(Chapter 2 from A SHORT HISTORY OF THE MOVIES by Gerald Mast)
Although some film historians trace the origin of movies back to cave paintings or Plato's Cave of the Shadows, the history of the movies proper begins with the steps leading to the invention of the movie camera and projector. This era in movie prehistory is the province of inventors, not artists. The nineteenthcentury mechanical mind created machines for travel, machines for work, machines for the home, and, in the process, machines for entertainment. In the second third of the nineteenth century, three kinds of mechanical experimentation began that, by the end oi the century, had combined to create the motion picture: research in the phenomenon of persistence of vision, research in still photography, and research in mechanized audience entertainments.
Movies are an optical illusion. We believe we are watching completely continuous, fluid motion on the screen. In fact, we watch short, jerky, discontinuous bits of the motion, which the eye sees as continuous because of the way the eye sees and the way the brain interprets that information. The brain retains the images of the eye for a fraction of a second longer than the eye actually records them. If it did not, we would be conscious of the hundreds of times a day that the eyelids blink. The mind has no consciousness of blinking because, although the lids cover the eyeball for a fraction of a second, the mind retains the preblink image. A variation of the same principle, known as the "Phi Effect," accounts for the way that a flashlight rotated in a circle in the darkness appears to produce a circle of light. The brain blurs the individual points of light into a circular figure. If the eye saw sixteen individual but related figures of a moving object in rapid succession, the brain would connect the pieces to make a single, fluid sequence out of them. This optical phenomenon is known as persistence of vision.
Persistence of vision makes movie action seem as fluid and continuous as live action. It cancels out the differences between the event and the recording of the event. The genuine difference between the two can easily be grasped by understanding how motion pictures record movement. The movie camera exposes a single frame at a time; each frame is a single, fixed, still photograph. The succession of frames produces the appearance of movement. To record an image on film, the camera's shutter remains open about one-thirtieth of a second. The shutter exposes, say, sixteen (the approximate, although not standard, silent speed) of these images each second. Simple mathematics indicates that one second of film thus exposed contains only 16/30ths of a second of exposed action and 14/30ths of a second of darkness (of blinking) between the frames. Whereas, in viewing, a second of film appears to be a continuous line,, _________________, it is really a discontinuousone, --------------------------, persistenceof vision fills in the blank spaces.
Persistence of vision, known by the ancients, was investigated and demonstrated by European thinkers and tinkerers between 1820 and 1835. One of the early discussions of the phenomenon was by Peter Mark Roget, author of the famous thesaurus. Another English scientist, Sir John Herschel, bet a friend that he could show the head and tail of a shilling at the same time. And then Sir John spun the coin. The eye blurred the spinning sides of the coin into a single image. In 1825, Dr. John Ayrton Paris had developed a little toy based on this same spinning-coin principle. On one side of a circular board was a parrot, on the other an empty cage. By holding the board by two attached straps and then spinning it, the viewer saw the parrot inside the cage. Again, two images had melted into one. Paris called his little toy the Thaumatrope.
Four years later, in 1829, Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau published his investigations on persistence of vision, and three years after that (1832) he marketed his own toy to demonstrate his theoretical research. Painted on a flat, circular piece of board were individual designs in slightly varying positions. When the board was grasped by a handle, held up in front of a mirror, and then spun, the individual designs became a continuous, animated sequence. In order to see the designs moving (rather than as a blur), the viewer looked into the mirror through little slits cut into the circular board of the toy. Plateau called his toy the Phenakistiscope. Plateau's researches were important, for in the course of them he discovered that sixteen images per second were an optimal number for producing continuous movement. The early filmmakers would also discover the utility of sixteen frames per second. In addition, Plateau's machine required moments of darkness, of nonimage, in order to make the images appear to move. The eye needed momentary resting time to soak in the images. A successful projector would not be invented untiLan analogy to Plateau's slits was discovered.
A German inventor, Simon Ritter von Stampfer, developed the same machine as Plateau's Phenakistiscope in the same year; he called it the Stroboscope. Based on the same principle as the Phenakistiscope and Stroboscope, many refinedversions of this toy appeared throughout the nineteenth century. In 1834, William George Homer created a stroboscopic machine that used a circular drum rather than a flat circular board. Exchangeable paper strips would fit inside the circular drum. When the viewer looked through the slits in the drum, which allowed moments of darkness, the pictures on the spinning paper strips appeared in delightfully sequential motion. Homer called his toy the Zootrope (or Zoetrope). Also in 1834, Baron Franz von Uchatius began combining stroboscopic toys with the magic lantern梐 candle-powered slide projector. Uchatius lined up a series of projectors side by side and focused them on the same screen. In each lantern was a slide with a slightly different phase of movement. By running with a torch from lantern to lantern, Uchatius threw an apparent sequence of movement on the screen. The result was the progenitor of the animated cartoon. Uchatius's experiments with lanterns continued, and by 1853 he had developed a Projecting Phenakistiscope, combining a phenakistiscopic disc with a single magic lantern. When the operator spun the disc, the lantern threw the sequential animated movement on the screen.
By the end of the nineteenth century, hundreds of variations on these toys abounded, each with its own name, either simple or ornate: Praxinoscope, Choreutoscope, Wheel of Life. All of these stroboscopic toys shared, in addition to the common use of persistence of vision, several traits that were to continue as trends in later movie history. Most striking was the inventors' passion for fancy Greek and Latin names to dignify their dabblings: Thaumatrope, Phenakistiscope, yiviscope, Zootrope.This passion for nominal embroidery would later dominate the first era of motion pictures桲inetoscope, Bioscope, Vitascope, CinCmatographe--- and beyond it梀itaphone, Technicolor, CinemaScope, television, stereophonic. Also striking is the simultaneity of discoveries by different men in different countries. Many different heads and hands applied themselves to the same problems, primarily in France, England, Germany, and the United States. Such simultaneous experimenting produced a confusion that would continue throughout the century, so that even today these four countries all claim to have invented the motion picture. The claim of each chauvinistic historian can be supported with solid evidence. The validity of each claim is contingent upon whether one defines the motion picture as invented when it was conceived, when it was patented, when it was photographed on film, or when it was projected in public.
