of three functions (camera, printer, and projector) into one machine. In fact, the portability and flexibility of the cinématographe led the Lumière brothers to send camera operators around the globe, and screenings of their films became the inaugural experience of motion picture projection in many countries in 1896, including Russia, India, Brazil, Mexico, and Egypt. The most famous of the Lumière screenings took place iń of Paris on 28 December 1895, often singled out as the first public exhibition of motion pictures for a paying audience, and thus the inauguration of cinema as a commercial enterprise. Though Edison had already been filming subjects with the kinetograph since 1893, these films could only be viewed for the first few years on a private viewing machine called a kinetoscope; projection of Edison films on a screen before an audience did not occur in the United States until 23 April 1896 with the debut of the Vitascope, a projecting device developed by Thomas Armat (1866–1948) but marketed as Edison's own.

The earliest films tended to be brief, often lasting no longer than a minute. Because the first audiences appeared to respond to the visual appeal of oversized, moving images projected before them, subjects were deliberately varied, ranging from the observation of intimate actions ( Baby's Breakfast , 1895) to larger-scaled events ( Train Arriving at the Station , 1895). The Lumières quickly became known for their recordings of seemingly unstaged events, often labeled actualités , while Edison's first films tended to be brief records of vaudeville performances. Initially restricted to the confines of the Edison studio, called the Black Maria, kinetoscope subjects played up the performative value of their act, be it the flexing of Sandow the Strongman's muscles or the swirling skirts of Annabelle. Though relatively static, these films emphasized cinema's appeal as a permanent record of a moment's movement in time, the camera capturing whatever was placed before it for posterity, in much the same way that still photography had done in previous decades.

The cinématographe had the added advantage of increased mobility, thereby allowing the Lumière camera operators to pursue a wider range of actions in their natural settings. This meant that the Lumière films could trade on the recognition that familiar places possessed for local audiences as well as exploiting the exoticism of faraway locales. Equally important to the success of these early actualités was the way they functioned as visual newspapers, giving imagistic weight to events of the day, such as natural disasters or visits by royal dignitaries.

For the first few years, the vast majority of films were single shots, and it was left to exhibitors to combine these the Grand Cafe shots into longer works if they so desired. The elaboration of films into multi-shot entities occurred with greater regularity after 1900, and with this shift came a concomitant increase in filmed narratives. Nonetheless, early films offered a surprisingly diverse array of formal strategies: while many films employed a fixed camera position that kept filmed subjects at a considerable distance, others exploited the camera's capacity for magnification by employing a series of closely scaled shots (for example, Grandma's Reading Glass , 1900) or featuring a constantly moving camera, either as a panorama or mounted on a mobile vehicle, particularly locomotives, for a cycle of films often labeled "kinesthetic films" or "phantom rides."

One notable feature of many early films is their self-conscious use of features that created visual pleasure: the mobile camera in the kinesthetic films and the masked close-ups in various peephole films stress the capacity of the medium to provide a technologically enhanced view that allows the spectator to see differently. This approach operated in contradistinction to later, more narratively oriented cinema in which style often functioned to underscore the story. The overt nature of aspects of early cinema style has led some commentators, most notably Tom Gunning, to label the first ten years or so of film as constituting a cinema of attractions. The cinema of attractions is not defined so much by its unique attributes as by the distinct relationship it creates between the spectator and the film. In the cinema of attractions, film addresses itself directly to the viewer, often quite literally when vaudeville actors solicit the spectator's attention by looking directly toward the camera. More generally, it is the modus operandi of the films themselves that qualifies them for this designation, as they are designed to provoke an immediate reaction, predicated on shock or surprise, rather than on the cumulative pleasures that narrative films provide. One might think that the move to multi-shot films would have diluted the intensity of attractions, but at least initially, editing became another form of attraction. According to Gunning, in many of the early multi-shot films, editing becomes a kind of surprise in itself, as in the fanciful transitions one observes in films such as Let Me Dream Again (1900) or What Happened in the Tunnel (1903) or the accelerated sensation of displacement and mobility editing helps to promote in chase films, in which large groups of people run from one locale to the next, the cut introducing a new setting while sustaining the sense of frantic movement.

