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A very short history of cinema

Published: 18 June 2020

Learn about the history and development of cinema, from the Kinetoscope in 1891 to today’s 3D revival.

Cinematography is the illusion of movement by the recording and subsequent rapid projection of many still photographic pictures on a screen. Originally a product of 19th-century scientific endeavour, cinema has become a medium of mass entertainment and communication, and today it is a multi-billion-pound industry.

Who invented cinema?

Publicity image of Edison Kinetophone, c.1895

No one person invented cinema. However, in 1891 the Edison Company successfully demonstrated a prototype of the Kinetoscope, which enabled one person at a time to view moving pictures.

The first public Kinetoscope demonstration took place in 1893. By 1894 the Kinetoscope was a commercial success, with public parlours established around the world.

The first to present projected moving pictures to a paying audience were the Lumière brothers in December 1895 in Paris, France. They used a device of their own making, the Cinématographe, which was a camera, a projector and a film printer all in one.

Detail of Kinetoscope, made by Thomas Edison in 1894
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Detail of Kinetoscope, made by Thomas Edison in 1894
Lumière Cinématographe, c.1896
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Lumière Cinématographe, c.1896

What were early films like?

At first, films were very short, sometimes only a few minutes or less. They were shown at fairgrounds, music halls, or anywhere a screen could be set up and a room darkened. Subjects included local scenes and activities, views of foreign lands, short comedies and newsworthy events.

The films were accompanied by lectures, music and a lot of audience participation. Although they did not have synchronised dialogue, they were not ‘silent’ as they are sometimes described.

The rise of the film industry

By 1914, several national film industries were established. At this time, Europe, Russia and Scandinavia were the dominant industries; America was much less important. Films became longer and storytelling, or narrative, became the dominant form.

As more people paid to see movies, the industry which grew around them was prepared to invest more money in their production, distribution and exhibition, so large studios were established and dedicated cinemas built. The First World War greatly affected the film industry in Europe, and the American industry grew in relative importance.

The first 30 years of cinema were characterised by the growth and consolidation of an industrial base, the establishment of the narrative form, and refinement of technology.

Adding colour

Colour was first added to black-and-white movies through hand colouring, tinting, toning and stencilling.

By 1906, the principles of colour separation were used to produce so-called ‘natural colour’ moving images with the British Kinemacolor process, first presented to the public in 1909.

Kinemacolor was primarily used for documentary (or ‘actuality’) films, such as the epic With Our King and Queen Through India (also known as The Delhi Durbar) of 1912, which ran for over 2 hours in total.

The early Technicolor processes from 1915 onwards were cumbersome and expensive, and colour was not used more widely until the introduction of its three‑colour process in 1932. It was used for films such as Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz (both 1939) in Hollywood and A Matter of Life and Death (1946) in the UK.

Adding colour

Adding sound

Vitaphone disc Science Museum Group Collection Image source for Vitaphone disc
Vitaphone disc, 1930

The first attempts to add synchronised sound to projected pictures used phonographic cylinders or discs.

The first feature-length movie incorporating synchronised dialogue, The Jazz Singer (USA, 1927), used the Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone system, which employed a separate record disc with each reel of film for the sound.

This system proved unreliable and was soon replaced by an optical, variable density soundtrack recorded photographically along the edge of the film, developed originally for newsreels such as Movietone.

Cinema’s Golden Age

By the early 1930s, nearly all feature-length movies were presented with synchronised sound and, by the mid-1930s, some were in full colour too. The advent of sound secured the dominant role of the American industry and gave rise to the so-called ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’.

During the 1930s and 1940s, cinema was the principal form of popular entertainment, with people often attending cinemas twice a week. Ornate ’super’ cinemas or ‘picture palaces’, offering extra facilities such as cafés and ballrooms, came to towns and cities; many of them could hold over 3,000 people in a single auditorium.

In Britain, the highest attendances occurred in 1946, with over 31 million visits to the cinema each week.

