The Cinema in Flux follows a vision of cinema’s technological evolution in alignment with that of a number of modern cinema scholars. But not so long ago, for others who have written about it, cinema begins with inventions of Eastman’s film, Edison’s camera, and the Lumières’ Cinématographe, notions that have contributed to the popular view of the subject. This impression is conveyed by dutifully noting that the magic lantern is a preamble to the big event, relegated to the archeological nether regions of “pre-cinema,” which include prehistoric cave paintings, along with nods to Chinese, Indian, and Javanese shadow puppet shows. The idea that the era of the magic lantern is not pre-cinema but cinema itself, and not some archaic backwater, is based on the most fundamental definition of cinema technology, which in my view is the projection of motion.
By acknowledging that cinema originated in the mid-17th century a richer story emerges. Moreover, in addition to the technological linkages there are creative and aesthetic connections worth exploring between the cinema of real motion and the cinema of apparent motion—between the Glass (magic lantern slides were painted on glass) and the Celluloid Cinema Eras. Further, since we are now fully immersed in the third epoch of cinema, the Digital Cinema Era, it becomes even more apparent that we need a different and more inclusive view of cinema, precisely because its enabling apparatus has been so thoroughly transmogrified. Links between magic lantern practice and the celluloid cinema have a relevance that somehow goes unrecognized. In fact, fades, dissolves, zooms, wipes, and pans, were invented by the lanternists, as was the basis for cell animation. Even motion or performance capture, a mainstay of digital cinema effects, was invented in the twilight days of the Glass Era by chronophotographer Étienne-Jules Marey. In many cases these techniques and devices arrived a century or more before celluloid cinema filmmakers either emulated or rediscovered them.
The essence of cinema narrative, the montage, was invented by the storytelling lanternists who used the juxtaposition of slides to tell a story. Another link between the two eras, that of the Glass Cinema and the early Celluloid Cinema Eras, is that lantern projections of moving images were accompanied by musicians and actors voicing parts, who also sang and helped with sound effects. The magic lantern and the early celluloid cinema were live performance arts using the same presentation strategies. Their commonalities extend to the lanternists’ performance art and the operation of their slide projectors. They must have adjusted the rhythm of changing their slides to interact with audience reactions in a way that was one day practiced by early film projectionists who varied the speed of their handcranked 35 mm projectors. While it might be argued that these kinds of correspondences are the result of convergent evolution, lanternists’ performances continued into the first decade of the 20th century and were seen by early filmmakers.
The definition of cinema as the projection of moving images can be modified in this, the Electro-Digital Era, to take into consideration the ubiquitous flat panel display. However, the definition of cinema as the projection of motion embraces most of the territory covered in The Cinema in Flux and applies from its inception to the present. Based on this definition I subscribe to the belief that cinema began in earnest in the mid-17th century with the invention of dioptric or refractive projection. Catoptric or mirror projection, which proceeded dioptric projection, involves images painted on reflecting surfaces, while refractive projection, as embodied by the magic lantern, the original slide projector, was used extensively to project images in motion from transparencies on glass. The reflection based projection technique has lain fallow for three and half centuries but today underpins the image engine to be found in the great majority of theatrical projectors, the digital micromirror device (DMD). However, the dominant form of projection these past centuries, until relatively recently, uses the projection of transparencies, which was invented by Christiaan Huygens in 1659.
Sir David Brewster (1781–1868),whose name will appear again in these pages, might well have been referring to the magic lantern when in 1832 he wrote: “Those mechanical wonders which in one century enriched only the conjurer who used them contributed in another to augment the wealth of the nation; and those automatic toys which once amused the vulgar, are now employed in extending the power and promoting the civilization of our species” (Walsh, 1832). The magic lantern is the mechanical, optical, and aesthetic foundation of its successor, the celluloid cinema, but for most of its history, it used real motion, the motion that we perceive in the everyday world, as opposed to apparent motion, which is produced by a series of incrementally different related frames, the technique used by both in the Celluloid and Digital Cinema Eras. From inception the magic lantern achieved motion on screen by moving all or parts of its colorful hand painted slides. The simplest example is based on the movement of the slide itself as it is slid through the projector’s gate in order to produce a pan; another real motion technique used two-dimensional puppets on what are known as mechanical slides.
