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Empire Film Studies 101

From Edison to Griffith: 26 easy steps to becoming an early cinema buff

As Alien’s John Hurt will tell you, births can be painful things. But when the moving picture popped out of the tummy of the 19th century and scurried off in the general direction of Paris, London and California, the only sensations were novelty and excitement. As the new medium took shape, pioneers like the Lumière brothers, Eadweard Muybridge and Georges Méliès blew minds and popped eyeballs with whirring, humming contraptions that projected moving images as if by a kind of devilish sorcery. As Empire’s Film Studies 101 gets underway, it’s time to go back to the very beginning. Welcome to a wonderful world of inventors, contraptions, nickelodeons, even a magician or two. Don your scrubs for the birth of cinema.


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L'Arrivée D'Un Train En Gare De La Ciotat

If this historic short, one of the very first projected films in movie history, was released now we'd like to think it'd be called Louis Lumière's Panic Station. Baldly subtitled "Lumière No. 653", its brief footage reverberated through the infant art form like a shockwave. The train pulls into the station. The train stops. The man in the hat glances into the camera. There's no sign of either Denzel Washington or Chris Pine. Nothing explodes. Regardless, audiences in 1895 gasped as the action unfolded over 50 short seconds. Famously, although probably apocryphally, a gathering in Lyon turned from the screen in raw terror, expecting the locomotive to crash through the proscenium. Martin Scorsese's Hugo - your first homework, folks - lovingly recreated this scene and captured the unique thrill of cinema's earliest actioner.

The Biograph Company

The Biograph Company

If you know that D. W. Griffith’s motion picture house was called The Biography Company, congratulations, you’re a proper film buff. If you know that its full name was ‘The American Mutoscope And Biograph Company’, congratulations, you’re Pauline Kael. The Biograph was set up in 1895 by W. K. L. Dickson, disgruntled ex-employee of Thomas Edison, with the help of two inventors (Herman Casler and Henry Marvin) and a business-minded individual named Elias Koopman. Up until its bankrupcy in 1928, its output of more than 3000 shorts and 12 feature films helped drive cinema forward, launching the careers of Blanche Sweet, Lillian Gish, Lionel Barrymore and Mary Pickford along the way, and giving Griffith scope to refine filmmaking ideas like the close-up, the cross-cut and flashback. It also helped foster a much less savoury notion – the monopoly – when it joined forces with Thomas Edison to form the Motion Picture Patents Company to squeeze competitors out of the American market.


Poor and "not especially gifted", at least academically, New Yorker George Eastman hardly seemed bound for glory as a young, $15 a week bank clerk. Years later as a wizened businessman with a company, Eastman Kodak, bearing his name, riches accrued and mighty success achieved, it's safe to say he'd proved those judgments a little hasty. His creation of a commercial transparent roll of celluloid made Thomas Edison's camera possible. "Putting film on a roll rather than a slide was a pretty good idea," he might have thought to himself, sipping from his diamond-encrusted goblet. "I wonder why no-one else thought of it?" Or, at least, he would have done had he not been a mighty philanthropist who gave away most of his wealth - $100m in total - by the time of his death in 1932.


Daedalum It's better known as the zoetrope but Bristolian maths teacher William George Horner originally named his magical viewing box after ill-fated Greek flying fellow Daedalus. The device, which created the illusion of motion using painted images and a spinning drum, built on the advances of the Belgian-born phenakistoscope, opening it to a communal audience. For 19th century punters, the affect must have been akin to watching a Tony Scott movie through a salad spinner. Later, American inventer William F. Lincoln renamed it the 'zoetrope' ('wheel of life') and lo, Francis Ford Coppola's production company had a name.