All the stroboscopic experiments and toys used drawn figures. Before the movies could progress from stroboscopic toy to motion pictures of the natural world, the means to record the natural world had to be discovered. Simultaneous with the scientific dabblings in persistence of vision were scientific dabblings with photography.
Before there could be motion pictures, there had to be pictures. A moving picture was born from the union of the stroboscopic toys and the still photograph. The principle of photography dates back to the Renaissance and Leonardo da Vinci's plan for a camera obscura. This device literally translated as dark room ora chamber -- as a completely dark enclosure that admitted light only through a small hole. The camera projected an inverted reproduction of the scene facing it on the wall opposite. After a lens was introduced to brighten and sharpen the image, all the camera obscura needed to become a camera was a photographic plate to replace the wall. Nineteenth-century scientists set out in pursuit of this plate that could fix the inverted image permanently.
As early as 1816, Nicephore Niepce, a ,Frenchman, used metal plates to capture rather fuzzy and temporary images, which he called Heliographs. But it was another Frenchman, Louis Jacques Mand6 Daguerre, who in 1839 determined the future of photography by making clear, sharp, permanent images on silvered copperplate. The exposure time required for an image was fifteen minutes, and the first sitters for Daguerreotypes (the first photos were named after their father) had to sit motionless for fifteen minutes, their heads propped up to keep from wiggling. Before photography could become more practical, exposure time would have to be cut. There obviously could be no motion pictures, which require multiple exposures per second, until the photographic material was sensitive enough to permit such shutter speeds. (Indeed, the first still cameras did not even use a shutter.) After Daguerre's original perfecting of the basic principle, photographic stocks became faster and faster, permitting a three-minute exposure by 1841. Before thirty years had passed, the shutter had been invented and faster photographic plate allowed for exposures of minute fractions of a second. The first attempts at motion photography were posed stills that simulated continuous action. The stills were then projected with a Projecting Phenakistiscope to give the appearance of movement. But a real motion picture required a continuous action to be first analyzed into its component units and then resynthesized, rather than a simple synthesis of static, posed bits of action. The first man to break a single process into discrete photographic units was an Englishman transplanted to California, Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge, whose career was as bizarre as the spelling of his first name, was a vagabond photographer and inventor, who had been entangled in a divorce and murder scandal over his wife. In 1872, he was hired by the governor of California, Leiand Stanford, to help win a $25,000 bet. Stanford, an avid horse breeder and racer, bet a friend that at some point in the racehorse's stride all four hooves left the ground. In 1877, after five years of unsuccessful research, Muybridge set up twelve cameras in a row along the racing track. He attached a string to each camera shutter and stretched the string across the track. He chalked numerals and lines on a board behind the track to measure the horse's progress. Stanford's horse then galloped down the track, tripping the wires, and Mr. Stanford won $25,000 that had cost him only $100,000 to win.
For the next twenty years, Muybridge perfected his multiple-camera technique. He increased his battery of cameras from twelve to forty. He used faster, more sensitive film. He added white horizontal and vertical lines on a black background to increase the impression of motion. He shot motion sequences of horses and elephants and tigers, of nude ladies and wrestling men and dancing couples. He mounted his photographs on a Phenakistiscope wheel and combined the wheel with the magic lantern for public projections of his work. He called his invention -- really just a variation on Uchatius's Projecting Phenakistiscope梩he Zoopraxiscope, another very fancy name for a not-so-fancy machine. Muybridge traveled to Europe where he gave special showings of his Zoopraxiscope to admiring scientists and photographers. Despite Muybridge's imitators, and despite his international honors, his discovery was obviously a dead end. There were limits on the number of animals in motion that one could Find interesting. Muybridge's later refinements never surpassed the importance of his first set of motion photographs. Continuous motion had been divided into distinct frames, but it had not yet been photographed by a single camera.
One of Muybridge's hosts in Paris was another scientist, Etienne-Jules Marey, who was experimenting with motion photography. In 1882, Marey was to shoot the first motion pictures with a single camera. "Shoot" quite literally applies to Marey's experiment, for his camera looked like a shotgun. Marey's photographic gun is probably the etymological source of our present "shooting," which we use synonymously with hotographing. The photographic gun used a long barrel for its lens and a circular chamber containing a single glass photographic plate. The circular plate rotated twelve times in the chamber during a single second of shooting, leaving all twelve exposures arranged in a ring around the glass plate. Like , Muybridge, Marey photographed, men and animals: runners, jumpers, fencers, trotting horses, falling cats, flying gulls. But Marey's Chronophotographs produced a much more fluid analysis of motion, the finished print resembling a surreal multiple exposure. In 1888, Marey replacedthe glass plate with paper roll film, allowing more and faster exposures. Photography had reached the threshold of motion pictures.
To produce a motion picture that was more than a one- or two-second snippet of activity, a material had to be developed that could accommodate not twelve or forty or one hundred images, as Marey's eventually did, but thousands of images. In 1884, George Eastman began his experiments with celluloid roll film, which he intended to use in his Kodak still camera. By 1888 the camera and film were ready; photography, which had been the sole property of professionals, was now any man's hobby. Eastman's celluloid film became the natural material for further experiments in motion photography. This American discovery of celluloid film shifts the history of the movies back across the Atlantic from France.