CINEMATOGRAPHY HISTORYCinematography has its roots in photography. But for photography – theprocess of writing with light – cinematography would not have beenpossible.It was known several centuries ago that a convex lens produced an imageof a subject. Photography itself was not an individual’s discovery. Peoplelike Joseph Niepce, Louis Daguerre and others were workingindependently on making a permanent image during the 1820s mainly inFrance.The first permanent photograph was accomplished by Niepce in the year1826. However, the emulsion (the light sensitive chemical) was thencoated on a glass and the exposure was made using a crude camera. Theemulsion had to be wet in order to be light sensitive and the duration ofexposure was spread over a couple of hours in bright sunlight.
Niepce subsequently collaborated with Louis JacquesMande Daguerre inthe development of the worlds first practical photographic system. Theyrecorded clear, sharp images on silverized copper plates in Daguerresstudio in 1837 in France.William Henry Fox Talbot invented the first process for making positiveprints from negative images during the 1830s. Richard Leach Maddoxdiscovered that the silver halide crystal was most suited in capturinglight. His 1871 discovery was a crucial building block for modernphotography.
A simple still camera has a lens to form the subject’s image, a focalplane on which the image falls, a shutter which blocks the lightfrom reaching the film which is placed on the focal plane. While anexposure is made, the shutter opens and shuts briefly exposing thefilm to the light from the lens. This forms a latent image which isthen chemically processed to form a permanent image. Focal plane Shutter
In 1880, Eastman manufactured dry plates that maintained their sensitivity tolight. EASTMAN Dry Plates played a major role in popularizingphotography, but the former bank clerk was determined to make it eveneasier.
In England in 1887, Reverend Hannibal Goodwin invented and patenteda way to coat light-sensitive photographic emulsion on a cellulosenitrate base. The base was strong, transparent, and thin enough toperfect a process for manufacturing film on a flexible base. Eastmanpurchased the right to use that patent in 1888, and introduced theKODAK BROWNIE Camera the following year. The camera was pre-loadedwith enough film for 100 pictures.
After exhausting the 100 frames, the camera was sent toKodak, where the film would be processed and printed. A fresh rollof film was reloaded in the camera. The ad campaign by Kodak ‘youclick the button, we do the rest’ instantly popularised photography asanyone with very limited expertise could now take photographs.
The invention of flexible base combined with dryphotographic emulsion was the next major step in the birthof cinematography.
PERSISTENCE OF VISIONPersistence of vision is a character of the human eye inwhich the image falling on the retina of the eye ‘sticks’ to itfor about 1/10th of a second.A flipbook is a good example of persistence of vision. Aswe flip the pages, we get an illusion of the movement ofthe subject. Thus it was well known that a series ofimages which are slightly displaced from the adjacentones when played in a sequence would give an illusion ofmotion.
Towards the end of 1800’s it was possible to take pictures but therewas no way by which a series of pictures could be taken in rapidsuccession.Eadweard Muybridge, a photographer who migrated toCalifornia, made the oldest recorded attempt at motion picturephotography. In 1872, California Governor Leland Stanford hiredMuybridge to help him win a bet by proving that there are times in ahorse race when all four of the animals feet are off the ground.Muybridge set 24 cameras up in a row along a racetrack. He attacheda string to each camera shutter and stretched the strings across thetrack. Muybridge chalked lines and numbers on a board behind thetrack to measure progress. As Stanfords horse ran the track, ittripped the wires and recorded 24 photographs that proved that allfour of the horses feet were on the ground at the same time.
Almost during the same time, Etienne JulesMarey, was experimenting with the use of a singlecamera for recording images in motion.The camera had a long barrel that served as alens, and a circular chamber containing a singleglass photographic plate. It took Marey onesecond to record 12 images around the edge ofthe glass plate. He called his inventionchronophotography. Marey recorded movingimages of men running and jumping, horsestrotting, and gulls flying. They were permanentrecords of one to two seconds of motion.
Concurrently, Thomas Edison invented a system that recorded and played backmusic using wax cylinders. After his invention became popular, Edison got anidea for building and selling a device to consumers that displayed movingimages to accompany the music. In 1885 at his research laboratory in MenloPark, New Jersey, he assigned W.K.L. Dickson the task of finding a way to recordmoving images on the edges of records. Dickson saw the BROWNIE Camera at an amateur photographers’ club in New Jersey. He traveled to Rochester to meet with Eastman, who agreed to provide the film needed for an experimental motion picture camera. Dickson developed the Kinetograph camera and Kinetoscope projector, which Edison patented in the United States in 1891.
