Cinéma Vérité in Less Than a Minute

On December 28, 1895, the Lumiere brothers – Auguste and Louis – hosted the world’s first commercial movie screening with a paying audience. It was held at the Grand Café in Paris.

Their film, “La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon” (“the exit from the Lumière factory in Lyon” – commonly known in English as “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory”) was only 46 seconds long.

The title sums it up very well. It is a single static shot. You see a concierge at the end of the day’s work opening the factory gates and the workers exiting to the street. A few men have bicycles. A dog bounds out. A horse-drawn wagon comes at the end of the film.

It does not seem extraordinary today but it was exactly that at the time – beyond ordinary.

“Lumiere” means light and it’s a perfect name for these early filmmakers who were “painting with light” and exploring what might be done with this new invention. (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast has a brought-to-life candlestick named Lumiere.)

The brothers were manufacturers of photography equipment. Their Cinématographe motion picture system was used to make their first short films which they produced between 1895 and 1905.

They had screened their short film earlier that year (March 22) in Paris for an audience of about 200 who were members of the “Society for the Development of the National Industry,” That was probably the first presentation of films on a screen for a large audience. The December 28 screening with about 40 paying visitors and invited relations is generally regarded as the launch of commercial cinema. Earlier filmmaking efforts, including Thomas Edison in America, focused on individual viewing of films rather than projection.

Those first 10 films were 17 meters of film stock and when hand-cranked on a projector correctly would be about 50 seconds.

Though the Lumiere brothers are important to film history, they weren’t really the ones who moved filmmaking into a commercial enterprise. Like Edison at first, they said that “the cinema is an invention without any future.” They moved on to experimenting with color photography. They would not sell their camera to other early filmmakers, such as Georges Méliès. They certainly did not see cinema as a possible new art form. It would take others, like  Méliès in France, to begin to film fictional stories and add their own special effects.

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