The art of cinema began long before cinema.
We have a natural curiosity and an obsession for light. As we gather around a blank screen in a darkened room, the light source shows us a story that entertains us, resonates with us, and inspires us to think differently about the world.
Our desire to experience life through abstraction to make sense of our state of existence is why we are drawn to this light. That’s how it’s always been since the dawn of visual storytelling.
The history of cinema is long and there is a lot to cover. We focus here on how light has shaped film and continues to influence the way we make films in the modern era.
shadow puppet theater
Shadow puppet theater was the first glimpse of what modern cinematography would be like. The art form featured handmade poseable puppets illuminated behind large thin fabric that performed narrative scenes for an audience. The puppets were held close to the screen and lit from behind while the puppets were manipulated with attached canes.
The use of creative light and dyed leather to bring color to the puppets influenced how audiences interacted with the stories. Not only did audiences resonate strongly with these stories and performances, but the stories retained the storyteller’s legacy while honoring ancestors.
These projections have become the fundamental process of cinematography. The specially crafted viewing experience could influence how audiences understood and connected with what they were watching.
Shadowplay is still considered an important cinematic art form, with manual cinema using shadow puppets in Nina DeCosta. candy man as a way to convey a well-known urban legend that is rooted in systemic violence and racism.
The dark camera
While shadow theater is the root of cinematography, the closest tangible thing that could be compared to the invention of film and the culture that surrounds it is this magic lantern. The magic lantern used an early form of projection originally established by the camera obscura.
The camera obscura is a device that reflects reverse light through a pinhole on a mirror and through the focus of the lens, creating a projection onto a flat surface. Dark rooms would be filled with an image projected by natural sunlight that many draftsmen and artists often used to outline certain objects or to copy their work.
While most cultures experimented with light and reflection, the camera obscura opened up the discovery to a wider audience, revealing that an image could be imprinted on another surface through light. Artists would paint images on the mirror and then project them for an audience to marvel at. It was an impressive invention.
The magic lantern
The camera obscura would eventually be further developed to expose light-sensitive materials to capture projected images while still being used as a form of entertainment for the public.
While the camera was slowly being invented, the magic lantern was created through the discovery of slides. By using sunlight as the main light source to project reverse images painted on a mirror, the image could be projected onto a large flat surface.
Unlike the camera obscura, the magic lantern allowed the operator to insert and remove these glass slides. An endless amount of images could be viewed through the magic lantern, and the portable slides allowed the operator to create long visual shows.
As these magic lantern shows began to travel across the country, Étienne-Gaspard Robert (also known as Robertson) pushed the boundaries of the magic lantern to create an immersive spectacle of horror and mysticism with illusions of the dead raised. Known as “phantasmagoria”, Robertson’s shows used several magic lanterns modified to have wheels, allowing a crew member to create the illusion that a projection was moving by pushing or pulling the magic lantern closer or farther from the screen.
Not only did Robertson build a magic lantern that could move, but he could project layers of images at the same time. Robert included sound effects in his shows and manipulated the lenses of magic lanterns.
One of Robertson’s most impressive accomplishments was his ability to create a background with a static magic lantern placed behind the screen while another magic lantern in front of the screen to create a foreground. This technique known as rear projection will be used 250 years later in Stanley Kubrick’s film. 2001: A Space Odyssey. This technique would also inspire Disney’s use of cel animation.
Robertson’s visceral horror shows had created an experience like no other. But then the first photograph had been taken with a camera obscura, making the magic lantern a soon to be obscure device.
Nicéphore Niépce had recorded an image from a camera obscura using the process he invented called heliography. Niépce discovered that when an asphaltic substance is exposed to sunlight, the substance hardens and leaves a residue which, when rinsed off with lavender oil, leaves a barely visible image. French artist and chemist Louis Daguerre met with Niépce to discuss the process, and the two secretly designed a camera and improved Niépce’s process.
Daguerre developed a camera that had a copper base with a silver plate on top, on which the image would be exposed. After polishing and treating the plate to a mirror-like finish, the plate was covered with a compartment to react with iodine and bromide vapors, making the plate sensitive to light. The plate was then placed in a box and then placed in a camera obscura. The subject then remained perfectly still for several minutes while the lens cap was removed to allow light to slowly filter in and react with the silver plate. The plate was removed and washed with sodium solution and cleaned, washed with gold chloride and heated so that the image was fixed on the plate without fading.
Known as the daguerreotype, the invention of the photographic camera allowed people to see themselves as they really were. It was the first time people were allowed to express themselves objectively, solidifying their existence through a new medium that reflected the world around them.
The embrace of visual storytelling and the zoopraxinoscope
While the daguerreotype allowed objective realism to exist in a new tangible medium, these negative and positive images could not be projected onto a screen.
In 1841, William Henry Fox Talbot used photosensitive paper coated with silver iodide, which darkened in proportion to its exposure to light. This process created an acceptable negative, allowing artists to make multiple copies of the captured image.
The stereoscope was invented so that a user could view a stereoscopic pair of separate images, representing left-eye and right-eye views of the same scene, as a single three-dimensional image. . Like Robertson who used movement to create depth in his optical spectacles, the stereoscope created the illusion of movement and mimicked reality. Audiences were in awe of people and places they had never seen before, creating a thrilling level of realism.
Slowly people started wanting the images to relate to each other, creating a visual story that added to the entertainment. Cinematic continuity became the norm, and the camera operator could explain to the audience why the camera was moving or changing direction as he changed slides. This level of complexity has been adopted by visual storytelling.
As the slides began to connect and tell a story, Alexander Black, art editor for the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, developed a technique that suggested movement through various slides of photographs. The actors posed in various positions, so when the slides dissolved into the next, it looked like the actors were moving. Black’s “Picture Play” titled miss jerry consisted of 250 slides that presented a 90-minute narrative on screen.
While Black is credited for his role in developing motion pictures, the first official film was by Eadweard Muybridge. The horse in motion. Originally hired to take pictures of a horse for analysis of the horse’s gait for Leland Stanford, photographer Muybridge developed a technique that set up 24 cameras on a large background. When the horse galloped past the cameras, it triggered a wire that activated a spring mechanism in each camera. The cameras, whose shutter speed had been set to take a picture at 1/2000 of a second, captured the image as the horse moved.
Fascinated by images, Muybridge invented a disc that could spin while projecting the images onto a screen without interruption. Known as the Zoopraxiscope, the 24 frames per second perspective and continuous projection created a moving image that replicated actual motion.
While filmmaking technology has long since passed Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope, it’s amazing to look back at the origins of cinematography, editing and filmmaking. Each invention was influenced by a previous marvel that entertained the masses. Inspiration is the catalyst for progress. Today’s filmmakers are borrowing techniques from the great filmmakers of the past and creating new meaning through the same techniques.
We constantly inspire each other to create and push the boundaries of what is possible. Who knows what revolutionary, life-changing technique or invention you could create just by learning from filmmakers past and present?