The Birth of the Cinema: A Journey Through the Magical Kingdom of Shadows

The Birth of the Cinema: A Journey Through the Magical Kingdom of Shadows

Like fun house mirrors, motion pictures over the past one hundred years have reflected, challenged, influenced and altered our visions of ourselves and the world.  Movies have taken us to foreign lands and cultures, plunged us into events that took place long before we were born and even rocketed us into outer space.  Today moving pictures are so much a part of modern life that it is hard to imagine a time before their invention.

One of the earliest pioneers was British photographer Eadweard Muybridge, a student of locomotion who devoted much of his American career to recording on film each step in the movement of humans and animals.  Muybridge knew this was necessary in order to reproduce a semblance of motion.  Arranging drawings produced from these pictures in a circle on a glass plate, he made a colored print that could be rotated in his Zoopraxiscope projector in the early 1890s, and both American and European audiences marveled at the Zoopraxiscope images.  By 1895, inventors in Europe and the United States had designed several projectors that enlarged film images for viewing by large groups: the Cinematographe, invented in France by Auguste and Louis Lumiere; the Phantoscope of Charles Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat, of Washington, DC; and the Woodville Latham family’s Eidoloscope.

The first movie houses were dubbed “Nickelodeons” and by 1908 there were nearly 8,000 Nickelodeon theaters in the U.S. and in two years the number had grown to 10,000.  Flashing marquees, glossy posters, noisy phonographs and player pianos made a huge commotion outside these establishments, sparking people’s curiosity about this new, dazzling medium.  At the Nickelodeon, audiences saw a film shown along with a mixed bag of live entertainment: singing, dancing, comedy acts and sound effects. The shows were fifteen to ninety minutes long and changed every couple of days (or sometimes even daily).  The film segments were quickly produced, with only rudimentary story lines.  The Nickelodeon doors were open to people from all walks of life, but initially the seats were filled with European immigrants and the poorest citizens.

Soon, ambitious producers headed away from New York, to places like Cuba, Florida and Los Angeles.  Southern California, with its warm climate and cheap labor, proved to be the ideal setting for filmmaking, and it was not long before Hollywood was established.  Business was booming, and motion picture profits soared as audiences grew larger and larger. The simple, silent films had grown into an art form.  Directors created new techniques that were impossible to replicate on stage, sets became more and more elaborate, and scripts were adapted to better suit film acting.  By 1913, Hollywood film crews were working non-stop to crank out 200 reels a week.  Some of the leading players and actors in the early films included D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.  In 2008, movie box office receipts totaled over $9.6 billion, putting the motion picture industry among the top in the world.  While some of the early innovators didn’t clearly recognize its potential, film has unlocked a wealth of possibility and unlimited business opportunity.

The Birth of the Cinema: A Journey Through the Magical Kingdom of Shadows

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