What became the most flexible approach for creating the illusion of motion, using a sequence of still images of the “phases of motion,” was suggested by Johannes Zahn in 1686 or 1687, and was actualized by Joseph Plateau in 1832, not for projection but rather for direct viewing using the spinning phenakistoscope, the progenitor of the more familiar zoëtrope, both of which became popular novelty items. The phenakistoscope was the basis for subsequent apparent motion technology including its adaptation to the magic lantern. In the 1850s photographic technology had improved to the point where it was used for making slides for magic lantern projection, allowing it to replace drawings of the supposed phases of motion, an important step toward the creation of the celluloid cinema. These slides were projected with modified magic lanterns to produce the illusion of apparent motion, culminating in the remarkable projections of Ottomar Anschütz to audiences of hundreds in Berlin, on a big screen, immediately prior to the invention of the celluloid cinema. By the later part of the 19th century, an era that film histories call the Victorian Cinema, Anschütz’s fellow inventors recognized they had a problem, saddled as they were with inflexible glass as a storage medium for apparent motion projection; like the slides used for Anschütz’s Projecting Tachyscope, they simply were not suited for extended projection time.
The work of French physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey directly contributed to the creation of the celluloid cinema and greatly influenced the work of Thomas Edison who, at precisely the right moment, had the good fortune of having the first supply of thin and flexible celluloid in useable lengths coated with a photographic light sensitive emulsion—in other words film, supplied by George Eastman. Edison and his hands-on assistant and photographic expert, William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, improved on Marey’s work by adding perforations to film for indexing capability so that their Kinetograph camera positioned each successively exposed frame in the same relative position with good precision, without which making prints and projection are impractical. Edison, at first, was only interested in exhibition based on his Kinetoscope peepshow machine, discounting projection because he (correctly) believed it would compete with Kinetoscope parlors. His resistance to projection was a gift to other inventors, entrepreneurs, and competitors, as was his disinclination to legally protect his work abroad.
The 35mm format designed by Dickson became the basis for an internationally acclaimed art form and a remarkably effective communications medium as well as a great industry. Celluloid as the carrier of information, in its 35mm embodiment, was pregnant with possibilities agreeably lending itself to sound, color, giant and wide screen projection, and even a tentative stereoscopic cinema. The design of a good 35mm projector like the Lumière Cinématographe (which was also a projector and a printer), was a genuine engineering contribution, but it was the invention of 35mm film and the existence of the Kinetograph and the Kinetoscope that led to its creation and other early celluloid cinema projectors. I discuss Edison at length because he is responsible for so much of the technology, above and beyond the movie camera, which made the celluloid cinema possible. He put into place the centralized system of electrical distribution, invented a viable electric light, discovered the basis for electronics, and miraculously, and as a man who was growing increasingly deaf, invented the phonograph, mankind’s first method for recording and reproducing sound. With these things Edison furthered the development and dissemination of mass entertainment, and his cinema became a medium that profoundly changed civilization, depending as it did, on the phenakistoscope and its demonstration of apparent motion, the invention of a physicist who was losing his sight, Joseph Plateau.
The phenakistoscope provided an inspiration for inventors who took apparent motion technology in two directions in the latter part of the 19th century: those who created the celluloid cinema, like Edison, and those with a different goal who explored “vision at a distance,” or television. Rather than storing the moving image information photochemically television inventors had, as their goal, the instantaneous transmission of moving images to a different location. It was Paul Gottlieb Nipkow, who in 1884, conceived of a means for scanning moving images as a means for capture, transmission, and the display of moving images, as a succession of fields of scanned lines. At first early television workers used an electro-mechanical (electrical-mechanical) approach, but by the 1930s far more promising results were achieved using rapidly advancing electronics technology. Television, or video, took most of the 20th century to become transmogrified into the high definition electronic-digital medium that has all but replaced the photochemical celluloid cinema.