Interestingly, the history of cinematography originates to a great extent in the art of photography. Inventions and experiments from several photographers, scientists, and enthusiasts, have together helped develop the art and science of cinematography. Here is a brief overview FROM THE TOP!
The Jazz Singer
This was the first ‘talkies’ or a sound film with synchronized dialogs, which was released in October 1927.
What would it be like if we are watching a horror film with no background music? It would actually turn into a silent movie. This was pretty much how some of the earliest films used to be. So what was of utmost importance then was the set, lights, and acting. Literally… Lights. Camera. And Action.
The work done with the camera was the essence, as they experimented and played with lights. Also, it used to be mostly one person doing it all – the Director! No question of having a separate team for every task. With improvements in filming techniques, there emerged a different and dedicated position, called the Director of Photography, or the Cinematographer.
What is Cinematography?
It is simply defined as the art of making motion pictures. It is the science and art of using the right equipment, including the camera, lenses, lighting, filters, film stock, and creating a perfect set according to the vision of the movie being filmed. It is the skill to convey the director’s view, the script, and the larger canvas that any story is set upon. However, what cinematography is all about comes forth as and when we try to remember the most memorable scenes, or angles shot in, let’s say one of our favorite movies.
History of Cinematography
In 1824, Peter Mark Roget attempted a serious study of ‘persistence of vision’, or the concept where an afterimage persists on our retina even after the source is no longer visible. His study was collated in his scientific paper ‘Persistence of Vision with Regard to Moving Objects’. The perception of continuous motion between separate objects (phi phenomenon) is actually an optical illusion. These two basic phenomenon can be considered as the beginning of the journey towards motion pictures.
Of the few early devices that gave a glimpse of how moving images would look, included the following inventions –
Phenakistoscope: by Joseph Plateau from Belgium
Stroboscope: by Simon von Stampfer from Austria
Zoetrope: by William Horner from England
Zoopraxiscope: by William Lincoln
The Phenakistoscope invented by Eadweard Muybridge in 1893 was a disk of sequential images, that created an illusion of motion because of the ‘persistence of vision’ principle.
The art of motion pictures cannot be really pinned down to a specific point of time in history from where it all began. This field of art has been an evolutionary collectivity. Beginning with an effort to create ‘animal motion’, or recording the images as ‘moving pictures’ for the sake of scientific evidence, it gave rise to the profession of cinematography. Let’s take a look at how several curious minds set upon this journey.
1873: In 1872, the Governor of California wanted Eadweard Muybridge’s help to win a bet, by proving that in a horse’s gait there is a moment when all four hooves of the horse are off the ground at the same time. Muybridge could successfully capture or photograph animal motion using 24 cameras arranged in a series on the racing track. The camera shutters were attached with strings and laid across the track. As the horse ran, the movement tripped the wires, capturing 24 exposures.
1882: Étienne-Jules Marey, a scientist and chronophotographer, developed the photographic gun. Through this gun, it was possible to capture 12 consecutive frames within a second. Resembling a rifle, it had a lens at the muzzle, and dry photographic plates in the chamber.
Marey later used emulsified paper in place of the dry plates. Although it improved the gun to the capacity of taking 100 frames per second, the paper film could not be projected.
1887: A light-sensitive emulsion on the celluloid film was the next novelty. The base of the emulsion was thin, transparent, and strong. An American from Newark, Hannibal Goodwin, was the man behind it.
1888: George Eastman purchased the rights to Goodwin’s patented process of coating. He brought in a similar medium, which was flexible and transparent, to be used with the Kodak camera which he had developed. This film could easily be wound and exposed to intermittent motion, but it was highly inflammable too.
The earliest surviving motion picture Roundhay Garden Scene was also filmed this year. Louis-Augustin Le Prince, a Frenchman who lived primarily in Leeds, England, had shot it on paper film. He is also known to have patented a machine that could film and project pictures using a celluloid film.
1890: Inventor of the Phonograph, Thomas Alva Edison, wanted to introduce to the consumers a device which would display images as an accompaniment to the music played. Edison and his associate William K.L. Dickson designed the Kinetograph, a motion picture camera that utilized the Eastman Kodak photographic emulsion on a 35 mm-wide celluloid film.
1891: Thomas Edison patented the Kinetograph along with the Kinetoscope, which was the projector used to display the work. Arousing everyone’s curiosity, this Kinetoscope had a peephole, through which only one person could watch the movie at once.
