Born: October 19, 1862, Besançon, France
Died: April 10, 1954, Lyon, France
Born: October 5, 1864, Besançon, France
Died: June 6, 1948, Bandol, France
I never saw a more startled audience than that which saw the Lumière Cinématographe exhibited for the first time.
—J. Austin Fynes
In 1894, Louis Lumière had just completed a factory for the production of photographic plates. He had over three hundred workers making more than fifteen million plates in his first year of business. The last thing on his mind was a new venture. But his father, a renowned painter and statesman, returned from a showing of Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope in Paris and charged his sons Louis and Auguste with the task of combining animated pictures with a projection device. The brothers found a way by 1895.
Edison’s work was fascinating, but the Lumières knew the secret of making movies a success was in projection, and Edison’s invention had only a small peephole that could be viewed by just one person at a time. If they could devise an instrument to cast images on a large canvas, they could beat their competition to market and get a firm foothold in the new industry. They started by examining Edison’s process. Everything filmed by Edison’s company had to fit into his studio and perform in front of a heavy, stationary camera. Then, the recorded images had to be transferred to the peephole viewing device.
The Lumières believed the Edison group had been foolish to separate the camera and projector. Certain that the two could be integrated, they set to work. As the lead tinkerer, Louis developed a device for driving strips of film from the foot pedal mechanism of a sewing machine. In lieu of perforated film strips, which were difficult to come by in France, he used paper strips and punched holes in them by hand. But the paper was still too opaque to see through, so strong arc lamps were employed to study the animated images that developed on the paper.
The brothers applied for their first patent on February 13, 1895. No name was given for the device, simply a description: “an apparatus for obtaining and showing chronophotographic prints.” Their father urged them to dub the contraption a “Domitor,” but they settled for another name, the Cinématographe, a hand-cranked camera that required less film than Edison’s and reduced the projection speed from forty-eight to sixteen frames per second. More important, the Cinématographe was housed in a single unit with a film projector for viewing by an entire group.
Best of all, it was lightweight, so the Lumières could venture outside to capture the real world. This was perhaps the most significant contribution the brothers made to cinema. By developing a single-unit device that was portable, they were able to document the outside world in moving pictures. They began by taking shots of their family members and employees at work and play, but soon the Lumières were filming anything and everything. With Louis doing most of the cranking, the brothers photographed about sixty subjects the first year, eventually building a catalog of more than 750 films in less than five years. Most were only one minute long and were simple recordings of everyday life. Although they tended to be unimaginative, featuring names like Arrival of a Train (1897) or Feeding the Baby (1895), they were outdoor scenes that showed movement and depth.
They were also, many of them, firsts. The first film ever projected was Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895). The first screen comedy was Watering the Gardener (1896). The first newsreel and the first documentary belonged to the Lumière brothers. To raise funding for the mass production of the Cinématographe, the Lumières displayed these film firsts to industrialists on March 22, 1895, and prepared a public screening in Paris on December 28, 1895. The effects upon the unsuspecting audiences were baffling. Curious photographers and inventors rushed to the back of the room when they saw the image of an oncoming train entering the station.
By 1897, the Lumières were training camera operators for additional exhibition films and retooling their factory for the production and sale of film equipment to every corner of the world. Soon they followed Edison in renting their films to theater owners, offering a library that eventually grew to more than twelve hundred titles.
During the earliest years of the film industry, these short films played a critical role in giving the public an opportunity to see the marvel of motion pictures. Although the Lumières gave more presentations than any other organization, their films never matched the quality or creativity of others. As distribution became competitive, the Lumières were squeezed thin and ceased production in 1900.
Placing pioneers like the Lumière brothers in the bottom half of this ranking may seem ungenerous and overly severe, considering that their early work in the development of motion pictures resulted in a lightweight portable camera and the exhibition of films to large audiences. However, it’s important to not that the Lumières were not the first to consider a projection system. They simply won the race by being the swiftest, refining many of the innovations that were invented by others, ignoring many of the patents on other inventors’ processes, and beating the competition to market. Although their overall design of the Cinématographe is a forefather of the modern camera and projector, the equipment used in filmmaking today owes only a slight debt to their early mechanisms. These few considerations aside, the Lumières deserve a high place in film history. They were the first to take filmmaking out on the streets; they disseminated the essential tools and provided the inspiration that made filmmakers out of Alice Guy Blaché, George Méliès, and Edwin S. Porter. And their competitive spirit accelerated the race to make superior film equipment available in the earliest days of the industry.
To read all the republished articles from ‘The Film 100,’ go to Reintroducing the Film 100 here on Keyframe.