Motion Picture, a series of images that are projected onto a screen to create the illusion of motion. Motion pictures—also called movies, films, or the cinema—are one of the most popular forms of entertainment, enabling people to immerse themselves in an imaginary world for a short period of time. But movies can also teach people about history, science, human behavior, and many other subjects. Some films combine entertainment with instruction, to make the learning process more enjoyable. In all its forms, cinema is an art as well as a business, and those who make motion pictures take great pride in their creations.
The images that make up a motion picture are all individual photographs. But when they appear rapidly in succession, the human eye does not detect that they are separate images. This results from persistence of vision, a phenomenon whereby the eye retains a visual image for a fraction of a second after the source has been removed. Although we do not experience the images as individual photographs, we do notice the differences between them. The brain then perceives these differences as motion.
Motion pictures are recorded using specially designed cameras that capture the images on rolls of film. After being processed and printed, the film is run through a projector, which shines light through the film so that the images are displayed on a screen. Most movies have accompanying sound.
This article concerns the technical aspects of motion-picture production. For information about the artistic and historical development of motion pictures and the motion-picture industry,
II Types of Motion Pictures
There are many types of motion pictures, but the most significant categories are feature films, animated films, documentaries, experimental films, industrial films, and educational films.
Feature films are the movies most commonly shown in large movie theaters. They typically last at least one and one-half hours and tell a fictional story or a story based on real events but portrayed by actors. The list of prominent feature films is far too long to recount in this article, but some of the best-known include The Birth of a Nation (1914), Metropolis (1926), Citizen Kane (1941), Casablanca (1942), On the Waterfront (1954), The Sound of Music (1965), The Godfather (1972), Star Wars (1977), Gandhi (1982), Jurassic Park (1993), and Titanic (1997).
Animated movies follow the same format as features, but use images created by artists. These films create the illusion of movement from a series of two-dimensional drawings, three-dimensional objects, or computer-generated images. The first animated feature was the German film Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed, 1926). Other notable ones include Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Dumbo (1941), Sleeping Beauty (1959), Yellow Submarine (1968), Heavy Traffic (1973), the Czech film Neco z Alenky (Alice, 1988), the Japanese film Majo no Takkyubin (Kiki’s Delivery Service, 1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and The Lion King (1994). In some films, animated characters interact with human actors, as in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). For more detailed information on animated films, see Animation.
Another form of film is the documentary, which deals primarily with fact, not fiction. Documentaries do not often appear in theaters, but they are seen regularly on cable and broadcast television. Some well-known documentaries are Nanook of the North (1922), The Silent World (1956), Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976), Eyes on the Prize (1987), and Hoop Dreams (1994).
An experimental film is a sequence of images, literal or abstract, which do not necessarily form a narrative. An experimental film can be animated, live action, computer generated, or a combination of all three. Five noteworthy experimental films are the French film Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929), Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), A Movie (1958), Eraserhead (1978), and Privilege (1991).
Industrial films are made by companies that wish to publicize their products or generate a favorable public image. Educational films are specifically intended to be shown in classrooms. Their aim is to instruct, on subjects from history to driving skills.
III The People Who Make a Motion Picture
Many different people contribute their skills and talents to the making of a film. The stars and other actors who appear on the screen are only part of the story; most of those who work on a production do not appear on camera. The most prominent roles behind the scenes are the producer, screenwriter, director, unit production manager, casting director, director of photography, designers, assistant directors, film and sound editors, and music composer. Because every film is a unique project, the roles may overlap or differ depending on the individuals involved.
The producer is responsible for turning a film idea into a successful motion picture. The producer must find money to pay for the production, hire actors and the production team, supervise the production process, and make arrangements for distributing the finished film to theaters.
If the producer has obtained financing from a studio or film distributor, that organization may want a representative to be on hand during production. This person is called the executive producer. In addition, anyone who contributes substantially in any manner to the motion picture—with their time, money, or influence—may receive the credit of associate producer or some similar title..
The Lumière Brothers
In France, the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, who ran a factory in Lyons that manufactured photographic equipment, sought to improve on Edison’s accomplishment. By 1895 they developed a lightweight, hand-held camera that used a claw mechanism to advance the film roll. They named it the Cinématographe, and they soon discovered that it could also be used to show large images on a screen, when linked with projecting equipment. Throughout 1895 they shot films and projected them for select groups. Their first screening for the general public was held in Paris in December 1895.
Elsewhere other inventors were also busy. In Germany, the brothers Emil and Max Skladanowsky devised an apparatus and projected films in Berlin in November 1895. In Britain, a machine developed by Birt Acres and Robert W. Paul was used to project films in London in January 1896. In the United States, a projector called the Vitascope was constructed around the same time by Charles Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat. Armat then entered into a commercial alliance with Edison to manufacture the Vitascope, and the device exhibited projected motion pictures in New York City in April 1896.
The Lumière brothers held a unique place among all these simultaneous efforts, since they were innovative filmmakers as well as inventors and manufacturers. The many films they made during 1895 and 1896, though very short, are considered pivotal in the history of motion pictures. Arroseur et arrosé (Waterer and Watered, 1896), a brief comedy drawn from a newspaper cartoon, shows a gardener getting drenched with a hose as the result of a boy’s prank. La sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory, 1895) and Arrivée d’un train en gare (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, 1896), which shows a train coming to a station and passengers getting off, were among the so-called actuality films—films that depicted actual events rather than a story told by actors—for which the Lumières became noted.
