What is Cinema?

Plus: A Quick Voyage Through the Early Years of Motion Pictures

lumiere poster cinematographe

Probably the first poster advertising a film screening. Cinema was so new at the time that they had to explain what it was in the image.

Cinema, or motion picture, is the art of moving images; a visual medium that tells stories and exposes reality.

Created in the tail end of the 19th century, cinema is the world’s most recent art form. It is also, by far, the world’s most complex, collaborative, and costly artistic expression.

Is Cinema Really an Art Form?

It’s not very common, but I’ve been asked that question a couple of times, and I’m never sure how to answer it.  On my post about Film Form, I start the article with a quote from Maya Daren, the Russian filmmaker, where she compares cinema with other art forms like dance, theater, music, etc.

For me, motion picture is a grand art form that uses elements from all other arts. So if you consider literature, photography, music as arts, then you would have to consider filmmaking an art as well because they are all integrated.

However, I do understand why some may show uncertainty. When watching big budget Hollywood flicks such as X-Men or The Avengers, it’s sometimes hard to really admire cinema because there’s so much happening on the screen that we get caught up in the story or visual effects (not to mention all the soda and pop corn). But even in expensive spectacles like those action movies, you can still close your eyes and listen to the score, or mute the volume and watch its photography. (Have you ever done that? It’s pretty awesome.)

The humble point I am trying to make to all the naysayers is that by breaking cinema into its many parts, it is easier to absorb its artistic elements. For instance, take a look at this frame from Wes Anderson’s 2014 film, Grand Budapest Hotel.

2014-02-22-grandbudapestsceneryTell me if that’s not a painting. Look at the clouds, the vanishing mountains, the rocks. Gorgeous, isn’t it? And although some frames are more breathtaking than others, every single frame is still incredibly important to the cinematographer. What changes is the subject: sometimes they are shooting a closeup, other times they are shooting sweeping vistas like the one above.

Perhaps the reason why filmmaking currently receives a lot of criticism is because digital cinema is replacing a lot of the old techniques from traditional cinema. For example, decades ago the background above would have to be traditionally painted with paint on canvas. But today that doesn’t happen as often. The artist in charge of the background probably took a picture of the landscape and “enhanced” it in Photoshop, composting in the foreground elements. But does that really diminish his creation when the end result is still so pleasant and attractive? What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.

Brief History

The kinetoscope.

In the beginning, the first two versions of the film camera (the kinetograph in America and the cinematograph in Europe) were used to record simple events such as a train arriving at a station and an elephant being electrocuted (because you see that every day, right?). Documentary filmmaking so-to-speak  was then born and tremendously explored.

The Pioneers

Thomas Edison together with his employee  William Kennedy Laurie Dickson invented the first motion camera in the early 1890s: the kinetograph, as it was called, was a bulky machine so heavy that transportation was impossible. To make things worse, the device used to view the movies only allowed one person to watch at a time, thus it was not a projector. This device, the kinetoscope (pictured), was popular in penny arcades where guests would pay to watch short films through a peephole on top of the device.

Meanwhile in France, the Lumière brothers developed a device that was much more practical and user-friendly. This early movie camera, called the cinematograph, was only slightly bigger than a shoe box. It was light, so light in fact that the brothers could take it practically anywhere to film whatever they wish. Moreover, the cinematograph was also a projector, which is why the Lumière brothers are sometimes heralded as the “fathers of cinema,” as projection is an essential component of the movie experience.

Scholarly Insight

To say that the first movies were documentaries is a fallacy. And a big one. The first one-reelers were no more than a minute long, and they were called actualities. They were recordings of regular daily events. Documentary filmmaking – something far more elaborate than actualities – was developed later. Documentaries are complex films with a different structure and purpose. [Read more…]

Perhaps the only valid argument for calling those first actualities “documentaries” is on the account of a specific style of documentary called cinéma vérité (French for “truthful cinema”). Cinéma vérité is characterized by a naturalistic approach to filming. Those first actualities were indeed naturalistic because the camera operators shot natural scenes without any intent to neither distort them nor ennoble them.

The Business of Moviemaking

Make no mistake, since the very beginning, the movies were about one thing: making money. That’s why inventors like Edison and the Lumières were quick to apply for patents; their mission was to corner the market.

After charging admission and witnessing the audience’s positive response, the Lumière brothers hired men to travel the world and capture exotic images. When they returned to France, what brothers screened ranged from elephants in India, to the pyramids in Egypt, to the waterfalls in Niagara. But this model of showing sceneries could only go so far. The audience got tired of what quickly became the “same old same old.”

But one stage magician, George Méliès, changed the game. With his performer background, Méliès saw a potential in the camera that no one had seen before. He focused on telling fictional stories and creating visual effects like this one: [add image]

Méliès was arguably the first filmmaker because in his productions he applied various elements that make modern narrative cinema such as actors, art direction, scripted actions, costumes, and a lot of editing.

New Heights

After Méliès, it was only a matter of the time for the art to spread and captivate the population. Entrepreneurs found a way to monetize the newly-invented art. Theatres were built, and admission tickets became mandatory to enjoy that show of lights and shadows. With the high demand and increasing profits, the market became favorable for filmmakers. Soon, studios were raised. Cast and crew signed contracts. Producers became gods. And in the 1930s, the American film industry peaked, churning out dozens of movies a month.

Cinema evolved. Movies became longer. Sound was added. Hollywood was built. Color film became economical. Hitchcock lived, prospered, and died. Specials effects were created. Digital was invented. A century passed, and the motion picture industry still flourishes.

Nowadays, cinema can be defined as the art of colorful moving images enhanced by voices, sounds, and music, still telling stories, still entertaining, and most importantly, still selling popcorn.

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