Happy 125th Birthday, Cinema! Part 1

This is going to be an epic ride, so strap in. But it’s a birthday worth celebrating, I promise.

It’s Not Them – Or Him

If people know anything at all about how cinema began, they usually assume it was something to do with Edison or the Lumière brothers. Come December 28th this year we’ll see a rash of articles about the first Lumière show in the basement of a Paris café, 125 years ago.

But the first time people paid money to sit in a darkened room and watch movies projected on a screen wasn’t there or then.

And if people have a picture of what those first, crude movies were like, they visualise a rather boxy frame, the films moving too fast at modern speeds and lasting only about a minute.

But that isn’t how it began or how it was supposed to be. The cinema we eventually arrived at could have been had from the start.

So, I guess you’re wondering: if the Lumières didn’t start the ball rolling, who did? Don’t worry, we’ll get there. It involves a pair of chancers, their disgraced professor dad and a couple of disgruntled Edison employees.

Poster_Cinematographe_Lumiere
Forget about this. Don’t even look at it. I mean it. Stop!

The Story So Far

So, it’s 1894. Early moving picture inventor/experimenters such as William Friese-Greene, Wordsworth Donisthorpe, Georges Demenÿ and Louis le Prince have all crashed and burned in a variety of ways. Last man standing, by dint of financial muscle, is the industrial inventor Thomas Edison and his team. The real brains behind Edison’s operation is William Dickson, who’s now getting frustrated by the lack of credit and imagination at the West Orange works.

After several years of experimentation, they’ve gradually advanced from the utterly impractical idea of recording pinpoint images on a cylinder to following the lead of Marey and Friese-Greene and shooting on a strip of celluloid. These films are to be shown in “Kinetoscopes” – boxes containing loops of film, which are viewed by bending over and looking into a slot. The films are vivid, but are only around 17 seconds long, with very small images. The customer pays per film (or group of films), each seen in a separate Kinetoscope.

The first “Kinetoscope Parlor” opens in New York in April 1894 and they roll out across the US, lapping at European shores in the autumn of the year, the smell of money to be made attracting the attention of Robert Paul in Britain, a certain Antoine Lumiere in France, whose two sons are part of his successful photographic company, and a pair of German brothers in the business of projected entertainment named Skladanowsky.

Kinetoscope parlour in Chicago

An early Kinetoscope parlor. Not the most comfy arrangement for viewing a film.

Back in the USA, Otway Latham, a young, New York based, pharmaceutical salesman from a Virginia family, jumps decisively into the Kinetoscope business in May 1894.

Otway and Gray Latham portrait
Otway and Gray Latham. Pretty smooth guys.

He brings with him his brother Gray, engineer Enoch Rector (a college friend who works for the same company), and his father Woodville Latham whose tenure as Professor of Chemistry, Physics and Agriculture at West Virginia University was troubled, to say the least, and who has since been job-hopping around the States. Bankrolling their nascent business is Samuel Tilden Jr., the owner of said pharmaceutical company.

Otway has a vision for how boxing films could get the money rolling in. A series of miniaturised bouts for his Kinetoscopes does well, but the duration is completely inadequate so he lobbies Edison to come up with an enlarged machine that can at least show a whole minute. The expanded Kinetoscopes which show a series of one-minute boxing rounds are a success, but it’s glaringly obvious to Otway, as it was to so many, that projection is the way to go to really make money from motion pictures. But Edison firmly resists this development, seeing it as a dime-collecting, pay-per-play novelty box.

Woodville Latham portrait
Woodville Latham

So the story goes, Otway asked his scientifically minded father if he thought it was possible to project these films onto a screen, who replied that it absolutely was and set to work figuring out how.

A Plan Is Hatched

During the development of the expanded kinetoscope, Otway had spent plenty of time at the Edison works and had made a point of befriending William Dickson. Unsurprisingly, he tried to draw Dickson into their scheme. Dickson knew that any direct assistance by him could be viewed as “treachery” by Edison but at the same time he too was itching to get the films up on a screen, so he did informally advise.

One of his most important recommendations was that they employ Eugene Lauste, an excellent mechanic who had worked for Edison – although not on the Kinetoscope project – until being fired in 1892. They did, setting up a workshop at 35 Frankfort St, where Lauste also slept.

Young Dickson self-portrait
William Dickson having a Napoleonic moment

Possibly as a precaution to stay under the Edison radar, they didn’t incorporate this new business in New York but back in Richmond, Virginia. They named it the “Lambda Company” after the first letter (in Greek) of their name. All three Lathams were directors.

They could have simply developed a projection machine and then commissioned films to be made for it at West Orange, as they had with the boxing films, but they made an important creative and technical decision to take a different route. They decided to also design a camera and with it an entire new approach.

Only a handful of trusted people had ever seen the insides of the Edison Kinetograph camera and only one existed. The patent for it was still unpublished and Dickson was certainly not going to risk his neck by sharing details. So, the technical team of Woodville Latham, Lauste and Rector had to dream up their own.