Print this section | Edit this section During the decade following the advent of projected motion pictures, films were shown as part of vaudeville or variety programs, at carnivals and fairgrounds, in lecture halls and churches, and gradually in spaces converted for the exclusive exhibition of movies. Most films ran no longer than 10 to 12 minutes, which reflected the amount of film that could be wound on a standard reel for projection (hence the term one-reelers). Many were comedies or actualities, following the Lumière brothers’ example. Their purpose was spectacle—to show something astounding, unusual, titillating, or perhaps newsworthy. But filmmakers also struck out in new directions, especially toward fantasy and narrative.
French magician and filmmaker Georges Méliès was the outstanding creator of fantasy films in early cinema. Méliès exploited the new medium to enhance his magic acts through techniques such as stop-motion photography—interrupting the camera’s action and moving or substituting people and objects—so that, for example, a woman appeared to turn into a skeleton. He created elaborate backdrops with multiple scenes and costume changes for these so-called trick films that were widely emulated by other filmmakers. Of the hundreds of works he made between 1896 and 1912, perhaps the best-known is Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902), which in one scene features the animated human face of the moon being struck in the eye by a rocket.
In the United States, a former projectionist and traveling exhibitor, Edwin S. Porter, took charge of motion-picture production at Edison’s company in 1901 and began making longer films that told a story. As with Méliès’s films, these required multiple shots that could be edited into a narrative sequence. Porter’s most notable film—and the most famous work of early cinema—was The Great Train Robbery (1903), which is credited with establishing movies as a commercial entertainment medium. With its rapid shifts of location, including action on a moving train, this film offered spectators a breadth and immediacy of vision that became hallmarks of the cinema experience.
Spurred by The Great Train Robbery and subsequent story films, film exhibition greatly expanded in the United States around 1905. One phenomenon was the proliferation of nickelodeon theaters, converted storefronts in industrial cities that charged 5 cents for admission and attracted working-class audiences. Demand from these theaters increased the volume of film production and the profits for producers, but it also brought forth criticism from reformers concerning unsanitary or unsafe conditions in theaters and immoral subject matter in films. In 1908 Edison took the lead in establishing the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), a consortium of producers with common goals: controlling production and distribution so as to eliminate cheap theaters, raising admission prices, cooperating with censorship bodies, and preventing film stock from getting into the hands of nonmember producers. However, the independent producers excluded from the MPPC continued to obtain materials and make the most popular films. They also led the way toward multireel, feature-length films. By 1915 the MPPC was under attack by the U.S. government as an illegal monopoly (although an ineffectual one), and the independents were combining into the companies that would dominate American filmmaking for decades to come.
IV Silent Movies
With a few experimental exceptions, motion pictures from their earliest days until the late 1920s lacked synchronous sound (sound that matches the action). But silent movies were rarely silent. Early films almost always were projected with piano or organ accompaniment, and sometimes also with a narrator or live actors behind the screen. As feature-length films (four reels, with a running time of 40 to 50 minutes or more) became the norm in the 1910s, live orchestras began to play in larger theaters, frequently using music written specifically for the film.
Until World War I (1914-1918) European filmmakers dominated the world film market. France was considered the leading film-producing country, though Italy, Denmark, and other countries also played a significant role. However, the war, fought on European soil, disrupted commercial filmmaking there. With a sudden drop in European film exports, some regions, such as Latin America, experienced a brief surge in film production. But U.S. companies soon took over markets overseas, using the same tactics of high-volume production and lower prices that the Europeans had. By the 1920s some three-quarters of films screened around the world came from the United States. A American Silent Movies
Even before the war, the United States had made its mark on the world filmmaking scene with epics and comedies. Moreover, U.S. moviemakers had begun to congregate in southern California in the Los Angeles suburb of Hollywood (see The Move to Hollywood, below), creating a film community apart from older urban centers of politics and the arts, and a magical new symbol for popular entertainment and glamour.
D. W. Griffith
The work of D. W. Griffith exemplifies the transformation of motion pictures from the early days of one-reelers to an era of Hollywood’s worldwide dominance. Starting out as an actor in films directed by Edwin S. Porter, Griffith in 1908 became a director at the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company in New York City. He was initially responsible for turning out two one-reel films a week, and between 1908 and 1913 he directed nearly 500 films. Amidst this breakneck schedule, he and his coworkers developed many of the cinema’s basic storytelling conventions: moving the camera close to the action, using many separate shots, and editing the shots to cut back and forth among different actions. All these techniques served to shape a narrative, rather than present a spectacle as earlier films had tended to do. Griffith also nurtured performers such as Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish and emphasized an intimate, restrained style of acting suitable for camera close-ups.
Leaving Biograph in 1913 to make full-length features, Griffith planned a historical epic of the American Civil War (1861-1865). The Birth of a Nation (1915), three hours in length, stunned audiences with its dazzling spectacle of a still-recent event and established motion pictures as an art form for cultured spectators. Yet the film’s racist presumptions—specifically, its defense of white supremacy to protect racial purity—was controversial in its own time and remains repugnant decades later. Griffith made another epic, Intolerance (1916), which intertwined four stories about victims of prejudice, and continued to work as an independent filmmaker into the 1920s. Eventually, financial pressures forced him to become a director at a Hollywood studio, and he made his last film in 1931