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Essay: Film making became an art form, rather than a science.

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Ever since the invention of the camera and the discovery of image capture, society has found many uses for photography. As are most new inventions, the camera was tried and tested in labs and went through countless experiments before becoming commercially available. However, this didn’t stop people and companies attempting to perfect their own. In this report I will be breaking down the historical timeline of the camera and it’s uses in art and science, and comparing the differences and how film making has progressed from a science to an art form.

Invention of the first still images

Although the person credited as creating the first film camera is hotly debated, there is a basic timeline, which involves the discovery of still photography first in 1826 by Joseph Niépce. At the time, Lithography (a form of ink printing involving oil and water) was sweeping Niépce’s home country of France. As a self confessed inventor, Joseph went to work experimenting with the process until he managed to develop the first, and longest surviving photograph in history. He coined his new photographic technique as ‘Heliography’ and used a Camera Obscura, also known as a pinhole camera, to produce the image. The phenomenon known as Camera Obsucra has been around since the 1500s, and has been experimented by many, including Leonardo DaVinci. The process involves allowing a small amount of natural outdoor light into a dark room through a small hole in one wall and a variety of mirrors. On the opposite wall of the room, the image is formed of whatever is outside of the room and is inverted and back to front.

However, Niépce’s success wouldn’t last long, as once the news of his success got out many other inventors decided to try their hand and photography. One such man was named Louis Daguerre, who was a fellow French inventor. In 1829 Niépce and Daguerre signed a ten-year partnership together. Whilst Niécpe continued to focus strictly on Heliography, Daguerre branched out and discovered the infinitely more successful (both historically and commercially) ‘daguerreotype’. It wasn’t until Niécpe’s death in 1833 that Daguerre started to finally see some results. In 1839 Daguerre revealed his first daguerreotype to the public. Instead of using photographic paper, daguerreotypes were printed on sheets of silvered copper plates. The detail was sharp, but daguerreotypes themselves were heavy and cumbersome. However, this didn’t seem to matter as they would go on to be the main method of capturing images until 1860, despite their high cost.

Early motion picture

The first time a ‘moving image’ was ever captured was in 1878 by Eadweard Mubridge. The experiment capturing multiple still images of a moving target, which in this case was a horse. Sallie Gardner at a Gallop, also known as The Horse in Motion is made up of several still photographs, that when put together replicate the movement of a horse running. The original purpose of the experiment was to find if horses lifted all four hooves off the ground while galloping, and as a result was heavily funded by race track owners. However, it was its technological prowess that cemented its place in history. The process was incredibly complex, and involved several tripwires that when triggered would close the shutter and capture an image. Several of these were set up so that when a horse ran through them, each tripwire would capture a separate image. These results were a technological breakthrough, nothing like this had ever been done before. Mubridge’s work set in stone the importance of stop motion images, and laid the ground work for those who would refine this process later.

Building on Mubridge’s work, French inventor Louis le Prince was working on his own experiments with motion picture, and in 1888 he produced results that credit him for producing the oldest motion picture film in existence. The film is entitled Roundhay Garden Scene and Leeds Bridge and simply shows a group of people walking around in circles. Le Prince’s project had been shot using film, whilst Mubridge printed out his images and stuck them to rotating board in order to make the images move. Le Prince’s results would prove more valuable, and is credited today as ‘the father of motion picture’. Despite only a ten-year gap between the two projects the technological jump was quite large. As mentioned, Mudbridge’s process involved several trip wire activated single shot cameras. The images had to be then developed, and stuck to a special rotating rack (zoopraxiscope) in order for the images to be viewed

Le Prince’s camera made use of 16 lenses, which were used to capture sequential photographs. These photographs captured the object/people in frames movement throughout the frame. Louis would then go on to perfect this technique and create a single lens camera that was smaller and more manageable. Although he was successfully able to capture moving images with his cameras, he hit the next obstacle which was screening the films. Investors were interested in his camera, but found its use limited if ‘no one could watch the films after’. Louis worked on projection techniques up until he managed to get his first public screening in 1890 in New York. However, neither Le Prince or his camera ever made it to the event and he was never seen or heard from again. As unfortunate as Louis Le Prince’s disappearance was, his interest in capturing and publically screening film seemed to have gained popularity. Although films were experimental and non fiction at this point in time, a small market was starting to develop for those who wanted to watch these short factual films in their spare time. This was the start of early cinema.

