Movie Fan Man: Cinema Connoisseur

Traditional, Artsy, Genre-Within-Genre: A Little Something for Everyone

The Evolution of Film and its Forms

Cinema: From

Edison to Digital


Steve Nash

What is Cinema? Most would say its movies made by names like Spielberg, Scorsese, Tarantino, and Cameron. Others would say it’s an expression of the times books, radio and music can’t project. Still, others say it’s a revealing portrait of humanity in both good and bad times. I say it’s all this and more. This article will trace Cinema’s origins from Edison’s inventing of the Motion Picture camera, the Lumière brothers first demonstration of the camera, and Georges Méliès’ first one reel film to the films of D.W. Griffith to the invention of the studio system and it’s pioneers to Technicolor to films reinvention in the 60’s to the use CGI and Special Effects to Digital. The article will also cover some of the happenings in Europe including  the French New Wave.

Cinema first started in the late 19th century. The idea for moving images first started when politician Leland Stanford bet a friend that when a horse was in full gallop all four of his feet went up in the air. Photographer Eadweard Muybridge helped Stanford win his bet with simultaneous snapshots of the horse in motion and made his own discovery of moving pictures when looking at the photographs he shot a certain way. A few years after Muybridge notion was made the inventions of the zoopraxiscope, kinetograph, daguerreotype, and calotype were coming into being, and soon experiments in moviemaking started.  

The Motion Picture didn’t come into full effect until 1895 when Lumière brothers showed real time filmed shots of quilts being made, a baby eating his food, a son playing a prank on his father, and the stopping of a train at a station. People panicked during the train part and ducked for cover. The Lumière’s had such an impact on this first audience more of this invention wanted to be seen.

While the Lumière’s had the patent on the first screening of films, Thomas Edison held the patent to the camera that made them. Edison’s invention of the motion picture camera was an important milestone in Cinema history. Edison filmed some of the first one reel films at that time, from the first televised execution to stop motion animation to shorts involving men engaged in daily activities like working or recreation to images of famous celebrities of the time like Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill Cody. These shorts were called Nickelodeons because they cost a nickel.

The first film adaptation of a novel was done by Edison when he filmed a short sequence from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. While Edison was the father of early movies it was Frenchman Georges Méliès who made movies the art form it is today. A magician by trade, Méliès used his talents to dazzle audiences in ways he couldn’t do on the stage. His slight of hand and disappearing techniques were the first special effects seen in motion pictures. His film Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) was not only the first in early cinematic technique, but the first science fiction film as well.

When people in America had seen Méliès’ work, it got the wheels turning for great films of there own. The Great Train Robbery in 1903 was the fist example of film as we know it today. It was based on an historical incident, but fictionalized by Edwin S. Porter to have the effect of a melodrama novel. This led to many other films, but most notably the films of D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and DeMille’s The Squaw Man were two of the finest examples of epic proportion picture making and raised the price of movie admission from a nickel to a few dollars. They also brought about the birth of the modern movie house.

Birth of a Nation is the most important film of the time because it introduced us to the different uses of cinematography (angle shots, close ups, wide shots, etc), lighting, music, acting, and story. These were the experimentation days and D.W. Griffith risk taking with this film gave us our modern day movies. 

During the silent film era, which lasted from the late 1800’s to 1929, Edison had formed the now infamous MPPC (Motion Picture Parents Company), which made a list of dos and don’ts for anyone wanting to be involved in movies. While rules such as the featuring of only certain and popular stars and celebrities, only using certain subject material, and pre-determined time lengths were easy to deal with, the banning of an onscreen kiss is what changed everything. The MPPC didn’t allow certain things that were normal to see on the streets shown in films such as kissing, sexual innuendos, and anything considered morally corrupt. Many filmmakers, not all too happy with this scrutiny from Edison and his cronies such as Westinghouse, decided to move from New York (where the first films and early TV were shot) to California where they could express their creativity freely. Among the pioneers on the move were Griffith, DeMille, Hal Roach, Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin, and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. The move to California ended up being the best move ever made as the southern end of the state has more sunny days out of the year, other than Almería Spain, that allowed for longer shooting schedules as New York and other east cost states experience long periods of rain. With motion picture people settled in their new surroundings, it was time to create.

Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are credited as the for-runners of today’s movies. Since they not only acted, but wrote and directed their own films, they created spectacular scenery and effects that wouldn’t be common-place in film for another 4 decades. Keaton is considered the most important as he can be seen as the first “Stuntman” in Hollywood. Keaton, like Chaplin and Harold Lloyd took most of his own bumps and bruises when making movies and the stunts he’d do like grabbing a moving car going 60 miles, falling 10 or 20 feet to the ground, and having a whole house fall around him, were near impossible and would’ve have landed most men in the hospital or morgue. The fact he could do those things and survive (he cheated death several times supposedly) made him the most respected man in Hollywood.