Kodak was then manufacturing films for stills whichwere 70mm wide. Dickson felt that if it were slicedvertically, a 35-mm width would be more suitable forfilming. Eastman supplied the film, which was perforated on both film edges, sixty-four times per foot, to engage with the Kinetograph camera’s sprockets. These basic physical specifications remain the world standard for cinematography and theatrical exhibition till date.
This camera was hand cranked todrive the film. A frame rate of 16frames/sec was determined to beproducing satisfactory movingimages. It captured 16 frames perfoot (even now!) and thus thelength of the film was equal to thefootage in seconds.
On May 20, 1891, Edisondemonstrated his projectorfor the first time when delegatesfrom the National Federation ofWomens Clubs visited thecompany’s research laboratory.
Edison directed Dickson to produce short films, typically about15-20 sec duration. Kinetoscope, however, restricted just oneperson to view the images at one time.
Thomas Edison was one of the first inventors to realize the potential that aflexible ribbon of film offered forcapturing sequential images. His cameramoved a small area of film into positionbehind a shuttered lens, held it steadyfor a split second as the shutter openedand closed to expose thefilm, accurately advanced the film, andthen repeated the whole process manytimes per second. To this day, Edison’screation is the basis for all motionpicture film cameras, in all formats.
In 1894, French brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière saw a Kinetoscopedemonstration. It inspired them to invent a combination motion pictureprojector and camera called the Cinematographe, a Greek word meaningwriting with light and motion.The Lumière brothers presented eight short films at the Grande Café in Paris onDecember 28, 1895. It was the first time that a community viewing was madepossible. It was also the first time an audience paid to see movies projected ona screen. One showed workers leaving a factory at the end of the day; anothershowed an approaching train. Lumiere bros. film
The initial films that were shot were viewed by people just for itsnovelty. It consisted of just shots of people in action, a train arrivingat a station and so on. However, such films with no ‘story’ could notbe repeated for ever.George Melies, a still photographer cum magician, cum satiristexploited the medium of cinematography by making short films witha story content. Being a magician, he was also the first one to tryspecial effects by stop-motion tricks. Between 1896 and 1914, hemade as many as 500 movies ranging from one minute to fortyminute’s duration.His most famous movie ‘A Trip to the Moon’ was a landmark moviewith special effects never seen before.
Movies shot initially had a camera fixed and actors performing in theframe. There was hardly any movement or the camera or cutting theshots. Enter Edwin Porter’s who changed the way films were made.Until he came on the scene in the early 1900s, no one had edited films;they simply shot footage and projected the results. Porterexperimented with creating a grammar for visual storytelling bymoving the camera to alter the audiences point of view. He intercutparallel scenes, created double exposures, and combined live action inthe foreground with painted and projected backgrounds.He realised that a filmmaker had the same flexibility as that of awriter, he could change the shots for better story telling, he could goback and forth in time and so on. Persistence of vision
With this newfound flexibility in film editing came another revelationthat simplified the production process—that scenes in a particularfilm do not have to be shot in a projection sequence; they can alwaysbe re-assembled later for maximum impact.Porter’s 1903 drama, the 12-minute film “Great Train Robbery” wasone of the most successful narrative films made during that era. Great Train Robbery
This was followed by other masterpieces like ‘The Birth of a Nation’,‘Intolerance’ and ‘Broken Blossoms’ by DW Griffith. Griffith moved to thenext level by incorporating cinematic storytelling techniques includingclose ups, soft focus, fade outs, and backlighting. In 1919, 21-year-old George Folsey shot his first film, His Bridal Night. Alice Brady played twins in her dual role. An ingenious idea in its day, Foleys low-tech solution consisted of black velvet taped over half of the lens while Brady played one twin. Then, he rewound the film, moved the velvet to cover the other half of the lens, and re-shot the scene with Brady playing the other twin. It worked beautifully. This technique continued to be used till the 1990s and was known as ‘masking shot.’
The popularity of radio hindered the proliferation of silent movies.During the early 20s, the need for sound was felt as absolutely necessary.Edison had already invented sound recording and playback way back in1887. However, it was not sufficient to reach the large audience seatedin a theatre.Finally, in 1926,Warner Bros. Studio developed a sound system thatproduced volume at a level that was adequate even for movie palaces.Their first offering using the new medium was Don Juan. It had a musicalsoundtrack via a phonograph record, which was mechanically linked tothe movie projector in the theater. They named their system Vitaphone.
The Vitaphoneprojector with soundreproduced through adisc.
