The journey of motion pictures is a long story of experimentation and innovation which goes from the Kinetoscope in 1891 to the modern 3D IMAX technology. We can say that the illusion of movement by recording and subsequent rapid projection of many still photographs on a screen is cinema. Though it began in the 19th century as a scientific undertaking, this art form has now become a booming industry of entertainment and communication that employs millions of people.
In 1891, the Edison Company in the US invented a device called the Kinetoscope that allowed a single person at a time to view moving pictures. This inspired the Lumiere Brothers to create and showcase the first cinema in Paris, in December 1885. A small, unedited clip of a train moving towards a station left the Lumiere Brothers’ paid audience awestruck.
Initially, films were shorter than a few minutes and were projected in darkened rooms, accompanied by music. Georges Milies, a professional magician in France was enchanted by the illusionist possibilities of cinematography and bought an animatograph projector in 1896. After that he made around 500 movies till 1913 using stop motion method.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a rapid rise in the number of cinema production and distribution companies in Europe and America. This led to a humongous number of theaters which allowed the majority of the public in those nations to view motion pictures.
Multiple reel films had appeared by 1907 and in 1909. Vitagraph produced and released a five-reel film called The life of Moses, which was released in a serial form at the rate of one reel per week. Until World War 1, European cinema was dominated by France and Italy.
D.W.Griffith, a revolutionary filmmaker has been titled – The father of film technique, The man who invented Hollywood, and The Shakespeare of the screen. Griffith experimented on and invented the concept of film editing, that is, cutting and joining two shots together. He discovered multiple camera angles like close up, long shot, and medium shots and by combining these, he created a dramatic narrative to the cinema. In 1915, Griffith released a film called The birth of a nation, which contained 1544 separate shots and was hailed as a hallmark achievement for its complex artistic narrative.
After World War 1, a new technique grew around Europe called the German Expressionism. This method used decor and lighting effects to create a highly subjective mood. Most of these films were made in a studio and were along the tropes of fantasy and horror. An ideal example of a movie in this style is F. M. Murnau’s Der Januskopf.(This movie is an adaptation of the classic book Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde written by Robert Louis Stevenson.) Fritz Lang who mastered the form of Expressionism made a futuristic masterpiece called Metropolis, in 1926, which is hailed as one of the the greatest science fiction movies ever made.
After the fall of the Czar/Tsar in 1917, the Soviets gave prominence to the art of cinema and thousands of nationalist films were sponsored by the government. Lev Kuleshov, a teacher at a Russian film institute called the VGIK, tried juxtaposing short shots together to create an understanding of a bigger meaning. This was called the Kuleshov Effect.
This effect led to the creation of an editing technique called the Soviet Montage. The Soviets coined this term from a French verb – monter – meaning To assemble. Kuleshov’s two most brilliant students – Sergei Eisenstein and Pudovkin are some great filmmakers. Eisenstein created a modernist theory of editing based on the Marxist dialectic. His most effective use of montage is seen in the scene called The Odessa Steps, from the 1925 movie, Battleship Potemkin.
At the post-World-War 1 period, slapstick comedy emerged in the USA, pioneered by Charles Chaplin who was an experimental filmmaker. Chaplin never scripted his films, as he chose to shoot on instinct and edit afterwards.
Before the second World War, there were two revolutions in the field of cinema. Sound began integrating with movies and color films started to arise in the form of Technicolor. Citizen Kane was a prominent film in the 40s that had sound in the form of dialogues. Alfred Hitchcock, a famous British director made terrifying use of his sound effects to convey emotions. He introduced the Film noir concept.
From the 50s, films became phenomenons and the advent of television expanded the motion picture industry. In Italy, a concept called Neo-realism came into place. This style started from places ravaged by the World War and it visually narrated the stark contrast in the society between the extremes of classes. It repulsed from the artificial showy life of Hollywood and showed the struggles of the common man’s reality. An example of this style is the 1948 Italian movie The Bicycle Thief. This Italian movement had affected movements like the British Social Realism, the Brazilian Cinema Novo, and the French and Czech New Wave.
In Japan, a legendary director, Akira Kurosawa created a narrative technique called Rashoman, from a film with the same name. In this method, he used the narratives from the perspectives of multiple characters to recreate a single incident, to show all the angles of a story. This technique has been recreated in Hollywood in the last decade with a movie called Vantage Point. Kurosawa’s popular movie Seven Samurai, has been remade by Hollywood multiple times under the title The Magnificent Seven, where the Samurai trope has been shifted to a Wild West setting.
In India a director named Satyajit Ray created the Apu trilogy which has been associated with Italian Neo-realism. Ray is a director who’s hailed as the greatest by Kurosawa himself.
The later Hollywood cinema was revolutionized by great directors like Stanley Kubrick and Francis Ford Coppola who both had a keen eye to detail and were critical of their society. Recent directors like Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie have revolutionized storytelling in cinema. Tarantino experimented and created unique narratives in movies like Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill. Ritchie has mixed contrasting genres and created new styles of cinema in the movie Snatch.
In the present day, there are technologies like Dolby surround sound, 4K audio, IMAX 3D and even 4D entertainment has evolved and split the art of cinema into numerous branches and sub-branches. No matter how much technology develops, good films which come out will be the creations of artistic and innovative minds which continue to experiment to explore further into the visual narrative.
– Ananthsimha M.A. (Kronos)