To Capture “Life Itself”–The Very Early Days Of Cinema

Roundhay Garden Scene (1888) – The Public Domain Review

A Mind Exercise

Imagine that you’re an average person living in the late 19th century. Try hard to really put yourself in the right mindset. You’re probably thinking: “Okay, well, there’s no electricity in my house or smartphones and there’s no modern medicine and…” Those things always leap to our minds first. But what about other everyday details? For instance, what would you do for entertainment? What resources would you have had at home, or nearby?

Long before television and radio, newspapers would’ve been important, with their humor writers, cartoons and other amusements, and there were always various magazines with similar features. There were novels, games, music if you or a family member played an instrument, and of course singing was the freest, most basic form of entertainment of all. Dances, socials, picnics, and other amusements would no doubt be on your schedule too. But your most memorable entertainment experiences of all were probably at the theater.

Traveling with Vaudeville Performers | Historic theater, Cincinnati,  Cincinnati ohio

Theaters, whether they were gigantic with gilt decorations or tiny with just a few rows of seats, were the heart of the entertainment industry–as they had been for thousands of years. Like the generations before you, you crowded inside with dozens of others, found your seats, and–if the show was good–you were transported by a great story, a fine performance, or a beautiful melody. You watched the performers carefully, your imagination filling in the gaps of the stage’s limitations–painted scenery could be a forest, that wall of faux stone could belong to a castle. Perhaps you were in the back rows where you squinted to see the performers; maybe you paid more for a clearer view up front, where you could even see the makeup on the actors’ faces.

Even if you were in a rural area you could experience the occasional travelling show, where performers hawked medicines on ramshackle wooden stages, or maybe you’d see a magic lantern show in a tent or at a local hall or school. These were familiar to young and old by the late 19th century–slideshows of travel photos, works of art, illustrations for accompanying songs, even little animations made by showing slides in quick succession.

Magic lantern show, 1881. This engraving of at Science and Society Picture  Library

Now imagine that you, in the late 19th century, just heard about a strange new novelty that arrived in town–“moving pictures.” You decide to see them for yourself. You arrive at the hall or empty store where the exhibitors set up shop, and you sit in a chair with dozens of other curiosity seekers, feeling like you’re at another magic lantern show. A strange looking projector turns on, and a bright picture shows up on a makeshift screen. It is just a bunch of slides, you think. Then there’s a loud whirring noise, and the picture moves. It’s not just moving like an animation–it’s come to life. It’s a bright, grey-and-white view of real life.

What do you think?

Flurries Of Invention

Since the day the first photograph was taken from a window of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s home in 1826, inventors had been fascinated by the challenge of capturing the actual world around them. Glimmers of film were in motion early on. Optical illusion toys like zoetropes, with images printed on cylinders that whirled to create an animation, showed the magical possibilities of sequential images. Phenomenon like camera obscura showed how real, moving images could be cast on a wall.

Wheel of Life Zoetrope Credits

It took the experiments of 1870s photographer Eadweard Muybridge to start breaking new ground. Wanting to settle a common debate about whether a galloping horse ever had all four hooves in the air, he rigged a series of cameras to take rapid-fire photographs of a “horse in motion.” This wasn’t a simple animation being brought to life or a series of staged photographs, but a record of actual movement too quick for the human eye to piece apart. In the short term Muybridge had settled the bet, but in the long term a bridge had been formed between still photography and the capture of movement. And he’d also opened a floodgate of inspiration.

File:The Horse in Motion.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

By the late 19th century, wood-and-brass moving picture inventions were coming in fast and furious. Kinetescopes, eidoloscopes, bioskops, electrotachyscopes–everyone competed to create the newest technology, the next novelty to take the world by storm. They puzzled over the best way to create and project sequential photographs. On whirring, enclosed cylinders, where images could be glimpsed in little windows? On tall, hand-cranked wheels, projecting on milk-glass screens? Some inventions were too complicated to be very marketable, while others were too cumbersome. In 1882 French physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey came up with strips of photographic paper for his “chronophotographic gun,” which took series of crisp images (combined in one photo) of birds and animals in motion. And thus another game changer was born, the flexible strip of images.

