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A medium in motion

The science of movies

May 21, 2006|Dawn C. Chmielewski | Times Staff Writer

The essence of telling stories with moving pictures has changed little since the earliest days of cinema. But the story of Hollywood is punctuated by technological innovations that opened new paths for directors, actors, writers and audiences. And as Times staff writer Dawn C. Chmielewski explains, change has rarely come easily -- or without a fight.


Moving pictures

Thomas Alva Edison wrote in 1894 that he wanted to "do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear." And Hollywood often credits him with inventing the first motion picture camera, the Kinetograph. His work was influenced by British photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who 22 years earlier developed a crude photographic system of cameras and trip wire called the Zoopraxiscope to settle a bet: whether all four of a horse's feet leave the ground simultaneously when it gallops. (They do.) Edison also built the first motion picture studio: the "Black Maria," a tar paper shack with a hole in the roof that was on a turntable so it could rotate to follow the sun. But Edison didn't think audiences would pay to watch films. Brothers Louis and Auguste Lumiere assembled a Parisian audience in 1895 to witness their creation, a camera/projector called the Cinematographe, which led to the birth of theatrical exhibition.

Synchronized sound

Silent films were far from silent. Pianos and orchestras accompanied the action on-screen. Edison tried in 1913 to synchronize sound with a giant version of his phonograph behind the screen. It was synchronized with the projector using a string belt suspended over the audience. Lee de Forest is frequently credited with recording sound directly on film. His Phonofilm was publicly demonstrated at the Rivoli Theater in New York City in April 1923 -- four years before Al Jolson's "The Jazz Singer." But silent film was at its apex. Who needed sound? On Aug. 6, 1926, Warner Bros. opened "Don Juan" using a technology called Vitaphone. The musical accompaniment was recorded on wax records. It was a rousing success. Warner then released "The Jazz Singer," followed by the first all-talking picture, "The Lights of New York." By the 1930s, the Hollywood pantomime party was over and such icons as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were left out of the limelight.


Color didn't explode suddenly on the screen, like Dorothy stepping out of a black-andwhite Kansas into a colorful Oz, donning her ruby red slippers. Filmmakers initially added color by hand -- employing legions of women who would painstakingly retouch each frame. In 1922, a pair of Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates pioneered the three-color system that became synonymous with the company they founded, Technicolor. The 1935 film "Becky Sharp" was the first movie to be shot with this new full-color process, using a camera with three strips of black-and-white film. A prism split the light into red, green and blue. The colors were recombined through a complicated printing process, in which one color was laid on top of another. Filmmakers would later credit color as adding a dimension of reality. "It may be garish, it may be unreal, and it's far from subtle, but it's alive," director Martin Scorsese wrote of Technicolor.


Philo T. Farnsworth came up with the idea for modern television while plowing his father's potato field. An avid reader of scientific journals and an admirer of Albert Einstein, the 14-year-old Farnsworth envisioned sending electrons in rows -- just as one would plow a field. By age 20, he had opened his first laboratory above a garage in San Francisco and a year later, in 1927, he filed his first patent for a television system. David Sarnoff, founder of the NBC radio network, directed his RCA laboratories to investigate ways to transmit a moving image. RCA trumped Farnsworth in the market as television flourished after World War II. The U.S. electronics industry, which had expanded to meet wartime demands, turned its efforts to peacetime applications. By 1950, TV was pinching cinemas. Attendance nose-dived and theaters closed -- foreshadowing today's tension between multiplexes and home theaters.

Really big screens

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