21/07/2017

Every Year In Film #16 - Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory

Thoughts On: Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory (La Sortie de l'Usine Lumière à Lyon, 1895)


A crowd of workers exit the doors of a factory.


Here we are, the birth of cinema... well... is it? We are now 16 posts deep into the Every Year series, which should indicate that cinema didn't just pop out of nowhere; it certainly didn't just come to Louis Lumiere as he dreamed and thus there was light. A question that then becomes unavoidable is: why are we often told that the Lumières invented cinema?

You could argue that the Lumières were the first to, 1) project film, 2) perforate film and, 3) show a film to a paying audience. But, none of these three qualifiers are true. You could then argue that the Lumières invented what would become the basis for modern cinema. Now, this is a strong argument as the Lumières, much like Edison, did an awful lot for the promotion and distribution of commercialised cinema. However, I certainly wouldn't agree that this grants the Lumières the label 'the inventors of cinema'. I think the best stance to take when looking at early film would be a more rational one that we assume for films, say, from the 30s onwards. With sound films, we generally see cinema as a body of work with many great storytellers, actors, writers, directors, cinematographers, studios and business entities attached to it. I think this is because most people feel a familiarity with sound cinema and so attribute the understanding that their age of cinema is a vast and complex one onto its history. With silent film, however, we have what can be considered 'cinema in its infancy'. And just like we look for and hold precious the milestones of our children's growth, we seem to want to do the same thing with silent film. This is why the term 'first' really defines the hierarchy of early films. On a slight side-note, when looking at contemporary film history, we then set up the hierarchy based on greatness (an abstract culmination of a film's management of all of cinema's attributes), when looking further back into history 'classic' seems to define popular films, whilst in the modern day, the hierarchy is almost entirely dominated by popularity with films waiting to be classed as greats or classics - or just forgotten. However, let's not digress much further.

Understanding that people have an affinity for the term 'first' in early cinema, the greatest 'first' to be given, 'the first actual film', needs a really compelling candidate. With that said, I don't think there are two more attractive figures than the French Light Brothers. Not only is France arguably the most significant country in regards to cinema, but LightLumière... beautiful. Whilst the names are important, Dickson, Muybridge, Marey, Reynaud, Le Prince, Greene, Anschütz, Janssen, Skladanowsky, Jenkins and Prószyński just don't have a romantic ring to them. And romantic is a key term as it is so easy to romanticise the Lumières who invented cinema through realism, the documentary, humanism and a love for light, movement and shadow. As some will know, this romanticism reaches a little too far. However, whilst we may say that the Lumières weren't the first, we must give leeway as it is difficult to define such a term, moreover, there isn't a need to cynically dismiss these incredibly important figures of cinematic history. Instead, coming back to my main point, the best way in which to view cinema, even at its earliest, is in a similar capacity to how we view modern film; there are a plethora of great contributors to a wider and more abstract idea of the cinema. Whilst there are certainly firsts in regard to details and elements of film form and technology to be noted, there is no such thing as a Lumière who suddenly invented the movie camera, and then, 20 years later, a Griffith who gave the world the cut, dissolve, the epic, the narrative, the chase, the feature... the cinema that we now know.

So, if we must, the best way to look at the Lumières - even Griffith when we come to him - is to consider them to be the Scorseses of the 1890s or the Kurosawas of early cinema as these attributions say very little apart from that these figures were very important. With that established, we can now ask who were the Lumières and what makes them important?

The Lumière Brothers, Louis the younger, born 1864, Auguste, the older, born 1862, were raised in Besancon, France. Their father, Antoine, owned and ran a photographic portrait studio here. He was partly a self-educated man, orphaned at 14, who was a teaching assistant to a painter, but also, after a period of military service, studied under a photographer named Nadar. Having later moved to Lyon in 1870 with his two sons and wife, Antoine would have another boy and three girls. Here he would set up a photographic plate manufacturing company, one that was almost always on the verge of failure.

