December 28, 1895 was a blustery day in Paris. Many people passing 14 Boulevard des Capucines entered its Grand Cafè for a warm drink. In the basement of the Indian Salon, two brothers from Lyon were readying an evening presentation. A hired man had been standing outside during the day handing out programs, but by the time of the event, only 33 people had paid the admission of 1 franc. What they saw that night was the birth of a new art form, motion pictures. The freestanding walnut and brass device occupying the center of the room looked much like a magic lantern, a familiar device that many had seen projecting colored slides onto a screen.
In fact, when the lights dimmed and an image came onto the white screen at the front of the room, it revealed at first a static scene of a building façade and wide, closed doors. Then the factory doors swung open and the workers walked out, rushing out for their midday meal. They were seeing a Motion picture.
This first film by Auguste and Louis Lumière was made close to the brothers’ home. Its title tells all: Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory in Lyon. It was the first of ten films shown to a paying audience that Christmas week evening. Thousands more films under the Lumière banner followed in the next decade, shot on locations around the world—each of them lasting a mere fifty seconds, each having a single camera setup. The seventeen meters of the film print dropped from the projector into a cloth basket, to be rewound after the screening.
It had been a race throughout the year 1895. The idea of moving pictures projected on a screen, to a paying audience, was simply “in the air.” There is evidence that this Lumière screening may not even have been the first. The German brothers, Max and Emil Skladanowsky, had screened half dozen films to a paying audience in Berlin the previous month.
But the Lumières had shown several of their films as early as March to French professional societies, to several hundred people at one sitting. It was this mass audience possibility that separated the Cinematograph from Edison’s earlier Kinetoscope, a cumbersome single viewer “peepshow” device.
This Indian Salon screening was merely the first presentation to a commercial audience to gain headlines. The multiple claimants of “inventor” of cinema as we know it, is linked to European national pride—but the honor generally goes to the Lumiere brothers and to their father, Antoine, whose factory for the manufacture of photographic plates provided the “location” of this first movie. The factory employed 300 workers and produced over fifteen million glass dry plates each year. Photography was, indeed, the family business.
The wizard who actually engineered the camera/projector is named Jules Carpentier and he had entered into a contract with Lumière pere et fils to make twenty-five machines called the Cinematograph. It was designed to photograph, print and project film with a single apparatus. It was made to be portable and lightweight in the hope that the Lumières would manufacture and sell the machine by the thousands.
Some historians claim that the 50-second movies were merely a stalking horse to sell the devices. Others insist that shortly after the December screening, Antoine said that the Cinematograph “can be exhibited for a while due to its scientific interest, but apart from that the machine has no future.”
It is impossible for us today, in an age of shaky cam, steadicam, 3D feature films of 3000 “edits,” to understand the visceral and emotional effect that viewing these static, single shot films had on an audience. Like the mid-nineteen century era of Victorian travel and of American government Western Survey still photography, the Lumière films quickly became a window into the world outside. Teams were hired in Asia, South America, Russia, and Africa, to bring exotic motion visuals to audiences hungry for new experiences. Some of the films also dramatized domestic and anecdotal fictional scenes—and comedies.
In 1996, French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, then director of the Institute Lumière in Lyon, narrated a compilation of 85 of these early films that had been newly restored.
Kino Video released a single disc DVD in 2003; it is now out of print. But it is available to see on YouTube. Tavernier is a humanist director in the tradition of the Nouvelle Vague— though he may have ambivalent feelings about saying so. I met him several years ago and had dinner with him, his wife, and German critic/historian Robert Fishcer, in the Tavernier apartment near the Opera. I was amazed at the breadth of his knowledge of cinema history, his passion for all movies, but especially for American films (he has directed several films in the United States). He has a nimble and spontaneous wit, which is on generous display in his narration of the history of the early Lumière films. Here it is in seven parts:
In Part One, Tavernier shows three versions of the first film, Exiting the Lumière factory. He calls them “the first sequels.” He then presents the first “commercial,” with the Lumière’s father-in-law, a beer brewer, and then the first VFX film, the demolition of a wall—when they discover the effect of reverse motion while rewinding the projected film.
In Part Two, Tavernier continues his amusing listing of Lumière film firsts, such as the first tracking shot (a view from a train passing through Lyon), first newsreel (a beautifully composed shot of a flooded street), first cat food commercial (A Renoir-esque girl and her kitty), and a prequel to the slow motion pillow fight of Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite.
In Part Three, Tavernier shows us several films of soldiers and sailors training. Commenting on the inept horse vaulting skills of French soldiers, he wryly reflects on why the French have lost so many wars. There is an amusing sack race featuring another inept but charming loser who hogs the spotlight. There is also a beautiful film of a small boat rowed out to a nearby jetty. The motion of the waves and the bobbing of the boat were especially fascinating to early film viewers.
Part Four begins with a lovely shot of washerwomen at a riverbank seen from the opposite shore. There is a starkly beautiful composition of a southern French town square rendered in intense contrasts of white architecture against black silhouettes of passersby; also, there is a dynamic composition of horses pulling carts filled with stone, one of the most “modern” compositions in all the Lumière films. There are films shot in Paris, London, Berlin, Dublin, Belfast and New York City (where the photographer had to dodge the Edison patent goons). These far-flung visual geography films are made by an increasingly sophisticated group of cameramen, several of whom Tavernier mentions: Alexandre Prumeau, and especially Gabriel Veyre whose work is to become increasingly visible.
Part Five continues the travelogues, featuring films made in Moscow, Jerusalem, Istanbul Vietnam, China and Japan. Most of these are photographed by Gabriel Veyre. Especially noted by Tavernier are an unusual longer lens shot of two recumbent smokers in an opium den, and a low angle shot filmed in Egypt of the Sphinx and a pyramid serving as graphic backdrop to a row of camels crossing the frame.
Part Six defines what is called “The Lumière Path,” Lumière films that even decades later seem to reflect evolving cinema techniques and styles. There is a shot of an unstable camera placed in a moving rickshaw with many children running after it. It seems almost like an Italian Neorealist tracking shot. The section ends with Tavernier showing 40 international film directors exiting the Lumière Institute on March 19, 1995—one hundred years after the first Lumière film of workers leaving the Lyon factory.
Part Seven, shows the final legend quote and credits—but ends with a beautiful montage of images from many of the Kino Video films.
It is all too easy to watch a few of these early Lumière films or any of the earliest films and cast an indulgent eye on them. To see them fresh and in historical and aesthetic context through the eyes of a great filmmaker such as Tavernier is indeed a revelation.
Less than a decade after inventing cinema as we know it, the Lumierès abandoned filmmaking and returned to their origins as creators of still photo plates. They developed a color process, patented in 1903, called Autochrome. It became the standard in color for several decades and was also produced on glass plates.
At the December 28, 1895 screening of the first ten films, others, non-paying guests were in attendance. One of them was the owner of the Robert Houdin Theater, which specialized in live magic, légerdemain and illusions. His name was George Melies. . . But that’s another story.
Next: Filmmaker Tacita Dean at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall