Early Film Directors & Techniques

Jan 10, 2020 | Film

In this lesson, we will study early film. We will look at the inventions that helped create the movie industry and explore the first films, directors, movie stars, and movie companies.

A Bevy of Inventions

In 2013, the movie industry in the United States and Canada brought in a whopping $10.9 billion, and 227.8 million Americans and Canadians saw at least one film in a theater. The film industry is huge and extremely influential in the lives of millions of people, and it all started with an amusing toy and a series of creative inventions.

In 1824, Dr. John Ayrton Paris invented the Thaumatrope, a toy that made pictures look like they were moving. He probably never dreamed that his little creation would ever be anything more than a novelty, but over the next few decades, inventors created various types of still photographs and then sought to make those photographs move in ways even more realistic than Dr. Paris’ Thaumatrope.

The pieces started coming together in the 1880s and 1890s. George Eastman developed a stable variety of photographic film that came on rolls. Another inventor created a device that could take pictures at the rapid rate of several per second. Then Thomas Edison and his colleague William Dickson appeared on the scene with their Kinetograph, a camera powered by a motor that could capture moving pictures. Viewers could watch these pictures by peeping into a Kinetoscope, a box with a lantern and a motorized device that allowed the moving pictures to run before viewers’ eyes.

Meanwhile, in France, brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière were working hard on their Cinematographe, which combined a camera and a projector that captured moving pictures and then projected them on a large screen for multiple viewers. Edison soon followed suit with his Vitascope projector, which he debuted in 1896 in New York City. The movie industry was now well on its way.

The First Films

The first moving pictures, often called ‘flickers,’ were very, very short. A few seconds to a couple minutes of footage featured such commonplace scenes as a sneezing man, a kissing couple, a dance performance, a boxing match, or acts from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Viewers typically watched these little films with a Kinetoscope.

As projection became commonplace, movies expanded in length. In the first decade of the 20th century, most films were one or two reels long, or about 10 to 15 minutes, and they began to contain storylines, characterization, and even basic special effects. Georges Méliès’ films The Haunted Castle and A Trip to the Moon amused viewers with disappearing objects, double exposure tricks, and fadeouts. The 1903 flick The Great Train Robbery, the very first real Western, excited viewers with its action scenes and intrigued them with its creative camera work, including shots taken from a moving train.

For many years, film producers were hesitant to make movies longer than one or two reels because they thought audiences would grow restless watching longer films. As the 1910s approached, however, a few directors decided to take the risk with feature length films. Les Miserables and The Life of Moses were four and five reels respectively, but they were released in sections. In 1911, Dante’s Inferno, a 69-minute film, was released in its complete form, followed in 1912 by Oliver Twist and Queen Elizabeth.

Other popular early films include:

  • The Life of an American Fireman, the first documentary
  • D.W. Griffith’s epic post-Civil War drama Birth of a Nation, that actually inspired a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan
  • Slapstick Keystone Comedies featuring the hilarious Keystone Kops
  • Serial movies, like The Adventures of Kathlyn, that held viewers’ attention over multiple episodes
  • Cecil B. DeMille’s fantastic epics, like The Ten Commandments and The King of Kings
  • The Lost World, the first science fiction film
  • Westerns, like director John Ford’s The Iron Horse
  • Spooky films, including The Cat and the Canary
  • Canine star Rin Tin Tin’s movies
  • Imports, like the Russian film Battleship Potemkin
  • Movie spectacles, like Fred Niblo’s Ben-Hur

All of these films were silent and were usually accompanied by live musicians hired by movie theaters.

 

Movie Stars

The first movie actors and actresses crossed over from the world of stage acting, often in an effort to make a little extra money or to try their hand at this new medium of film. They were usually uncredited, both to avoid the stigma attached to movie acting and to keep the audience firmly focused on the film itself.

By 1910 though, movie actors and actresses began to become celebrities. Florence Lawrence was the very first movie star after a publicity stunt catapulted her into the spotlight. There was no turning back. She was followed into fame by the likes of Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, comedians Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin, cowboy Tom Mix, character actor Lon Chaney, Clara Bow, sisters Lillian and Dorothy Gish, heartthrob Rudolph Valentino, the first America’s sweethearts Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford.

Movie Studios

By the end of the 1920s, most of these actors and actresses worked for either the Big Five or the Little Three movie studios. The Big Five were Warner Bros. Pictures, Paramount Studios, RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Fox Film Corporation. The Little Three, which ended up not so little, were Universal Pictures, United Artists, and Columbia Pictures. Along with a few independent studios, these companies were responsible for the entertainment of millions of people as the film industry continued to expand.

A National Pastime

In fact, going to the movies quickly became a national pastime for many Americans. Moviegoers first attended shows at Kinetoscope parlors or small theaters like Edisonia Vitascope Hall in New York City or the Vitascope Hall in New Orleans. When films became longer and more popular, little theaters called nickelodeons allowed people of all classes to view movies for a nickel admission. Often, films were accompanied by vaudeville acts and other entertainment.

About 1909, roughly corresponding to the advent of feature length films, movie palaces began springing up throughout the country. Many of these theaters were lavishly decorated and could hold thousands of viewers. New York’s City Theatre, Strand Theater, and Regent Theatre were soon followed by Sid Grauman’s Los Angeles movie palaces, including the grand Egyptian and Chinese Theaters. Soon, though, there was a movie theater in nearly every city and many small towns throughout the country, and movie going became a part of daily life.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. The inventions that created the movie industry started coming together in the 1880s and 1890s. George Eastman developed a stable variety of photographic film that came on rolls. Thomas Edison and William Dickson invented the Kinetograph, a camera powered by a motor that could capture moving pictures, and the Kinetoscope, a box with a lantern and a motorized device that allowed the moving pictures to run before viewers’ eyes. Louis and Auguste Lumière created the Cinematographe, which combined a camera and a projector that captured moving pictures and then projected them on a large screen for multiple viewers, and Edison soon debuted his Vitascope projector.

The first moving pictures, often called ‘flickers,’ were very, very short and were watched using a Kinetoscope. As projection became commonplace, movies expanded in length, usually to one or two reels, or 10 to 15 minutes in length. They started to feature storylines, characterization, and basic special effects. As the 1910s approached however, a few directors decided to take the risk with feature length films, and the risk paid off.

Over the next couple decades, viewers could enjoy movies from many different genres, including Westerns and comedies, and appreciate the work of their favorite actors and actresses, who fast became celebrities. By the end of the 1920s, the Big Five and the Little Three movie studios were producing films that audiences watched at movie palaces, which had replaced the smaller Kinetoscope parlors and nickelodeons. Movie going had become a part of daily life for many Americans.

Learning Outcomes

After completing this lesson, you have the knowledge to:

  • Describe the early inventors and inventions leading to moving pictures
  • List some of the earliest motion pictures, stars, and studios
  • Recall early directors and their innovative techniques
  • Create a timeline that tracks the advent of early Hollywood cinema
Introduction of Sound to the Film Industry