4th century B.C.E.

Aristotle theorizes the camera obscura (Latin for “dark chamber”), in which light would enter a dark box or room through a tiny hole and project an image from the outside. The projected image could then be traced onto paper.


Thomas Wedgwood makes the first recorded attempt at photography. His realization of Aristotle’s camera obscura uses chemicals to create silhouettes of objects. These images fade away, however, because they cannot be stabilized, or “fixed.”


Sir John Herschel first uses the term photography. He also perfects the hypo, which fixes an image on paper.


William Henry Fox Talbot invents the negative.


Pierre-Jules-César Janssen develops the revolver photographique, a cylindrical camera used for series photography—taking a number of pictures in rapid succession to create the illusion of movement.


Edweard Muybridge creates the first series of still photographs of continuous motion (a running horse), using a row of cameras.


Muybridge demonstrates images in motion using his early projectors, the magic lantern and the Zoopraxiscope.


George Eastman begins mass-producing a paper “film” coated with a gelatin emulsion.


Eastman replaces the paper film with clear plastic, similar to that used today. The same year, he begins mass-marketing celluloid roll film (raw film stock).


Thomas Edison’s research laboratory invents the Kinetograph, the first motion picture camera, and the Kinetoscope, a peephole viewer.


Edison and his staff begin making movies in the Black Maria, the first movie studio.


William K. L. Dickson “directs” Fred Ott’s Sneeze, the earliest complete film on record at the Library of Congress. Two seconds long, the movie records Thomas Edison’s assistant, Fred Ott, sneezing after taking a pinch of snuff.


Auguste and Louis Lumière invent the Cinématographe, a portable, hand-cranked device that is a camera, processing plant, and projector all in one.

Auguste and Louis Lumière’s The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (L’Arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat), an early projected film showing a train coming toward the camera, is so lifelike to audiences that, according to contemporary accounts, many people are frightened by it. By 1897, the brothers have made about 750 similar films, which they call actualités. Each runs about thirty seconds.


Georges Méliès begins making simple narrative films, often quite fantastic (e.g., A Trip to the Moon [Le Voyage dans la lune], 1902), thus establishing, with the Lumière brothers, the two basic types of filmmaking (the realistic and the fantastic) that have dominated production ever since.


Edwin S. Porter contributes to the development of narrative cinema with an early use of continuity editing in The Life of an American Fireman (1902) and The Great Train Robbery (1903).


The American film industry begins to move from its base in the Eastern states to Hollywood, establishing an early version of the studio system. Between 1895 and 1914, similar expansion of national film industries occurs in Britain and Europe. In 1914, for example, Italian director Giovanni Pastrone releases Cabiria, the most lavish, spectacular movie yet produced anywhere in the world.


D. W. Griffith begins his pioneering, highly innovative moviemaking career. A series of short and then feature-length films (including The Birth of a Nation, 1915, and Intolerance, 1916) play the primary role in bringing the infant art form of the movies to maturity.


During the post–World War I expansion of the art and business of the movies, German filmmakers make highly influential contributions to narrative, design, cinematography, editing, and lighting in films such as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari, 1919), F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann, 1924), and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926).


Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, considered the first documentary, explores the daily life of the Inuit people. The film is not precisely accurate, however. It contains a great deal of bias, and much of the action is staged for the camera rather than recorded as it actually happens.


Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy’s Ballet mécanique is one of the earliest French experimental films. With no real actors, the nineteen-minute film consists almost entirely of geometric imagery and rhythmic editing.


Before and after Flaherty, a totally different type of documentary film—nonfiction film is a more correct term—is being developed in Soviet Russia, resulting in such important, influential works as Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin, 1925), Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom, 1929), and Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (Zemlya, 1930).


The American film industry begins its conversion from silent to sound movies and from black-and-white to color. With this conversion also begins the standardization and solidification of the Hollywood studio system, which reaches its high point, often known as the “golden age,” in the 1930s.


The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is established; while its objectives are to represent the industry and foster technological standardization, it is perhaps best known to the public for its annual presentation of the Academy Awards, or Oscars.


In response to pressure from several fronts, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) establishes the Motion Picture Production Code (MPPC), consisting of a basic list of characters, behavioral traits, and events that cannot be depicted onscreen.


Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens) glorifies Hitler and the Nazi party.


The Walt Disney Company’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the first American animated feature film.


Set in the American South during the Civil War, Victor Fleming’s Gone With the Wind distorts “reality” in its presentation of the period as a soap opera. Equally inaccurate is the costume; although it approximates period dress, the wardrobe is updated somewhat to appeal to modern audiences.


The Italian neorealist movement begins, eventually producing important and influential films such as Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943), Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945), and Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves (1948).


Orson Welles, a twenty-five-year-old newcomer to Hollywood, makes Citizen Kane. Despite its revolutionary impact on the art of making movies and the high praise it receives from critics, the movie breaks so cleanly with the prevailing mode of production (storytelling, cinematography, sound, and so on) that it is not well received by the general public. Later, it is consistently ranked #1 in critics’ lists of the top ten international films of all time.


During World War II, propaganda films are made for the first time en masse.


The federal government breaks the vertical integration of the Hollywood studio system—its interlocking ownership of production, distribution, and exhibition—a blow that, with the growing popularity of television, results in the death of the studio system and the rise of independent production, which predominates today.


Hollywood begins another major conversion of moviemaking aesthetics and production methods with the introduction of various widescreen processes, including the short-lived 3-D process; enhanced sound systems; and, by 1968, the almost complete conversion to color production.


After some ten years of philosophical and critical preparation, the French New Wave (nouvelle vague) makes its debut with François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups, 1959) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (À bout de souffle, 1960); in the years that follow, the work of these directors and others profoundly influences and even liberates filmmaking around the world.


The Motion Picture Producers Association replaces the 1930 Code with the first of a series of ratings, modeled on Great Britain’s, with categories intended to assist parents in choosing films for their children. This rating system is further modified in 1990.


John Lasseter’s Toy Story is the first completely computer-generated animated film.


The cost of the average Hollywood film is approximately $80 million.


The film industry begins its conversion to digital production. Alan Cummings and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s The Anniversary Party and Spike Lee’s Bamboozled are filmed entirely on digital video.


Shot entirely with digital video cameras, George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones is projected digitally in some theaters.