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The Complete History of the Discovery of Cinematography - Part 2 - A Brief History of Pre Cinema

Cinematography is defined simply as the illusion of movement by projecting in rapid fashion, many still pictures. Also known as motion pictures, movies or moving pictures, cinematography is a product of nineteenth century ingenuity and experimentation.

Motion pictures came to be as the result of numerous other inventions. A large segment of the discoverers came from the new field of photography. Many more came from those who worked with magic lanterns. Some were interested in projecting images, and then others studied how images could be recorded on different materials such as leather and paper. But these were not the only men interested in watching real-life motion unfold before their eyes.

People like Oliver Wendall Holmes desired to enhance prosthetics for post civil war amputees. Others like the scientist E. Jules Marey studied the motion of animals and particularly birds, in flight. British born American photographer Eadweard Muybridge also studied animals in motion but humans as well. By the end of the century, all of these discoveries, experiments and inventions came together to form the art we now call as movies, videos or cinema. Since man was first created, he has had an insatiable thirst to re-create his own movements. His first attempts were simple drawings of animals, showing them in their natural stride. Primitive, but effective enough for his needs and desires. And it is in fact this driving desire to not only create and re-create, but to continually improve on his previous works that allows for man to produce a superior, more enhanced version of the original.

Pinhole Images

Pinhole images have been seen since the time of Aristotle. What he saw were images and shapes flickering through the tiny holes made between several leaves crossing, and wickerworks. Pinhole photography on the other hand is the capturing of those images and shapes using no lens. A tiny hole replaces the lens. Light passes through the hole and an image is formed in the back wall of the camera. The image is of course upside down because light travels in straight lines and therefore crosses at the aperture (hole). If an outdoor scene is seen, the sky is at the bottom and ground at the top.

The basic optical principles of the pinhole are commented on in Chinese texts from the fifth century BC. Chinese writers had discovered by experiments that light travels in straight lines. The philosopher Mo Ti was the first to record the formation of an inverted image with a pinhole or screen. Mo Ti was aware that objects reflect light in all directions, and that rays from the top of an object, when passing through a hole, will produce the lower part of an image. There is no further reference to the camera obscura in Chinese texts until the ninth century AD, when Tuan Chheng Shih refers to an image in a pagoda. Shen Kua later corrected his explanation of the image. Yu Chao-Lung in the tenth century used model pagodas to make pinhole images on a screen.

In Greece, Aristotle (fourth century B.C.) comments on pinhole image formation in his work Problems. In Book XV, 6, he asks: "Why is it that when the sun passes through quadri-laterals, as for instance in wickerwork, it does not produce a figure rectangular in shape but circular?" In Book XV, 11, he asks his readers: "Why is it that an eclipse of the sun, if one looks at it through a sieve or through leaves, such as a plane-tree or other broadleaved tree, or if one joins the fingers of one hand over the fingers of the other, the rays are crescent-shaped where they reach the earth? Is it for the same reason as that when light shines through a rectangular peep-hole, it appears circular in the form of a cone?" Aristotle found no satisfactory explanation to his observation; the problem remained unresolved until the 16th century.

The Arabian physicist and mathematician Ibn Al-Haitam, also known as Alhazen, experimented with images seen through the pinhole in the tenth century AD. He arranged three candles in a row and put a screen with a small hole between the candles and the wall. He noted that images were formed only by means of small holes and that the candle to the right made an image to the left on the wall. From his observations he deduced the linearity of light. In the following centuries the pinhole technique was used by optical scientists in various experiments to study sunlight projected from a small aperture.

Pinhole cameras are small or large, improvised or designed with great care. Cameras have been made of sea shells, many have been made of oatmeal boxes, coke cans or any size of box. Cameras have been cast in plaster like a face mask, constructed from beautiful hardwoods, built of metal with bellows and a range of multiple pinholes. Even cars have been used as pinhole cameras and rooms in large buildings. In fact the camera obscura effect (pinhole images seen within a camera) was first seen inside large rooms. The showman Villanova performed scenes outside a room which had a small hole in one wall. Patrons sat inside and watched "cinema". The accompanying sounds heard outside matched the scenes viewed inside!

Pinhole images are softer and less sharp than pictures made using a lens. The images have nearly infinite depth of field and wide angle images remain absolutely rectilinear. On the other hand, pinhole images suffer from greater chromatic aberration than pictures made with a simple lens, and they tolerate little enlargement. Exposures are long, ranging from half a second to several hours. Images are exposed on film or paper - negative or positive; black and white, or color.

The Camera Obscura Effect

We will look at the effect of the original 'camera' in it's most obscure form being able to provide a picture, but not capable of retaining it. For three centuries alone, a fundamental piece of equipment, the camera obscura, had been known to man (not to mention pinhole images which pre-date the camera obscura and were the actual effect). A great new toy of sophistication and delight, but it had little to offer in the way of long-lasting enjoyment. It eventually found it's place in history but not before being used as a simple drawing aid.

