Precursors of film

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Much of film as an art form grew out of several earlier traditions in the fields of oral storytelling and literature (relating to the screenplay), theatre (relating to the theatre director/film director, a cast of actors, a production team that can include a scenic or set designer, lighting designer, costume designer) and visual art. Especially after the silent film era sound design and music (relating to the soundtrack and film score) became important factors.

The technology of film emerged mostly from developments and achievements in the fields of projection, lenses, photography and optics, with sound recording and reproduction becoming an important part of film after the silent film era.

Precursors of film are often referred to as precinema, or 'pre-cinema'. Terms like these are disliked by several historians, partly because they seem to devalue the individual qualities of these media by presenting them as a small step in the development of a later invention.[1] For instance: the flip book, zoetrope and phenakistiscope are very tactile devices that allow study and play by manipulating the motion by hand, while the projected image in cinema is untangible.[2] It should also be noted that such devices as the zoetrope were not replaced by cinema: they were still used after the breakthrough of film.[3] Furthermore, many early media examples are also part of a tradition that not only shaped cinema, but also home video, video games, computer-generated imagery, virtual reality and much more.[4] The study of early media devices is also part of a wider and less teleological approach called media archaeology.

Many of the precursors of film are also referred to as "philosophical toys", or "optical toys".

Shadow play[edit]

Shadow play figures, circa 1780.

The earliest projection of images was most likely done in primitive shadowgraphy dating back to prehistory. It evolved into more refined forms of shadow puppetry, mostly with flat jointed cut-out figures which are held between a source of light and a translucent screen. The shapes of the puppets sometimes include translucent color or other types of detailing. Plato seemed to hint at shadow puppetry in his Allegory of the Cave (circa 380 BCE) but no other signs of shadow play in ancient Greece are known and Plato's idea was clearly a hypothetical allegory. Shadow puppetry was possibly developed in India around 200 BCE, but also has a long history in Indonesia (records relating to Wayang since 840 CE), Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, China (records since around 1000 CE) and Nepal. It later spread to the Ottoman empire and seems not to have reached Europe before the 17th century. It became very popular in France at the end of the 18th century. Around the time cinema was developed several theaters in Montmartre showed elaborate "Ombres Chinoises" shows that were very successful. The famous Le Chat noir produced 45 different shows between 1885 and 1896.

Camera obscura[edit]

Projection of images can occur naturally when rays of light pass through a small hole and produce an inverted image on a surface in a dark area behind the hole. This phenomenon is known as camera obscura or pinhole image. Its oldest known recorded description is found in Chinese Mohist writings dated to circa 400 BCE.[5] However, people have probably witnessed and made use of occurrences of the phenomenon since prehistoric times. It has been suggested that distortions in the shapes of animals in many paleolithic cave paintings were possibly based on distortions seen in pinhole images formed through tiny holes in tents or in screens of animal hide.[6] Some ancient sightings of gods and spirits, especially in temple worship, are thought to possibly have been conjured up by means of camera obscura or proto magic lantern projections.[7][8][5] In Arab and European science the camera obscura was used in darkened rooms since circa 1000 CE to study light and especially sun eclipses.

Very occasionally the camera obscura was thought of as an instrument for live projections of performances to entertain an audience inside a darkened room. Purportedly Arnaldus de Villa Nova did so at the end of the 13th century.[9][10] In 1589 Giambattista della Porta imagined how the camera obscura could be used to project hunting scenes, battles, games or anything desired. Real or artificial forests, rivers, mountains as well as animals could be used for scenes on an outside stage and projected into a dark room with spectators.[11]

The use of a lens in the opening of a wall or closed window shutter of a darkened room to project clearer images has been dated back to 1550.[12]

In 1572, the oldest known suggestion for the camera to become mobile was described as a lightweight wooden hut to be carried around on two wooden poles.[13] More practical solutions followed in the 17th century in the shape of tents and eventually as portable wooden boxes with a viewing pane and a mirror to get an upright image. The camera obscura became increasingly popular as a drawing and painting aid for artists.