Louis and August would both study at a technical school in Lyon, La Martiniere. Whilst Auguste would be developing a strong interest in science, research and medicine, Louis's education was interrupted by violent headaches. He would then study piano and other plastic arts such as painting and sculpture at home. Later he would labour away, with one of his younger sisters, in his father's factory, working long hours - it is said they worked from 5am to 11pm. However, the business was still failing until 1882, when Auguste returns from his military service and, with Louis, designs machines that allow for the expansion of the factory. This lead to greater success for the family and allowed them to live more comfortably.

After a decade or so of working for and managing the factory, the Lumières would begin working on moving picture technology. Inspired by their retired father who had gone to an Edison peepshow in 1894 where he was given a strip of the kinetoscope film, the Lumières decided to invent a moving picture system that improved upon Edison's.

It is then said that, on one sleepless night, Louis devised plans and designs for what would become the Cinématographe. He would initially patent these in both his and his brother's name - for they always worked together, but Auguste has always given Louis credit. However, the name Cinématographe and designs for a moving picture system had already been patented by Léon Bouly in 1892. Bouly had even created 2 created two Cinématographes. Here is one of them:


This is a simple device that has never been proven to have functioned very well, if at all. It used flexible un-perforated film that would intermittently be stopped by a pressure pad as it passed the lens.


However, next to nothing is known about Bouly other than that he patented for this device in 1892, and didn't pay to sustain it in the following years, leaving it to expire. This meant that the Lumières could use the name "Cinématographe" as attached to new designs without any legal fears in 1895.

The Lumières' Cinématographe was not just a moving picture camera; it could shoot, project and copy film - and so was a truly impressive and ingenious device. Designed by Louis Lumière, the first model was manufactured by the factory's chief engineer, Charles Moisson. It utilised perforated film and, as always, the best way to understand this device is through a visualisation:


The most ingenious element of this camera is probably the clamp system that moves the film intermittently. At the 1:55 mark, this is zoomed in on and we can see that the pins, those that move the perforated film, move in and out of the perforations due to the spinning ridge of the plate masking the underlying cam system - which itself causes the arm to move up and down as the shutter system rotates simultaneously. Initially inspired by the manner in which sewing machines function, all of these minute pieces of design are synchronised so that film can be exposed and moved through the system at around 16fps (though, this varied due to manual cranking).

What makes the Lumières' Cinématographe so important is the radical improvement on Edison and Dickson's kinetograph that it represented. The kinetograph was heavy, immovable and ran on electricity; and this is the reason why Edison's company had to construct the Black Maria studio. The Lumières camera was only 16lbs and it was hand-cranked. This is what allowed the Lumières to go out onto the streets; the cigar sized machine was quite portable, moreover, its image was much crisper and more detailed than any other motion pictures of this time.

So, it's with this brilliant invention that the Lumières made one of the last great leaps of motion picture innovation by essentially assimilating and improving upon the work of numerous inventors. And it was with this device that they they shot their first film in 1894; their workers leaving the factory. The first screening of this was in 1895 at the Society for the Development of the National Industry. Shown privately to around 200 people, including Léon Gaumont, this was part of a presentation that also featured the colour photography that the Lumières were simultaneously working on. Surprised when the spectacle of moving pictures overshadowed their work on colour photography, the Lumières decided to continue working with the movies and arrange a public screening. Later that year, on the 26th of December at the Salon Indien du Grand Café, the Lumières then screened, to around 30 paying people, a programme of 10 short films.


The first of these films is our subject for today, La Sortie de l'Usine Lumière à Lyon, otherwise known as Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory.