Eadweard Muybridge – Paul Greer

French inventor Louis Le Prince might be the man most responsible for the motion picture as we know it today. After some unwieldy experiments with a sixteen-lens camera, he pared it down to a large wooden box-like structure with a single lens and a strip of fragile paper film from the newly-formed Eastman Kodak Company. Taking his new machine to his in-laws house in Leeds, England, he shot some brief footage of family and friends clowning in the backyard. The resulting Roundhay Garden Scene still survives today, a real snippet of a sunny fall day in 1888, the oldest true film in the world.

The World's Oldest Surviving Film: “Roundhay Garden Scene,” Circa 1888 | by  Joel Eisenberg | Writing For Your Life | Medium

As patents for cameras and projectors flew like confetti, inventors around the world studied each other’s work and sometimes bounced ideas off each other. Thomas Edison attended one of Eadweard Muybridge’s 1888 lectures and then started work on his Kinetoscope, helped by enthusiastic young assistant William K.-L. Dickson. Dickson was able to meet with Étienne-Jules Marey at the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition, an event that was a milestone for publicizing motion picture machines. In New York City brothers Grey and Otway Latham consulted with Dickson and created the Latham loop, a slack loop in the film that kept it from breaking. In France, the Lumière Brothers saw Edison’s Kintetoscope at a store in Paris and start devising a machine of their own. In Poland, Kazimierz Prosynski created the “pleograph,” a camera that could both shoot and projected motion pictures, while in Germany Max and Emil Skladanowsky showcased their unique–if cumbersome–invention which used two film strips at once, exhibiting their films just before the Lumières did in Paris.

San Francisco Kinetoscope Parlor, 1895 Bath Towel for Sale by Science Source

Experiments continued, but the basic design of a single-lens camera fed with flexible film strips won the day. Eastman started offering transparent celluloid film strips, replacing the brittle paper rolls. Once camera designs were perfected and projectors given their whirls, it was time for the next step in the moving picture’s evolution–public screenings.

“Open-Mouthed, Dumbfounded, Astonished Beyond Words…”

Private showings of moving picture machines had been given to the intellegensia for a few years, but 1895 kicked off paid public screenings of projected films. The Latham Brothers in NYC started showcasing their Eidoloscope in May, and the Skladanowsky brothers demonstrated their Bioskop in November. But it was the Lumière brothers’ stint in the basement of the Grand Café in Paris that would be the biggest milestone, spreading the most excitement about the new novelty.

Boulevard des Capucines - Wikipedia

The Grand Café, on the Boulevard des Capucines not far from the L’Opera Garnier, had a basement billiard hall called the Salon Indien. According to one witness it measured about 39′ x 26′ and was accessed by “some rather steep and unpleasant stairs.” There was room for about 180 chairs, all facing a 9′ x 7′ screen, and there was also standing room for about 40 people. The projector sat on a stool just behind the audience, as much on display as the films would be. George Méliès recalled attending the very first showing, a special one held the afternoon of December 28 just for the owners of Paris theaters. About 33 people showed up–the press didn’t even bother:

“…After a few minutes, a stationary photograph showing the Place Bellecour in Lyon was projected. A little surprised, I scarcely had time to say to my neighbor: ‘Is it just to have us see projections that he has brought us here? I’ve been doing them for ten years.’ “No sooner had I stopped speaking when a horse pulling a cart started to walk toward us, followed by other vehicles, then passersby–in short, the whole vitality of a street. We were open-mouthed, dumbfounded, astonished beyond words in the face of his spectacle.”

Ten short films played, all less than 50 seconds long, all documentaries except for one comic scene (The Sprinkler Sprinkled). The projector rattled loudly and the crisp images flickered heavily, but even so, the stunned audience knew they had seen something remarkable. After the 20-minute or so presentation, Méliès offered the Lumières 10,000 francs on the spot for one of their projectors. The Musée Grévin would offer 20,000 that same day, and the mighty Folies Bergère would offer an incredible 50,000. The Lumières declined the offers, wanting to keep control over their patents, but the theaters’ excitement over new possibilities would remain.

