History of Cinema: Edison’s ‘Boxing Cat’, Soviet Russia’s ‘Kuleshov Effect’ and More
From the late Pleistocene era to the present time, if there is one thing that has remained the same among all humans, it’s the need to express ourselves. We are compelled to share our emotions and thoughts in so many ways. Daily conversation is just one of them. This need for expression is embedded within our basic evolutionary design. We share because it makes us feel part of a group/society.
Cinema is also a medium of expression. It stems from the same primitive mind which wants to express itself.
Early cave paintings of Altamira in Northern Spain are prime examples of how our ancestors, 36,000 years ago, expressed what they wanted to say. We can see the same phenomenon in Bhimbetka cave paintings of India which are 10,000 years old, and in Lascaux cave paintings of France which are around 17,000 years old. But other than expressing thoughts and emotions, what makes these cave paintings the predecessor of modern cinema is the depiction of motion.
Cave Painting of Bhimbetka caves. In the first painting, we can see migration, and in the second painting a group of tribes around an animal. We can feel the motion in both these static cave paintings. (Pic Credit - Yeh Mera India and Pinterest)
The first Cave painting is from Altamira, the motion of a horse and the second cave painting is from Lascaux, a depiction of an encounter of two animals. (Pic Credit – Pinterest and Wikipedia)
With growing technology and human innovations, cinema underwent different phases of transformations. Today, we take a look at the history of cinema and trace a timeline.
Shadow puppetry is one of the oldest folk traditions to tell stories developed in China and other South Asian countries. In India, there are many storytelling art forms like ‘Pandavani’, a folk singing style of narration of Mahabharata. ‘Kavad Art’ of Rajasthan is also an example of this form of art. ‘Kavad’ is a portable wooden box with visual narratives containing the pictures of gods and goddesses used to tell mythological stories. There are various forms of theatre we see around the world, all are somewhere or the other cinema of their time and the main objective of all those is expressing thoughts and telling stories.
A small ‘Kavad’(Pic Credit – Google Images)
Many film historians start the historical timeline of cinema with the origin of the camera and motion picture technology. But they can’t explain why they use this technology to express their thoughts because the primary aim of these inventions was not filmmaking. When we look back, there is a long history of telling stories, and humans improved it with incoming technology. The current form of cinema is just that phase of storytelling where we are using contemporary technology to tell stories. The works of film intellectuals like Jean Mitry look in broad terms at the preceding period of cinema, even casting their net as far back as prehistoric caves we talked about above.
If we see modern cinema with respect to the developments in cinematography in the 19th century and later on, here also historians put their national identities and nationalism first. They try to present that particular history which glorifies their own country more, the major reason for this being the two World Wars which divided the whole world.
But if we look at it realistically, 1870 was the year of the birth of the moving cinema. Eadweard Muybridge was an English-American photographer who was commissioned to take a picture of a horse for a scientific study that showed that all four legs of a horse can be in the air at the same point in time. He took a number of photos in a particular period of time, and when he ran those photos chronologically, it became the first motion picture in the history of cinema.
Singles from the first motion picture captured by Muybridge. (Pic Credit – Film Thought Project (Youtube))
Auguste Lumie`re and Louis Lumie`re were two French photography equipment manufacturers who later on became short filmmakers. They are considered as one of the earliest filmmakers. On 28th December 1895, they did their first commercial public screening for around 40 paying visitors. It has been traditionally regarded as ‘The Birth of Cinema’ we see today. Around the same time in 1894, Thomas Edison produced a 1-minute silent short film called ‘Boxing Cat’.
A still from Edison’s Boxing Cat. (Pic Credit – Film Thought Project (Youtube))
When we analyze early films, they were just static wide-angle shots with fewer frame changes. This kind of cinema technique was perfect for the comedy genre. Artists like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were using this technique.Bose Sport Truly Wireless Bluetooth in Ear Earphone
Simultaneously, something great was happening in Soviet Russia. It was known as “Soviet Montage Theory”. Soviet filmmaker Sergie Eisenstein proposed five methods of montage. Sergei's idea suggested that film editing techniques could be used for conveying far more than the narrative. This helped to shape the future of the film medium. He describes different ways that shot could be complied to achieve various outcomes :
The idea was that a combination of connected images cut together could create complex ideas more effectively than the content of the shot itself. This gave more motion in the shot. That is why Soviet films at that time convey emotions (even the movement of their characters) in their films better than US films. Another Soviet Filmmaker, Lev Kuleshov further developed this Soviet Montage and gave us the ‘Kuleshov Effect’. This said that we can express more deep and complex emotions in detail through the right editing of the film compared to a shot where an actor physically acts to portray that emotion. To depict this effect, he showed a film to the public in which first, an expressionless face of a man comes, then it cuts to a shot of a soup bowl, then again that expressionless face comes and the shot cuts to a coffin with a young girl and, finally, that expressionless man’s face comes and this time, the shot cuts to a beautiful lady. The audience answered the question of what the man was feeling in these three different cases. They said hungry first, sad second, and lust third. After these Soviet inputs, film dramas were created and thus the importance of still wide static shots went down.
But the credit of introducing sound in films goes to the USA. In 1927, The Jazz Singer was made by Alan Crosland and produced by Warner Bros. It was the first film with synchronous sound and songs with lip-synchronization in it. It effectively marked the end of silent films and the era of talkies that came into the picture.
The use of sound in films needed a lot of equipment while shooting. Thus the studio system came into the picture. Until this point, we witnessed specific types of stories from specific countries. After World War 2 and the decolonization of colonial powers, newly independent countries began to make their own cinema, and stories from different parts of the world with different cinema techniques and methods came to light. Thus the concept of ‘World Cinema’ came into existence and gradually it became a counterforce to ‘Hollywood Commercialism’.
Further development of technologies enhanced our storytelling experience rapidly. But it is still the brainchild of our thousands of years old brain which is responsible for both Altamira and the Godfather Trilogy. How strange it is when you think Edison was the first to produce a cat video, and now Instagram is flooded with cat videos. Nothing changed much as a human, we still express all those basic emotions which prehistoric humans used to do.
Note – If you want to know more about the origin of Cinema and its history, read ‘Cinema before Cinema- The Origins of Scientific Cinematography’.
More about- 1) Altamira Caves - https://www.bradshawfoundation.com/news/cave_art_paintings.php?id=Facts-about-Altamira-cave-art
2) Bhimbetka Caves – https://www.bradshawfoundation.com/india/central_india/index.php#:~:text=The%20Rock%20Art%20Site%20of%20Shamla%20Hill and
3) Lascaux Caves –
Author Biographical Note: The author is pursuing graduation in Physics (Hons) from Ramjas College, University of Delhi, India. He is working for Explore Screen: The Cognitive Dialogue as an intern.
On VFX/Visual Effects: In Talk with Kamal Hingorani and Mukul Rawat
Gangster Moll: Woman as a Cultural Substance in Bollywood
Jai Bhim Review – Resurgence of Tribal Space in Indian Cinema
Last Night In Soho Review: Imperfect Yet Bloody Good Fun