Magic lantern and other image projectors[edit]

The "trotting horse lamp" [走馬燈] has been known in China since before 1000 CE. It is a lantern which on the inside has cut-out silhouettes attached to a shaft with a paper vane impeller on top, rotated by heated air rising from a lamp. The silhouettes are projected on the thin paper sides of the lantern and appear to chase each other. Some versions showed more motion with the heads, feet or hands of figures connected with fine iron wire to an extra inner layer and triggered by a transversely connected iron wire.[14] The lamp would typically show images of horses and horse-riders.

Several scholars and inventors, like Giovanni Fontana (circa 1420), Leonardo da Vinci (circa 1515) and Cornelis Drebbel (1608) possibly had early image projectors before the invention of the Magic Lantern. Athanasius Kircher's 1645 first edition of Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae included a description of his forerunner to the magic lantern: the "Steganographic Mirror". This was a primitive projection system with a focusing lens and text or pictures painted on a concave mirror reflecting sunlight, mostly intended for long distance communication.[15] Kircher also suggested projecting live flies and shadow puppets from the surface of the mirror.[16] The book was widely distributed and may have offered some inspiration for Christiaan Huygens' invention of the magic lantern in 1659.

Moving images were possibly projected with the magic lantern since its invention; Christiaan Huygens' 1659 sketches for slides show a skeleton taking his skull off his neck and placing it back. Techniques to add motion to the painted glass slides were described since circa 1700. These usually involved parts (for instance limbs) painted on one or more extra pieces of glass moved by hand or small mechanisms across a stationary slide which showed the rest of the picture.[17]

In 1770 Edmé-Gilles Guyot detailed how to project a magic lantern image on smoke to create a transparent, shimmering image of a hovering ghost. This technique was used in the phantasmagoria shows that became very popular in several parts of Europe between 1790 and the 1830s. Other techniques were developed to produce convincing ghost experiences. The lantern was handheld to move the projection across the screen (which was usually an almost invisible transparent screen behind which the lanternist operated hidden in the dark). A ghost could seem to approach the audience or grow larger by moving the lantern towards the screen, sometimes with the lantern on a trolley on rails, just like a tracking shot in films. Multiple lanterns not only could make ghosts move independently, but were also occasionally used for superimposition in the composition of complicated scenes. By experimenting with superimposition dissolving views were invented and became a separate popular magic lantern show, especially in England in the 1830s and 1840s.[18] Dissolving views typically showed a landscape changing from a winter version to a spring or summer variation by slowly diminishing the light from one version while introducing the aligned projection of the other slide. Another use of dissolving views, projected with a triple lantern, showed a sleeping figure while images of dreams were superimposed above its head and dissolved from one scene to another.[19] This is similar to the use of a dissolve in film.

Between the 1840s and 1870s several abstract magic lantern effects were developed. This included the chromatrope which projected dazzling colorful geometrical patterns by rotating two painted glass discs in opposite directions.[20]

Occasionally small jointed shadow puppets had been used in phantasmagoria shows.[18] Magic lantern slides with jointed figures set in motion by levers, thin rods, or cams and worm wheels were also produced commercially and patented in 1891. A popular version of these "Fantoccini slides" had a somersaulting monkey with arms attached to mechanism that made it tumble with dangling feet. Named after the Italian word for animated puppets, like marionettes or jumping jacks.[21]


Several possible examples of very early sequential images can be found in paleolithic cave paintings, on a 5,200-year old pottery bowl found in Iran and in an Egyptian mural approximately 4000 years old, found in the tomb of Khnumhotep at the Beni Hassan cemetery. However, it is very unlikely that these could be viewed in motion.

The theory of Thaumatrope induction was presented by Peter Mark Roget in 1824 in his paper Explanation of an optical deception in the appearance of the spokes of a wheel when seen through vertical apertures. This explained the concept called 'persistence of vision'. Two years later, the first of many gadgets to create the illusion of movement was marketed by John Ayrton Paris. The card, called the Thaumatrope, gave an optical illusion when spun. Michael Faraday also began to experiment with visual illusions at this time, creating a revolving wheel.

The Kaiserpanorama, 1880, provided a group stereoscope card viewing experience

Moving images were produced on revolving drums and disks in the 1830s with independent invention by Simon von Stampfer (Stroboscope) in Austria, Joseph Plateau (Phenakistoscope) in Belgium and William Horner (zoetrope) in Britain. The Zoetrope, a.k.a., the Daedalum was a revolving cylinder which gave the illusion of motion to the pictures inside. Charles-Émile Reynaud developed an early animation device in 1877, which he called the Praxinoscope.

