Early Film: Directors & Techniques

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  • 0:01 A Bevy of Inventions
  • 2:14 The First Films
  • 5:23 Movie Stars
  • 6:38 Movie Studios
  • 7:20 A National Pastime
  • 8:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will study early film. We will look at the inventions that helped create the movie industry and explore the first films, directors, movie stars, and movie companies.

A Bevy of Inventions

In 2013, the movie industry in the United States and Canada brought in a whopping $10.9 billion, and 227.8 million Americans and Canadians saw at least one film in a theater. The film industry is huge and extremely influential in the lives of millions of people, and it all started with an amusing toy and a series of creative inventions.

In 1824, Dr. John Ayrton Paris invented the Thaumatrope, a toy that made pictures look like they were moving. He probably never dreamed that his little creation would ever be anything more than a novelty, but over the next few decades, inventors created various types of still photographs and then sought to make those photographs move in ways even more realistic than Dr. Paris' Thaumatrope.

The pieces started coming together in the 1880s and 1890s. George Eastman developed a stable variety of photographic film that came on rolls. Another inventor created a device that could take pictures at the rapid rate of several per second. Then Thomas Edison and his colleague William Dickson appeared on the scene with their Kinetograph, a camera powered by a motor that could capture moving pictures. Viewers could watch these pictures by peeping into a Kinetoscope, a box with a lantern and a motorized device that allowed the moving pictures to run before viewers' eyes.

Meanwhile, in France, brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière were working hard on their Cinematographe, which combined a camera and a projector that captured moving pictures and then projected them on a large screen for multiple viewers. Edison soon followed suit with his Vitascope projector, which he debuted in 1896 in New York City. The movie industry was now well on its way.

The First Films

The first moving pictures, often called 'flickers,' were very, very short. A few seconds to a couple minutes of footage featured such commonplace scenes as a sneezing man, a kissing couple, a dance performance, a boxing match, or acts from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Viewers typically watched these little films with a Kinetoscope.

As projection became commonplace, movies expanded in length. In the first decade of the 20th century, most films were one or two reels long, or about 10 to 15 minutes, and they began to contain storylines, characterization, and even basic special effects. Georges Méliès' films The Haunted Castle and A Trip to the Moon amused viewers with disappearing objects, double exposure tricks, and fadeouts. The 1903 flick The Great Train Robbery, the very first real Western, excited viewers with its action scenes and intrigued them with its creative camera work, including shots taken from a moving train.

For many years, film producers were hesitant to make movies longer than one or two reels because they thought audiences would grow restless watching longer films. As the 1910s approached, however, a few directors decided to take the risk with feature length films. Les Miserables and The Life of Moses were four and five reels respectively, but they were released in sections. In 1911, Dante's Inferno, a 69-minute film, was released in its complete form, followed in 1912 by Oliver Twist and Queen Elizabeth.

Other popular early films include:

  • The Life of an American Fireman, the first documentary
  • D.W. Griffith's epic post-Civil War drama Birth of a Nation, that actually inspired a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan
  • Slapstick Keystone Comedies featuring the hilarious Keystone Kops
  • Serial movies, like The Adventures of Kathlyn, that held viewers' attention over multiple episodes
  • Cecil B. DeMille's fantastic epics, like The Ten Commandments and The King of Kings
  • The Lost World, the first science fiction film
  • Westerns, like director John Ford's The Iron Horse
  • Spooky films, including The Cat and the Canary
  • Canine star Rin Tin Tin's movies
  • Imports, like the Russian film Battleship Potemkin
  • Movie spectacles, like Fred Niblo's Ben-Hur

All of these films were silent and were usually accompanied by live musicians hired by movie theaters.

Movie Stars

The first movie actors and actresses crossed over from the world of stage acting, often in an effort to make a little extra money or to try their hand at this new medium of film. They were usually uncredited, both to avoid the stigma attached to movie acting and to keep the audience firmly focused on the film itself.

By 1910 though, movie actors and actresses began to become celebrities. Florence Lawrence was the very first movie star after a publicity stunt catapulted her into the spotlight. There was no turning back. She was followed into fame by the likes of Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, comedians Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin, cowboy Tom Mix, character actor Lon Chaney, Clara Bow, sisters Lillian and Dorothy Gish, heartthrob Rudolph Valentino, the first America's sweethearts Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford.

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