Monday, March 30, 2015

The Origins of Cinema

Although its basic technical details are clear enough, the origins of cinema are shrouded in doubt, dispute, and even death. As with other media technologies, among the earliest uses of sequential images were in scientific projects, such as those of Marey and Muybridge. The technical problem confronting them both was how to get a series of images in quick, measured sequence. Muybridge used timers and tripwires to obtain sequential images; Marey, more direct, invented a cinematic gun which "fired" a cylinder of small photonegatives; it looked somewhat like a Thompson submachine gun but was limited to 12 exposures. What was really needed was some kind of double movement -- a shutter which would open and close quickly and repeatedly, and a mechanism which would advance the photosensitive material. When the material in question was glass plates, the problem was overwhelming -- but with the invention of celluloid photo "film" by George Eastman, a solution was in sight, and the prize belonged to the inventor who could best employ it.

Louis Augustin Le Prince (above) is my personal favorite among the many candidates for first filmmaker. He had gotten his start working on great-circle panoramas, where his job was projecting glass plate photos onto the canvas for artists to trace. Arriving in Leeds, England, in the late 1880's, he married into a well-off family, and his father-in-law financed further experiments. Le Prince's first design was a 16-lens camera, using a series of "mutilated gears" to fire off 16 frames in short order on two strips of film. He later designed a single-lens camera, with a mechanical movement using smooth rollers (sprockets not yet having been tried) to advance the film. He planned to stage a grand d├ębut in New York City, and had rented a private mansion for his demonstration; his equipment was packed into custom-made crates, and his tickets were purchased for crossing on a luxurious Cunard liner. And yet just then, as he was returning from visiting his brother in Dijon, France, he vanished from the Dijon-Paris express and was never seen again, alive or dead.

As with many early cinematographers, Le Prince's films do not survive. Eastman's celluloid turned out to be volatile; it could disintegrate into a brown powder, burst into flame, or even explode without warning. However, at some point, paper prints were made of three of his films, and these have been reconstructed into short, viewable sequences. The films were made in 1888, earlier than any others. His first film, "Roundhay Garden Scene," shows his family dancing about in his father-in-law's back garden; his second, "Leeds Bridge," shows traffic and pedestrians crossing a bridge in the city where he worked; the third, untitled, shows his young son playing an accordion as he dances upon a set of stairs. The only question is: with what camera were these shot? Distortions and perspective problems with the frames, as well as the fact that there are rarely more than 16 of them, suggest that the 16-lens camera is the most likely source, but some believe he used his single-lens camera for some or all of the films. If so, he was certainly the first person in the world to make what we have come to regard as cinema film.

1 comment:

  1. I was thinking some more about the "relentless" urge for "the new":

    In our earlier readings, we saw Oetterman suggest that the advent of the panorama/"horizon" had something to do with the increased liberty of the modern individual, and we certainly saw plentiful liberties in the life of Mr. Booley. I have a feeling that the relentless urge for the new is somehow tied to the modern liberation and empowerment of the individual.

    The other side of the coin of the relentless desire for the new media is the ceaseless aging of old media; while we are constantly desiring the new, we are constantly getting bored with what has become over-used and old. And what is it about old media that makes it feel "old"? Well, I guess maybe you could say that part of what makes it old is, for one thing, the powers of the medium no longer empower because they become unexceptional with repetition, and, for another, a substantial portion of the population has experienced the empowerment. So new mediums are invented and appreciated until their powers become normalized–that is, no longer empowering and no longer unique to a select group of individuals.

    Maybe this could be related to the current-day usage of new media to individualize the movie experience, to create the "micro-cultures" rather than mass mediums: through the personalized media of such micro cultures, the viewer is empowered to see film in a new way and the liberty of a customized set-up in which one views whatever they want/however & whenever they want preserves the individuality of the consumer. This statement is likely supported by the appeals advertisements for new media make about their products, and it's interesting to consider how rooted existing marketing schemes may be in modern ideologies.