The Kinetoscope films had a high running speed of around 40-45fps (frames per second). Making a camera work that fast was a considerable challenge and both the Lumières and Robert Paul & Birt Acres would drop to just a third of that – around 15-16fps. Nonetheless, the Lambda team sought to match it, or at least approach it.

The Edison camera was so big and heavy it could not move outside the funny little studio where it was housed. But the Lambda one would go out and about from the very start.

Gauging The Gauge

Butterfly Dance Edison
An early Kinetoscope film, showing the 1.33:1 format

What we now refer to as “35mm film” is still, near as dammit, what Dickson cooked up in 1892. Earlier experiments had all involved circular images but now he had adopted a modest rectangle: a 3:4 or 1.33:1 ratio, depending how you look at it. Dickson never explained his reasons for choosing this and endless theorising has ensued down the years. In the end it would become standardised and known as “The Academy Ratio”, with slight modifications. Then, when television became commercially viable, the boxy 1.33:1 ratio was transferred there.

Some contemporary filmmakers, such as Andrea Arnold, idolise the Academy Ratio as having special powers, but many others, including myself, find it profoundly limiting and not very aesthetically pleasing. It’s a huge relief to me that the TV and cinema standards are now for wider images, which better reflect the human visual field. Of course, in the early decades of cinema great cinematographers did wonderful things within those limitations, but few modern cinematographers long to return to them, beyond the occasional foray.

Starting with a blank sheet of paper, the Lambda team decided that a larger, wider image was needed for projected film. By increasing the height of each frame slightly whilst making the film 51mm wide, they doubled the picture area, which meant twice the picture quality and twice the amount of light getting through onto a screen. When commercial film shows started in earnest in 1896, the low resolution and dimness of the images would be common criticisms.

But it wasn’t just the quality improvement: the pictures were a radically different format. The projected image had a 1.85:1 ratio, which true cinema nerds will know is the standard, most commonly used “widescreen” ratio of cinema films today – a situation only arrived at after many years of flux. It is also very close to the 16:9 of modern TV.

Picture ratios

The most common picture ratios – from Cinemascope to boxy old TV

Looping The Loop

They didn’t stop there.

There was another major issue, which would hamper the early development of the film industry. The longest film the Edison equipment handled was 150ft, lasting one minute. The Cinématographe, which the Lumières were developing at the same time, could turn 50 feet of film into 50 seconds of screen time, by dropping the running speed, but its design was incapable of handling large loads of film, and significantly greater lengths were unthinkable.

The Lambda team solved the problem off the block. Now this involves a tiny bit of techno-geekery to explain, but I’ll try to make it painless.

As each frame of film goes through the camera or projector, it has to be jerked down into place, held and exposed, then jerked away again as the next frame comes down. And that’s happening many times a second. Now, in early equipment, when the film was jerked down into place, the mechanism was pulling against the whole reel of film that was sitting in there. If your reel is only 50ft (15m) that’s not much weight, so it’s not a big deal. But how are you going to move a modern 1000 ft roll, which weighs a couple of Kilos? The inertia is so great that the film would snap or the sprocket holes rip, or the mechanism would break.

Detail of Latham US patent showing loops in colour
“The Loop” from Woodville Latham’s 1896 projector patent

The answer was surprisingly simple. Whilst one frame is being exposed, feed out the length of the next frame ready, so all you have to pull down is a single frame, weighing a mere 2g or so. Woodville Latham would later embody this principle in a patent, which became known as the “Latham loop”, the rights to which would be bought and sold and fought over in court battles for an extraordinary fifteen years.

But was it really his idea? William Dickson was later very clear in attributing the credit for the idea to Eugene Lauste. Lauste wholeheartedly endorsed this version of events. But perhaps neither of these Edison ex-workers were being completely honest.

In June 1889, as regular readers will know, William Friese-Greene and Mortimer Evans took out a patent for a motion picture camera which would later be widely reported in the USA as well as Britain. By the April of 1890 we know that Dickson was fully acquainted with its particulars and had his own copy of the patent, which he later shared with some collaborators. The patent clearly describes the loop and its uses, whilst articles about the camera homed in on this as one its cleverest features: that whilst one frame was being exposed, a loop of film was paid out which was the exact length for the next frame.

Given that Dickson and Lauste were close and would work together on many projects across decades of their lives, it stretches credulity a very long way to assert that the idea of “the loop” was invented by the Lambda team, rather than acquired from existing sources. It is one of many misnomers of early film history that everyone still talks of “The Latham Loop” instead of “The Friese-Greene Loop”.

FG Machine Camera interior - Mr Friese Greene and his inventions Pt1 - Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly July 8 1909 p416 edit

The Friese-Greene 1889 camera which already embodied “The Loop”

In Part 2 you’ll find out how they staged the first public film show ever and see one of their films in motion for the first time in over 120 years. Go on: you’ll bloody love it.