In order to produce sufficient sound fidelity and consistency, the hand-cranked cameras were fitted with electric motors that ran at a constant speedof 24 frames per second, rather than the familiar 16 fps. Another importantadvantage, at 24 frames per second, the flicker characteristic of silent filmsdisappeared. The smooth image gave the audience about 50 percent moreimage information to absorb. The introduction of sound gave a sudden boost to films. The Jazz singer in 1927 turned out to be a box office hit. Soon the public did not patronise any film without sound and those silent films which were under production had to be converted into a ‘talkies’.
However, Vitaphone was not very successful as a perfect synchronizationbetween the picture and sound was not possible as the two were on verydifferent media. A cut and splice on the film or a scratch on the disc wouldthrow the picture out of sync with sound. Besides, the cameras were hand-cranked and therefore it was not possible to run them at a steady speed.The discs wore out quickly and broke easily. Maintaining synchronizationrequired skill during projection and often failed.
Technology had to rise to thechallenge and soon a newmethod of recording sound wasinvented. The sound trackconsisted of an optical trackwhich was imprinted on the film.An optical sound head wouldread the variations of the picturetrack and reproduce the sound.Eighty years later, this system isstill in use today although in animproved form!
Sound was indeed a great invention but recording sound created newproblems while shooting. The cameras by nature gave out a whirring soundbecause of the motor and this would also get recorded. Some technicianseven tried housing the entire camera with the tripod and crew inside aphone-booth like structure to dampen the noise and were partly successful.However, this restricted the movement of cameras!A phone booth on wheels was the next option but though it solved oneproblem, it created other problems as it restricted the creativity of thecinematographer for whom mobility is his forte.Necessity is the mother of all inventions. Soon this problem was tackled by usingsound proofing mufflers on the camera.
Mitchell, an early film camerawhich operated silently.
This arrangement worked well for some time but it is the tendency ofinnovative people to always come up with better technology. As the soundwas recorded simultaneously while shooting, the actors were constrained tostay close to the microphones. These mikes had to be avoided coming intothe picture frame. It was very difficult to get dance movements as theartists would move closer or away from the mikes thereby causing variationsin sound recording.Musicals had to be recorded with the artists themselves singing along withan orchestra that was playing. This was a great constraint and restricted thecreativity and quality of sound output greatly. Even great voices soundedbad.
Thus was born the era of playback sound. Music was recorded first andthe same was played back and the actors had to lip-sync with the lines.Busby Berkley’s 42nd Street was the first to be shot this way. The cameraand the actors were free to perform naturally.In Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’ (1940) as the barber, he shaves acustomer in tune with a radio broadcast of Johannes BrahmssHungarian Dance No. 5 which was recorded in one continuous shot –another example of very effectively using playback music.Similarly, Chaplin’s choreography with a huge balloon globe, dancing toplayback music, is one of the most celebrated sequences till date.These developments also led to the technique of dubbing voices later. Torecord sound, one had to shoot inside a soundproof studio. But with theflexibility of dubbing, the camera could now go anywhere.
The mid 1930s also saw the invention of color. However, color had its own set ofproblems. The camera was too bulky as 3 b/w negatives were simultaneously usedto shoot color. Though technically color was possible, the bulkiness of theequipment prevented color from making a major breakthrough and was restrictedonly to a few movies. In 1950, Kodak announced the first Eastman color negative film which was a single strip of film with 3 layers on top of one another responding to the 3 basic colors of blue, green and red. Films shot with Eastman color negative could then be printed onto positives for theatrical projection. Needless to say, this was another quantum jump in the way movies were made. From then on, invariably every film was shot in color.
So what was the challenge now? Indeed it was the Television. Televisionwas introduced in the 1930s and by 50s, it started challenging thesupremacy of theatrical films. The fact that a TV invaded into the drawingrooms instead of people going to theatres was a big challenge for filmmakers.This led to the development of 3-D technology. However, 3-D films relied more ongimmicks and it was felt that it was not very conducive for story telling. The era of widescreen technology thus came into being. The audience was awestruck at the magnificent screen size. Widescreen combined with stereophonic sound was a huge draw for a magnum opus. ’Lawrence of Arabia,’ ‘My Fair Lady’, ‘Sound of Music’ were some such movies which have become eternal.
From the 1950s till the mid 95s, changes in film making did happen but the basicstructure was more or less the same. Film emulsions saw tremendousimprovements. The basic structure of the camera still remained the same withsome marginal improvements. Even to this day, film technology still remains thesame and is still used extensively. After almost half a century of no major breakthrough, film making started undergoing a metamorphosis of sorts with the advent of digital media.