When asked to define the history of film, the task seemed simple, straightforward, maybe even… easy. However, the definition of film history is not just a click away. We quickly realised that film was not born of a singular, chronological timeline, but of many, with developments across art forms, decades and continents. Therefore, it’s not only difficult but practically impossible to define the exact start of film history.
Nevertheless, when discussing the very beginnings of film as we know it, the Lumiere brothers are generally accepted as the pioneers of the modern screening, and never fail to be mentioned. Their public and commercial screening of ten of their short films in December of 1895 is often seen as the breakthrough of projected cinematographic motion pictures, and since this, the growth of cinema has seen the art form come from humble beginnings to now being the ultimate art form – a culmination of visual, aural and literate media. Where once a man with a camera who filmed an approaching train from the platform thrilled audiences,
today’s audiences expect no less than multi-million-dollar budgets and bombastic CGI action-fests.
It is important to consider this contrast between modern and early film. Cinema today consists of paid screenings in theatres specifically designed for the projections of films. If we track back to find the first instances where film was treated this way, we would come to 1905, where the first ‘nickelodeon’ theatre opened.
Charging 5 cents for entry and allowing audiences to view films in spaces solely used for film projections, these nickelodeons only screened short films, which was the norm due to technological limitations. It wasn’t until the 1910s where, due to developments in filmmaking technology, feature-length screenings became the most common way of digesting film – perhaps the most significant step towards what we think of as cinema today.
Long before it became a medium to explore the world of fiction from a visual perspective, film gave ordinary people a platform to perform and express the events of their daily lives; the ability to write themselves into a wider history. This, in turn, gave audiences a never before seen view into the lives of biscuit factory workers in 1906, coal miners at work in 1910, and images as simple as that of a baby eating its breakfast in 1895. Whereas history before concerned monarchs, great Generals and presidents – we now have a documented history like we never had before; the history of the ordinary person.
Those actuality films of the early period share key common ground with the grand narrative cinema that would follow – the ability to enthral, and to develop the medium from simply an attraction to the ultimate art form, loved by audiences across the globe.