I’m a big fan of film history. There. I admit it. Now if you put your ear close to your computer monitor and listen carefully, you can hear the sound of dozens of readers clicking and gesturing away so fast they’re leaving skidmarks on their trackpads. Why? Because history is “BOR-ring!”
But you know what else history is? NOT boring!
When you realize that how far you can make it as a filmmaker depends in part on the sum total of film tricks you have up your sleeve, you begin to look around for ways to add to what I call the “Filmmaker Tool kit.” After studying the evolution of film from about 1890 forward, I had what Mr. Smee from HOOK called: “An Apostrophe!”
Simple really, but the premise is that every filmmaker takes a similar course of discovery as we learn the filmmaking craft. Phases that have taken our film forebears 120 years to progress through we now tick through at an advanced pace. Some filmmakers will spend years in a particular phase, others will spend minutes before moving on. Confused? Me too! So let’s move on and you’ll just have to trust me that I’m about to drop some of what the kids call “Naw-luj” on you.
PHASE 1: 1895 CINEMA IS BORN
Antoine Lumière (the father of Auguste and Louis) considered the potential of motion pictures when he watched a demonstration of Edison’s Kinetoscope in Paris. Very impressed, he returned home and described what he saw to his sons, but he also added, “You can do better. Try to get that image out of the box.”
Following their father’s advice, Auguste and Louis began work on creating their own camera. Within a matter of months, the Lumières had patented their own device, then nameless, for “obtaining and viewing chronophotographic prints.” On March 19, 1895, the Lumières used their invention to film workers passing through the front gate of the Lumière and Sons factory. This is the date that has gone done in history as the moment when “cinema” was born.
Lumière camera operators ventured to Mexico, Russia, Japan and most points in between. In fact, the only continent that they did not step foot upon was Antarctica.
The slackers. Thus the world would have to wait another 110 years for “March of the Penguins”.
Anywho, are you ready to watch this first cinematic masterpiece? No, you don’t actually have time for popcorn. Maybe a Twizzler. One of the short ones. Already unwrapped. No, seriously, you might want to bite it and be chewing and THEN start the film.
“La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon” (1895) Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory.
Wow. And how did they follow up this Epic Cinematic tale? Well, with this classic classic rom-com of hijinx and hilarity…cue second Twizzler, cue: “Train Arrives at Station”.
Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (The Lumière Brothers, 1895)
So, sure, we can laugh a snooty pretentious film laugh and point fingers and blame the inaccessibility of foreign film, but we have all been here at PHASE 1. This is the phase where we are using our Camera to capture everyday life. These are films with little to no plot. My grandmother started her film career in 1980-something with the purchase of this gigantic VHS Camcorder. How big was it? The camera was SOOOO big that on one occasion G-ma was in such a hurry I had to point out that she’d actually shouldered the family’s Chevy Impala, after she’d driven the VHS Cam to the store for groceries. We had a weird family.
Alas, G-ma never progressed from Phase 1. She got locked into some sorta infinite quantum film loop and every time we went to see her (EVERY time I tell ya!) she would have a new video for us to watch about the squirrels in her backyard. No plot. No action. Just squirrels. 20, maybe 30 minutes of squirrels eating from bird feeders, rooting through the grass, staring off in the distance lamenting their squirrel lot in life, etc. Phase 1.
Kinda like what happened to James Cameron after TITANIC where he went on this underwater/Titanic binge for about 10 years and almost got trapped in his own quantum film loop. Fortunately he resurfaced for AVATAR and seems to be progressing again. Grandma was not so lucky. We had to stage an intervention. ”Intervention” of course being a fancy term meaning “dropping a camera repeatedly until it no longer records properly.”
But this is the birth of cinema in your Film Evolution. This is your first baby step. It’s handheld, it’s badly composed, poorly lit, the audio is from an on-board microphone, and God help us if you’ve discovered the zoom function at the same time. Get the Dramamine! On the other hand, it has an immediacy, it’s happening now, and you either captured a moment or, equally as likely, you double-punched record completely missing it all together and then proceeded to record 5 or 10 minutes of camera walking footage. The modern equivalent of today’s pocket dial. Where you kinda wanna hear the whole long message to see if you got any golden nuggets, but usually is just a complete waste of 5 minutes.
The first time you picked up a camera, think about it, what did you do with it? Whether it’s 35mm, 8mm, MiniDV, VHS, VHS-C, BetaSP, Hi-8mm, Canon T2i, iPhone, whatever…at some point you stepped into Phase 1 by hitting record on a moment in time. And I would be willing to bet you, dollars to donuts, it was not art. And if, in fact, it was — and continues to be — Squirrels, I give your kids or grandkids the full right to “intervene” ASAP!
TOMORROW: PHASE 2 – FILM AS THEATER!