The Rise of Cinema

Theatre had been popular for thousands of years before the advent of film.  No doubt theatre had a profound influence on the film industry but photography had a major influence as well.  The magic lantern from the sixteenth century was one of the first inventions to resemble a modern day movie camera (Gray, 2010).  It projected images from transparencies using a candle as a light source.  A succession of technological developments followed the magic lantern that advanced the field of still photography over the next hundred years.  The first motion movie projector, called a zoopraxiscope, was not invented until 1877 when photographer E. Muybridge captured a horse running to determine whether or not it ever had all four legs off the ground (Gray, 2010).

Film, as we know it, was invented in 1893 when Thomas Edison and W. Dickson invented the kinetoscope which showed very short movies, known as peep shows (Sklar, 1994).  In the beginning, this type of entertainment was very popular with the working class, contrary to Edison’s expectations.  Due to the industrial revolution, many immigrants and poor people moved into the inner cities to work, prompting the upper white class to move to the suburbs (Sklar, 1994).  Because the working class was so busy making a living, they preferred going to amusement parks and kinetoscope parlours that provided quick and easy entertainment in their urban communities.  Theatre was known to be more aristocratic.

In 1895, the Lumière brothers, from France, finished the cinématographe which projected pictures to audiences instead of to one person with the kinetoscope (Gray, 2010).  Both of these devices were used to show vaudeville acts on film (Gunning, 1989).  Vaudeville was similar to circus acts like boxing dogs, gun spinners, performing bears etc.  Sklar (1994) says that cinématographe attendees also enjoyed scenes of unusual places and sights that they couldn’t see in their own community.  George Méliès, deemed the father of fantasy, was the first to experiment with special effects by using camera tricks to show people disappearing or objects changing size (Sontag, 1966).  However, until 1906 most films were reality-based, documenting real life or showing taped plays and operas.  Around this time, D. W. Griffith started to produce fictional films by focusing on plot and using camera shots to add dramatic effect (Champoux, 1999; Gunning, 1989).

Technology allowed film to differentiate itself greatly from theatre.  Film is a powerful communication tool due to focusing techniques, editing, camera angles etc. that create more suspense and emotional impact than what we might experience in reality (Champoux, 1999; Sontag, 1966).  Theatre does not have this same control.  Furthermore, manipulation of colour, lighting, sound effects, use of props, scene changes and newer technologies like computer-graphic imaging also distinguish film from theatre (Bay-Cheng, 2007; Gray 2010).  Often, audiences flock to movies because of the technology they advertise like 3-D effects, action scenes etc.  Gunning (1989) said that even early audiences went to see movies because of the technological inventions that were labelled on movie posters like the biograph, phonograph and vitascope.

Other characteristics of film that make it stand out from theatre are production, distribution and copyright.  Films take little time, energy and money to make and distribute to many audiences compared to theatre.  Business men recognized the potential for large profits to be made by copying a single performance and showing it to a wide audience (Allen, 1979).  Due in part to the financial gain from the expansion of the film business, there was a strong drive to protect motion pictures around the beginning of the twentieth century (Allen, 1979).  I believe that the rise from stage to cinema created new controversies over copyright much like the transition from manuscripts to print did in the sixteenth century.  Ong (2002) suggests that the advent of “typography made the word into a commodity” (p. 129).  Theatre such as vaudeville was harder to protect with copyright because the nature of acting allows it to be reinterpreted by other performers in a different style.  Film, on the other hand, can be closely analyzed for duplication as a finished product.

There has been much debate over which is more popular and why, theatre or film.  Sontag (1966) counters Nicoll who said that people prefer movies over theatre because they are more realistic.  Sontag considers theatre as very “real” because of the immediate connection between the audience and the actors.  I agree with Nicoll because movie technology allows the viewer to become more intimate with movie characters at a more personal level than they are with most people face to face.  However, I also see Sontag’s point of view that theatre enables a different relationship between actors and audience.  In theatre, actors are aware of the audience’s reaction (laughing, applauding, heckling etc.) so they can tailor or improvise their acting to appease the spectators.  To me, attending a theatre performance is more of a sensory experience due to the smells and wide views of the theatre.

Eidsvik (1973) and Bolter (2001) suggest that film and other visual technologies influence how we read and write.  For example, we imagine close-ups and camera pans as we read.  Also, writers use line-breaks and fragmented text to create film-inspired effects.  As an elementary teacher, I see various shapes, colours, sizes and layouts of text being used in poetry and picture books to create visual effects.  For example, Robert Munsch uses line-breaks to show that someone is climbing up, up, up a tree in “Up, Up, Down”.  Kong (2005) suggests that poetry was changed by the cultural influence of motion pictures between 1907 and 1918 as movies grew in popularity.  Poems were written with “resonant images, subtly arresting sounds, intriguing characters, and significant story lines” (Kawin as cited by Kong, 2005).  For example, concrete poems are designed in the shape of their subject matter.  Even though concrete poetry has been around since the early days of print (i. e. G. Herbert’s Easter Wings in 1633), it became popular in the 1950s due to authors like E. E. Cummings and S. Mallarmé (Ong, 2002).  This time period was also known as the heyday of the film industry which might have inspired authors like these to engage their readers visually.

Authors do not only need to rely on changing the physical space of text on a page to create pictures in their readers’ heads.  Visual representation of thought in the form of epithets, imagery, similes and metaphors has been around since communication was largely oral.  “Aristotle exhorted the use of mental visualization in composing coherent plot and action, in evoking emotions and in creating clear and rapid realizations in the mind of the audience” (Sadoski & Paivio, 2009).  Word combinations and figures of speech can be used to create detailed images of setting, characters and/or actions in the mind of the reader.

Films have been used as learning aids in education since the 1970s (Champoux, 1999). They can be powerful tools for promoting learning because of their ability to hold viewer attention, to bring the viewer to foreign locations, to realize history etc. (Kuzma & Haney, 2002).  Some research suggests that people learn difficult concepts more easily when they are presented in both visual and verbal form (Salomon as cited by Champoux, 1999; Zull as cited by Felton, 2008).  Teachers who choose to use film in class need to guide students to becoming visually literate.  This means looking for deeper meaning in movies instead of using them simply for entertainment.  Felton (2008) defines visual literacy as “the ability to understand, produce and use culturally significant images, objects and visible actions.”

Film is a unique genre of communication, influenced by the other arts that came before it.  The medium is forever undergoing technological and style changes which both reflect and affect our culture.  Film created “new modes of leisure, behaviour, desire and consciousness” (Sklar, 1994, p. 18) due to the combination of technological advances and the depiction of culture in film.  Today, educators should use this popular medium to engage students who are used to living in a very visual world.


The Rise of Cinema
All images in video copied from Flickr’s Creative Commons.


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Bay-Cheng, S. (2007). Theatre squared: Theatre history in the age of media. Theatre Topics, 17(1), 37-50. doi: 10.1353/tt.2007.0001


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