In Europe, the Germans were adding their own innovations to the movies. Fritz Lang, the true German pioneer, gave Hollywood its current special effects. His 1927 movie Metropolis, with the famous robot becoming human transformation, was the most innovative piece of camera trickery ever seen.

Lang and his cameraman Günther Rittau created the effect using a series of camera dissolves carefully interwoven together. Lang also gave us the first fire explosions in his controversial political film Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse), again by using carefully planned camera tricks as well actual small, controlled fires with the help of cameraman Fritz Arno Wagner. When many German filmmakers fled their native soil to escape Hitler’s Nazi regime they brought with them their expressionist ideals, that is the use of light and images, that became the cornerstone of modern film.

The biggest advancement of Hollywood in the pre-and-post war period was the advent of Technicolor. Originally color was a  mere two or three stip processs, but eventually these stips were specially mixed together that gave movies the life-like realistic images they have today. The first uses of Technicolor were in sections of the silent films The Phantom of the Opera and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The first good fully color film in Cinema was 1937’s A Star is Born with Fredric March and Janet Gaynor.

The best examples of color in movies are 1939’s Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. Techicolor gave a richness to the images presented in movies that couldn’t be done in black and white. Many were against color at first because they felt colorful background images took away from the actors performances.

The WWII years were mainly about stirring up patriotism and support for the fight overseas and films were whole-heartedly giving their support. Films were mainly B grade, to help the audience forget their troubles and have fun, while also asking to buy war-bonds and give any gold or any kind of metal to aid the effort. The whole world banded together at this time and it was all about gaining peace and getting the boys there back home. The post war years saw the rise of television and Hollywood scrambling to keep it’s numbers of  audiences up. They originally focused on making  more action/adventure, crime, drama, western, horror, and comedy films. When this didn’t work, Hollywood began uping the violence. This excess in brutality may have been largely influenced by the Spaghetti Westerns in Italy, particulary those of Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci, and Sergio Sollima, which had loads of blood and guts in them, and were well received by Italian audiences when they became disenchanted by the intellectual Neo-Realism films of Fellini, Visconti, Antonioni, and Passolini. Audiences went to the movies to have fun and forget about reality for a two hours or more, so Hollywood delivered.

France had it’s own revamp of cinema style in the postwar years too. When the nation was rebuilding, they realized the times had changed and the Bourgeoisie style of cinema no longer had a place there and new films were being born. This era was known as the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) and introduced a new, fast paced type of cinema. These men, which included Jean-Pierre Melville, Jean-Luc Godard, Louis Malle,  Francois Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol, showed the world if you had enough heart and passion you didn’t need an education to know how to make movies. These men worked on films with very little money, crews of sometimes only five or six people, and not the best equipment, and yet turned out million dollar grossing films every year. Many call the New Wave the birth of independent cinema, although this can be really be credited to American character actor turned filmmaker John Cassavetes, who made the first low-budget money making movies in the USA.   

The movies remained the same for a quite a few years with nothing new really being done except George Lucas’ Star Wars films of the time. Then in the mid to late 1970’s came the invention of CGI. This new process, which allowed for the creation of realistic, animatronics/computer images on film that lead audiences to believe they were seeing what looked like reality. Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was the first really good example of CGI effects.


Other Spielberg films including the Indiana Jones Series and The Lost World: Jurassic Park were using CGI to enhance there effect. CGI was the main source of making the impossible possible on screen for the next several years.

Digital and Virtual are the effects innovators of today. Introduced in the late 90’s, these were a more defined version of the original CGI process, only more clear and crisp in image. Pixar’s collaboration with Disney on several features including Toy Story and Frank Miller’s Sin City were the finer examples of the new computer image process. This new process allowed George Lucas to recreate what he couldn’t before on his original Star Wars films and set the standard for this new process could do. Digital also allows for the elimination of actual film projector film and now films can be stored on CD’s and computers Today most films are done with these effects and affluent filmmaker Steven Soderbergh once commented his belief all films would be made digitally in the next few years. IMAX is another example of the new technology with its huge screens and bigger, better picture and sound quality.

Film has gone through a lot in the 100 sum-odd years it’s been around, and all of them have been influential. Some of these influences were rebooted and made better then they had originally been and are still used today. From camera tricks to CGI to digital, it’s all been good. Many people think film was something that just popped out of nowhere and quickly rose as one of the most popular mediums of the time. Well it was just the opposite; film was a long lingering process that took years to perfect and several failures before success. Some people adapted quickly to the medium and had success sooner than others. This article was a pleasure writing as I’m a great fan and devotee of the medium and hope many will come away with a deeper respect for this icon and the people who worked their butts off to make it what it is.

For more information on the people, genres and and movies mentioned in this article check out the following and for general information on various films check out,, and Posted downward are the links mentioned earlier

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