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Who invented film? Who invented the camera? When was the first “talkie” released? Simple questions—but with complicated answers. We’ve had over a hundred years in the history of cinema now, with never a dull moment. But it can be hard to draw a straight line from five-cent “Nickelodeons” in the early 20th century to today’s CGI-infused digital blockbusters. Let’s try to hit on the major milestones and answer your film history questions.
When was the first movie made? It’s not always cut and dried, but many historians accept the short films of Auguste and Louis Lumière—in Paris of 1895—as the dawn of the movie era.
The Lumière brothers weren’t the first to use motion pictures. But they did create the event that put the Cinématographe, a sort of primordial motion picture camera and projection system, on the map.
It’s easy to look back at 1895 and wonder why more people weren’t immediately enthralled with the invention of movies. But they weren’t modern-day “movies” yet. Many things we take for granted today—continuity between two different shots, soundtrack, scoring, and special effects—weren’t present in the first movies. Here’s how it all came along.
1905-1915: The Nickelodeon Era
By 1900, enough filmmakers had invented continuity between shots (cutting from one film clip to another to create the illusion of continuous motion). This made longer scenes possible—which eventually meant feature-length stories would become the norm. During the Nickelodeon Era, when private theaters would sell movie experiences for a nickel a pop, short movies were all the rage.
But they had already planted the seeds for longer stories. It was during this era, 1906, that The Story of the Kelly Gang debuted as the first multi-reel feature-length film.
1920s: Films Meet Hollywood
Director D. W. Griffith made his first film in Hollywood, a short film named In Old California in 1910. It was the first of many, with filmmakers fleeing the East coast. Really they were fleeing the Edison company’s dominance in motion picture technology patents. Given Southern California’s placid weather and access to a wide range of terrains for movies, Hollywood came to dominate the movie industry. It still hasn’t quite given up that status.
Soon, people from Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to Douglas Fairbanks and Clara Bow were giving rise to a new type of celebrity: the movie star.
1927: The Jazz Singer Introduces Sound
What was the first talking movie? It wasn’t the first to synchronize sound and sight, but The Jazz Singer ushered in the “talkie” era of motion pictures. After some growing pains, movies released in the hallmark year of 1929 (including early entries from Alfred Hitchcock in the United Kingdom) made sound movies the new standard.
1930s: The Rise of Color Films
With Walt Disney making early inroads in color animation with Flowers and Trees (1932), it was only a matter of time before the Technicolor technique would get mainstream Hollywood attention. Although many people think 1939’s The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind (still the highest-earner of all time, measured in raw ticket sales) introduced color movies to Hollywood, it was Errol Flynn vehicle The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) that had already beaten them to the punch.
1930s-1960s: Hollywood’s Golden Era
By the time color movies came out, Hollywood had tightened its grip on the movie industry. This was an era of big names and major movie stars—directors from Hitchcock and DeMille to Capra and Welles, movie stars from Bette Davis and Clark Gable to Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart. This coincided with the golden age of Asian cinema, in which directors like Akira Kurosawa put out work like Seven Samurai that would influence the next generation of moviemakers.
1970s: New Hollywood and the Modern Blockbuster Era
Hollywood eventually lost its monopoly in production to sets across the globe, especially in the U.K. This provided more freedom for creative, visionary directors to contribute their work. Fresh names like Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas came to dominate the 1970s.
In 1975, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws launched two separate eras: the career of one of the most influential names in Hollywood and the dominance of the summer blockbuster. You could argue that this era has been the real golden age of Hollywood, when going to the movie theater to see big-time cultural events on the silver screen was our chief form of entertainment.
However, as technology evolves, digital distribution threatens to change all that.
Modern Times: The Digital Movie Camera
By 1999, movies had gone digital. George Lucas’s Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace introduced the seamless integration of digitally shot camerawork. By Episode 2, Attack of the Clones, Lucas had gone primarily digital.
The digital movie camera era would have two profound effects on movies. It would become cheaper and more reliable to create CGI—computer-generated images—which brought blockbuster special effects to more movies and television shows. It would also make it easier to distribute movies digitally, leading us to where we are now. You might prefer to see today’s movie premieres in the comfort of your own home, thanks to online digital streaming services like Netflix or HBO Max.
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The Movie Camera: When and Where Did It Start?
Who invented the movie camera? It wasn’t quite the light bulb, but you’ll recognize a familiar name here: Thomas Edison. Edison had already led the charge in inventing the phonograph and wanted to do the same for the eye that record players had already done for the ear.
1891: The Edison Company’s Kinetograph Camera
When was the first camera invented if you trace it back to Thomas Edison? With engineering work from W. K. L. Dickson, an inventor and photographer, Edison’s company created the Kinetograph camera in 1891.
1895: The Cinématograph of the Lumière Brothers
At about the same time in Europe, the Lumière brothers took an unpatented name—the Cinématograph—and applied it to their own motion picture invention. Their innovation one-upped Edison’s by providing for movie projection, which is one reason so many people equate the dawn of the movie era to the Lumière brothers’ exclusive screenings.
1909: The Aeroscope
By this time, movie cameras were so big and onerous they could only remain stationary. It wasn’t until the time between 1909 and 1911 that Polish inventor Kazimierz Prószyński made a handheld camera possible. This innovation also meant the camera operator only had to hold the camera as it recorded—no hand crank required.
