Sean Baker’s 2015 film Tangerine grossed over $900,000 at the box office and the entire movie was shot on an iPhone 5S. In today’s age, we have the ability to film the world around us instantly at our fingertips. People all over the world are broadcasting themselves doing TikTok dances every second of the day, and some of them are getting paid millions of dollars to do so. With the massive leaps we’ve made in the field of videography, it’s hard to imagine a time when producing a motion picture was a labor-intensive, arduous process.
However, there was a time in human history when someone might have seen a motion picture and attributed it to witchcraft. Needless to say, those people would have been absolutely blown away by the feature-length films that populate streaming services like Netflix and Hulu today. But like most things, the technology that made movies like The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It possible have humble beginnings.
If you’re a real movie buff, you’ve probably asked yourself once or twice, “What was the first movie ever made?” Well, the answer to that question sort of has a multi-part answer, and it has to do with what exactly you would consider a movie. Let’s take a walk through the past and see what the first movies ever made were, and how they brought us to the world of cinema magic that we live in today.
The Father of Motion Pictures
The story of how motion pictures came to be invented starts with a man from Kingston upon Thames, England named Eadweard Muybridge. While Muybridge would go on to develop what was essentially the first moving picture, his career was almost cut short by a series of unfortunate events.
In 1860, when he was working as a bookseller in the United States, he suffered serious head injuries related to a stagecoach crash in Texas. Yes, they were still riding in stagecoaches back then. Later, in 1874, he shot and killed his wife’s lover; however, he was acquitted on the basis of “justifiable homicide.”
Despite almost dying in a stagecoach crash and then somehow avoiding being jailed for a murder he committed, Muybridge went on to travel around Central America for over a year and found his new favorite photographic subjects in the animals he saw. This spurred his interest in animal locomotion and eventually drove him to invent the moving picture.
The First-Ever Motion Picture
In 1878, Eadweard Muybridge would create what was essentially the first-ever motion picture, titled The Horse in Motion. Apparently, the motivation behind creating this motion picture was to find out if horses ever went completely airborne while galloping. Leland Stanford, railroad tycoon, former Governor of California, and the namesake of Stanford University, believed the answer was yes and hired Muybridge to create a motion picture that would serve as irrefutable evidence. Over the span of six years, Muybridge spent around $50,000 of Stanford’s money (which would be over $1 million today) trying to improve shutter speeds and film emulsions.
Once the technology was ready in 1878, Muybridge set up 12 cameras in succession that each had an exposure of just a fraction of a second, which was extremely impressive for that time period. As the horse trotted by, it tripped wires connected to each of the cameras and caused them to take photos one after the other. Muybridge developed the photos right there on Stanford’s estate (which was eventually to become the site of Stanford University) and put them on an invention of his called a zoopraxiscope, which is sort of like a vinyl record with a bunch of images in succession around its edge.
By spinning the zoopraxiscope quickly, the images appeared to be one fluid stream of motion to the human eye (sort of like how traditional animation or GIFs work). Thus, the question of whether horses ever went completely airborne while galloping was answered. In the seconds-long motion picture, there was, in fact, a time where the horse hooves were all off the ground and it was completely airborne. More importantly, though, the first motion picture ever was created.
Movement to Consecutive Action
While it was certainly the first-ever motion picture, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, The Horse in Motion is not the oldest surviving film in existence. That honor goes to Roundhay Garden Scene, a silent actuality film produced by French inventor Louis Le Prince in 1888. The distinguishing factor that caused Roundhay Garden Scene to be considered a film was the fact that it portrayed consecutive motion and was created with a motion picture camera instead of by combining several still photos.
The film was made at Oakwood Grange, the home of Joseph and Sarah Whitley in Roundhay, Leeds, England. The film simply shows Louis Le Prince’s son Adolphe as well as Sarah Whitley, Joseph Whitely, and Annie Hartley leisurely walking around the garden at the house. Strangely, Sarah Whitley died just ten days after the filming. The film was shot at 12 frames per second and runs for 2.11 seconds in its entirety.
After filming Roundhay Garden Scene, Louis Le Prince took his revolutionary camera to Leeds Bridge and started filming the pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages as they crossed over it. These films were later presented at a public screening in Leeds, the first-ever motion picture exhibition. Adding to the strangeness of the story of Roundhay Garden Scene, Louis Le Prince eventually disappeared mysteriously on a train from Paris to Dijon, and he nor his body were ever located.
The First-Ever Color Film
While some believe that the first-ever movie to utilize technicolor was The Wizard of Oz, that’s actually not true. The first movie to use technicolor was the 1917 film The Gulf Between, which ended up being a total disaster, which is probably why you’ve never heard of it. The film was an artistic mess and was pretty much unenjoyable; however, it did show that Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation was making strides in their technology.
Before there were technicolor films, though, there were still films being made in color. In fact, the first-ever color film was called Annabelle Serpentine Dance, and it was completely colored by hand. Every single frame in the 45-second film was painted by hand.
The film depicts Annabelle Moore, an American actress and dancer, performing her famous serpentine dance. It was directed by William K. L. Dickson and William Heise and produced and distributed by Edison Manufacturing Company (which was founded by Thomas Edison).
While the film’s coloration certainly isn’t perfect, sort of making it look like a vaporwave animation, there’s still something elegant about Annabelle’s dance, and it’s certainly impressive that someone took the time to color in each frame by hand.