What the First Movies Really Looked Like: Discover the IMAX Films of the 1890s

Cin­e­mat­ic leg­end has it that, back in the ear­ly days of motion pic­tures, audi­ences would see a train com­ing toward them on the screen and dive out of the way in a pan­ic. “There turns out to be very lit­tle con­fir­ma­tion of that in the actu­al news­pa­per reports of the time,” says crit­ic and Muse­um of Mod­ern Art film cura­tor Dave Kehr in the video above, “but you can still sense the excite­ment in see­ing these gigan­tic, incred­i­bly sharp, life­like images being pro­ject­ed.” But aren’t they only sharp and life­like by the stan­dards of the late-19th cen­tu­ry dawn of cin­e­ma, an era we film­go­ers of the 21st cen­tu­ry, now used to 4K dig­i­tal pro­jec­tion, imag­ine as one of unre­lieved blur­ri­ness, grain­i­ness, and herky-jerk­i­ness?

By no means. The footage show­cased in this video, a MoMA pro­duc­tion on “the IMAX of the 1890s,” was shot on 68-mil­lime­ter film, a greater size and thus a high­er def­i­n­i­tion than the 35-mil­lime­ter prints most of us have watched in the­aters for most of our lives.

Only the most ambi­tious film­mak­ers, like Paul Thomas Ander­son mak­ing The Mas­ter, have used such large-for­mat films in recent years, but 120 years ago an out­fit like the Bio­graph Com­pa­ny could, in Kehr’s words, “send cam­era crews around the world, as the Lumière Com­pa­ny had,” and what those crews cap­tured would end up in movie the­aters: “Sud­den­ly the world was com­ing to you in ways that peo­ple just could not have imag­ined. That you could go to Europe, that you could meet the crowned heads, that you could go to see ele­phants in India…”

Thanks to the efforts of film archivists and preser­va­tion­ists, a few of whom appear in this video to show and explain just what degra­da­tion befalls these cin­e­mat­ic time cap­sules with­out the kind of work they do, much of this footage still looks and feels remark­ably life­like. “It’s worth return­ing to these images to remind us that movies used to be ana­log,” Kehr says. “They saw things in front of the cam­era in a one-on-one rela­tion­ship. This was the world. It was an image you could trust. It was an image of phys­i­cal sub­stance, of real­i­ty. Nowa­days we tend not to trust images, because we know how eas­i­ly manip­u­lat­ed they are.” We’ve gained an unfath­omable amount of imagery, in terms of both quan­ti­ty and qual­i­ty, in our dig­i­tal age. But as the sheer “onto­log­i­cal impact” of these old 68-mil­lime­ter clips reminds us, even when felt in stream­ing-video repro­duc­tion, our images have lost some­thing as well.

via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tents:

The Art of Cre­at­ing Spe­cial Effects in Silent Movies: Inge­nu­ity Before the Age of CGI

Enjoy the Great­est Silent Films Ever Made in Our Col­lec­tion of 101 Free Silent Films Online

Hol­ly­wood, Epic Doc­u­men­tary Chron­i­cles the Ear­ly His­to­ry of Cin­e­ma

100 Years of Cin­e­ma: New Doc­u­men­tary Series Explores the His­to­ry of Cin­e­ma by Ana­lyz­ing One Film Per Year, Start­ing in 1915

The His­to­ry of the Movie Cam­era in Four Min­utes: From the Lumiere Broth­ers to Google Glass

How Cin­e­mas Taught Ear­ly Movie-Goers the Rules & Eti­quette for Watch­ing Films (1912): No Whistling, Stand­ing or Wear­ing Big Hats

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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