1892: The Black Maria Studio, or the world’s first motion picture studio was opened by Edison in Orange, New Jersey. Dickson was asked to produce motion pictures for showcasing them at the Chicago exposition. He installed a trolley track here, so that he could move the camera close to or far away from the object being captured. This gives an early glimpse of the interpretative nature of cinematography.
1893: Record of a Sneeze is said to be the oldest motion picture on record at the Library of Congress. Shot by Dickson himself, it literally portrayed one of the mechanics at the studio sneezing.
1894: On April 14, the first Kinetoscope parlor opened at 1155 Broadway in New York. Over a thousand such parlors came up after a deal between Edison and Norman Charles Raff, who sold the entrepreneurial rights (through The Kinetoscope Company) to people wanting to open peepshow parlors.
Louis and Auguste, the Lumière brothers from France, inspired by the Kinetoscope they saw in Paris, thought of combining the motion picture camera and the projector into one. This inspiration led to the invention of the Cinématographe (which in Greek means ‘writing with light and motion’).
1895: At the Grande Café in Paris, for the first time people watched projected movies by paying for it. The Lumière brothers had showcased eight of their short films here. The Cinématographe became a very successful device, and gained a lot of popularity in Europe. It was imported into the United States the next year.
1896: A projector named Vitascope was developed by Thomas Armat and C. Francis Jenkins. It was the first to use the principle of intermittent motion, due to which, every frame could remain still on the screen for some time. The Koster & Bial’s Music Hall in Manhattan hosted the first public screening of this projector.
The first screening in Canada was at the West End Park in Ottawa. Edwin Porter, a former sailor, ran several screening shows in the country for the next three years. He later experimented the use of double exposures, intercutting parallel scenes, etc.
1900: By this time, Thomas Edison had the copyrights of around 500 short films, many also shot by freelance cinematographers.
1902: Natural colors were used by Edward Raymond Turner. Coloring was an expensive addition during these times.
1905: Mercury lamps, invented by Cooper Hewitt, were introduced, that rendered indoor shooting, without sunlight, possible.
1906: This year witnessed the production of the first silent animated cartoon, Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, by newspaper cartoonist J. Stuart Blackton.
1908: Kinemacolor was a color motion picture process invented by George Albert Smith of England in this year. Prior to this, movies used to be hand-colored, or machine-colored after the movie was filmed.
1915: Close-ups could now be taken without having to physically move the camera, through the Bell & Howell 2709 movie camera.
1917: Technicolor process was a contribution by Dr. Herbert T. Kalmus, also one of the founders of the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation of Boston. Cartoons like Donald Duck remind many of the ‘in technicolor’ label appearing just below the title.
1919: The American Society of Cinematographers was organized by 15 members of the Cinema Camera Club of New York and the Static Camera Club of America of Los Angeles.
George J. Folsey, an American cinematographer, for his first film, used a low-tech solution to shoot Alice Brady playing double role (twin sisters). He simply covered half of the camera’s lens by taping it with black velvet, shot one of the sisters, and rewound the film to reshoot the scene by removing the velvet covering.
1922: The Mitchell camera was introduced. Owing to its rack over viewing system, cinematographers could now compose images in line with the lens. Also, Kodak developed the panchromatic black-and-white film (it helped in doing away with the problem of lips of the actors appearing black, as the orthochromatic film used commonly was sensitive to blue or violet light only).
The Toll of the Sea was the first film using the Technicolor process.
1927: The first talkies or sound film named The Jazz Singer was released and became popular shortly. Sound films had to be synchronized, matching the recorded film and sound. This created issues for the cinematographers, as the then standardized Mitchell camera used to make a lot of noise. The camera thus had to be concealed into a bigger box-like structure, making it appear like a telephone booth. However, it could not be moved then. The invention of the ‘barney’ by a cinematographer brought some relief, as it would not catch any noise from the camera.
1930s: Wide film formats were the next improvement trying to increase the level of excitement along with the production cost.
1935: Three strip Technicolor process was seen through the movie Wings of the Morning.
1950: Eastmancolor was one of the first successful single-strip color processes. It became the standard thereafter, replacing the Technicolor.
Cinematography became a world renowned art gradually. Many cinematographers have transitioned into the role of ‘directing’. Of course, the art did not limit itself to cinema, and took the best talent behind the camera into the television industry too. Even with developments in lighting, improvisation in techniques, and the coming of digital photography, the person holding and panning the camera still matters the most.