Origins of Early Cinema

As the end of the 1800s approached, the United States was quickly becoming one of the largest colonial powers at the time. The resulting wars, including the Spanish-American War in 1898, allowed the United States to seize control of a multitude of Spanish speaking countries, as well as countless others. According to Thompson and Boardwell in their book Film History: An Introduction (2009), just some of the countries were the likes of ‘Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, and part of Samoa’ (Thompson and Boardwell, 2009, p.1). Due to shortages and struggling economies, many non immigrants from these countries started to flock to America in the late 1890s. These immigrants would often live in large ethnic groups in and around large cities, and would prove to be a large part of the audience for the upcoming silent cinema films.

Public entertainment was becoming more popular in society. Music halls, freak shows, and circuses were incredibly popular due to their low cost and ability to entertain people of all ages. However, physically having to move circuses and equipment was quite a challenge, and become over cumbersome for many of these small business owners. Similarly, most events were far from cities, meaning most audiences had to travel quite far in order to get there. As soon as motion picture started to turn heads, the idea of a public cinema was born. It was a cheaper and simpler way entertaining audiences.

Dickson, Edison, and the Kinetoscope

One of the front runners at the time in photography and moving image scene was Thomas Edison and his assistant W.K.L Dickson. Having previously invented the light bulb and phonograph, Edison decided to venture into moving photography in 1888. Although much of the work is credited to his work to his assistant Dickson, Edison didn’t develop the idea for the Kinetoscope until he visited Paris and observed a camera that made use of flexible film strips. After seeing this, Dickson sourced his own supply of Eastman Kodak film stock and began work on would become the Kinetoscope. By 1891, the machine was ready to he shown to the world and patented. It was revolutionary, a physical box you could own to watch motion pictures on. It worked by slicing each of the film strips and inch wide (35mm) spliced the ends together, and punched holes in them so metal toothed gears could pull the film through the camera and the Kinetoscope. Although he clearly wasn’t aware at the time, Dickson’s decisions to make the film strips 35mm would ultimately influence the rest of film history, as 35mm film stock became the norm and is still used today.

Although the Kinescope was ground-breaking, Edison and Dickson needed film before they could sell their invention commercially. Together they built a s small film studio in 1893 which they coined the Black Maria, due to its resemblance black police paddy wagons that were also named the same thing. The shape of the building was unnatural architecturally, as part of the roof was slanted and opened to let in sunlight for filming. As well as that, the whole building moved on a revolving track to ensure optimal sunlight.

The films they produced at the studio were short, only lasting up to twenty seconds at a time as that was the maximum the Kinetoscope could handle. The films featured a wide variety of content, most featuring well known sports figures, dancers, vaudeville acts, bodybuilders, and even competitive shooters. These short films showcased to two subsections that separated film: fiction and non fiction. Many Kinetoscopes where shipped off to museums, universities, and libraries with the means the educate their audiences. They would show short bible style parables, information on a landmark or location, or specific information about a person or subject. However, the subject that was shown on the Kinetoscope had to be popular, as the films were costly to change and most places only could afford one or two of the machines at the time. Gradually they went on to be used in the tourist industry, providing information for tourist groups and sightseers. On the flipside of that, many Kinetoscopes were also used to show short comic strip style sketches and skits, which would ultimately become a key foundation in narrative and fictional film making. They even became a frontrunner to modern cinema, as many shop owners set up ‘entertainment parlours’ where people could come get a drink and watch short films.