Cinema audience, 1932, James Jarché

What is the aspect ratio?

Thomas Edison had used perforated 35mm film in the Kinetoscope, and in 1909 this was adopted as the worldwide industry standard. The picture had a width-to-height relationship—known as the aspect ratio—of 4:3 or 1.33:1. The first number refers to the width of the screen, and the second to the height. So for example, for every 4 centimetres in width, there will be 3 in height. 

With the advent of optical sound, the aspect ratio was adjusted to 1.37:1. This is known as the ‘Academy ratio’, as it was officially approved by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the Oscars people) in 1932.

Although there were many experiments with other formats, there were no major changes in screen ratios until the 1950s.

How did cinema compete with television?

Promotional image for Cinerama showing rollercoaster on a cinema screen Cinerama Inc.
Promotional image for Cinerama, 1952

The introduction of television in America prompted a number of technical experiments designed to maintain public interest in cinema.

In 1952, the Cinerama process, using three projectors and a wide, deeply curved screen together with multi-track surround sound, was premiered. It had a very large aspect ratio of 2.59:1, giving audiences a greater sense of immersion, and proved extremely popular.

However, Cinerama was technically complex and therefore expensive to produce and show. Widescreen cinema was not widely adopted by the industry until the invention of CinemaScope in 1953 and Todd‑AO in 1955. Both processes used single projectors in their presentation.

Screening of The Sound of Music in 70mm on the curved screen in Pictureville Cinema as part of Widescreen Weekend, 2019
<em>The Sound of Music</em> on the museum’s curved screen, 2019

CinemaScope ‘squeezed’ images on 35mm film; when projected, they were expanded laterally by the projector lens to fit the screen. Todd-AO used film with a width of 70mm. By the end of the 1950s, these innovations had effectively changed the shape of the cinema screen, with aspect ratios of either 2.35:1 or 1.66:1 becoming standard. Stereo sound, which had been experimented with in the 1940s, also became part of the new widescreen experience.

Specialist large-screen systems using 70mm film were also developed. The most successful of these has been IMAX, which as of 2020 has over 1,500 screens around the world. For many years IMAX cinemas have shown films specially made in its unique 2D or 3D formats but more recently they have shown popular mainstream feature films which have been digitally re-mastered in the IMAX format, often with additional scenes or 3D effects.

Installation of the IMAX screen at the museum in 1983 Science Museum Group Collection
Installation of IMAX screen at the museum, 1983

How have cinema attendance figures changed?

While cinemas had some success in fighting the competition of television, they never regained the position and influence they held in the 1930s and 40s, and over the next 30 years audiences dwindled. By 1984 cinema attendances in Britain had declined to one million a week.

The Point multiplex cinema, Milton Keynes

By the late 2000s, however, that number had trebled. The first British multiplex was built in Milton Keynes in 1985, sparking a boom in out-of-town multiplex cinemas.

Today, most people see films on television, whether terrestrial, satellite or subscription video on demand (SVOD) services. Streaming film content on computers, tablets and mobile phones is becoming more common as it proves to be more convenient for modern audiences and lifestyles.

Although America still appears to be the most influential film industry, the reality is more complex. Many films are produced internationally—either made in various countries or financed by multinational companies that have interests across a range of media.

What’s next?

In the past 20 years, film production has been profoundly altered by the impact of rapidly improving digital technology. Most mainstream productions are now shot on digital formats with subsequent processes, such as editing and special effects, undertaken on computers.

Cinemas have invested in digital projection facilities capable of producing screen images that rival the sharpness, detail and brightness of traditional film projection. Only a small number of more specialist cinemas have retained film projection equipment.

In the past few years there has been a revival of interest in 3D features, sparked by the availability of digital technology. Whether this will be more than a short-term phenomenon (as previous attempts at 3D in the 1950s and 1980s had been) remains to be seen, though the trend towards 3D production has seen greater investment and industry commitment than before.