A look back at the moving image: From Silence to CGI

First ever photograph. View from the Window at Le Gras (1826)

There is no doubt that this is the era of the moving image. Since the 1860s, with the invention of the zoetrope, an unstoppable wave of innovation has taken this infant technology and built it into the definitive mode of communication for the twenty-first century. Now we are increasingly unlikely to go a single day without exposure to computer screens, televisions, smart-phones, cinema screens and no doubt many other examples that do not immediately spring to mind. In the modern era, when our reality is governed by the moving image, it is sometimes hard to recall just how incredible this change truly is.

So I’ve taken the liberty of almost arbitrarily selecting some examples of the moving image from history to remind us of the incredible shifts it has afforded.

Earliest surviving film and sound recordings (1888)

Here is some footage shot in Leeds, London on 14 October 1888, purported to be the earliest surviving example of film. The clip also includes some footage shot two weeks later, also in Leeds. Over the top of these clips is playing a recorded performance Of Handel’s Israel in Egypt from 29 June, 1888. This is the earliest surviving example of recorded sound. Here then, disregarding the zoetrope, is the very beginning of cinema – a few short and inconsequential moments captured 124 years ago. It would be impossible for the people going about their business in this footage to understand that they were to be the first human beings whose motions would be captured and witnessed beyond their own time – that their morning walk would be watched by others more than a century into the future.

Prior to this moment, we have no way to directly gaze upon living history, except perhaps through the photograph. Incidentally, I have included the first-ever photograph, taken in 1826, at the top of the page. Prior to this moment, history is solely accessible via its artefacts.

New York Fire Brigade (1893)

Five years later, the efficiency of film technology had improved. Here, looking at the New York Fire Brigade, dependent on the horse and cart at the time, are we offered the opportunity to think about two things – how radically civilisation has changed, and how powerful it is to be able to see through time to this by-gone era.

The Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894 – 1895)

Here we may observe the earliest attempt to create synchronised sound/image recording.  The experiment was a test of the Kinetophone, a device developed by Thomas Edison, one of film’s early innovators. It is fascinating to note that this was a goal more than thirty years prior to it being practically achieved.

A trip to the Moon / Le Voyage dans la lune (1902)

Here we see the beginnings of narrative and special-effect filmmaking with George Melies’ most famous film. At just ten minutes, the film tells the story a trip to earth’s satellite. One need only view it to marvel at how quickly Melies, a magician, had managed to turn film into a realm of fantastic escapism.

Nosferatu – A Symphony of Terror (1922)

There are a hundred films that could be chosen to represent the silent era, but for me this is the one I return to more than any other.  By 1922, narrative filmmaking had become a true art form, and F.W. Murnau demonstrates this stunningly in the first and greatest adaptation of the Dracula story. Notice how by this time, cinema has gone from simple visual documentation to a stylised and dramatic aesthetic. There is no denying the force of the shadowy imagery seen here.

The Jazz Singer (1927)

Here is a moment from the first ever sound feature, The Jazz Singer. Apart from the abhorrent use of blackface which will forever mar the film, this marks a landmark moment in filmmaking, as the studios began to shift away from the silent era.

The Hindenburg Disaster (1937)

Here we see film’s other significant power, that of documenting history as it occurs. One cannot help but recall the events of September 11 that would occur 64 years later, as we bear witness to this tragic incident that resulted in the deaths of 35 of the 97 people aboard the ship (and one member of the ground crew). Here was a new way of capturing the world’s happenings and communicating them as news.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Jumping forward thirty-one years, we see a radical leap in film technology, with Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece boasting visuals that had been unimaginable up until this point. Ever since WWII, science fiction had become an incredibly popular genre in the United States – with interest in technological innovation’s threat and potential becoming a cultural fixation, especially with the looming threat of the cold War. In this film Kubrick tackled the very notion of humanity’s capacity for innovation and destruction, possibly more successfully than any film would ever do again.

Sunshine (2007)

Another leap of forty years, and we witness the results of a digital revolution that has produced special effects technology beyond anything that could be conceived of just two decades earlier. Here is Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, an underrated Science Fiction classic that employees CGI perfectly, without allowing it to overpower it’s central focus – human beings.

So… what’s next?

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

25 thoughts on “A look back at the moving image: From Silence to CGI

  1. So, every time I talk film with my friends, I can bring them along up to and until I mention something like Sunlight. I couldn’t get any of them to recognize what a brilliant piece of work it is (in my okay, not-so-humble opinion). Thanks for the Melies and the Murnau; what a way to start a day!

  2. Great post! I’ve often wondered what is next for the film industry. People seemed to believe it would be the dawn of realistic 3D but I don’t see that really taking off. Maybe something like virtual reality? Who knows, but I’m excited!

  3. I watched trip to the moon last year it’s so ahead of its time. It is truly one of the great leaps forward in the history of movies. Martin Sorcesse said last year at the Oscars if Melies had been alive now he’d advance film making 100 years.

  4. Pingback: A look back at the moving image: From Silence to CGI – Curnblog « johndwmacdonald

  5. Great post, I must confess ignorance of pretty much everything in your post bar 2001 and Sunshine, but it’s always fascinating to see something we take for granted in a different light.

  6. This is a wonderful blog… So many of my favourites.
    Perhaps you would review or find a trailer for another of my favourites, Jacques Costeau” “Beauty and the Beast”? It is one of my all time favourites!
    Thanks for joining my blog too 🙂

  7. Hi – thanks so much for following my blog. What intriguing research you have conducted here. Moving film must have been so precious. We take high resolution and realistic representations so much for granted now – and yet continue being thrilled by the permission that movies give us to look so intimately into other lives and to deepen our understanding.

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