Only 46 seconds long, this was shot by Louis Lumière, across the street from the Lumière factory. It is here that we then see an aesthetic that has only so far been implied through the films of Louis Le Prince, who also shot unknowing people in a documentary-esque fashion with Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge. However, the Lumières did not shoot this with higher ideas of documentary and realism in mind. Instead, the simple observational aesthetics of this film imply that the Lumières only meant to capture motion itself as a social spectacle. In such, when we compare this to the 'films' of Marey and Muybridge, there is a clear lack of focus on the spectacle and science of motion - even Edison wanted to capture events and attraction, primarily through working with vaudeville acts. The Lumières are then certainly in a world of their own, approaching cinema from a direction that no one else had just yet. Even with Le Prince shooting from a window, we can understand that he was experimenting from a position of necessity and as a means of capturing as much movement as he could. Whilst we see shades of this in the early films of the Lumières, as they develop, it was very clear that they were motivated by the social aspect of cinema. Before delving into this, however, we shall run through the Lumières' first film programme.

So, the second film shown in the Salon Indien du Grand Café was l'Arroseur Arrosé, or, The Sprinkler Sprinkled.


This is a significant film as it can be considered to be one of the first live action narrative films (we could argue that Reynaud made the first narrative films through animation). Whilst Edison constructed events, much like Marey and Muybridge, there was a performance put on by all of their subjects that had no clear attempt towards imitating a latent and mundane reality. The only films that you could really raise a debate around would be Edison's staged boxing matches. However, these were staged to seem like documentations of public events. The Sprinkler Sprinkled is then staged narrative cinema because the story that is told for a camera is a narrative that we would usually never be privy to and couldn't pay to see. Thus, the Lumières constructed a staged event that only a camera could truly capture in this fashion - unless someone set up a small theatre in this garden (but, that certainly wouldn't be the same as this).

So, the significance of this short is primarily that it can be considered the first narrative staged film ever, however simple it may be, but that it is also an exception to the idea that the Lumières only worked with reality and documentary. In fact, the Lumières made numerous staged films of this kind alongside their production of 'documentaries'.

The next film shown was Le Débarquement du Congrès de Photographie à Lyon, The Disembarkment of the Congress of Photographers in Lyon.


Next, La Voltige, Horse Trick Riders:


La Pêche aux Poissons Rouges, Fishing For Goldfish, which features Auguste and his baby:


Les Forgerons, Blacksmiths:


Repas de Bébé, Baby's Meal:


Le Saut à la Couverture, Jumping Onto The Blanket:


La Places des Cordeliers à Lyon, Cordeliers Square in Lyon:


And finally, La Mer, The Sea:


What defines all of these Lumière shorts is, as you will probably have recognised, people. The Lumières almost always shot human subjects and are defined by their projection of these films to large groups of fascinated people. What the Lumières then attempted to give cinema, for monetary sakes, was its social aspect. This is what Edison was very reluctant to pursue by abandoning his kinetoscope and is what brought cinema, as it existed in the form of toys in the 1800s, out of the home and into mainstream success. And for decades to come, until the advent of television, this was the only true means through which cinema existed - though, there are many examples of paper film devices called Kinoras or Mutoscopes that even the Lumières produced for the home-viewing of their shorts.


Nonetheless, the primary place of cinema being a theatre implies yet another reason as to why film historians are so drawn to the Lumières. Both through form and in business practice, the Lumières were focused on the social draw of cinema, which is where a lot of its power and magic resides.

This novelty is then what we can assume contributed to the Lumières' huge success. So, whilst only 33 people attended and paid 1 franc for the first screening, three weeks later the Lumières were taking in 2,000 francs a week. This is what founded the French film industry and contributed to the expansion of cinema after the Lumières began producing hundreds of their Cinématographes and giving them out to agents around the world. The Lumières themselves would go on a world tour with their cameras, but only remained interested in cinema for about 6 years until 1901. It was around the turn of the century that the Lumières then famously said "the cinema is an invention without any future". And this was true in regards to the Lumières' cinema; they just couldn't have predicted how the form would evolve.

Whilst the Lumières ventured onto a few other things and had a tremendous impact on the world, this is where we'll end our look at the brothers. The final idea I want to reiterate before letting you go, however, is that the Lumières weren't the first in regards to a lot of things. However, their significance is not bound to this label, rather, the films they made and how they inspired, indirectly or not, the evolution of cinema.

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