Long before film existed the human mind had the ability to play out visual narratives based on the physical constraints of our eyes. Film is an externalization of that ability, where we see outside of our bodies what had previously be confined in our minds. But when did we start creating films and pursuing the capture of movement?

Tom Gunning introduced the term «cinema of attractions». As he puts it:

«the cinema of attractions solicits a highly conscious awareness of the film image engaging the viewer’s curiosity.»

Instead of having the audiences focusing on the narrative, films encourage the audiences to remain aware of the act of looking, the impulse and excitement from the image. Obviously, this is very true for the early cinema, when there is not really a narrative involved in the films. Film was first invented to create visual pleasure. At this stage the camera is still, usually only at one angle mimicking theatrical representations.

1890s. The idea

Back in the 1890s, wealthy tycoons had a dispute on whether a horse ever had its four legs up when galloping or not and hired Muybridge to photograph every instant and capture its movement. This is the first time movement was purposely exposed to a camera and the catharsis that will lead to moving pictures.


1900s. The early approaches

Americans will say that Edison invented cinema, while Europeans will say it was the Lumière Brothers. In my opinion, although I may also be unwillingly biased, cinema must imply projecting/broadcasting, and thus I credit the Lumière Brothers for it. But let’s not forget Edison’s implication.

Thomas Edison

After having seen what Muybridge was able to capture from the horse’s movement, Thomas Edison established in the U.S.A. its own studio, usually referred to as The Black Maria. Interested in spectacle, he would shoot short movies in the dark environment of The Black Maria, and would later project them in a Kinetoscope for the public to see. The Kinetoscope was his and his colleague’s (William Kennedy Laurie Dickson) own invention to be able to recreate action. This early motion picture device was designed for films to be viewed by one individual at a time through a peephole viewer window at the top of the device. It was, therefore, not a movie projector, but it introduced the basic approach of cinema, by creating the illusion of movement by conveying a strip of perforated film bearing sequential images over a light source with a high-speed shutter.

Lumière Brothers

Although The Lumière Brothers are known as the first filmmakers in history for mass media productions, they patented the cinematograph on 1895, a newer version from Léon Guillaume Bouly’s 1893 patent. On the contrary to Edison’s approach, the cinematograph did have a projector to screen the movies, and their films were based on everyday life events, even traveling around the world to bring to Europeans «actualities» of other cultures. Effects, if any, were merely accidents, like the film Demolition of a Wall (1896) that was played backwards becoming the first reverse motion film in history.

Actualities are mainly common events that have no narrative or script. Probably their most important film is The Arrival of the Train at the Station (1885). A simple film of a train entering the station was projected and enjoyed my many as something extraordinary, and it was for the time. Some say people, not used to moving pictures, ran out of the theatre in terror, but that’s nonsense. Remember these movies were black and white and one does not instantly think a train is coming up and «oh hey, I’m colorblind». People knew what were in for and enjoyed the time at the theatre. Although most of the Lumière Brother films were non-scripted, there is an exception. The Watered Watered (or The Sprinkler Sprinkled) (1895) is the first scripted comedy to be projected. It portrays a simple practical joke in which a gardener is tormented by a boy who steps on the hose that the gardener is using to water his plants, cutting off the water flow. Louis Lumière used his own gardener, François Clerc, to portray the gardener.

Other films by the Lumière Brothers include:

La sortie des usines Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Factory)

and Repas de bébé (Baby’s Meal)

George Mèlies. The magician of cinema

The Lumière Brother stated that:

«cinema is an invention without any future»

and sold their camera to George Mèlies, who would become the father of special effects. He sought to present spectacles of a kind not possible in live theatre. That is the reason behind so many primitive cinematic effects in his productions that were, at the time, surprising and enchanting.

In his film Trip to the Moon (1901), objects and people suddenly appear and disappear in an effect now known as stop motion. He came to this idea after processing a film that got jammed, and understood that there was an infinite world of possibilities in film by manipulating and distorting time and space. These tricks had to be accomplished in the camera, while filming; prior to the mid-1 920s, few laboratory manipulations were possible. George Mèlies also pioneered double exposure and fading, by dragging the lightly processed end of a film strip onto the beginning of the next, thus creating a cross-dissolve effect between the two.

In order to be able to control the mise-en-scène and cinematography of his films, Mèlies built a small glass­ enclosed studio.

Edwin S. Porter

Porter was a film projectionist and an expert at building photographic equipment. In late 1900, he went to work for Edison, whom he greatly admired. He was assigned to improve the firm’s cameras and projectors. That year the Edison Company built a new glass­ enclosed rooftop studio in New York, where films could be shot using the typical painted stage-style scenery of the era. In early 1901, Porter began operating a camera there. At this point in cinema history, the cameraman was also the film’s director, and soon Porter was responsible for many of the company’s most popular films.

He tried to emulate Mèlies’s trick photography and incorporated these techniques into his productions. He would extensively use mattes to mask out parts of a frame. In The Great Train Robbery (1903), film that would become the most influential of that decade, he creates a background for the train window by actually cutting away the window from every frame and overlapping the film strip onto a different one. Also, he does use different shots or camera angles (eleven in total) in one single scene and introduces the concept of inter-cutting (or cross-cutting) between to two events that happen simultaneously in different locations. Although Porter never cuts back and forth among these locales, a few years later filmmakers would begin to do so.

Next: 1900s: The Beginning of Cinema Industry in Europe

Author: Bea Cabrera

Freelance Filmmaker with a passion for big cities, snowboard, cinema and a weakness for the smell of freshly ground coffee. Engineer & Graphic Designer in a previous life, loving and living both: art and technology.  

One Reply to “Cinema of attractions in the 19th Century.”

  1. 1900s: The Beginnings of Cinema Industry in Europe | Obsessive Coffee Disorder says: November 22, 2015 at 5:21 am

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