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The Early Days of Film

Although motion capture and primitive moving image photography had been around since the 1860s it was with the development of the first true motion-picture cameras in the late 1880s which really kick-started the age of film.

It was an age of extraordinary technological progress – from electricity and the telephone to cars and indeed flight – and as such, film had something of a battle to be noticed among such ground-breaking inventions.

But noticed it most certainly was.

Pioneers of a New Age

In those early years there were numerous names who can be credited as artistic pioneers of this new medium. Most notable among the, perhaps, were French filmmakers Georges Méliès and the Lumieres brothers Auguste and Louis. Indeed it was the Lumieres who would first cause a public stir with their film exhibitions of the mid-1890s with legend having it that their short film L’arrivée d’un train en Gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station), a 50-second film showing a train pulling into a railway station, caused such a panic that audience members ran for cover.

Whilst the story is considered largely apocryphal it did serve to demonstrate the potential this new craft-form had for mass appeal.

The Evolution of Technique

Early film was considered a novelty akin to that of a carnival attraction. In its infancy there was very little actual film technique involved at all – the focus purely on the spectacle of it being a moving image of a place or event.

These films were very short, rarely longer than a minute, and shot as one scene through a still, tripod supported camera. Using only natural lighting and making no significant edits this was raw image capture, an outlet for voyeurism.

There was certainly no suggestion, in those early years, of using film as a way of story-telling, creating a narrative with a story-arc.

But that would soon change.

Through experimentation filmmakers began to see new possibilities for film – possibilities that would eventually lead to the motion pictures we’d come to recognise through the next century.

Experiments with new forms of effects and lighting techniques were being undertaken. Edison’s use of stop motion and George Smith’s double exposure technique for superimposing one image onto another highlighted new versatilities to film while different camera shots were being tried such as panning (moving) camerawork employed when Robert Paul filmed Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

With the dawn of a new century and the new potential for film slowly being realised, came the first steps into narrative filmmaking.

Both Paul, Méliès and others were certainly making forays towards film as a vehicle for story-telling into the early 1900s with Melies films becoming ever more multi-scene, employing greater need for editing skills (and resulting in longer length films), while Paul was pioneering multi-shot filmmaking.

Moving towards Features

Through the first decade of the film age motion pictures rarely exceeded one reel of film, limiting the degree of narrative that could be included.

This would change in 1906 with the release of The Story of the Kelly Gang. With a true story-arc and running to 4,000 feet of reel (1 hour) this is seen as the first real feature-film. With its live narrations and musical accompaniment the film ushered in the Silent Movie age of filmmaking.

Although silent the films of next quarter century would grow ever more sophisticated, developing the techniques of its pioneers, combining new innovative ways of filming to tell more intricate stories. By 1927, and the introduction of sound, film had truly become the great entertainer of the masses.