What is Cinema?
Is it the same as a movie or film? Does it include digital video, broadcast content, streaming media? Is it a highbrow term reserved only for European and art house feature films? Or is it a catch-all for any time a series of still images run together to produce the illusion of movement, whether in a multi-plex theater or the 5-inch screen of a smart phone?
Technically, the word itself derives from the ancient Greek, kinema, meaning movement. Historically, it’s a shortened version of the French cinematographe, an invention of two brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumiere, that combined kinema with another Greek root, graphien, meaning to write or record.
The “recording of movement” seems as good a place as any to begin an exploration of the moving image. And cinema seems broad (or vague) enough to capture the essence of the form, whether we use it specifically in reference to that art house film, or to refer to the more commonplace production and consumption of movies, TV, streaming series, videos, interactive gaming, VR, AR or whatever new technology mediates our experience of the moving image. Because ultimately that’s what all of the above have in common: the moving image. Cinema, in that sense, stands at the intersection of art and technology like nothing else. As an art form it would not exist without the technology required to capture the moving image. But the mere ability to record a moving image would be meaningless without the art required to capture our imagination.
But cinema is much more than the intersection of art and technology. It is also, and maybe more importantly, a powerful medium of communication. Like language itself, cinema is a surrounding and enveloping substance that carries with it what it means to be human in a specific time and place. That is to say, it mediates our experience of the world, helps us make sense of things, and in doing so, often helps shape the world itself. It’s why we often find ourselves confronted by some extraordinary event and find the only way to describe it is: “It was like a movie.”
In fact, for more than a century, filmmakers and audiences have collaborated on a massive, ongoing, largely unconscious social experiment: the development of a cinematic language, the fundamental and increasingly complex rules for how cinema communicates meaning. There is a syntax, a grammar, to cinema that has developed over time. And these rules, as with any language, are iterative, that is, they form and evolve through repetition, both within and between each generation. As children we are socialized into ways of seeing through children’s programming, cartoons and YouTube videos. As adults we become more sophisticated in our understanding of the rules, able to innovate, re-combine, become creative with the language. And every generation or so, we are confronted with great leaps forward in technology that re-orient and often advance our understanding of how the language works.
And therein lies the critical difference between cinematic language and every other means of communication. The innovations and complexity of modern written languages have taken more than 5,000 years to develop. Multiply that by at least 10 for spoken language.
Cinematic language has taken just a little more than 100 years to come into its own.
In January 1896 those two brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumiere, set up their cinematographe, a combination motion picture camera and projector, at a café in Lyon, France and presented their short film, L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station) to a paying audience. It was a simple film, aptly titled, of a train pulling into a station. The static camera positioned near the tracks capturing a few would-be passengers milling about as the train arrived, growing larger and larger in the frame until it steamed past and slowed to a stop. There was no editing, just one continuous shot. A mere 50 seconds long…
And it blew the minds of everyone who saw it.
Accounts vary as to the specifics of the audience reaction. Some claim the moving image of a train hurtling toward the screen struck fear among those in attendance, driving them from their seats in a panic. Others underplay the reaction, noting only that no one had seen anything like it. Which, of course, wasn’t entirely true either. It wasn’t the first motion picture. The Lumiere brothers had projected a series of 10 short films in Paris the year before. An American inventor, Woodville Latham, had developed his own projection system that same year. And Thomas Edison had invented a similar apparatus before that.
But one thing is certain: that early film, as simple as it was, changed the way we see the world and ourselves. From the early actualite documentary short films of the Lumieres, to the wild, theatrical flights of fancy of Georges Melies, to the epic narrative films of Lois Weber and D. W. Griffith, the new medium slowly but surely developed its own unique cinematic language. Primitive at first, limited in its visual vocabulary, but with unlimited potential. And as filmmakers learned how to use that language to re-create the world around them through moving pictures, we learned right along with them. Soon we were no longer awed (much less terrified) by a two-dimensional image of a train pulling into a station, but we were no less enchanted by the possibilities of the medium with the addition of narrative structure, editing, production design, and (eventually) sound and color cinematography.