Eadweard Muybridge

Eadweard Muybridge

With his gutsy experimentations and big Santa beard, Muybridge is justly known as the father of the motion picture. Born Edward Muggeridge to Surrey grain merchants, he moved to Gold Rush-era San Francisco, initially as an ambitious 25 year-old bookseller, then as a portrait photographer and wilderness chronicler for the US government. Like the Werner Herzog of the still photo, he went to great lengths to get 'the shot', lugging his view camera up mountains and down ravines and probably wrestling the odd bear along the way. But it was a series of sea-level snaps that brought him eternal fame. Using 12 cameras rigged up to wires and stretched across a Palo Alto race course he captured a horse in full flight, winning a $25,000 bet for ex-California governor Leland Stanford - that all four hooves are airborne simultaneously during gallop - and a place in film history. "It was a brilliant success," one reporter raved. "The horse was exactly pictured." A year later he invented the zoopraxiscope, an upgrade on the zoetrope that projected images from rotating glass disks using light from an oxy-hydrogen lantern. Basically, he can spell 'Edward' however he wants.


The idea that film could depict two events unfolding simultaneously, or that anything at all could be happening off screen, was before Edwin S. Porter's Life Of An American Fireman. The Lumière brothers got the camera rolling in the late 19th century and D. W. Griffith would soon use it to create entire worlds, but Porter was the man who established filmmaking grammar, the cross-cut in particular. American Fireman, while hardly Backdraft, rattles along apace, as a damsel in distress and her sprog await rescue from Newark's finest. She is either, (a) rescued by the brave fireman and lives happily ever after, or, (b) burnt to a cinder. Answers on a postcard!

Georges Méliès

Georges Méliès

Aside from inspiring everyone from Martin Scorsese to The Mighty Boosh, magic man Georges Méliès was the joker in early cinema's pack. A showman and theatre actor who was happiest when he was making things disappear and then reappear with a rabbit on their heads, stumbled on the film medium's potential for trickery when his patented Kinétograph camera malfunctioned while filming a street scene in Paris. "It took a minute to get the camera going again", he'd later remember. "During this minute the people, buses and vehicles had of course moved. Projecting the film, I suddenly saw an omnibus change into a hearse and men into women." Aside from making an early version of Tootsie, Méliès had unwittingly invented special effects - the sleight of hand that would power cinema's creative Allspark. His lunar adventure Trip To The Moon, depicting France's space programme circa 1902 and its encounter with surprisingly fragile xenomorphs the Selenites, employed his new techniques to presto top-hatted astronauts into space and back. Regardless of whether you view it as narrative storytelling or gimmickery as some Méliès critics have suggested, it's a landmark in sci-fi cinema.


Movieland strode boldly into its first era of giganticism in the 1910s. Filmmakers like D. W. Griffith and Giovanni Pastrone, the James Camerons and Ridley Scotts of the 1910s, corralled unwieldy visions onto the screen. It was an time when, if people talked about "the elephant in the room", they were usually referring to an actual elephant - and often more than one. The sets of Pastrone's Cabiria and Griffith's Intolerance resembled small cities peppered with mini zoos, with leopards and monkeys prepping for their scenes, and the directors busying themselves with complex new camera moves. One, a slow zoom on Ancient Babylon in Intolerance, was initially planned for a platform on a hot balloon until physics and the threat of fiery death intervened. The film had 16,000 extras and required $2m of Griffith's own funds - and bear in mind this was all 50 years before the invention of Valium. Griffith regularly acknowledged his debt to Pastrone - Cabiria, which lent its name to Fellini's Nights Of Cabiria, comfortably stands up - but it's Birth Of A Nation and Intolerance that did most to create the blueprint for the modern blockbuster.


The story of the intertitle (or title card) kicked off with R.W. Paul's short Scrooge, Or, Marley's Ghost in 1901. It became silent cinema's main means of communicating dialogue and imparting exposition to audiences, but could also deliver its own emotional punch in upper-case nickelodeon as with the final card of Chaplin's City Lights ("Yes, I can see now") or Murnau's Nosferatu ("The ship of death had a new captain"). There was even an Oscar for the art at the first ever Academy Awards in 1929, although no record was kept of how the heck that speech was delivered. The advent of the talkies meant that, with the odd exception like Michel Hazanivicius's The Artist, intertitles would soon disappear like one of Murnau's famous Sunrise dissolves.

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