Salon Indien du Grand Café - Wikipedia

There was a banner at the entrance of the Salon Indien and a few promotional posters were made, but word of mouth became the best advertising campaign the Lumières could’ve asked for. Their manager Clément Maurice recalled: “Those who decided to come in left a little bewildered. Then, shortly after, you saw them come back, bringing along all the acquaintances they could find on the boulevard.” As time went on hundreds of daily spectators were shuffling up and down the “steep and unpleasant stairs.” Hundreds then grew to thousands. Chocolate manufacturer Ludwick Sollwerck wrote to a colleague in March 1896: “The hall is filled almost the whole day. In the beginning, he earned 600 francs a day in revenue…when I was in Paris three weeks ago, he earned 2,500 to 3,000 francs every day. Now, with the nicer weather and heavy tourism, the daily revenue amounts even to 4,000 franc.” 4000 people–at one franc each! A dam had been broken.

“It Is Life Itself…”

It’s hard for us, growing up soaked in movies and T.V. shows and Internet video, to really comprehend the excitement audiences had when seeing motion pictures for the very first time. We can understand it abstractly, of course–if someone grew up with photographs and illustrations, a picture coming to life would certainly have a tremendous impact. But it wasn’t just the movement of the images per se, but the marvelous precision a camera had when recording real-life details. The smallest things we take for granted today had been impossible to capture up until then.

Descriptions of the earliest film screenings illustrate what this means. La Poste wrote on December 30, 1895: “It is life itself; it is movement captured on the spot…there is an intimate scene, a family gathered around a table. Baby lets some porridge which his father is feeding him fall from its lips, while the mother smiles. In the distance; the trees are swaying; one sees the breeze lift the child’s ruffle…” Physicist Felix Regnault wrote: “We repeat what has often been said about the nature and life of the scenes that Lumière presents us: In the game of piquet, where one of the players is smoking, one can see the smoke escape and ascend in real motion. The beer foams that the waiter at the coffee-house pours, and the glasses are emptied when the men drink.”

Card Party (1895) | Century Film Project

Smoke rising, beer foaming, breezes rustling people’s clothes–photographs and paintings had always been limited when it came to these simple, everyday sights. A skilled painter wanting to depict a windy day had to add multiple clues: horizontal flags, skirts blown to one side, scudding clouds, et cetera. A photographer might be able to capture how a glass of beer looked when freshly poured, but only for a brief moment of time. A photograph of someone holding a cigarette wouldn’t capture any rising smoke, it would have to be painted in if desired. But all these ordinary, elusive things could be captured by motion picture cameras. Audiences seemed to be excited by both the accuracy of the machine and the heady experience of seeing regular life with fresh eyes. The banal subjects of these extra-early films were besides the point. Philosopher Edgar Morin would state in the 1950s: “It was not because of the real, but because of the image of the real that people crowded before the doors of the Salon Indien.”

Inklings Of An Art Form

Motion pictures spread rapidly throughout the world. The Lumières in particular wasted no time sending their products to as many countries as they could: England, Russia, Japan, the Phillipines, Canada, the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, Argentina–all those and more in less than a year. In the meantime filmmakers everywhere wasted no time in tinkering with their cameras. For a seemingly straightforward device–turn a crank and capture a scene–there turned out to be a multitude of possibilities.

Gaumont : 120 ans de cinéma

We might imagine some little boys discovering a swing hanging from a tree. At first they might test it to see how sturdy it is, and then see how far and how high they can swing. Then they start exploring the swing’s other possibilities. Maybe they swing while standing up on the seat, maybe they try jumping off it from higher and higher heights, maybe they see how fast they can spin. Something like that sense of discovery and play pervades those early days of cinema; once filmmakers were satisfied that they fully understood how to take a proper shot, they started testing and exploring the limits of their machines.

The Man With The Rubber Head (1902) – The Public Domain Review

Innovations would sometimes come from happy accident. Méliès said he discovered jump cuts when his film jammed while he was filming traffic. After fixing the problem he continued, but upon viewing the film later he saw “a ‘Madeleine-Bastille’ bus suddenly change into a hearse and some men become women…” Many early filmmakers claimed to be responsible for various effects, but perhaps many innovations were discovered around the same time just by familiarity with that marvelous camera. If you take a scene by turning a crank, wouldn’t you discover pretty quickly that faster turns resulted in slower footage, and vice versa? Wasn’t it only a matter of time until someone thought of rewinding the footage and giving it another exposure, just to see what would happen? Editing, special effects, the use of cinema to tell stories–it was all bursting forth in just a few short years.

