Let's Go to the Movies: The Mechanics of Moving Images

Technology and Development

Origins of the Movies

Motion pictures don't move; they rely upon the effect of persistence of vision. This occurs when a series of sequential images is displayed, each image lasting only for a short time. The resulting effect is that of continuous motion. The persistence effect was known to the ancient Romans, and was described in 65 BC by poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus.


Simple mechanical devices using persistence of vision may have been known to the Chinese as early as 200 BC. These devices were probably similar to the thaumatrope (1826), a disk with an image on each side, suspended by two strings. When the disk is spun on its strings, the images appear to merge.


The phenakistoscope (also called the fantascope) is a disk with a series of radial slots placed around its circumference. It was invented in 1834. Between each slot and the center of the disk was a picture, each slightly different from its neighbor. An observer standing before a mirror looked through a slot and spun the disk to see an apparently moving image. The daedalum, a slotted drum rotating on its axis, was also invented in 1834. Drawings showing successive phases of action, viewed through the slits as the drum or disk turned, were seen so quickly that the images merged in the mind to produce the sensation of motion.

The phenakistoscope (also called the fantascope) is a disk with a series of radial slots placed around its circumference. It was invented in 1834. Between each slot and the center of the disk was a picture, each slightly different from its neighbor. An observer standing before a mirror looked through a slot and spun the disk to see an apparently moving image. The daedalum, a slotted drum rotating on its axis, was also invented in 1834. Drawings showing successive phases of action, viewed through the slits as the drum or disk turned, were seen so quickly that the images merged in the mind to produce the sensation of motion.

The Zoetrope

Devices using the principle of the slit and series of visible images were popular in the early and mid-1800s, with projectors and other refinements appearing after 1860. The zoetrope appeared in 1864 (it was sold by Milton Bradley for $2.50). The show was short and these devices were regarded more as amusements than serious entertainment.




Prerequisites for the Movies

Movies required several key inventions to be commercially viable. These included a bright source of light for the projector, long lengths of photographic film to replace photographic plates, and reliable cameras.

Gaslight, the electric arc, and later the electric lamp provided the necessary illumination to permit viewing by large groups of people. George Eastman's introduction of flexible film in 1889 provided the second key invention. Now it was possible to include a complex story on a continuous reel of film. It was left to Thomas Edison and his assistant, William Dickson, to perfect the motion picture camera and the sprocketed film that is universally used today. Sprocketed film provides the precise control of film position needed to eliminate jerkiness and other undesired effects.



Leland Stanford unwittingly started a chain of events that contributed to the development of motion pictures. To settle a wager regarding the position of a trotting horse's legs, he sent for Eadweard Muybridge, a British photographer who had recently been accclaimed for his photographs of Yosemite.

Although Muybridge initially considered the task impossible, he made history when he arranged 12 cameras alongside a race track. Each was fitted with a shutter working at a speed he claimed to be "less than the two-thousandth part of a second." Strings attached to electric switches were stretched across the track; the horse, rushing past, breasted the strings and broke them, one after the other; the shutters were released by an electromagnetic control, and a series of negatives made. Though the photographs were hardly more than silhouettes, they clearly showed that the feet of the horse were all off the ground at one phase of the gallop. Moreover, to the surprise of the world, the feet were bunched together under the belly. None of the horses photographed showed the "hobbyhorse attitude" - front legs stretched forward and hind legs backward -so traditional in painting. The photos were widely published in America and Europe. The Scientific American printed eighteen drawings from Muybridge's photographs on the first page of its October 19, 1878 issue. Readers were invited to paste the pictures on strips and to view them in the popular toy known as the zoetrope, a precursor of motion pictures. It was an open drum with slits in its side, mounted horizontally on a spindle so it could be twirled. Drawings showing successive phases of action placed inside the drum and viewed through the slits were seen one after the other, so quickly that the images merged in the mind to produce the illusion of motion.
In 1880, using a similar technique with a device he named the zoogyroscope, or zoopraxiscope, Muybridge projected his pictures on a screen at the California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco." Motion pictures were born...


