The two flowing rivers of the birth of film are considered to be Thomas Edison and Louis and Auguste Lumiere. Edison was the Grand Showman, recording music hall turns inside his barn-like studio with a monstrous, cumbersome camera. The Lumieres were Grand Documentarians, taking to the Parisian streets with their cinematographe and photographing everyday occurrences, displaying a joy in movement and commonplace realities, celebrating the mundane as a lifeforce.
From the first, the Lumieres were technicians. Their father, Antoine, was a well-known portrait painter who gave up paint for financial rewards in the business of photographic supplies. Antoine sent his sons to technical school, but because of recurring headaches, Louis left the school early and began experimenting with his father's photographic apparatus. In the process, he discovered a new process for the preparation of photographic plates and a factory was built to manufacture them. By 1895, the Lumiere factory was the leading European manufacturer of photographic products, employing over 300 workers. Like Edison, the Lumieres had become successful inventor-businessmen.
An invitational demonstration of the Edison Kinetoscope, a parlor peephole machine, in Paris in 1894, sparked the Lumieres' interest in motion pictures and the brothers set out to devise a machine that would combine motion picture movement with front projection. In 1895, Louis came up with such a device, and the cinematographe was patented in his name.
With the cinematographe, the emphasis of the nascent motion picture form was dramatically changed. Edison's bulky, stationary camera forced its subjects to display themselves in front of the camera as objects of a performance. The cinematographe, on the other hand, was not bulky but lightweight (about five kilograms), hand-cranked and not bound to a studio. The Lumiere camera reduced the frames-per-second speed from Edison's 48 to 16, using less film and reducing the clatter and grinding of the Edison camera. The cinematographe was also unique in that the same housing functioned as a camera, projector and printer.
And, perhaps most importantly of all, the Lumieres applied the principle of intermittent movement to film projection, allowing smooth-running projection through the film gate--a idea Edison had rejected as he struggled to perfect projection using continuos movement past the film gate. The Lumieres' technical innovations allowed the motion pictures to venture into the world outside of a studio, permitting any object in reality to become a subject of interest for the camera.
From their first film, "La Sortie des Usines/Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory" (1895), the Lumieres made everyday processes their subjects. In 1895, they recorded over 20 subjects, including "L'Arrivee d'un Train en Gare/Arrival of a Train", "Le Repas de Bebe/Feeding the Baby", "L'Arroseur Arrosee/Watering the Gardener", "Demolition d'un Mur/The Falling Wall" and "Course en Sacs/The Sack Race".
At first, the Lumieres kept their invention a secret, only demonstrating the cinematographe at private screenings, first at a March 22, 1895, industrial meeting in Paris and later at a June 10 meeting of photographers at Lyon. These private exhibitions were met with great enthusiasm, and, on December 28, 1895, the Lumieres held their first public screening at the Grand Cafe on the Boulevard des Capucines. The reaction was sensational and before long there were 20 showings a day to meet the tremendous public demand. The success spurred the Lumieres to debut the cinematographe in England, Belgium, Holland, and Germany.
By 1897, the Lumieres were a global success, training hundreds of operators and expanding their film catalog to over 750 titles. But after the Paris Exposition of 1900, during which they projected a film on a mammoth 99 X 79-foot screen, the brothers decided to curtail their film exhibitions and devote themselves to the manufacture and sale of their inventions.
As inventors and businessmen, the Lumieres were perhaps uneasy shooting film subjects in an area that had begun to attract burgeoning film artists. While Edison stubbornly struggled to hold back the clock, forming a trust to quash up-and-coming filmmakers, the Lumieres' withdrawal from the vanguard of filmmaking opened the door for others to advance the aesthetic side of film.
Nevertheless, during their brief careers in production, the Lumieres brought filmmaking to five continents, demonstrated the beauty of movement in the mundane, and forever enshrined "cinema" as the art form of the 20th century.