One feature of editing in early multi-shot films in particular that has invited scholarly attention is the propensity toward noncontinuity in such films. Unlike later films, in which editing strives to promote a sense of continuity by disguising the potential disruptiveness of the cut, the editing in many early films draws attention to itself. Moreover, the logic of editing in multi-shot films follows a principle whereby, as André Gaudreault has noted, autonomy of space overrides temporal unity. The clearest demonstration of his observation can be seen in instances of temporal overlap, in which a portion of the time frame from a previous shot is repeated in a subsequent shot, the action in the latter occurring in a different locale or viewed from a changed perspective. The most celebrated case of temporal overlap occurs in Edwin S. Porter's (1870–1941) Life of an American Fireman (1903), when the rescue of the mother and child from the burning building is shown twice, both from within the building and from the outside. Though later practice (and a subsequently re-edited version of the film) would rely on crosscutting to portray the same action from two vantage points, at this stage in early cinema's stylistic development, it apparently made more sense to show the action in its entirety from one perspective

b. Connellsville, Pennsylvania, 21 April 1870, d. New York, 30 April 1941

Often credited with popularizing the story film in the United States, Edwin S. Porter is most notable for embodying the diverse tendencies of early cinema. Commentators have referred to Porter as "Janus-faced," a figure who pointed toward the medium's future at the same time that he epitomized its period-bound qualities. In particular, Porter pioneered certain aspects of narrative filmmaking, such as linear editing and intertitles, while also adhering to many of early cinema's unique traits, such as temporal overlap and direct address of the camera by performers.

Porter entered the motion picture business as a traveling exhibitor, and that experience probably influenced his early experiments as a filmmaker. Hired by Edison to work on the company's projector in 1900, he soon became the firm's chief cameraman and head of production. From the outset, his interest in the types of transitions possible when moving from one shot to another is evident. Yet, for every film that features a fluid set of linked actions, such as The Great Train Robbery (1903), another one depends upon tableau—the story held together only by the audience's knowledge of the source material, as in Porter's adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903). Porter's achievements crystallized that year, which also saw the release of Life of an American Fireman and The Gay Shoe Clerk , two of his best-known works, that demonstrate how point of view functions at this time. In Life of an American Fireman , his insistence on showing the event in its entirety from one perspective and then again from another highlights the importance of retaining an established viewpoint, even at the expense of intimating simultaneity. In The Gay Show Clerk , the famous close-up of a stocking-clad ankle demonstrates how magnification of detail can satisfy the viewer's voyeuristic desire for illicit visual pleasures.

Though Porter continued to find success with such nickelodeon-era shorts as The Kleptomaniac and the Winsor McCay–inspired Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (both 1906), his style of filmmaking did not survive the changes wrought by increased narrational self-sufficiency during the transitional period. By 1908, his approach already seemed antiquated, and he was let go by Edison the following year. He continued to work in the industry, lasting into the feature era to become production head at Famous Players in 1912. But his interests focused on the development of cinematic technology from 1915 onward. Fittingly, given his beginnings in the industry, his final lasting contribution was the shepherding of the Simplex projector to a position of supremacy.


The Finish of Bridget McKeen (1901), Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902), Life of an American Fireman (1903), Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903), The Great Train Robbery (1903), European Rest Cure (1904), The Seven Ages (1905), The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906), Kathleen Mavourneen (1906), The "Teddy" Bears (1907)


Burch, Noël. "Porter, or Ambivalence." Screen 14, no. 4 (1978/79): 91–105.

Gaudreault, André. "Detours in Film Narrative: The Development of Cross-Cutting." Cinema Journal 19, no. 1 (1979): 39–59.

Musser, Charles. Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Charlie Keil

before shifting to another. Rather than a mistake, temporal overlap should be understood as evidence that the logic underwriting early cinema style traded on distinctive viewing procedures and the influence of other, visually based storytelling forms prevalent at the time.

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