Going to the Movies

By Shulamit Brunswick
On March 6, 2012

Remember VHS tapes and hand-drawn animated movies? Or even having to wait until the movie you wanted to watch was on TV or in the video rental place before you could watch it? How we perceive movies has drastically changed in the two decades most of us students have been alive. The motion picture industry has made several huge advances in technology, all to improve our viewing experience.

Advances in animation are seen in the difference between Snow White, released in 1937, and the crisper images of Aladdin, released in 1992. The stilted computer generated, (CGI) characters in the 1995 movie Toy Storycontrasted with their more true-to-life movement of the 2004 The Incredibles. Until very recently, 3D movies were limited to theme parks; now you can watch them at your local movie theater! Movies have come a long way from their humble origins.

By the end of the 19thCentury, the concept of moving images as entertainment was gaining support. For some time, several types of devices had been used to create the moving-image effect. Magic lanterns projected images on glass slides onto a screen and levers were used to make these images "move". Another machine called a Phenakistiscope consisted of a disc with images of successive phases of movement on it, which could be spun to simulate movement, similar to a flipbook. Additionally, there was the Zoopraxiscope, developed by photographer Eadweard Muybridge in 1879, which projected a series of images in successive phases of movement, obtained through the use of multiple cameras. Muybridge used his Zoopraxiscope to capture the movements of people and animals, and is regarded as having made the first successful "photographs of motion."

At this time, the moving pictures were just that – pictures that moved – no plot, no story, no sound. One of the earliest movie shorts was a collection of 15-30 second scenarios created by the Lumiere Brothers in France. The first movie "shows" lasted 5-8 minutes and were also a collection of these short scenes: a train arriving at a station, a man watering his garden, men playing cards, people getting off of a ferry, and a street vendor selling his wares. The early Lumiere presentations delighted people in Paris, drawing huge crowds. Part of the shows' draw was their realistic quality. In one film, a train pulled into a station, coming directly at the viewers. Famously, some theatergoers thought the train would come right into the theater – scared, they panicked and ran out.

In 1888, Muybridge visited Thomas Edison and proposed a collaboration, combining the Zoopraxiscope with the Edison phonograph to create moving images combined with sound. Although he appeared intrigued, Edison turned Muybridge down, perhaps realizing that the Zoopraxiscope was not a very practical or efficient way of recording motion.

However, this in no way meant that Edison was rejecting the idea of creating such a device. Later that year, he filed a caveat with the Patents Office describing his ideas for a device which would "do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear" – record and reproduce objects in motion. Edison called the invention a "Kinetoscope," using the Greek words "kineto" meaning "movement" and "scopos" meaning "to watch."

Edison also developed the Kinetograph, which was based on his phonograph cylinder. Tiny photographic images were affixed in sequence to a cylinder, with the idea that when the cylinder was rotated the illusion of motion would be reproduced via reflected light. This ultimately proved to be impractical.

While in Europe, Edison met French physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey, who used a continuous roll of film in his Chronophotographe, another early attempt at creating moving pictures, to produce a sequence of still images which were projected in rapid sequence, giving the illusion of motion. The Edison Company used this technique with emulsion-coated celluloid film sheets developed by John Carbutt. By 1890, a new assistant, William Heise, joined Edison's point man on the project, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, and the two began to develop a machine that exposed a strip of film in a horizontal-feed mechanism.

In 1891, the Edison Company successfully demonstrated the Kinetoscope. However, it allowed only one person at a time to view moving pictures. At this time, several people were working to create a projector to bring shows to large audiences, but Charles Francis Jenkins and his projector, the Phantoscope, are credited with giving the first showing to a large audience in 1894. However, the first public screening of film ever is due to Jean Aimé Le Roy, a French photographer. On February 5, 1894, his 40thbirthday, he presented his "Marvelous Cinematograph" to a group of around twenty show businessmen in New York City. The first motion pictures shown in a "movie theater" in America were presented to audiences on April 23, 1896, in New York City using Edison's later projector, the Vitascope. Eventually, the Edison Company developed the Projectoscope and abandoned the Vitascope.