Cameras and Projectors

There actually is no motion whatever in a "motion picture." On a screen, each successive photograph stands still for about 1/24th of a second, but the eye is tricked into believing that the flow of movement is continuous. The effect has been known since ancient times, and was described by Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus in the first century BC.

Until the end of the 1920s most cameras were hand-cranked; the operator turned a handle on the side of the camera to expose the film. Two turns a second was average, but camera operators could turn the crank more slowly; this speeded up all the actors' movements when the film was shown. The result is the familiar jerky, frenzied action of the silent comedy. Improved small electric motors made the motion picture camera a more reliable and consistent instrument.

The first projectors were really magic lanterns fitted with a hand-cranked device to advance the film. Many used gaslight as a light source, but as electricity became common, projectionists began to use powerful electric arc lights. Movie film was equipped with sprocket holes almost from the beginning. The holes were devised by Edison's assistant, William Dickson. A rotating sprocket wheel engaged the holes to advance the film. The sprocket caused a lot of wear, and shows were often interrupted when the sprocket holes tore or film broke. Early films were made of nitrocellulose (Guncotton!) and could catch fire if the projector mechanism stopped turning the sprocket that moved the film or if the sprockets tore and the film motion halted. Non-flammable film made of cellulose acetate was invented in 1912. While it didn't catch fire easily, it would char and melt quite nicely if the film stopped moving.


The Mutoscope: Flip Cards on Steroids…..

Herman Casler, an American inventor, devised the Mutoscope in 1894. It contained a series of cards, each equipped with a photograph of a moving subject. Turning a crank caused the cards to flip and be exposed to a viewing window in sequence, causing the illusion of motion.

The Mutoscope was popular as a coin-operated entertainment device in arcades and sideshows of the time. Perhaps the most widely viewed show was "What the Butler Saw," a photo series of the lady of the house undressing, purportedly viewed through a keyhole by the butler. It was pretty tame by modern standards, but daring for its time. The Mutoscope was popularly known as the "What the Butler Saw" machine.

If you visited Playland at the Beach or the Cliff House arcade in San Francisco during the fifties, you might have seen the Mutoscope (and What the Butler Saw) in all its glory.


Silent Movies, Captions, and the Stars

Following the plot of a film entirely without words is almost impossible, so silent films used caption cards to tell the audience what was happening. Simple captions explained the passing of time, but cards also carried long speeches.

Many directors, though, preferred to rely on the acting skills of the cast to tell the story. Without dialogue, actors and actresses had to perform like mime artists, using melodramatic gestures to suggest even moderate emotion.


In the first silent films, the actors playing leading roles were usually anonymous. But by 1910, the film industry was changing. Hollywood studios were creating longer, better-quality films, creating a generation of movie stars in the process. Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, among others, received enormous salaries for the work they did in the movies.

For many Hollywood stars, though, the arrival of the talkies meant the end of a glittering career. Some actors had strong accents that, combined with early sound systems, were impossible to understand. Leading actor John Gilbert had a high-pitched, squeaky voice, causing him to be a failure when sound came to the movies. But others, such as Greta Garbo, maintained or improved their standing. Garbo, even with her Swedish accent, was loved by audiences. Her voice matched her cool, mysterious image perfectly.



The thing that made me so sad was that the international language was over. Celric Belfrage, after seeing The Jazz Singer, the first "talkie" in 1927.

The silent movies provided a medium that could communicate its story to all people regardless the language they spoke. A pianist or organist in the theater provided the musical sound track that accompanied a silent movie.

The first movie to have a synchronized sound track was Fritz Lang's Siegfried in 1925, with a musical score but no dialogue. The Jazz Singer, released in 1927, featured Al Jolson singing a few songs. When the first all-talking film, Lights of New York, was released in 1928, the talkies had really arrived.

