First character on stage: Antoine Lumière
Auguste and Louis’ father was born in Haute-Saòne in 1840 (apparently descendant of a candle lighter in churches, hence the surname). Antoine was endowed with a strong personality, an artistic and nonconformist spirit, as evidenced by his passions for painting and singing and above all the way in which he gave impetus and then encouraged the invention of his children since 1894. […]
Married at nineteen, Antoine settled in Besançon working as a painter and then as a photographer. It is in this city that his first two children are born; Auguste, in 1862, and Louis, in 1864. In 1870 the Lumière family moved to Lyon. Born businessman (albeit with mixed fortunes), Antoine opens a photography studio in the center. He follows the succession of inventions in the field of images carefully and does not fail to guarantee a solid education for his children: Louis and Auguste are students of Martinière, the most important technical institute in Lyon.
In 1881 his youngest son Louis, at just seventeen years of age, developed an instant photographic process, called Étiquette bleue, which, before and even more than the cinema, would ensure the family’s fame and large profits. To manufacture and market the precious glass plates, Antoine Lumière buys land in Monplaisir, an area of the first suburbs of Lyon served by the tram: thus the Société Lumière et Fils was born. Reached quickly, luck continues to smile. The factory developed and, starting from 1895, the cinema adventure began.
An invention that ‘was in the air’: from celluloid to Edison’s Kinetoscope
The development of celluloid – the material that makes up the film – comes from America, where the two Hyatt brothers invented it in 1869. In 1884 two other Americans, George Eastman and William H. Walker, put sheets of emulsified celluloid for cameras. The Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company becomes the first leading company in this market (well before collapsing during the 2000s following the transition to digital).
On April 9, 1889, Harry Reichenbach, a young assistant from Eastman, filed a patent for the almost definitive formula of the transparent flexible film support. Thanks to the advertising campaigns of Eastman, the word “film”, of English origin, was imposed in France in the early nineties; then indicates the “transparent sensitive films” used by Kodak, the new photographic device launched by Eastman that will experience enormous success thanks to its ease of use: “You press the button, we do the rest”, reads the advertisement.
The cinema was therefore born in its etymological sense: “writing in movement”. Indeed, the 1889 Kodak attracts the attention of a famous physiologist, Étienne Jules Marey, who since 1882 has developed chronophotography in Paris (“writing of time through light”), a method for recording the various phases of a movement . Until then Marey had used glass plates but complained that the sensitive surface was too small. Through Kodak’s transparent and sensitive films, which measured 70mm in width, it was finally possible to record more images in succession.
Marey built a film camera in 1889 that allowed him to make the first films in the history of cinema for scientific observation. However the films of the time were very short, of one and two meters. They are not even punched, but for Marey they are enough to record more than eight hundred films from 1904, the year of his death.
In the United States, inventor and industrialist Thomas A. Edison, after seeing Marey and Émile Reynaud’s fixtures in Paris in 1889 (the latter’s “optical theater” allows you to project hand-painted images on a long strip of jelly perforated at regular intervals), returns to his laboratory in West Orange and gives instructions for the development of a film camera with perforated film. He had previously worked on this, but his research around an “optical phonograph” had run aground. Now a good solution is found and, thanks to George Eastman, the 35mm film (from the Kodak 70mm film cut in half) perforated (four rectangular holes on each side of the image) was born in the United States in 1893, and will be used practically such and which as a standard for the next hundred to twenty years.
Thomas Edison and his brilliant assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, develop a camera – the kinetograph – and a viewer – the kinetoscope, which allows you to watch a 15mm 35mm film containing a small sketch through an eyepiece. These are the first genre films, you can catch a glimpse of the ancestors of the westerns, with some erotic images already. Between 1890 and 1895 one hundred and forty-eight films were made in the Black Maria (the bizarre bituminous and adjustable laying theater built in West Orange). The kinetoscope spread around the world in 1894 and represents a significant financial success for Edison.
The idea of the cinema. Experiments and patents
In September 1894 Antoine Lumière attended a demonstration of Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope in Paris. Leaning over this machine capable of projecting moving images taken in the studio, he is deeply impressed, but immediately realizes that it is possible to do better: the kinetoscopes, arranged in batteries, offered images of small and dimly lit animated photographs to individual viewers. “We need to get the picture out of the box. I’m going back to Lyon: my kids will succeed!”