Since that January day in Lyon, we have all been active participants in this ongoing development of a cinematic language. As the novelty short films of those early pioneers gave way to a global entertainment industry centered on Hollywood and its factory-like production of discrete, 90-minute narrative feature films. As the invention of broadcast technology in the first half of the 20th century gave way to the rise of television programming and serialized story-telling. And as the internet revolution at the end of the 20th century gave way to the streaming content of the 21st, from binge-worthy series lasting years on end to one-minute videos on social media platforms like Snapchat and TikTok. Each evolution of the form borrowed from and built on what came before, both in terms of how filmmakers tell their stories and how we experience them. And in as much as we may be mystified and even amused by the audience reaction to that simple depiction of a train pulling into a station back in 1896, imagine how that same audience would respond to the last Avengers film projected in IMAX 3D.
We’ve certainly come a long, long way.
This book is an exploration of that evolution of cinema, the art and technology of moving pictures. But it is also an introduction to the fundamentals of the form that have remained relatively constant for more than 100 years. Just as the text you are reading right now defies easy categorization – is it a book, an online resource, an open source text – modern cinema exists across multiple platforms – is it a movie, a video, theatrical, streaming – but the fundamentals of communication, the syntax, grammar and rules of language, written or cinematic, remain relatively constant.
The text is divided into two unequal sections: form and content. The first and longer of the two covers the basic principles of the form, the means by which cinema communicates. We’ll start with a brief history of cinema to provide some historical context, then move on to an overview of how moving pictures work, literally and figuratively, from the neurological phenomena behind the illusion of movement, to the invisible techniques and generally agreed-upon conventions that form the basis of cinematic language. Then we’ll take each aspect of how cinema is created in turn: production design, narrative structure, cinematography, editing, sound and performance. Whether it’s released in a theater as a 2-hour spectacle or streaming online in 5-minute increments, every iteration of cinema includes these elements and they are each critical in our understanding of film form, how movies do what they do to us, and why we let them.
The second section takes all of this accumulated knowledge of how cinema communicates and applies it to what, exactly, cinema is communicating. That is, we’ll take a long hard look at the content of cinema, how that has changed over time, and how, for better or worse, it often hasn’t. This section will take seriously the idea that cinema both influences and is influenced by the society in which it is produced. And given the porous borders of the information age, that “society” is increasingly a global one. Cinema then, not unlike literature, can be viewed and analyzed as a kind of cultural document, a neutral reflection of society in a moment of time, or it can be viewed as a powerful tool for social change (or for the resistance of change as the case may be).
This emphasis on content inevitably leads to an exploration of power and representation. Who is on screen? Who is behind the camera? If cinema is as powerful a medium as I contend, it stands to reason that it matters deeply who controls the means of communication. To that end, we’ll focus on two specific issues of representation: the role of women in cinema and the role of African Americans in cinema; both in terms of how they are portrayed on screen, and the ways women and Black filmmakers specifically have fought for control of their own cinematic narratives.
There is an ancient story about a king who was so smitten by the song of a particular bird that he ordered his wisest and most accomplished scientists to identify its source. How could it sing so beautifully? What apparatus lay behind such a sweet sound? So they did the only thing they could think to do: they killed the bird and dissected it to find the source of its song. Of course, by killing the bird, they killed its song.
The analysis of an art form, even one as dominated by technology as cinema, always runs the risk of killing the source of its beauty. By taking it apart, piece by piece, there’s a chance we’ll lose sight of the whole, that ineffable quality that makes art so much more than the sum of its parts. Throughout this text, my hope is that by gaining a deeper understanding of how cinema works, in both form and content, you’ll appreciate its beauty even more.
In other words, I don’t want to kill the bird.
Because as much as cinema is an ongoing, collaborative social experiment, one in which we are all participants, it also carries with it a certain magic. And like any good magic show, we all know it’s an illusion. We all know that even the world’s greatest magician can’t really make an object float or saw a person in half (without serious legal implications). It’s all a trick. A sleight of hand that maintains the illusion. But we’ve all agreed to allow ourselves to be fooled. In fact, we’ve often paid good money for the privilege. Cinema is no different. A century of tricks used to fool an audience that’s been in on it from the very beginning. We laugh or cry or scream at the screen, openly and unapologetically manipulated by the medium. And that’s how we like it.
This text is dedicated to revealing the tricks without ruining the illusion. To look behind the curtain to see that the wizard is one of us. That in fact, we are the wizard (great movie by the way). Hopefully by doing so we will only deepen our appreciation of cinema in all its forms and enjoy the artistry of a well-crafted illusion that much more.
Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896) – LOUIS LUMIERE – L’Arrivee d’un Train a La Ciotat by Change Before Going Productions. Standard YouTube License.