A motion picture is any work of art that depicts an object or objects in motion and actually creates the illusion of motion. The classical method of creating this illusion is by the showing of a sequence of photographs or drawings, each showing the putative moving object(s) in a slightly different place than the one previous, at such a speed that the viewer is not conscious of anyone showing him a set of pictures in sequence and can actually believe that he is watching things move, just as he would if he were in the presence of an actual moving object in nature.
History of Motion Pictures as a Medium
Invention of the Mechanical Technique
Motion pictures (often called "film" or "films" for short) began in 1867 with the invention of the zoopraxiscope (from the Greek zoô I am living, praxis what one does, and scopoô I am watching) by William Lincoln. This device used the rapid-sequence-of-photographs technique. Of far more practical value was Thomas Edison's kinetoscope (literally, "I watch things move"), which took a rapid sequence of photographs on a single very long roll of film and projected them just as rapidly for a single viewer. Edison would go on to perfect a device called the Vitascope that allowed the exhibition of such a picture to a group of persons.
Because he did not secure patent protection for his work in Europe, various European imitators were able to reverse-engineer Edison's device, and eventually, Louis Lumiere would build the first cinematograph, a self-contained device that could shoot a sequence, develop the film, and then project it. Thereafter, cinematography became the standard term for the actual shooting of a motion picture.
Silent to Sound
The first motion pictures were silent and gave rise to a new form of theater much given to histrionics, hyperbole, and melodrama to make up for the lack of audible dialog. Eventually, however, Edison invented sound track that would reliably produce moving pictures and sound, including spoken words, in perfect synchrony. From then on, motion picture as theater once again shared with the traditional stage the conventions that have governed theater almost since its inception. In the early days of sound film, there were still many silent films produced (sound was an expensive process). So to distinguish, people commonly referred to sound movies as talkies if spoken, the first of which being The Jazz Singer, or soundies if a music and dance movie (the precursor to the music video).
Black-and-white to Color
Initially, all motion pictures were monochromatic or "black-and-white." A small number of motion pictures were initially made with a two-strip color process. This was expensive, and the colors were not true-to-life by any standard. After the invention of sound came the further invention of a three-strip color process that, for the first time, produced realistic colors. The first live action film released in this process was the 1934 short film La Cucaracha followed by the first feature-length film, Becky Sharp in 1935 Monochromatic filming remained popular, primarily because color filming was still too expensive to be routine, but also because monochromatic filming required its own conventions in set-dressing and costuming. A director of a monochromatic film sought to use colors that would project best as shades of gray, and thus would often choose the sort of colors for sets and costumes that a totally color-blind person might choose without the proper education and training in color coordination.
As color filming became less expensive, and as viewers demanded color in the films that they patronized, color filming became an almost universal rule. Directors and producers did, on occasion, film in black-and-white in order to achieve a particular effect, typically to suggest another film of its genre made in the era when color was still a novelty. Producers and directors almost never make such decisions today.
The Colorization Controversy
In 1970, Wilson Markle invented a technique called colorization that attempted to reconstruct the colors that supposedly existed in a scene filmed in black-and-white. The first use of the technique was to add color to the black-and-white footage taken in the many missions of Project Apollo. In 1983, Markle formed a corporation to apply the technique to adding color back to existing black-and-white motion-picture and television productions.
The technique involved using a computer program to substitute a color for every shade of gray in the film. This would have been an obvious and logical solution to adding color to a scene photographed in space because the astronauts could describe realistically the colors they saw. However, because the colors chosen in black-and-white motion-picture and television productions were not realistic colors, the technique produced results of decidedly low quality. It was also expensive, often costing $3,000 US per minute of footage.
Worse yet, the original actors and directors of monochromatic films expressed outrage, and many of these professionals sought in vain to ask the United States Congress to forbid the colorization of their projects as a violation of their intellectual-property interests in their "image" or initial "vision" for their respective projects.
Ultimately, the law that finally banned colorization was not any statute, but the law of supply and demand. Viewers rejected colorized titles as unrealistic and deserving of the very criticism that a famous actress and Congressional witness once gave them, that they "looked like a cheap watercolor." The most outspoken advocate of colorization, who had in fact bought the rights to the vast film libraries of three different motion-picture studios, quietly stopped issuing colorized titles in 1995.
The motion-picture medium is now more than a hundred years old. Today, many of the original films have deteriorated to total non-viewability. The celluloid of which most film is made was never intended as a long-term storage medium. This has led to two major developments:
- The restoration of many especially well-loved films, often necessitating a frame-by-frame rebuilding of the entire project, typically by electronic means.
- The decision to develop a means and an infrastructure to record a film as a set of digital signals, store these signals on magnetic or preferably optical recording media, and transmit them to exhibitors through a dedicated communications channel on demand.
Uses of Motion Pictures
Motion pictures have typically found the following uses:
- As an aid in education, by recording for later projection certain laboratory demonstrations, animals in their natural habitats, and other scenes that a teacher would be unable to stage convincingly, inexpensively, or safely in a classroom. Instructors have also recorded their own lectures for later playback by absent students.
- As a means of disseminating current events. These "newsreels" were highly popular, especially during the Second World War, before the widespread popularity of television made them obsolete.
- As a tool of propaganda.
- As a form of theater.
The last use is by far the most popular and the most famous use of motion pictures—and today, motion pictures are the most popular form of theater today, with television running a close second. Here, "theater" is defined broadly as any public spectacle involving persons pretending to be other persons they are not, and acting out a story that might or might not be true. In this sense, motion pictures are one of what are now three different media of theater.