Cinematic Pioneers

Auguste (left) and Louis (right)

Today marks the death, in 1948, of the aptly named Louis Lumière who, together with his brother Auguste, was one of the earliest filmmakers in history, and one of the first people to make moving pictures an entertainment medium for the masses.

The Lumières’ father owned a photographic firm where both the brothers worked, and after he retired in 1892 they began to experiment with creating moving pictures. They patented a number of processes they would later find useful, such as film perforations, and in 1895 they patented the cinématographe, an early film camera and projector. The first footage recorded with it was of workers leaving their factory in March 1895.

That same year, the brothers held both a private and a public screening of ten short films at the Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris. Each film was just under a minute long and had to be hand-cranked through a projector. They toured with their films in 1896, visiting Bombay, London, New York, and Buenos Aires, and shooting further films during their travels. Their films showing everyday life, such as The Arrival of a Train at a Station, are often cited as the first documentaries, and they even branched out into slapstick comedy with L’Arroseur Arrosé (the Waterer Watered).

The brothers didn’t think film had much of a future, and they refused to sell their camera to other filmmakers. At the turn of the century, they turned their attention to other matters, patenting a color photography process in 1903 that hit the market four years later. They also developed a loudspeaker, a dressing to heal burns, and a set of forceps.

Although the Lumières were not the first to film moving pictures or even to screen them, their screening at the Grand Café is considered by many to be the birth of cinema as a commercial medium, as they employed a simpler, more practical method than had been used before, which could be adopted by others (and very soon was). Whereas other pioneers in the moving picture industry like Thomas Edison thought of it mostly as a toy for the wealthy, the Lumières understood that films could and should be created for the everyman. So, we can thank the Lumières in part for the fact we can all buy a ticket and go see Three Musketeers in 3D or Brideshead Revisited, or whatever strikes your fancy. Thanks, guys!

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