Silent Cinema and the Lumiére Bothers

Louis and Auguste Lumiére are credited as the inventors who made cinema commercially available internationally. The brothers produced their own company in Lyon, France, which became the largest manufacturer of photographic plates in Europe. This all started back in 1894, when a local Kinescope exhibitor asked the brothers to make cheaper alterative short films to the expensive ones Edison was producing. Not long after, they had produced a small compact camera that they named the Cinematograph. The camera was noted for its use of 35mm film, but more over the fact that it was based on a sewing machine and made use of a similar intermittent mechanism. However, the most noticeable difference with this camera was the fact the Lumiére’s decided to shoot in 16 frames per second, unlike Edison who shot in 46 frames per second. Because of the success of the Cinematograph, 16 frames per second became the norm for the next 20 years. The first official film that was released with this technology was titled Workers Leaving the Factory, and was apparently shot in March 1895. It was shown at the ‘Society for Encouraging National Industry’ meeting in Paris on 22nd March.

On 28th December, 1895, the Lumiéres would change cinema history forever by putting on a screening at the Grand Café in Paris. Traditionally, cafes were social hotspots, where people would meet their friends, read newspapers, and, sometimes watch singers and other performances. However, when the evening arrived many upper-class patrons paid a single franc to watch a 25-minute program of 10 short films, all that lasted about 1 minute in length. The program contained a variety of films, some being non fictional recordings of events and some being comical in nature. This one event started to become a regular event in Paris, with each night reaping in moderate business. However, as the screening started to gather more traction, the Lumiéres started offering upwards of twenty showings a day. People would come from far and wide to line up to see the moving picture screenings, so the Lumiéres quickly took advantage of this and sent representatives of their company all across the world to show films and make new ones.

Meanwhile in England, a photographic equipment producer named R.W. Paul had started producing his own version of Edison’s Kinetoscope. Due to the fact Edison hadn’t patented the Kinetoscope outside the United States meant Paul was free to sell his own versions to anyone and everyone. However, since Edison only supplied legitimate licensed exhibitors with his films, Paul had to adapt and invent a camera that went along with his own version of the Kinetoscope. In March 1895, Paul had teamed up with a partner Birt Acres and had produced a fully functional camera together. However, the partnership didn’t last long, and whilst Paul continued to improve the camera and Kinetoscopes, Acres started experimenting with projection. On 14th January 1896 Acres showed some of his films to the Royal Photographic Society. As this technology was fairly new in England, people were amazed with Acres results. Among these films was the famous Rough Sea at Dover, which would prove to be one of the most popular first films shown. When asked for a review on the film, the RPS commented ‘the most successful effort, and one which called forth rounds of applause from the usually placid members, was a reproduction of a number of breaking waves, which may seem to roll in from the sea, curl over against a jetty, and break into clouds of snowy spray that seemed to start from the screen’. This exert aptly describes the reactions of those seeing motion picture for the first time. Even normal things such as watching the sea and waves on film was considered a thrill.

Projected film screenings started to become more regular in England. The representatives the Lumiére brothers had sent to England opened a successful string of the Cinematograph screenings in London on 20th February 1896, just about a month after Acre’s first screening. Paul continued to work on his camera and a projector, continuing to show his and Acres own films. However, due to the fact Paul sold his machines rather than leasing them, like most of the inventors at the time, it helped technology progress a lot quicker. By doing this, he not only spread film across Great Britain, but also helped early British film makers with machines they were unable to get access to otherwise.

The Rise of Nickelodeons

By 1905, film screenings were a common past time. They were available at vaudeville houses, theatres, and at local cafes. In the United States, a certain type of motion picture house had started to popularise. There was a rapid growth in small businesses that held around 200 people holding cheap accessible entertainment. They were coined ‘Nickelodeons’ due to the the fact it cost a nickel for entry. However, despite their popularity, nickelodeons only had one projector and would often have live performances in between the switching of films. Despite their simple setup, its argued that nickelodeons (and their equivalents in other countries) were one of the main reasons cinema was propelled into the mainstream. At the time, shorter workweeks left many people with much more free time. Nickelodeons were a cheap and enjoyable way of passing the time. Also, at this point most film producers and manufacturers started to rent their films instead of selling. Due to the fact exhibitors didn’t have to make back the money they spent on a film before making profit, it meant that they could regularly change the programs. As a result, lots of customers became returning patrons, returning regularly to watch a different selection of films.

