What was the first movie ever made? Grab your popcorn, let’s find out

The film industry has come a long way since the second-long clips that once captivated early cinema audiences.

Quick notes:

What was the first movie ever made? We take you through early film history.

The Horse in Motion (1878) brought photographs to life to answer a simple question about a racehorse.

Roundhay Garden Scene (1888) saw a 2.11-second clip make cinematic history.

Thomas Edison’s Dickson Greeting (1891) brought the allure of film to America.

Since the late 1800s, film has been one of the most significant visual mediums of art to capture the artistic spirit of the public. There is nothing quite as captivating as entering a dark theater and leaving the world behind for a couple of hours.

However, the first films in existence weren’t long or complex the way that present-day films often are. Rather, the first flicks were second-long, simple scenes with as much narrative as a grocery list… yet they left audiences across the globe awestruck.

The Horse in Motion (1878)

One of the earliest flicks wasn’t even created for entertainment. Instead, it was produced to answer a simple scientific question posed by racehorse owner, Leland Stanford: Do all four of a horse’s hooves ever leave the ground while they’re galloping? Eadweard Muybridge was the visionary behind this simple film. He would go on to enjoy a fruitful career in motion picture production.

In order to find out the truth, Muybridge arranged for multiple cameras to go off at once to capture a horse’s gallop. Afterward, he arranged all of the captured images into the first moving picture. While this technique may be simple to enact now, at the time, it was visionary. The project was given the name The Horse in Motion (1878). Not only did it answer Stanford’s question (yes!), but the film paved the way for other silent motion picture flicks to come onto the scene.

Roundhay Garden Scene (1888)

What was the first film with a narrative? That came 10 years down the line, with Roundhay Garden Scene (1888). You know, “narrative” may be pushing it… especially considering the film was only 2.11 seconds long. However, it was the first short flick with action. It features a small group of nicely-dressed people walking in a half-circle in a garden, and…scene. Pretty fascinating, right?

The flick, directed by French inventor Louis Le Prince, might be remarkably short, but it is an important piece of film history. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Roundhay Garden Scene is the oldest surviving film that we know of. However, it isn’t the only flick from its era. Similar short films depicting everyday scenes were created throughout the 1800s and often shown to the public during traveling vaudeville acts.

Dickson Greeting (1891)

Meanwhile in America, and unlikely filmmaker was rising to prominence: Thomas Edison. Well, his cinematic successes were thanks to Edison’s assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson. With Edison’s help, he invented the Kinetograph, a motion picture camera, in his laboratory. The camera would pave the way for filmmakers across the course of the 20th century. Edison also got a bit of fun out of using the device to create some of his own films.

His first flick, Dickson Greeting (1891), features William Dickson passing a flat, white hat over his chest, shifting it from one hand to the other. The 3-second clip was filmed in New Jersey at Edison famed Black Maria studio. Batches of lucky women at the National Federation of Women’s Clubs were among the first to witness the flick. Dickson Greeting was credited as the first American film ever presented to audiences.

The Arrival of a Train (1896)

One of the most famed pieces of early cinematic history today is the iconic short film The Arrival of a Train (1896). This piece has been widely discussed and played on in present-day art pieces, not only for the work itself but for the unique audience reaction. The 50-second flick terrified the bejesus out of the first batch of people to witness the simple scene. What made the film such a terror to view?

Subjectively, the film doesn’t seem that frightening. It features a train pulling into the French town of La Ciotat, with passengers exiting and boarding the train as the film concludes. It’s not a scary movie, yet the continuous shot frightened the audience.

Many of them had never seen a film of that nature, or a film at all. They were certain that the train was going to bust through the screen and run them over.

Legend has it that the members of the audience tripped over themselves trying to get to the back of the theater to avoid getting crushed by the train. When the flick ended (and no one had died), everyone was awestruck. A short year later, the film industry was booming, popularized by photographers-turned-filmmakers, as well as entertainment venues eager to make a buck off the rising talent.

Employees Leaving The Lumière Factory (1895)

That leads us to the historic French Lumière Brothers. Arguably, Auguste and Louis Lumière were the largest early contributors to the film industry that we know and love today. The developed numerous pieces of technology that paved the way for longer narrative films, essentially kicked off the industrialization, mass viewing, and artistic form of modern films. Their first film was entitled Employees Leaving The Lumière Factory (1895).

The documentary film, now often recognized as the genuine first film ever made, shows workers exiting through the grand gates of the Lumière Brothers photographic plate factory. A collection of eclectic women, men, and animals exit the factory before the gates are closed again. The film was almost two minutes in length, and, in capturing such a simple scene, it exposed audiences to the first nonfiction film that told a true story.

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