In October 1894, on his impulse, research began in the Monplaisir factory. It is Auguste, the eldest son, who begins. We know this because he has always said that, since he did not manage anything, he passed the task on to his brother Louis. Who, in December 1894, invented a system of sliding the film and stopping on the image which, thanks to the phenomenon of retinal persistence, is able to provide the perfect illusion of movement. His idea is to create a light and versatile device capable of taking pictures, printing them, developing them and finally projecting them. “And so one night, Auguste Lumière confided to Paul Paviot, it happened that my brother invented the cinema”. A synthesis with lyrical accents that says nothing about a long and collective process.
In early 1895, a foreman was sent to the United States to purchase flexible and transparent film sheets from the New York Celluloid Company. Cut into strips (of 35mm, as Edison had done) and perforated (a single round perforation per frame, unlike this time by Edison, whose film has four square perforations per image, a model that would later become the standard for cinema ), this support, reliable enough for fast scrolling, allows you to obtain a single strip: 17 meters of film allow you to create, at 16/18 images per second, a ‘view’ of about 50 seconds (in France it is not called still ‘film’).
The arrival of this material from New York allows the first experiments on film and the filing of patents: one, on February 2, 1895, for “a reversible device that allows you to shoot and project animated views”; the other, on February 13, for “a device that serves to obtain and watch chronophotographic tests”. The name ‘cinématographe’, filed in 1892 by another inventor, Léon Bouly, will be used only later by Lumière (who on March 30 and May 6 deposits two further certifications).
General rehearsals: the first film and the first screenings
At the end of March, Louis and Auguste go to Paris, at 44 rue de Rennes, to the conference room of the Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie nationale. They have to present their cinema. Of course they decide to present not only their appliance but also … what they need. For this you need to make a film. On March 19, 1895, after a few attempts, Louis placed his cinema in front of the family factory and shot Sortie d’usine. There is no document, no surviving archive that can provide us with more details and not even the exact date. However, recalls Bernard Chardère, we can certainly place it between 15 and 20 of March. Now, March 19 was the only sunny day: to shoot a ‘view’ needed light. Having no real data, then go for the legend. So on March 19th. One Tuesday. Around noon, at the hour when the workers go out to go to lunch, the car starts again: this version – there will be others – in which the workers are seen in winter clothes, is the first view shot with a cinema, made in Lyon in chemin Saint-Victor, later renamed in 1924 rue du Premier-Film.
On March 22, 1895 in Paris, Louis and Auguste project Sortie d’usine in front of their fellow scientists with a prototype built in Monplaisir by the foreman Charles Moisson. Success is immediate. “I build it myself!”, Proposes the engineer Jules Carpentier, who will make two hundred copies of it, with the technical collaboration, on the thread of a close correspondence, by Louis Lumière.
On June 10 they project their Débarquement du congrès de photographes à Lyon shot the previous evening in front of the specialists of the French photography companies gathered in Lyon. Enthusiasm in the face of these first ‘current events’: the audience “applauds by stamping their feet”.
In the spring, and then in the summer of 1895, Louis made numerous trips to Lyon and southern France where he spent his holidays: Arroseur et arrosé, La Mer (or Baignade en mer), Pèche aux poissons rouges, Repas de bébé. Arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat will not be shot until two years later and is not, contrary to a widespread belief, ‘one of the first films’. New screenings are then organized: again in Paris on 11 July, in La Ciotat on 22 September, in Brussels on 10 November.
Exactly one year after the father’s initial impulse, the cinema works. Louis and Auguste Lumière perceive that their cinema can meet the interest of the general public. “But we didn’t know exactly what would happen,” Louis Lumière will say later modestly.
December 28, 1895: the first paid public séance
The first public pay screening therefore took place in Paris on December 28, 1895. The idea came to his father, Antoine ‘the glitzy’, one who saw far and followed his ideas. A year after meeting Edison’s kinetoscope, he could launch the show in the hall, with a life-size image, in front of an audience. In Paris he warns postulants: commercial success risks having no future. It is possible that the Lumières actually believed, at least in the early days, that it was a passing infatuation. Later, hiring in Monplaisir one of the projectionist-operators who will leave to conquer the world (Marius Chapuis, Francis Doublier, Alexandre Promio, Gabriel Veyre, one of the most talented) monsieur Louis will explain to him that it is rather a profession as a street vendor. But if it is true that the direct exploitation of the cinema by the Lumières will last only fifteen months, a letter from Louis to his father Antoine dated 14 October 1895 foreshadows an international distribution based on a network of dealers and projectionists. So everything had been foreseen, including success.
