Believe it or not, the above screenshots come from the earliest known American films – Monkeyshines no. 1 and Monkeyshines no. 2, respectively. These illustrate American cinema’s nascent period, a time when moving pictures were a novelty and more of a distracting pastime than the major industry we know of today. These particular films (two of three in the Monkeyshines series, all released in 1890) were directed by William K. L. Dickson and William Heise, pioneers in the medium – Dickson would go on to release Dickson Greeting in 1891, the first publicly-shown film in American history, while Heise produced The Kiss, a famous (very) short film depicting the actors May Irwin and John Rice kissing. The 1890s proved to be a rather productive decade for cinema around the world – in the States, the Biograph Company became the first U.S. company to produce and distribute film (debuting in 1895 or so), while Pathé in France debuted in 1896.
For the sake of this article, the American side of cinematic history will be examined. Thomas Edison developed the first U.S. film studio – dubbed the “Black Maria,” this studio (completed in 1893, a year after construction began) exhibited Kinetoscope recordings such as Blacksmith Scene; William Dickson’s early films were recorded here. The Monkeyshines series of films were never displayed to the public; these particular films were internal tests. As a result, they do get the distinction of technically being the first films produced in the United States, but the later Dickson Greeting received the distinction of first exhibited. One may notice that the shots above are rather blurry – these are how the films exist, utilizing one of the most basic shots in cinematography, the medium shot. One can barely make out the human figures present; as internal tests, they help tremendously in illustrating the viability of cameras, even if they aren’t in focus.
In 1891, Dickson Greeting debuted at the National Federation of Women’s Clubs; like Monkeyshines, Greeting utilizes a medium shot, with Dickson himself as the subject and Heise at the camera. While it may be rather tame by today’s standards, this film made for a rather amazing release in the 1890s – for the first time, an audience could see someone move on screen, something novel to the decade in question. From the same year comes Newark Athlete – again, a medium shot is used, illustrating the rather static Kinetograph of the day.
In 1893, Dickson and Heise directed the first American short film to have a fictional narrative – Blacksmith Scene. Here, three men pound away at a heated rod before taking a brief break; unlike the previous films, this film employs actors to stage a scene in front of a stationary camera. The camera does not move; cuts have not been really utilized yet, so Blacksmith Scene shares the “single moment in time” motif of the former works. It wouldn’t be until the early 20th century when fictional works become more complex in scope – pioneers such as Edwin S. Porter and Georges Méliès would bring in techniques such as the abrupt cut (Another Job for the Undertaker, for example, utilizes cuts to show a man’s hat and coat disappearing), but for the last decade of the 19th century, understanding what films are capable of were more pertinent.
In 1896, McKinley at Home, Canton, Ohio was released; this work illustrates the capacity for film to capture important moments in history, as well as the emerging trend of the documentary. Here, McKinley receives the Republican nomination; with him is George B. Cortelyou, a cabinet secretary. One can see here the technique of things moving from the background to mid-ground – it’s nothing much, but it helped lay the groundwork for more complex shots involving movement. Also of note is the wide shot; both figures can be seen, with the scenery acting as a frame.
Prior to the 20th century, film was in flux – early pioneers were busy figuring out what they could accomplish with a camera, and this trend continued well into the 1900s (with jump cuts and other important techniques appearing in the early years of the 20th century). As time wore on, films became more lengthy and complicated in scope – documentary-style films remained popular, but as seen with Blacksmith Scene, acting quickly emerged as fictional works and dramatizations opened up avenues for actors to ply their craft. At the same time, films became more numerous after a while; once the viability of films became known, other countries (such as France, Italy and Japan), directors (such as Porter) and producers entered the scene to bring more varied productions to light.
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