As previously mentioned, nickelodeons and small theatres had much more advantages than other forms of entertainment at the time. They were cheaper than a vaudeville act, easier to set up and visit than a circus, and the cheap price made them available to a broader audience. Most vaudeville theatres had an admission fee of at least 25 cents, which was too expensive for most of the working class at the time. Nickelodeons appealed to a larger audience, many of them being immigrants or having low income. Due to this, most of the nickel theatres were set up working class neighbourhoods and business areas. However, they were also located in most city centres, giving everyone the chance to stop and watch some films for half an hour, many on breaks or coming home from work. As well as that, most of the films were fairly simple in nature so didn’t need intense attention from the audience. Most of the time it’d be a mix of short comics and clips of landscapes, with musical accompaniment from either a pre recorded musical track, or a live musician.

Golden Era of Film

Nickel theatres became the norm in America, and in many parts of the world as well. However, in 1910 well known director D.W. Griffith was sent by the Biograph Company to the west coast alongside his group of actors. The Biograph Company was one of the first motion picture companies invented, and was the first in the United States to be completely dedicated to film production and distribution. The success would be short lived as the company would close in 1916. When Griffith arrived in California, his crew set up to film on a vacant lot in downtown LA. Whilst on location, the crew decided to explore the local area for any more interesting locations. Eventually, they stumbled upon the small friendly village of Hollywood, who’s residents were more than happy to have a film shot there. The film that was shot; In Old California, would be officially the first movie ever shot in Hollywood. The film was a silent melodrama about California in the 19th centaury when the land was still part of Mexico. The melodrama genre was a mix of fiction and non fiction. Films would feature plots and stories based on real events, but characters and events would be over dramatized to make it more appealing to an audience. Due to the success of his first film in California, Griffith stayed there for several moths and made a large number of films before returning back to New York. News of Griffith’s success in Hollywood spread, and many film makers and directors flocked to the west to avoid the rising fees set by Thomas Edison, who owned most of the early film making patents and legal documents.

Gradually, more and more small studios began popping up in Los Angeles, with the more popular moving to Hollywood. Before the first world war, films had been made across the country in the US. However, as the industry grew, more film makers decided to move towards the west coast. This was due to a number of factors, including more reliable sunlight for filming, warmer climate, and a lot of varied scenery. It was also around this point in time where directors were starting to make longer films. However, it would be Griffith’s extremely controversial epic silent drama Birth of a Nation (1915) that would pioneer the cinematic vocabulary that is still used today. Although the film garnered controversial reviews after its negative depiction of African Americans and heroic representations of KKK members, it doesn’t change that it was one of the first commercially successful early silent ‘feature’ films, with a total run time of 3 hours 9including breaks). Ultimately more immigrants would flock to the US, often finding employment in the film industry. Many European directors also followed suit after WW1, wanting to move to the US as it was currently the main front runner in the film industry. Some directors included Ernst Lubitsch, Ronald Colman, and Alfred Hitchcock. They would ultimately join forces with the waves of home grown actors lured from New York’s acting and theatre scene, after the introduction of sound films, which had recently been invented in the late 1920s.

The Jazz Singer (1927) was officially the first film that was synchronised with voices from the actors, being successfully released as a Vitaphone talkie. Due to the fact that Warner Bros owned the technology behind the Vitaphone, many Hollywood film companies would contact them about using the technology in their own films. A side effect of ‘talkies’ was that many silent actors suddenly found themselves out of work, as many couldn’t remember scripts or had poor voices. Another drawback was that many foreign language markets rejected the films as they were two difficult to understand. Synchronization technology wasn’t advanced for dubbing. Despite this being an issue originally, American studios found a solution: creating parallel foreign language version of their own films. Cheap and unemployed actors, writers, and directors were brought in to film these parallel versions of the English language films. These parallel versions had a much lower budgets, and as a result were not as successful due to many reasons. However, it did plant the roots for foreign cinema in Hollywood.