Around 1900, the second phase of movies began emerging: stories told through moving pictures. The first movies were short, about 5-8 minutes. Director David Wark Griffith developed innovative techniques, including cross cutting (cutting from one scene to another scene, and then back and forth, to develop various parts of a story and to build suspense) and close-ups. However, some early movie company owners objected to close-ups, arguing that moviegoers would want to see the entire person. Griffith argued that close-ups could bring drama, and it is clear from the movies we have today that he won the argument.

Griffith and other filmmakers wanted to move beyond the simple formula that characterized the industry in the early 1900s. But industry owners were resistant and wanted to keep to one-reelers with limited story telling. So Griffith and like-minded people moved to a rural area near Los Angeles, where there the weather was good (lots of sunshine, little rain, ideal for outside movie work) and plentiful barns for inside work. This place was Beverly Hills.

In Hollywood, Griffith produced the first successful full-length feature film, called "The Clansman," adapted from a book by Thomas Dixon. The film cost $100,000 to make (a lot of money in those days, particularly in a small industry such as the movie industry) but it brought in $18 million in revenues. It ran over three hours, was popular, controversial, and established Griffith as one of the nation's leading directors. It was of high technical quality too, with close ups, cross cutting, fadeouts, and dramatic lighting.

Until the late 1920's, motion pictures were silent except for the musical accompaniment provided by theater owners in the form of live orchestras.  Up to this point, movies had enjoyed a wide degree of popularity, but they still remained a secondary form of entertainment, largely due to their lack of sound. All of this changed in 1926 when Warner Brothers, in conjunction with Western Electric, introduced a new sound-on-disc system. In this system, sound effects and music were recorded on a wax record that would later be synchronized with the film projector.  In order to exhibit this new technology, Warner Bros. released Don Juan, the first motion picture to have a pre-recorded score and synchronized sound effects.  Although Don Juanproved to be a box-office hit, many movie studios still refused to adapt to talking picture technology, believing that "talkies" would never replace silent pictures.  However, the premiere of The Jazz Singerin October of 1927 changed these opinions, and in doing so, changed the history of motion pictures forever. The Jazz Singertriggered the talking-picture revolution.  It was the first "talkie" to use spoken dialogue as part of the dramatic action, and "Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet" is still a famous line. The combination of Jolson, America's most popular singer, and the new medium of sound helped to produce a profit of $3.5 million. When Warner Bros. created more "talkies" that also became box-office hits, the rest of Hollywood switched to sound with startling speed, hoping to adapt to the new technology. 

During the silent film era, it was considered acceptable to talk while the movies played, as it did not disrupt anyone and allowed fellow patrons to discuss the movie's action while it was taking place. With talking pictures, however, audiences concentrated on hearing the movie and their own movie experience, rather than those seated around them, leading to the "no talking during the movie" policy most people have today. As Robert Sklar said in his book Movie Made America, quoted on the American Studies page on the University of Virginia's website, "talking audiences for silent pictures became a silent audience for talking pictures."

The invention and growing availability of the television in the late 1940s and 1950s was a blow to the movie industry. The TV was right in the home, more convenient than going out to the movies, and soon offered a variety of interesting programming for the whole family. In response, the movie industry tried to woo viewers back with increasingly sophisticated techniques. "Wide screen" used three projectors and a curved screen, which enhanced the illusion of depth. 3D movies also gained popularity in the 1950s. One 1960 movie featured "Smellovision" where smells released from the theater's chair to correspond to scenes on the screen.

Special effects also become more sophisticated during this time, as evidenced in the 1968 movie "2001: A Space Odyssey." Spaceship miniatures were highly detailed and carefully photographed for a realistic depth of field, and careful motion-control work ensured that the elements were precisely combined in the camera. In 1993, CGI, was used to create many of the dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" and CGI is now a staple in many movies we watch today.

The movie industry has grown and changed rapidly in the 130 or so years since moving pictures were first conceived. From talkies to smellovision, 3D movies are just one more innovation Hollywood has come up with the capture our attentions and leave us spellbound.


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