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What is the History of Film?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 17, 2024
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One of the most dominant forms of entertainment in the 21st century is the feature film. With the traditional principles of story handed down from the time of Aristotle, the technological wizardry of modern day computer-generated graphics, and the limitless imagination of the filmmaking community, movies have become a major source of education, entertainment, and (not surprisingly) profit. In the 19th century, however, the first film experiments were labeled as mere novelty, sure to fade out of fashion. While the history of film has been consistently exciting, it has rarely proceeded in a predictable or even probable way. The advances that are truly remembered are those driven by the desire to make the medium more real and more believable.

Film’s association with California is hardly coincidental; in the 1870s, Leland Stanford, the Governor of California, caused one of the first motion pictures to be created in order settle a bet. Until that day, considerable debate surrounded how a horse’s gallop worked. Stanford believed correctly that at some point in the stride, all four hooves were off the ground. To prove his claim, Stanford hired photographer Eadweard Muybridge to conduct an experiment to capture the horse in motion on film. In 1878, Muybridge used a series of 12 linked cameras to capture the entire stride length of a galloping horse.

With this unlikely birth, film was literally off to the races. Muybridge, despite a rather mercurial temper that brought him to kill his wife’s lover, continued to invent early film technology. His zoopraxiscope, the first true movie projector, used a fast-spinning disc to project a series of still images quickly enough to trick the eye into seeing motion. At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Muybridge displayed his invention to the public and conducted several lectures on the science behind his invention.

Also at the World’s Fair was inventor Thomas Edison, pioneering his own motion picture system based on Muybridge’s early experiments. The kinetoscope and kinetograph were developed largely by Edison’s employee, William Kennedy Laurie Dixon. Dixon and Edison designed the kinetoscope as a machine that would pass perforated still images over a light source at high speeds, and would become the standard for film projection for many years. Early experiments were conducted to synchronize the film with sound, but were unsuccessful.

Imitation of Edison’s inventions throughout Europe led to the birth of the movie theater. Partners Robert W. Paul and Birt Acres pioneered the idea of projecting film on large screens to show to a large audiences, using the projection technology of the French inventing team Auguste and Louis Lumiere. With the advent of large-scale projection techniques, the film era truly began to take shape, as bigger screens began to draw huge crowds.

In 1906, the history of film took another step, when film animation first appeared in a short movie called Humorous Phases of Funny Faces. The movie used both stop-motion animation, in which objects are repositioned by hand in every different frame, and cartoon animation, in which a drawing is altered frame by frame. Until the rise of computer graphics in the 1990s, this was the standard way animated films were created for nearly a century.

The next technical innovation that forever altered the development of film was the introduction of synchronized sound, in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer. Although experiments to connect sound and pictures had repeatedly failed, the Warner Brothers Company finally invented the vitaphone, which recorded dialogue and music separately on phonographs to be played as the film ran. The vitaphone was linked to the projection system to keep the sound and pictures matched up, and the marriage of the two elements proved tremendously successful.

Sound not only changed the technical aspects of film, it changed the entire field of cinema. Prior to the invention, films were generally short, with dialogue cards inserted to give necessary bits of information to the audience. For the first time, writers became an essential part of Hollywood. The ability to have actors speak and be heard, rather than just react or mime, allowed the audience to truly connect with what was happening onscreen. As with most successful innovations in the history of film, adding sound brought the audience further into the world onscreen.

By the end of the decade, “talkies” had completely supplanted silent pictures. Not only were they an incredible technical advance, they also are primarily responsible for the importance of the screenwriter. Characters could now speak instead of just physically reacting, plots could be deeper, and storylines could become more complex. The advent of sound in films moved the focus of a majority of films away from the physical and into the mental situations of characters, a trend that still drives film today.

The 1930s gave the world another technological marvel: color films. Although color experiments had been conducted before this time, none were truly successful until the three-color camera was invented in 1932 by Technicolor. Just as being able to hear the actors made the characters more believable, seeing the world in real color made the setting more real to the audience.

Despite the devastating economic depression of the 1930s, film experienced an enormous boom of production. With color, sound, and the possibilities opened by screenwriting, movies became a refuge of hope and fantasy for desperate people in need of an escape from daily life. It also helped to bring power to the big movie studios, the driving production force behind most major motion pictures.

When the 1930s ended, five studios dominated the movie industry: Twentieth Century Fox, MGM, Paramount, Warner Brothers, and RKO Radio. Minor companies Universal, Columbia, and United Artists also managed to carve out pieces of the market for themselves, while the odd-duck Disney made a few dollars with his 1930s cartoons, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Studios made multi-picture contracts with stars, directors, and writers in an attempt to have a constant line of production and to keep talent from bailing to another studio. Although some disliked the factory feel of a movie studio, the big studio era is synonymous with what many call the Golden Age of Hollywood.

The 1930s and 1940s were the days of glamor. The roster of stars reads like a list of film’s greatest contributors: Alfred Hitchcock, Kate Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart, Orson Wells. The era brought the world Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, King Kong, and Stagecoach. Westerns, gangster flicks, sparkling comedies, and staggering epics all attained unbelievable levels of popularity and success.