Other mechanisms followed: in 1832 Joseph Plateau created the Anorthoscope and Phenakistiscope; in 1833 Simon Stampler developed the Stroboscope; in 1853, Franz von Uchatius invented the Kinetoscope which projected moving drawings;

Other developments[edit]

Preceding cinema by thousands of years, plays and dances already included elements like scripts, sets, lighting, costumes, production, direction, actors, audiences, storyboards, and film scores. Much terminology later used in film theory and criticism applied, such as mise en scene. However, moving images and sound were not recorded intended for replaying as in film.

Puppetry, another ancient art form, shares elements with animation and claymation.

In 1740 and 1748, David Hume published Treatise of Human Nature and An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, arguing for the associations and causes of ideas with visual images, forerunners to the language of film.

Modern era[edit]

Optics developed during the scientific revolution with a theory of lenses. Photographic film was created in the 19th century. Phonographic recording of sound was invented in the 19th century.

In 1861 Samuel Goodale patented a hand-turned stereoscope device which rapidly moves stereo images past a viewer;[22] and in the same year Coleman Sellers II built the Kinematoscope - a series of stereoscopic pictures on glass plates, linked together in a chain, and mounted in a box. The simple and convenient flip book was patented in 1868 and has endured as a commercial product.

The crucial invention of celluloid was made in 1855 by Alexander Parkes, a substance he initially called Parkesine. This was marketed from 1869 by John and Isaiah Hyatt.

First motion-pictures[edit]

A gif animation of an 1870s chronophotograph sequence by Eadweard Muybridge

The first real sequence photographed in real-time, rather than consisting of a series of posed photographs, was created in the US in 1878 by British photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Under the sponsorship of Leland Stanford, he photographed a horse named Sallie Gardner in rapid motion by using a series of separate still cameras. The experiment took place on June 15 at Stanford's stock farm in Palo Alto, California, with the press present, and was meant to determine whether a galloping horse ever had all four feet off the ground at the same time. The cameras were arranged in a line parallel to the edge of the track and spaced 27 inches apart. Each camera shutter was triggered by a thread as the horse passed and each exposure was made in only one thousandth of a second.[23] Muybridge would publish many cards, plates and books of his chronopotograph sequences. He also had an artist paint sequences onto a glass disc that could be used to project the images onto a screen with a device he called a zoopraxiscope, which can be regarded as one of the first movie projectors. His innovative process was an intermediate stage toward motion pictures and cinematography.

Étienne-Jules Marey invented a chronophotographic gun in 1882, which was capable of taking 12 consecutive frames a second, recording all the frames on the same picture. He used the chronophotographic gun for studying animals and human locomotion. An early projector, along similar lines to Muybridge's zoopraxiscope, was built by Ottomar Anschütz in 1887. His Electrotachyscope used 24 images on a rotating glass disk.[24] In 1894 his invention projected moving images[25] in Berlin.

As a result of the work of Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey, researchers in the late 19th century began to realize that motion picture capture and display was a distinct practical possibility.

The first motion-picture was Roundhay Garden Scene, shot in 1888.

The Frenchman Louis Le Prince began work on such a project in the 1880s, while working in Leeds, England. Le Prince had been inspired by Muybridge's pioneering experiments, and he patented his first invention, a 16 lens camera, in 1887.[26] The first 8 lenses would be triggered in rapid succession by an electromagnetic shutter on the sensitive film; the film would then be moved forward allowing the other 8 lenses to operate on the film. Although the camera was capable of 'capturing' motion, it wasn't a complete success because each lens photographed the subject from a slightly different viewpoint and thus the projected image jumped about.

By May 1887,[26] after much trial and error, Le Prince was finally able to develop and patent the first single lens camera in 1888, leading to the birth of the modern motion-picture film over the next decade. Le Prince shot the first sequences of moving film in the world, what would become known as Roundhay Garden Scene, shot on October 14, 1888 in Roundhay, Leeds.[27]


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