With the standardization of 35mm film in movie cameras and the innovations listed above, movie makers then set about optimizing the filmmaking process until a new invention would shake up the industry.
The Late 20th Century: Digital Cameras
Built on semiconductor image sensors, the CMOS active-pixel sensor would become the standard in digital cameras in the 1990s. As digital camera quality improved and the process grew cost-effective, movies quickly shifted to digital techniques.
George Lucas helped popularize these techniques with the blockbuster Star Wars prequels in the late 90s and early 2000s. By 2009, the Academy Awards gave out its first cinematography Oscar to a movie shot on digital cameras: Anthony Dod Mantle for Slumdog Millionaire. Although a few filmmakers like Christopher Nolan stick to traditional cameras, the digital era is here.
What Was the First Silent Film?
When was the first silent movie made? It might depend on your definition of a movie.
In 1878, long before the invention of the first motion picture camera, a group of people set about studying an old question about horses. When a horse gallops, are all four hooves ever off the ground? Or did horses always fix one hoof on the ground at some point?
It may seem like a question with an easy answer. But we live in the days of YouTube. In 1878, getting photographic evidence was much more difficult. So a few people like English photographer Eadweard Muybridge set up a row of successive still cameras, had them go off in succession, and technically created the first “movie.” As it turned out, the horse did indeed have all four hooves off the ground at certain points.
In 1888, Louis Le Prince of France filmed some short footage of Victorian-era England: just a few figures walking around the yard in what became known as the Roundhay Garden Scene. It’s believed to be the oldest surviving footage from what we would now call a movie.
The First Talking Movie
Watch one of those old movies and you’ll get one of two things: some independently-recorded music designed to complement the picture, or no sound at all. There was certainly never any recorded dialogue.
The problem wasn’t that we couldn’t record voices. The phonograph already existed. The problem was recording motion pictures and sound at the same time.
American inventor Lee de Forest first pioneered a method for synchronously capturing sound along with footage in 1919, and he might have been the first. However, Polish researcher Joseph Tykociński-Tykociner was working on a similar invention about the same time. His inventions were the ones filmmakers would come to use. By 1922, the first sound-on-movies were possible.
When was the first talking movie made? It wasn’t until 1927’s The Jazz Singer that major feature-length movies would incorporate dialogue and singing. By 1929, Hollywood had almost fully adapted. Within a decade or so, color and sound epics like The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind were possible.
Actor, filmmaker, even composer, it was Chaplin’s face that many people associated with early films. Hits like Modern Times and City Lights brought Chaplin’s famous “Tramp” persona to audiences worldwide.
D. W. Griffith
You can’t mention film history without Griffith’s name, as he pioneered the use of long narrative structure in film. Chaplin himself called Griffith “the teacher of us all.” Unfortunately, Griffith’s controversial and racist film The Birth of a Nation has left a powerful blemish on his career.
Cecil B. DeMille
Known for major epics like The Greatest Show on Earth and The Ten Commandments, DeMille gained a reputation as the father of Hollywood filmmaking for his highly successful blockbusters. Many also consider DeMille to be the first “celebrity” director.
Plot twists, innocent men accused, POV shots turn audiences into voyeurs; the word “Hitchcockian” means a lot. Hitchcock’s role in pioneering “talkies” and creating successful thrillers in the golden age of Hollywood helped the industry grow in sophistication.
Welles once said of his directorial debut, the 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane, that he started at the top and worked his way to the bottom. Yet if Citizen Kane had been his only movie, it still would have pioneered all sorts of innovations, from three-dimensional sets to deep-focus shots. Many critics still consider it the height of filmmaking achievement.
Though not a household name in the United States, Agnes Varda of France pioneered the French new wave movement and experimental style many people now associate with French cinema, solidifying herself on the list of important filmmakers of the 20th century.
You can’t explain the history of movies without Steven Spielberg’s name. He didn’t only launch the modern blockbuster era with Jaws. He thrived in it. Major movies from the Indiana Jones series to E.T. and Schindler’s List defined the era from New Hollywood until the present day. He remains the most financially successful director of all time—and he’s still making movies.
The first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director (2009’s The Hurt Locker), Kathryn Bigelow helped pioneer a kinetic, frenzied style of filmmaking that many people associate with the handheld era.
Stanley Kubrick combined his background in photography and propensity for producing mind-bending films to launch a singular career in movies. To meet his ambitious visions, movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barry Lyndon employed unique photographic and special effects years ahead of their time.
In the history of film, there might not have been one idea with as much impact as George Lucas’s. George Lucas’s work in digitizing the feature film has had an undeniable impact on the Hollywood of the 21st century. Even if you prefer one trilogy or another, there’s no doubt that the Star Wars prequels spearheaded a move from film to digital that landed us squarely in the 21st century.
Where Is the History of Movies Headed?
We’ve come a long way. In 1895, you needed to be in a specific room to see moving pictures. Today, you can see new, electronically-recorded movies as soon as they come out. You might even get movies for free with the same account you use to buy paper towels.
Where are movies headed from here? Movie theater ticket sales plunged in 2020 thanks to the COVID pandemic and may never fully recover.
But that doesn’t mean movies are going anywhere. We crave entertainment by moving pictures. From YouTube to TikTok, from prestige streaming television to traditional movie theaters, there will always be something to see.
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