Audiences flocked to the movies just to enjoy the novelty of hearing actors speak. The advent of sound created the question of how to provide for the differing languages of the international audience. Since films could be dubbed or made with subtitles, the universal "language" of the silent films could be replaced with printed or spoken dialogue appropriate for specific audiences.



Color movies were expensive and difficult to produce, and so displaced black-and-white films far more slowly than "talkies" had replaced silent films. By 1954, just half of all films were being made in color.

Kinemacolor was an early color process developed by George Albert Smith of Brighton, England in 1906. Leon Douglass of San Rafael, California, perfected a color process and produced breathtaking color travelogues, as well as a feature-length color film, Cupid Angling, with Ruth Roland in 1918. His process became one of the factors in the formation of the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation, which came to dominate the industry in the 1930s and '40s.

The Technicolor process required a special camera that split the image and recorded on three strips of black and white film simultaneously. Red, green, and blue filters were used to filter the light to the three strips respectively. A proprietary printing process translated the images from the developed strips into the color prints projected in the theatres. The process worked well, but was more complex and expensive than black and white.

Color Competition

Technicolor held a near-monopoly on the three-color field from 1932 to 1952, when Kodak's Eastman Color process made its debut. In 1955, 112 films were produced in Eastman Color; 90 in Technicolor. Since then, Eastman color has maintained its dominance. Metrocolor, Warnercolor and DeLuxe all use Eastman Color stock. "Color by Technicolor" films generally are made with Eastman Color negative but printed by Technicolor laboratories.

First film to use Technicolor: The Gulf Between, produced in 1917.

First feature-length sound film in color: MGM's The Viking, 1928. It had a synchronized score and sound effects, but no audible dialog.

First all-color "talkie": Warner Brothers' On With the Show, 1929.

First film in 3-color Technicolor: Walt Disney's Silly Symphony: Flowers and Trees, 1932.

First feature film made entirely in 3-color technicolor: Rouben Mamoulian's Becky Sharp with Cedric Hardwicke and Miriam Hopkins,1935. A critic for Liberty magazine wrote that the performers looked like "boiled salmon dipped in mayonnaise."

First color film to be shot entirely on location: Paramount's The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, 1936. Newsweek magazine noted that "unnatural as it is, the color does no serious damage to the picture."

First film using Kodak's Eastman Color process: Royal Journey, 1952.


There are about 65,000 pictures in an animated feature film. For each second of action, a team of artists makes at least 12 pictures. Backgrounds usually don't move, so the animator makes just one background drawing and concentrates on the actions of the figures moving in front of the background. Moving figures are drawn on clear cellulose acetate film (cel) so that the background is visible through the unpainted areas.

The animator starts by drawing the most important actions - the extremes - first, and drawing the in-between stages later. Earlier, he decided how long each action should last on screen. This tells him how many drawings there must be, and how much the figure should move between drawings.

On a full-scale animated film, the animator creates pencil sketches of the action. An army of helpers traces the outline drawings onto the front of the individual cels and paints color onto the back.

Cels are made of soft plastic and are easily scratched. Therefore, everyone working with the cels wears cotton gloves.

Computer generated animation has largely displaced hand generated cels and drastically reduced the amount of labor needed to make a cartoon or computer generated special effect.

3-D Movies

To create three-dimensional effects in a projected movie, the camera records two images through lenses several inches apart. The audience wears special glasses allowing the left eye to see the image filmed by the left camera lens, and the right eye to see the image filmed by the right lens. The lenses may use differing colors or differing polarization to produce the separation effect. 3-D movies relied on the shock value of objects seeming to catapult from the screen toward the audience. With little emphasis on plot and character, they were a passing fad, not a lasting success. Some 3-D movies were made as early as 1915, but their greatest popularity was in the early 1950s (27 3-D movies were made in 1953, the height of the craze).The inventor of the 3-D process used for movies such as Bwana Devil made more money as sole distributor of viewing glasses than he did from his percentage of box-office gross. Glasses bought at six cents each sold at the theatres for ten cents!


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Back To Top This page last updated: September 17, 2001
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