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.

Cinema History and Bataille de boules de neige

When I was teaching film history, one of the stories I would tell was about the showing of the a film by the French Lumière Brothers called “Arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat” (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat). This 1896 film had a running time of 50 seconds. It shows a train pulled by a steam locomotive entering the train station of the French southern coastal town of La Ciotat, near Marseille. It is like most of their early films and is a single, unedited shot with no intentional camera moves.  The story – which I have since learned is a myth – was that when it was shown it so startled audiences that people jumped from their seats.

The American film “The Great Train Robbery” from Thomas Edison’s studio in 1903 also had a “shocker” shot of a gun fired at the audience. But audiences did not jump up in fear when they saw that gun fire.  Made 7 years after the Lumiere film, audiences had seen more films and were used to more sophisticated “effects.” This film was edited, had wide shots, close-ups, a matte effect, camera pans, multiple locations (in New York and New Jersey) and showed simultaneous action across multiple scenes.

I’m generally not a fan of colorizing black and white films, but recently one of the Lumière Brothers’ films was restored in full color and HD by Joaquim Campa. He used AI-powered software and there were frames interpolated to smooth the film (though the film’s speed remains unchanged). Here is the new version.

I like this “restored” version though film purists will say the original version (seen below) is the only version that should be seen. Considering that the actual “Bataille de boules de neige” (Snowball Fight) occurred in real-life color and that the brothers had no choice but to use black and white film and be silent, I imagine they would have been thrilled to see their film in color and with sound.

Watching these citizens pound each other and a passing cyclist with snowballs is a fun little moment from 1896 that doesn’t seem so different from our own time. Photography and cinema always change reality. Another French filmmaker, Georges Méliès, saw what the brothers had done but he took it beyond reality and created fantasies and special effects such as those in his film  “A Trip to the Moon” which in 1902 had many effects including footage in black and white but also scenes that had been “hand-colorized.”