Development of Genres and Experimenting with Visuals

By the early 1930s, the film industry was in full swing. It was now a regular occurrence for people to regularly visit a cinema or a local film theatre, and film actors were starting to become respected and idolised by society. With more and more film being funnelled into the industry, more technology was invented to make film making easier and better. Larger budget films started getting released, such as King Kong (1933) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) leading to ultimately the big budget commercialised industry that is around today. However, with new inventions especially in lighting, directors started to be artistic with their films. Horror films would become more popular, with film makers starting to learn how to use shadows to their advantage.

Early horror films in the US took inspiration from German expressionism, a style of art that made use of hard shadows, curvy and strange shaped buildings, and played with light. Ultimately, the skills that would be taken from Early horror films would be later applicable and heavily used in the 1940s when film noir became popular. For example, Arthur Edeson would start his career shooting The Invisible Man (1933), which has a lot of elements that were used in Noir films. He then took the techniques he used and brought them to The Maltese Falcon (1941), which is regarded as the one of the most well known noir films of the classic era of films. The noir genre itself emerged just after the great depression. People were still finding their feet financially, and films were expensive to produce. The style originated as being a cost effective solution, but over time as since become its own art style and genre.

By the late 1940s and early 1950s, many directors and artists had started to toy around with film as an art form. People like Alfred Hitchcock started to experiment with everything, including camera angles, colour, sound, etc. Again, this was mainly due to the advancements in film making technology. For example, previously cameras couldn’t move very far as they were quite large in size. However, smaller cameras and rigs to move them ultimately were developed to overcome this issue. Many film makers had felt restricted previously, but now that there was more technology available it was a lot easier. This would ultimately lead to the development and coining of ‘Auteur Theory’, in which director would start to develop their own visual style, meaning their films and film making style would be recognisable. Film makers adapted, making use of hard lighting, camera perspectives and, even sound.

Primary Research

The primary focus of this report is to look back through history to analyse when film making exactly became an art form, rather than a science. Since both are still strongly related, relevant research was carried out. A selection of interviews, with both the general public and industry professionals were carried out. This included not only a physical discussion, but a short survey afterward. When asked if they thought if ‘film was an art, science, or somewhere in-between’ most of the general public veered towards art. However, most people will be bias based on how they interact with and use motion picture. The general public primarily visit the cinema or stream films for entertainment and escapism. This may differ if you ask as camera engineer, who spends all day fixing cameras. When contacted with this question, the manager at APM Camera Repair in Newcastle Upon Tyne said that ‘films are a bit of both, art and tech. They’re both progressing but in different directions’. This perfectly illustrates the point of this report. Film is both art and a science, moving in alternate directions but still adapting with the times. The Media Centre staff at Northumbria University also agreed, but were again bias due to their job roles. Although there were varied comments, most agreed that ‘its science to a degree, but up until a point. After that, artistic vision takes over’. This is an interesting point, as you can’t make art without a bit of technical knowledge, and alternatively you can’t make something interesting and fresh if you follow set instructions and orders.


In conclusion, I’ve found that there is spectrum in which art and science are on either sides. Ultimately I do agree with my interview with APM Camera Repair, film making is about an equal amount of artistic ability and technical knowledge. You need a good amount of both to create an effective film. Whilst researching I also discovered many of the different uses for film making through the years, including political propaganda and advertisements. My statement is also applicable here, as a technical knowledge is required to make the film but an artistic spin is needed to add subtext and layers. Propaganda and charity adverts wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the emotional tie and investment to the cause. All in all, I believe my research went well, and yielded the results I wanted. Although I did get side tracked with the interesting history and facts about film, I’m still confident in my final result.


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