Film History: Pre-Classical Cinema – Timeline of Cinema Ep. 1


Hello everyone and welcome to our video series,
“A Timeline of World Cinema” I’m Bradley Weatherholt and I will be your
host on this journey through the history of film. In this episode we will discuss the first
20 years of cinema. From it’s birth to the rise of the feature film. We call this period Pre-Classical because
the films that belong to it don’t follow the classical narrative conventions that come
with the rise of the feature film. In order to understand this time period, we
really must begin with the invention of the motion picture camera. Many credit the Americans with the invention
of the motion picture camera, particularly one American, Thomas Edison. Not only did Thomas Edison not invent the
motion picture camera, it was actually made by a team of engineers under Thomas Edison. It wasn’t even the Americans that first came
up with the motion picture camera. In fact several entrepreneurs from all over the world
have claims to what is the first motion camera picture As with many other examples in American cinema,
Edison’s reputation relies more on his marketing skills than it does the actual facts. And if credit is going to go to Edison and
the Americans, it must also be shared with the French. Particularly one team, the Lumiere Brothers. Perhaps the most influential filmmakers of
early cinema, the French Lumiere Brothers made world history when they invented the
cinematograph. The world leader in motion picture technology. At the end of 1895 in what might be the most
famous nights of cinema the Lumiere Brothers premiered 10 short films in Paris. These films were under 50 seconds long and
were varied from a comedy to a simple shot of people leaving a factory. The night was a success and a buzz with demand.
The Lumiere Brothers began making film after film with a focus on documentaries. The success of their documentary films coupled
with the fictional pictures of the contemporary Georges Méliès gave the French an edge against
their American competition at the turn of the century. However, the Lumieres’ success was short lived
and unable to see the narrative potential of cinema. The brothers stated that “The Cinema
is an invention without any future.” Because of this their fame was eclipsed by
the narrative films that soon followed. Now before we get too ahead of ourselves,
it is important to define what cinema was like in this period. Cinema attendants and audience members didn’t
go to the cinema for narratives or great stories. In fact they went to see spectacles on the
screen. This type of cinema is what Tom Gunning calls
“The cinema of attractions” and it predates the cinema of narrative integration that comes
later with the feature film. The most infamous example of the exciting,
thrilling, one shot films, is the Lumiere Brothers “Arrival of
a Train at La Ciotat”. According to doubtful legend, the cinema attendants
were so shocked that they actually ducked and in some cases ran out of the theater. We usually call these films “Black & White”,
but it is important to remember that most of these films weren’t presented in black
& white at all. As early as 1896, films were painted, hand
painted, with color and toner to enhance mood and atmosphere. Likewise, though these films were “Silent”
films they almost always involved sound. Cinemas would incorporate orchestras or live
bands to score the happenings on the screen. In some cases they would have lecturers who
would literally explain the events that were happening in the narrative. “…Suddenly the galley strikes on an enormous
rock, which emerges from the mitts of the bellows and the ship founders disappear in
a vortex of foam…” As you can imagine, films back then weren’t
made the same way. The directors acted more as camera operators. Edison’s man Edwin S. Porter is perhaps the
best example of director as simply camera operator. However, the French director Méliès not
only operated the camera, he had control the artistic direction and narratives of the films
that he produced. It took no time for production companies to
develop. Particularly in America where the emphasis was on the speed of the production
and not necessarily the quality. Now, they operated this way under the logic
that it doesn’t matter how good or bad the film is, it was still going to sell for the
same price per foot. American production companies preferred to
hire several directors each with their own cast and crew, who were all responsible for
one task: produce a reel of film each week. This practice of mass production eventually
led to a new role, the role of a movie producer, whose job it was to supervise all of these
different productions and make sure the quotas were met. Not satisfied by high demand alone, studios
began to expand operations using the highly lucrative field of distribution. In 1906, nickelodeons appear. These small
theaters got their name from their practice of charging 5 cents or a nickel for admittance. Nickelodeons were widely popular. In the span
of just a few years, their numbers more than tripled. By 1909, cinema attendance was estimated at
45 million people per week. Audiences were beginning to complain about
unclear narratives. In the period between 1907 and 1917, huge
measures were taken in order to produce a clearer more cohesive narrative. For the first time editing promoted narrative
intensity and not just shock value. American director, D. W. Griffith led the
Americans in this push towards longer narratives. When he first began directing in 1908, his
films incorporated on average around 17 shots. By 1913, that number jumped to 88. D. W. Griffith
met a lot of opposition with the American studio system because the Americans favored
shorter films, under the logic that the shorter the film was the more they could play in the
nickelodeons, the more turnover they would have, and the more nickels these studios would
produce. In 1913, Italian cinema changed the world
with the feature film, “Quo Vadis”. It contained 5000 extras, a choreographed
chariot race, and actual lions. Faced with this competition, American studios
commissioned D. W. Griffith for his dream project, the 1915 feature, “The Birth of a Nation”. D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” was
received with wild hype. Matching ticket prices with those of broadway
plays, the film was marketed so audiences would take it seriously. The strategy worked and the film was a smash
hit. Impressed with the sophisticated editing,
developed story, and unprecedented action audiences couldn’t get enough. “The Birth of a Nation” is a landmark in filmmaking,
establishing most of classical cinema’s conventions. Perhaps most prominent of these is the film’s
use of parallel editing, where we cut between two different threads of the story. Despite all the film’s significance, the film
has a spoiled reputation. The narrative is what modern audiences would
find overtly racist. The heroes of the film are KKK members and
the antagonists are incredibly offensive portrayal of African Americans. Because of this the film has a shaky position
in most film canon. However, it is certainly one of the many things
that makes “The Birth of a Nation” a film that film historians and enthusiasts return
to. “The Birth of a Nation” marks a culmination
of everything in cinema that had happened up to that point. By 1917, film had developed into its own type
of medium. New conventions arose and the time was ripe
for the next period of cinema, The Rise of the Studio System.

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