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Film History

Preceding film by thousands of years, plays and dances had elements common to film: scripts, sets, costumes, production, direction, actors, audiences, storyboards, and scores. Much terminology later used in film theory and criticism applied, such as mise en scene (roughly, the entire visual picture at any one time). Moving visual and aural images were not recorded for replaying as in film.

Anthemius of Tralles used an early type of camera obscura in the 6th century[1] The camera obscura was further described by Alhazen in his Book of Optics (1021),[2][3][4] and later near the year 1600, it was perfected by Giambattista della Porta. Light is inverted through a small hole or lens from outside, and projected onto a surface or screen, creating a moving image, but it is not preserved in a recording.

In the 1860s, mechanisms for producing two-dimensional drawings in motion were demonstrated with devices such as the zoetrope, mutoscope and praxinoscope. These machines were outgrowths of simple optical devices (such as magic lanterns) and would display sequences of still pictures at sufficient speed for the images on the pictures to appear to be moving, a phenomenon called persistence of vision. Naturally the images needed to be carefully designed to achieve the desired effect, and the underlying principle became the basis for the development of film animation.

With the development of celluloid film for still photography, it became possible to directly capture objects in motion in real time. An 1878 experiment by English photographer Eadweard Muybridge in the United States using 24 cameras produced a series of stereoscopic images of a galloping horse, is arguably the first “motion picture,” though it was not called by this name.[5] This technology required a person to look into a viewing machine to see the pictures which were separate paper prints attached to a drum turned by a handcrank. The pictures were shown at a variable speed of about 5 to 10 pictures per second, depending on how rapidly the crank was turned. Commercial versions of these machines were coin operated.

A frame from Roundhay Garden Scene, the world’s earliest film produced using a motion picture camera, by Louis Le Prince, 1888

By the 1880s the development of the motion picture camera allowed the individual component images to be captured and stored on a single reel, and led quickly to the development of a motion picture projector to shine light through the processed and printed film and magnify these “moving picture shows” onto a screen for an entire audience. These reels, so exhibited, came to be known as “motion pictures”. Early motion pictures were static shots that showed an event or action with no editing or other cinematic techniques. The first public exhibition of projected motion pictures in America was shown at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York City on the 23rd of April 1896.

Ignoring Dickson’s early sound experiments (1894), commercial motion pictures were purely visual art through the late 19th century, but these innovative silent films had gained a hold on the public imagination. Around the turn of the 20th century, films began developing a narrative structure by stringing scenes together to tell narratives. The scenes were later broken up into multiple shots of varying sizes and angles. Other techniques such as camera movement were realized as effective ways to portray a story on film. Rather than leave the audience with noise of early cinema projectors, theater owners would hire a pianist or organist or a full orchestra to play music that would cover noises of projector. Eventually, musicians would start to fit the mood of the film at any given moment. By the early 1920s, most films came with a prepared list of sheet music for this purpose, with complete film scores being composed for major productions.

A shot from Georges Méliès Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902), an early narrative film.

The rise of European cinema was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I when the film industry in United States flourished with the rise of Hollywood, typified most prominently by the great innovative work of D.W. Griffith in The Birth of a Nation (1914) and Intolerance (1916). However in the 1920s, European filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein, F. W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang, in many ways inspired by the meteoric war-time progress of film through Griffith, along with the contributions of Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton and others, quickly caught up with American film-making and continued to further advance the medium. In the 1920s, new technology allowed filmmakers to attach to each film a soundtrack of speech, music and sound effects synchronized with the action on the screen. These sound films were initially distinguished by calling them “talking pictures”, or talkies.

The next major step in the development of cinema was the introduction of so-called “natural” color. While the addition of sound quickly eclipsed silent film and theater musicians, color was adopted more gradually as methods evolved making it more practical and cost effective to produce “natural color” films. Early films were black and white, then during it’s developement as a photographic medium, color films became a rare novelty in the 1940’s.

By the end of World War II, films were produced in black-and-white as opposed to color photography, but as color processes improved and became affordable in film making, more and more movies were filmed in color. After World War II the motion picture industry in America came to view color as essential, motivated by the need to attract audiences by competition with television, which remained a black-and-white medium until the mid-1960s. By the end of the 1960s, color had become the norm for film makers.

Since the decline of the studio system in the 1960s, the succeeding decades saw changes in the production and style of film. Various New Wave movements (including the French New Wave, Indian New Wave, Japanese New Wave and New Hollywood) and the rise of film school educated independent filmmakers were all part of the changes the medium experienced in the latter half of the 20th century. Digital technology has been the driving force in change throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s.

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