The 1950s brought a startling halt to the bohemian splendor of the moviemaking town of Hollywood and opened a dark chapter in the history of film. With fear of communism on the rise, artists and moviemakers became prime targets of the Red Scare. The House Un-American Activities Committee called up dozens of stars for questioning, many of whom faced the dilemma of losing their career or damaging the reputation of friends.

The decade also brought a new threat: television. Afraid of being outdone by the new home entertainment system, studios threw money into grand epics that TV could never hope to duplicate, such as Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments. Despite the success of epics and movie musicals in this era, film limped through the 1950s before the near collapse of the studios in the 1960s.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, world cinema truly took off, but Hollywood struggled. Many countries began offering tax incentives to film crews willing to produce in their locations, drawing tourist money into their struggling economies. In the late 1960s, film began to stretch out from its traditional story forms and reach for experimental plots, unusual settings, and controversial topics. The era of exploration ripened film for another huge change: the creation of believable special effects.

Movie historians will argue about the true beginning of special effects, but most will agree that the creation of George Lucas’ special effects company, Industrial Light and Magic, and the new technology it produced for a little space movie called Star Wars changed the world of film. Suddenly, anything seemed possible as a believable setting. Films could be made about creatures that never existed and worlds that defy the imagination. Since the invention of realistic special effects, the film world has traveled to new universes, and never looked back.

All of the innovations in the history of film that have proven groundbreaking shared a singular goal: to make movies more believable. Whether by getting the color of green on trees just right, deepening the plot structure to include layers of subtext, or making the muscles on a velociraptor move correctly, filmmakers are often adamant about approximating reality. By giving the audience characters they can identify with, settings that they can believe, and the added delight of stretching the imagination, a good film can enlighten viewers to worlds they never imagined and empathy they never expected.

In the 1870s, when Muybridge’s galloping horse was first displayed, no one had the slightest idea that it would lead to the days of Stephen Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, or John Lasseter. The possibilities of the medium were never fully comprehended, even long after the first cameras started to roll and the first director shouted “action.” The beauty of film is that, even in the 21st century, we have no idea what innovations lie around the corner. For filmmakers and film fans, joy comes from what film has always provided us: the anticipatory thrill of waiting in the darkened theater with our popcorn, wondering what will come next.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for WiseGeek. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By anon318794 — On Feb 09, 2013

Louis Aimee Augustin LePrince projected moving pictures to a select audience in New York in 1884. He demonstrated his projector at the Paris Opera in 1888, before disappearing about one week later, along with a camera, his projector, and most of his films.

Experimental color films were made beginning circa 1900. Kinemacolor was a process which produced color films beginning in 1908. It was wildly popular in its early years, and George V was so impressed with it, he had the course of the Delhi Durbar (1911) changed in order to optimize Kinemacolor, which recorded the event. He had insisted that his coronation be filmed in Kinemacolor earlier that year. Among the early films were color films of World War I, which revealed that the French soldiers still wore red pants in the trenches in 1914. Full three-color films were first shown to the public in 1913 (Chronochromes).

Attempts at sound films began in 1894 with the Kinetophone. Gaumont achieved a successful sound process in 1900. However, there was no means to amplify the sound for an audience. DeForest was creating sound on film movies beginning in 1922. In 1923, a dance sequence was filmed as a Phonophone in Technicolor.

First feature length film: Heavyweight title fight, 1897.

First feature film: “The Story Of The Kelly Gang,” 1906 (Australia).

Oldest surviving feature film: “The Life Of Moses,” 1909. Held hostage by MOMA.

First feature length color film: “The Delhi Durbar,” 1912 (Kinemacolor) Britain.

First color feature film: “The World, Flesh, And The Devil,” 1914 (Kinemacolor) Britain.

Oldest surviving color feature: “The Glorious Adventure.” 1922 (Prizmacolor). Britain – held hostage by BFI.

By Qohe1et — On Jan 12, 2011

Film became an important tool in spreading propaganda in every nation in which it was popular. Seeing images of war and of the enemy made people that much more zealous to get on board with their governments in any given war or economic ideology.

By Leonidas226 — On Jan 11, 2011

Before film was made into a money-making art form, the radio had developed ways to seize people's attention through storytelling an music. It is sad that we have lost the old tradition of family singing which existed before most people could afford a radio. Nowadays the only time families will sing together is at birthday celebrations.

By hangugeo112 — On Jan 09, 2011

I was watching Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in silent film last night. There is something refreshing about the old films which is inaccessible in modern movies. They are purely visual, which allows one to imagine his own scenario and surroundings in the movie, instead of forcing the viewer to become fully engaged in the film. It is much more laid back and home friendly in comparison to our race car speed modern culture.

By Proxy414 — On Jan 06, 2011

I think "mercurial temper" may be a bit of an understatement for a man who killed his wife's lover. This also seems to indicate the rather dark days of early film, in which producers like Sir Alfred Hitchcock could flaunt their devious genius for perverse tales of murder, death, and the bizarre macabre.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
Learn more
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