Lights! Camera! Action! How the Lumière brothers invented the movies

In 1895, Louis and Auguste Lumière gave birth to the big screen thanks to their revolutionary camera and projector, the Cinématographe.

By Pedro García Martín
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:37 BST

Auguste and Louis Lumière invented a camera that could record, develop, and project film, but they regarded their creation as little more than a curious novelty. Shortly after the public premiere of their film, Louis was said to have remarked: “Le cinéma est une invention sans avenir—Cinema is an invention with­out a future.” (See also: Explore your favorite movie worlds through beautiful, hand-painted maps.)

Cinématograph patented by the Lumière brothers in 1895
Cinématograph patented by the Lumière brothers in 1895
Photograph by SSPL/Getty Images

This prediction was the Lumières only scientific miscalculation, for this sibling pair created an unprecedented form of art and entertainment that radically influenced popular culture. Their Cinémato­graphe introduced a crucial innovation: By projecting moving images onto a large screen, it created a new, shared experience of cinema. The first "movies" were born.

A family tradition

In 1870, as France reeled from invasion in the Franco­-Prussian war, Antoine Lumière moved his family from the hazardous eastern border of the country to the city of Lyon. A portrait painter and award-­winning photographer, he opened a small business in pho­tographic plates in his new home.

Two of Antoine’s sons, Auguste and Louis, grew up immersed in and fascinated by their father’s trade. In 1881, the 17­-year-­old Louis began taking a particular interest in the photographic plates that their father manufactured.

Chemists had already introduced a new type of “dry” photographic plate that was coated with a chemical emul­sion. Unlike previous “wet” photo­ graphic plates, these did not need to be developed immediately, freeing the photographer to travel farther from his darkroom. Louis improved upon the dry plate technology, and his success with what became known as the “blue plate” prompted the opening of a new factory on the outskirts of Lyon. By the mid­1890s the Lumière family was running Europe’s largest photograph­ic factory. (See also: These beautiful antique photos were made with potato starch.)

Pioneers in motion

In 1894 Antoine attended a Paris exhi­bition of Thomas Edison and William Dickson’s Kinetoscope, a film-viewing device often referred to as the first mov­ie projector. However, the Kinetoscope could show a motion picture to only one person at a time. The individual viewer had to watch through a peephole; An­toine wondered if it were possible to de­velop a device that could project film onto a screen for an audience. When he returned home from Paris, Antoine encouraged his sons to begin working on a new invention.

One year later, the brothers had suc­ceeded, and the Lumière Cinémato­graphe was patented. With its perforated, 35­mm­-wide film that passed through a shutter at 16 frames per sec­ond, the hand­-cranked Cinématographe established modern standard film spec­ifications. Similar to the mechanics of a sewing machine, the Cinématographe threads the film intermittently and more slowly than the Kinetoscope’s 46 frames per second, creating a quieter machine and one that made the images appear to move more fluidly on screen. In addition to expanding Edison’s one­-person peephole view to an audi­ence, the Cinématographe was also lighter and portable. The bulk of the Ki­netoscope meant that films could only be shot in a studio, but the Lumières’ invention offered operators the freedom and spontaneity to record candid foot­ age beyond a studio’s walls.

The bigger picture

The Lumières held the world’s first pub­lic movie screening on December 28, 1895, at the Grand Café in Paris. Their directorial debut was La sortie des ouvriers de l’usine Lumière (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory). While today this pre­miere would be considered rather prosa­ic viewing—as its title suggests, the mov­ie simply showed workers leaving the Lumière factory—the clarity and realism of the black-­and-­white, 50-­second film created a sensation.

Describing the street­life scenes that appeared on the screen before him, Georges Méliès, the renowned magician and director of the Théâtre Robert­ Houdin in Paris, remarked, “We stared flabbergasted at this sight, stupefied and surprised beyond all expression. At the end of the show there was complete chaos. Everyone wondered how such a result was obtained.’’ Legend has it that when audiences viewed the Lumières’ film The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station in 1896, the sight of the approach­ing train sent viewers running away in terror. In such lore lives truth, however, and the legend echoes Méliès’s reaction: A moving picture was a shock to the sens­es, revolutionary to behold.

Customers gather outside a Lumière theater in France, 1897, as cinema was becoming a part of ...
Customers gather outside a Lumière theater in France, 1897, as cinema was becoming a part of everyday French life.
Photograph by Rue Des Archives, Album

A legacy of light

In 1896 the Lumières opened Cinémat­ographe theaters in London, England; Brussels, Belgium; and New York City, showing the more than 40 films that they had shot of everyday French life: a child looking at a goldfish bowl, a baby being fed, a blacksmith at work, and soldiers marching. Footage of the French Photo­ graphic Society marked the first newsreel, and the Lyon Fire Department became the subject of the world’s first documentary. Audiences were riveted, fascinated by seeing life’s moments unfold on the big screen.

The day after the first pub­lic screening of the Lumières’ film in 1895, a local gazette trumpeted, “We have already recorded and repro­duced spoken words. We can now record and play back life. We will be able to see our families again long after they are gone.’’ Indeed, the Lumières not only made history with their culture­ changing camera and new photographic processes; they preserved it.

The Lumières trained camera opera­ tors to use the invention and then travel all over the world. They showed the Lu­mières’ films to new audiences and also recorded their own footage of local events in the places they visited. Gabriel Veyre set out for Central America, the veteran soldier Félix Mesguich filmed in North Africa, and Charles Moisson headed for Russia, where he filmed the pomp and splendor of the crowning of the last tsar, Nicholas II, in 1896. Between 1895 and 1905, the Lumières would make more than 1,400 films, many of which have been preserved to this day.

The quest for color

As the cinema grew popular, the brothers began to turn their attention to new proj­ects. They focused their ever present curiosity on tackling another technical challenge: color photography.

Color photography did exist, but the process of creating it was complicated and time­ consuming. The Lumière brothers’ solution had a profound effect on the emerging field. Patented in 1903, their process, called Autochrome Lu­mière, involved covering a glass plate with a thin wash of tiny potato starch grains dyed red, green, and blue. This granular wash created a filter, and gave autochromes the soft, pointillistic qual­ity of a painting. A thin layer of emulsion was added to the filter, and when the plate was flipped and exposed to light, the re­sulting image could be developed into a transparency.

The autochrome remained the most widely used photographic plate capable of capturing color for more than 30 years. Magazines like National Geographic sent its photographers to capture the world with autochromes, the relative portabil­ity of which made documentary field­ work easier. The success of the brothers’ invention is reflected in the archives of the National Geographic Society, which house almost 15,000 autochrome plates, one of the largest collections in the world.

This family of inventors lived up to their name—lumière means “light” in French—illuminating life as they ar­chived the past, captured the unseen, and created filmmakers and audiences alike.


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