Fun & Interesting Facts on the Origins of Cinematography

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The History of Cinematography

“the cinema is an invention without a future.” - Louis Lumière

Cinematography is a broad combination of artistic techniques and camera technologies, which includes everything from aspect ratio, framing, lighting, camera movement to lens, focal length, and even the film/ tape stock or video/ digital storage devices used. The term, “cinematography” derives from Greek origins, a combination of the words, ‘kinema’ (meaning movement) and ‘graphein’ (to record).

Originally, ‘cinematography’ referred to motion picture films, but today, considering the numerous technological advances and improvements, cinematography is also synonymously used with shooting with digital video and HD equipment. Remarkably, even before any type of technological advancements were created, the idea of moving images, dates back to thousands of years ago when our ancestors told stories by campfires and drew pictures on cave walls. Over time as our technology and the understanding of light and moving images grew, so did the idea of learning new ways to record and exhibit moving images.


Beginning with early technologies such as the camera obscura, Zoetrope, Kinetoscope, cinematograph, Mutoscope, Vitascope, the art and use of cinematography initially took many years to develop. This wasn’t something that happened over night! Before movies could be created, first came an understanding of how the human mind comprehends seeing a series of still images (Persistence of vision).

Motion pictures, or rather, the technique of recording movement, was not invented by any one sole individual. It took countless inventors and creators, from Aristotle’s depiction of light and shadows (and the early conception of what later was coined camera obscura by Kepler), to inventors such as William Dickson and Thomas Edison (camera housing/ machine for film to pass); George Eastman (film emulsion); Thomas Armat and Maybridge (shape and placement of the camera); and Frenchmen Louis and Auguste Lumier (aka the Lumier brothers) (pioneered moving snapshots and created a series of over 1500 short films, and color photography, among others). (The gears in the camera that pulled the film through was technology borrowed from clockwork.) Eventually, cinematography would require, not just incorporating the technological advancements of the period, but also using a creative, aesthetic approach.


The First Films

In 1888, Louis Le Prince directed the very first motion picture titled “Roundhap Garden Scene”, a mere two seconds in length! It wasn’t until 1895 when the Lumier Brothers had the first paid exhibition screening of their short films at the Le Grand Cafe in Paris, when the process of production-distribution-exhibition was distinguished. This was the known birth of not only cinema but the motion picture industry as well.

Early films were on average 30 seconds to a minute in length, and consisted of static frames (without camera movement), wide shots, and depicted everyday events or subject matter. In 1895, the Lumier brothers shot “The Arrival of a Train”. It was a short clip of a train pulling into a train station, exiting frame right. As simple, insignificant and mundane it may appear today, this was innovative, original and spectacular to watch at the time!

The angle at which the brothers set up the camera was dynamically composed, giving the impression that the train was coming toward the camera. In fact, when “The Arrival of a Train” was first screened in France, audience members were terrified and literally believed the train was going to fly right out of the frame and run them over! Many had to cover their eyes!

In 1896, George Méliès, a French magician (also referred to as the “Cinemagician”), started shooting a series of over 500 short films in his glass-enclosed studio for the sole purpose of creating illusions with elaborate stage decorations and lattern-slide projections (he studied after the famous magician Houdini). It was Méliès who would give birth to the first known special effects used in films. In fact, most of his special effects were discovered by accident!

Over the years, technological advances in the industry, such as the use of light and shadows, 3-D films, special camera effects, CGI, HD technology, etc. would add to the art of cinematography; however, unknown discoveries in cinematography are still waiting to be found!

Fun Facts:

In the early motion picture age before an organized structure or specific job roles were defined, cinematographers were the sole creators of the entire film production on the set. They were also the directors on the set.

Today, cinematographers are also known as the Director of Photography (D.P.) and their responsibility on a set is to oversee, not just the camera department, but also the grip and lighting departments.

Nestor Studio was the first movie studio in Hollywood (built 1911)

The first film shot in Hollywood was “In Old California”, directed by D.W. (David Wark) Griffith (1910)

The first Hollywood feature film (film shot by Nestor Studio) was “The Squaw Man” (1914)

The first motion picture company in the U.S. that shot and exhibited films was The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (1895-1928)

Because Thomas Edison owned patent on the rights of movie making, in 1913 movie-makers moved west to avoid fees.

The first female director of the motion picture industry was Alice Guy-Blache (pronounced a-LEES ghee). She’s also known to be the first director of the first alleged fictional feature film (1896 - The Cabbage Fairy).

Links to check out: - film/ video professionals & students ASC (American Society of Cinematographers)