Ferdinand Zecca - IMDb

As the 20th century dawned and the craze for motion pictures continued, it was clear that they would not just be a passing fad or a curiosity. The simple travelogues, the little fairy tales, the comic films, the religious tableaus, the bits of surreal fantasy–they were all hinting at greater things to come. No one less than Leo Tolstoy would make some surprisingly prescient observations on the new art form:

“You will see that this little clicking contraption with the revolving handle will make a revolution in our life–in the life of writers. It is a direct attack on the old methods of literary art. We shall have to adapt ourselves to the shadowy screen and to the cold machine. A new form of writing will be necessary. I have thought of that and I can feel what is coming.

“But I rather like it. This swift change of scene, this blending of emotion and experience–it is much better than the heavy, long-drawn-out kind of writing to which we are accustomed. It is closer to life. In life, too, changes and transitions flash by before our eyes, and emotions of the soul are like a hurricane. The cinema has divined the mystery of motion. And that is greatness.”

Georges Méliès: how the filmmaker revolutionized cinema 100 years ago - Vox


Loiperdinger, Martin. “Lumière’s ‘Arrival of the Train’: Cinema’s Founding Myth.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, Spring 2004, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 89-118.
Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade’s Gone By. New York: Knopf, 1990.
Cousins, Mark. The Story of Film. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2004.
Leyda, Jay. Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983
Toulet, Emmanuelle. Birth of the Motion Picture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995.

18 thoughts on “To Capture “Life Itself”–The Very Early Days Of Cinema

  1. That last quote from Tolstoy astonished me– so many writers still crap on movies as a medium, so that one of the literary legends actually found himself intrigued by cinema and by the challenges it might pose to writers in the future makes me chuckle a little.

    • Right? And what’s extra interesting is that today, a lot of novels are clearly written like movies, with the same kind of “editing” and everything. Tolstoy was right! (That would make a great tshirt…)

      • It is crazy how film influenced other mediums. I was reading William Drew’s book on Intolerance and he mentioned that stage spectaculars which were quite common around the turn of the century waned a bit once film proved more immersive in that regard– though stage spectaculars kind of came back with the 1980s mega musical, but that’s a whole other topic. Point is, cinema has influenced so many mediums– literature, drama, even video games.

  2. The beginning of the post brought me to these years of the end of XIX century. So nice description.
    Picture with the horse: I remember that the Brussels Filmmuseum (now Cinematek) had placed a reconstitution of the way they had done it (and was placed just next the room dedicated exclusively to silent movie, which does not exist anymore): it was all system with several photograph and people involved. Was always impressed by it.
    Presence of Melies at the first movie show: he was friend with one of the 2 Lumière (do not recall which one) and was invited by chance (they met on the street and Lumière told him they were doing some show the day after :)).

      • I think it was Somerset Maugham who said “Writing is rewriting.” And Joan Didion said (paraphrase), “I don’t know what I think until I write it down and read what I wrote.”

        I know NOTHING about the Lumiere’s, apart from the name. They were GIANTS in film history. Your essay has motivated me to read a book or two and learn more about them. Thanks.

        • Am now trying to track down WHO said “Writing is rewriting.” Hemingway too said this in his wonderful memoir of Paris in the 20s – “A Moveable Feast.” Am finding that lots of writers said this, such as John Updike: “Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.” Lea’s writing is so good, and such a pleasure to read, that its obvious that what’s posted is not a first draft.

  3. Wonderful! 😀 You’ve done such a marvelous job explaining and evoking the thrill the early film goers must have felt. And a great selection of illustrations to bring each point home. (Speaking of which: I should know this, but what film is the gentleman on the blimp/bicycle contraption from?)

    I was amazed at Tolstoy’s comments, especially his grasp of film’s importance and his willingness to embrace it. Prescient indeed! Especially as he could not have witnessed much in terms of dramatic greatness existing yet on film at that point. (I wonder what year that’s from?)

    • Tolstoy died in 1910, so he probably said that somewhere in the 1900s (maybe 1890s?), when film was steadily growing in popularity. It’s crazy how open he was to cinema’s possibilities!

      • According to one page, these comments appeared in a 1937 New York Times article, quoting Tolstoy in a conversation from August 1908. And on a side note, there is footage of Tolstoy himself (!), I believe from ~1910.

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