Louis Lumière, therefore a naif unaware of the possibilities of his cinema? Not even by dream. Georges Méliès insisted on obtaining the transfer of the family invention from the Lumières: “No, Monsieur Antoine replied, the cinema is not for sale. And thank me, young man: this invention has no future”. Words that have become legendary but too often cited out of context, since the Lumière, having immediately understood the value of the invention, developed a strategy to try to nip any possible competition in the bud. […]
But let’s go back to that month of December 1895, when Antoine Lumière sets out in search of a place to offer projections of ‘animated photographs’ to the public. Examine different solutions with the help of Clément Maurice, an old Monplaisir employee, who married in Paris as a photographer, right above the Robert-Houdin theater directed by Georges Méliès. He rejects several possibilities on the first floor and becomes discouraged when he is told, in the Opéra district, a secondary room of the Grand Café, the Salon indien, a basement that had been used as a billiard room until the prefecture had ended amusement in which a handful of professionals imposed themselves too easily on a large number of amateurs. At the request of the manager M. Borgo, the owner, M. Volpini, agrees to rent the room to host a new attraction, preferring a fixed fee of thirty francs per day compared to a percentage of 20% on any collections (there will be collections , and M. Volpini will do what we could consider as the first bad business in the history of cinema). We hurry to take advantage of the leisures of the end of the year, some invitations are sent for Saturday, December 28, 1895. Clément Maurice is at the checkout. Charles Moisson turns the crank. Jacques Ducom, assisted by Francis Doublier, takes care of the replacement of the reels. On the sidewalk of the boulevard des Capucines, the banner “CINEMATOGRAPHE LUMIÈRE. ENTRÉE UN FRANC” is underlined by a barker. But it’s cold, the newspapers speak rather of the marriage of the singer Yvette Guilbert and the death of the ‘petit Sucrier’ Max Lebaudy. On the evening of the first séance there are thirty-three paying spectators for a program of about half an hour. And an important spectator: Georges Méliès. “Faced with this spectacle, he wrote, we were all amazed, amazed, surprised beyond all imagination. At the end of the performance it was a delusion, everyone wondered how it was possible to achieve a similar result”. In the following days, thousands of spectators come down the stairs of the basement of what is now the Scribe hotel.
I Lumière (and cinema) to conquer the world
And after December 28th? Rooms are opening up everywhere: again in Paris, (boulevard Saint-Denis, Lyon (rue de la République), later in other French cities and soon all over Europe. And Lumière operators are spreading all over the world in search of of shots capable of feeding the rooms and offering the curious and sensational images, and always new. Nine months after the inaugural session of December 1895, there is news of a projection in the port of … Shanghai. Here is the ‘victory’ of the Lumière: the collective cinema beats the individual kinetoscope because viewers wanted to see ‘a film on the big screen together’ to share laughter, tears and their gaze on the world. the show was permanent and in fact continues.
In the last part of a nineteenth century so rich in inventions (even X-rays were discovered in 1895), therefore everything seems ready for the film industry to take flight. The appliances work, Lumière sends dozens of operators around the world to feed the catalog of views of the house in Lyon – more than one thousand four hundred and twenty films will be made between 1895 and 1904. The studios are opened thanks to ambitious “film publishers” (Charles Pathé, Léon Gaumont). The first exhibitors (often itinerant) appear. An audience is created. The film is now produced in kilometers in large American and European factories – Lumière has agreed with Victor Planchon who supplies him with excellent positive and negative films. A magician, Georges Méliès, discovered the special effect and, at the same time, the editing. The first sound films appear (the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre is presented at the 1900 Exhibition), and thousands of frames are colored with care – even the Lumière propose to distribute hand-painted films of their production in 1904, before retiring from a market that outgrew them. Louis Lumière’s last test will be in 1935 with the screening of anaglyphic films, to obtain a three-dimensional relief effect.
In total, the Lumière catalog contains nearly 1,500 films, most of which are unknown, which offer a formidable glimpse into the theater of life. Louis Lumière and his operators invent (or put into practice): traveling (which was then called panorama: from the Grand Canal of Venice, from the rivers of Lyon, from trains, and also traveling forward from the leading locomotives); the special effect: Démolition d’un mur; la gag: Arroseur et arrosé; the family film: Le Goùter des bébés; the film ‘of fear’: Arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat; the corporate advertising film: Sortie d’usine; the comic film: L’Amoureux dans le sac; the topical film: Inondations sur les quais du Rhóne; the documentary: Forgerons au travail; and even, through multiple versions of the same subject, the remake.