Early Cinema Overview

Although the study of early cinema continues to evolve, over the past several decades some core and enduring methods and concerns have emerged that help to define the contours of a relatively distinct field of research. Broadly, “early” cinema includes the period of international film history spanning from around 1890 through 1915, that is, from the emergence of motion pictures as a “new” medium to the large-scale institutionalization of narrative feature filmmaking practices. The periodization has strong roots in the 1978 International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) conference, which brought together scholars and archivists who were interested in significantly reimagining the relevance of the cinema’s early years to film studies as a discipline. The conference hosted some seminal conversations that would eventually develop into several unifying discourses that are central to the field and that concern the following in a variety of ways:

Origins: There is a general investment in rethinking teleological histories that bracket off the early years of film as a “primitive” period relative to the feature filmmaking industry that developed in the teens. Included in this is an understanding that the cinema has multiple so-called origins, some of which place “film” in genealogies of media and what André Gaudreault has called “cultural series” that span centuries.

The Archive: There is a strong commitment to collaborations between film scholars and archivists, and to archival-based research—using film prints and other primary source materials—especially research at the margins of canonical film histories, that seeks to understand, for example, early cinema’s diverse economic, industrial, aesthetic, exhibition, and reception contexts on their own terms.

Intermediality: There is a strong interest in studying early cinema as part of a broader constellation or network of media, practices, and institutions with which fin-de-siècle motion pictures shared affinities, including vaudeville, amusement parks, world’s fairs, the magic theatre, popular science shows, and department stores, to name a few.

Education: Much scholarly work on early cinema has helped to bring the once-marginalized field seriously within the purview of cinema and media studies. There is thus a related effort to promote not only scholarly research on this period but also rigorous and innovative approaches to teaching it.

With its interest in the longue durée and in placing the cinema in a broader intermedial context, the field of early cinema studies has strong affinities with the study of early popular visual culture, media archaeology, and histories of “pre-” or “proto-” cinematic media from chronophotography to the magic lantern and shadow plays. Among the many questions that research in this area engages are, How did fin-de-siècle audiences receive the new medium in light of existing media? Where did the cinema make its home before the stabilization of the film industry? What impact did motion pictures have on other media, institutions, and modern life? And, equally important, In what ways is early cinema relevant to our contemporary moment? Exploring answers to these and countless other questions remains an ongoing and fruitful endeavor.


Preliminary Bibliography (This is meant to be neither exhaustive nor canonical but rather a place to begin.)

Richard Abel (ed.), Encyclopedia of Early Cinema (Routledge, 2013)

Richard Abel, The Ciné goes to town (University of California Press, 1994)

Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema 1907-1915 (University of California Press, 1990)

Marta Braun, Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (University of Chicago Press, 1992)

Noël Burch, Life to Those Shadows (University of California Press, 1990)

Francesco Casetti, Eye of the Century: Film, Experience, Modernity (Columbia University Press, 2005)

Lisa Cartwright, Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 1995)

C.W. Ceram, Archaeology of the Cinema (Thames and Hudson, 1965)

Michael Chanan, The Dream that Kicks: The Prehistory and Early Years of Cinema in Britain (Routledge, 1996)

Leo Charney and Vanessa Schwartz, Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life (University of California Press, 1995)

Donald Crafton, Before Mickey: The Animated Film, 1898-1928 (University of Chicago Press, 1993)

Jacques Deslandes and Jacques Richard, Histoire comparée du cinéma (Casterman, 1968)

Thomas Elsaesser (ed.), Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative (BFI, 1990)

John Fell, Film before Griffith (University of California Press, 1983)

André Gaudreault (ed.), Les Cahiers de la Cinémathèque n°29: « le Cinéma des premiers temps 1900-1906 » (hiver 1979)

André Gaudreault, From Plato to Lumière (2009 translation at the Toronto University Press — first published in French at Méridiens Klincksieck, 1988)

André Gaudreault, Nicolas Dulac, et Santiago Hidalgo (eds.), A Companion to Early Cinema (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)

André Gaudreault et Tom Gunning, “Early Cinema as a Challenge to Film History” (2006 translation in Attraction Reloaded — first published in French in Histoire du cinéma, nouvelles approches, 1989)

Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early film, its Spectator and the Avant Garde” (Wide Angle VIII: 3 & 4, Fall 1986)

Roger Holman (ed.), Cinema 1900-1906 : An Analytical Study (FIAF, 1982)

Charlie Keil, Early American Cinema in Transition (University of Wisonsin Press, 2001)

Jay Leyda and Charles Musser (eds.), Before Hollywood (American Federation of the Arts, 1987)

Patrick Loughney, “A Descriptive Analysis of the Library of Congress Paper Print Collection and Related Copyright Materials” (George Washington University, 1988)

Laurent Mannoni, The Great Art of Light and Shadow: Archaeology of the Cinema (Exeter Press, 2000)

Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (University of California Press, 1994)

Kemp Niver, Motion Pictures from the Library of Congress Paper Print Collection 1894-1912 (University of California Press, 1967)

Georges Sadoul, Histoire générale du cinéma (Denoel, 1948-1975)

Vanessa Schwartz, Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin de siècle Paris (University of California Press, 1998)

Yuri Tsivian, Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception (University of Chicago Press, 1998)


-“Early Cinema Overview” written by Colin Williamson, 2016