In the Renaissance and later centuries the pinhole was mainly used for scientific purposes in astronomy. But as time went by the pinhole image (now known as a camera obscura) was used more and more as a drawing aid for artists and painters. Even Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) described the pinhole image in his Codex Atlanticus. The pinhole image had come of age, and was placed in a box, or room. Giovanni Battista della Porta (1538-1615), a scientist from Naples, was long regarded as the inventor of the camera obscura because of his description of the camera obscura in the first edition of his Magia Naturalis (1558). His description has received much publicity, as did his camera obscura shows, but he was not the true 'inventor'.

What appears to be the earliest ever illustration of the camera obscura is found in a book by Johannes De Fontana in 1420. The drawing shows a nun holding a vertically-shaped camera with an image on the inside. The image has been identified as a magic lantern by some but can only be attributed to the camera as the image is clearly on the inside. Magic lanterns projected their images.

Gemma Frisius, an astronomer, had used the pinhole in his darkened room to study the solar eclipse of 1544. He described it along with a description in his 'De Radio Astronomica et Geometrica' (1545).The very term camera obscura ("dark room") was coined by Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). At his time, the term had come to mean a room, tent or box with a lens aperture used by artists to draw a landscape. The lens made the image brighter and focused at a certain distance. Thus this type of camera differed from the pinhole camera obscura used by Frisius in 1544. In the 1620s Johannes Kepler invented a portable camera obscura. Camera obscuras as drawing aids were soon found in many shapes and sizes. They were used by both artists and painters.

During the 19th century several large scale camera obscuras were built as places of education and entertainment. The meniscus lens, superior to the bi-convex lens, improved the quality of the the projected images. Several buildings or towers with camera obscuras remain today: The Camera Obscura at Royal Mile, Edinburgh; the Great Union Camera at Douglas, Isle of Man; the Clifton Observatory at Bristol, England; the camera obscura at Portmeirion, North Wales; the camera obscura at Santa Monica, California, and others. A few large scale camera obscuras have been built in the 20th century. The Giant Camera at Cliff House, San Francisco is scheduled for demolition at the time of this writing. A group is fighting to keep it from being destroyed.

As most students of film know, the origin of moving pictures goes back well beyond Mary Pickford and Charles Chaplin. Contributions over two millennia by many people, comprise the whole story of putting the full and complete picture together of how we now view re-created motion in the form of motion pictures, or movies. As going to the theatre today is like looking through a window on the world, with all it's created beauty and magnificence, so too will we now look back through the window of time to study the people and properties of cinematography.

The Magic Lantern

The magic lantern, a projector with a future that would inevitably become one of the most famous and entertaining inventions in history, in many ways surpassing that of the automobile and airplane combined. In it's primitive state, the magic lantern was the forerunner of our current day slide projector and overhead. It however, was without motion. Void of fluidity yet electrifying and exhilarating in it's presentation. This little tin box with a chimney was only one of many vital components that make up the art of seeing pictures "move". And they all have their special place in the story, and history of cinematography.

The Magic Lantern is an ancient projector originally illuminated by candles and oil lamps. Considered to be black magic, sorcery and witchcraft when originally developed during medieval times, its inventors were at times considered sorcerers to achieve the effects created by projecting images on a screen. This thinking was perpetuated in the 18th and 19th centuries with the coming of the phantasmagorie.

It is commonly thought that the origins of the magic lantern go back to the early 17th century, almost two hundred years before the first photographs were made. Athanasius Kircher is the name synonymous with the magic lantern. However it must be mentioned that approximately one hundred and forty years before Kircher's lantern in 1644, Leonardo gave us an amazing drawing of a magic lantern. It clearly showed a condensing lens, candle and chimney. None of Leonardo's writings indicate any hint of him actually projecting images, however this illustration from the master strongly suggests a figure of some type between the candle and lens.

The magic-lantern is the precursor of the first motion picture projector. It was first seen and used around 1644-1645, and soon became a showman's instrument. At the close of the 17th century, travelling showmen (lanternists) would put on shows at any venue they could use including castles. The term "magic" lantern is derived from the fact that these shows featured devils, ghosts and goblins to name a few. The name Athanasius Kircher is most often heard when mentioning the lantern.

By the end of the nineteenth century, magic-lanterns were found everywhere; schools, homes, theatres, churches and most other public places. They became as integral a part of society as movie theatres are today. There were toy lanterns for children, large wooden and brass lanterns, with single, double and triple lenses. Lantern slides were hand-painted in full colour and projected onto a screen as large as movie screens today. Sound effects and musical accompaniment was provided by a soloist as part of the show and the audience.


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Camera Obscura from Athanasius Kircher's Ars Magna Lucis Et Umbra (The Great Art of Light and Shadow) 1646. Originally, camera obscuras were the size of rooms and thus take their name from the latin 'dark room'. (Ars Magna, 1st ed. vol.10, plate 28 of vol.10, sec. 2, 1646)

The little tin box with a chimney, the Magic Lantern. In 1640, Athanasius Kircher will present a slide show recognized to be the first use of the candle-lit lantern.

Da'Vincis Lantern Drawing [1515]

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