Inventions for the film industry started, of course, with the film itself. As we know, “film” is a pretty recent invention. It only dates back to the end of the 1800s! Ever since then, the movie industry has kept evolving. Newer and newer inventions keep coming, shaping the industry into what it is today.
It’s easy to see the differences between movies at the dawn of film and what plays on the big screen right now. Color! Sound! And so much more!
It’s an understatement to say that many aspects of the industry have changed massively in just over a hundred years. Which of these inventions and renovations has had the most impact on the industry? It’s hard to say for certain, but we believe these inventions influenced and changed movies the most.
The Movie Camera
Let’s talk about the first of the big inventions for the film industry. The one that made it possible for movies to exist. Yep, we’re talking about the movie camera!
Of course, movie cameras come from cameras. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce created the first photo camera in 1816.
It took over sixty years for the movie camera to exist. In 1879, Etienne-Jules Marey had a problem. He was a physiologist and wanted a camera that could take photos of animals in motion. Marey then made a new type of camera that snapped twelve photos per second.
Taking several photos in rapid succession was close enough! This technique is known as “chronophotography.”
The same year Marey invented his camera, English photographer Eadweard Muybridge took photos of a horse in motion. Funded by California businessman Leland Stafford, Muybridge invented a device that could project images in sequential order for an audience to view. This device was called a “zoogyroscope.”
In 1888 Thomas Edison (of lightbulb fame) teamed up with William Dickson to create a device that could record moving pictures. Two years later, Dickson showed the world the “kinetograph,” an early version of a movie camera. Two years after that, in 1892, he unveiled the “kinetoscope,” which could project images from the kinetograph for audiences.
Edison then created and promoted the idea of “kinetograph parlors.” Here, audiences would gather to view these moving pictures. In other words, these were early versions of movie theaters!
The earliest movies recorded featured people or animals doing fairly mundane things (a horse galloping, a train moving down a track). Soon, however, people started using this technology to tell stories… and the movie industry was born!
Adding Synchronous Sound
While it’s known as the era of the silent film, most weren’t actually watched in silence. Movie parlors provided some sort of accompaniment with the films they’d show. A musician might ad-lib a piano, or a full orchestra performing prewritten work.
However, the films themselves were “silent.” There was no synchronous sound. At the time, it was impossible for recorded sound to line up perfectly with the action in the movie. Ditto for recording dialogue and syncing it to the actor’s mouth movements.
Although, we did have the radio and already had ways to record sound. It was only a matter of time before we put sound into the video.
Part of the issue was the time’s limited tech. The best sound recording technology was Edison’s cylindrical records, which recorded sound on a spinning cylinder. These work the same way a vinyl record does. They just have a different shape and far less space for recording.
At most, they could hold about four minutes of sound. While that was more than enough for a short film, it could never be enough for a feature-length movie. However, people saw the possibilities and got to work.
Inventions For The Film Industry: Developing Talkies
In 1919, three German inventors Josef Engl, Joseph Masserole, and Hans Vogt created a way to record sound directly onto film. This invention was called the “tri-ergon system.” It worked like this:
In this system, a photo-electric cell was used to convert sound waves to electrical impulses, which were then converted to light waves and recorded directly on the strip of film as the soundtrack. A projector equipped with a reader reconverted the light waves to sound for playback, while a special fly-wheel regulated the speed of the playback. This made it possible to have synchronized sound that ran for the entire length of the film.
While these three worked on a system to record sound, Dr. Lee De Forest in North America worked on a way to project this sound. Dr. De Forest had already invented the audion, a triode that amplified sound. He then expanded this amplification to a large audience.
The invention was fairly successful. By 1924, 84 theaters had already installed or planned to install this system. In fact, success inspired Dr. De Forest to create his own films. He made movies with scenes from operas and musicals, focusing on reproducing these specific sounds.
Hollywood Pushes Back Against This Invention For The Film Industry
Despite promising inventions for the film industry like sound, filmmakers and studios hesitated to use it. Why? Like with many studios delaying projects today, back then it all came down to “cost.”
To use sound, the company would have to buy new equipment. Theaters would also have to invest in new equipment. What if it was just a fad? What if it fell out of fashion?
Not to worry: the addition of sound was no fad.
Western Electric and Bell Telephone Laboratories created the Vitaphone, a sound-on-disc system for accompanying movies.
At first, Vitaphone struggled with synchronicity. Still, it proved a major success at the 1926 world premiere of Don Juan at the Warner Brothers Theater. This moment cemented the Vitaphone as a success.
However, the system only provided musical accompaniment to the movie. There was no dialogue in the movie. This would all change with the infamous 1927 film The Jazz Singer, which revolutionized the industry. Before each musical number, actor Al Jolson ad-libbed a few lines of dialogue. These words became the first pieces of dialogue ever recorded for films.
Thus, the age of the talkies began.
In 1928, Warner Brothers made their first talkie: The Lights of New York. The Vitaphone recorded each line of dialogue. Two years later almost all silent movie production had stopped in Hollywood.
Inventions For The Film Industry: Color
Like sound, inventors and filmmakers experimented with adding color to film as early as the end of the 1800s. However, their techniques were not exactly practical. Georges Méliès hired as many as 21 women to color some of his films frame by frame.
Of course, this was time-consuming and not a cost-effective solution. Unless it was a short film, and very short at that.
By the mid-1900s, though, the process became more automated. Around this time, filmmakers first started using stenciling.
What’s stenciling? Well, the process worked like this:
a stencil was cut for each colour desired (up to six) and aligned with the print; colour was then applied through the stencil frame by frame at high speeds.
Next, films started to become longer. Movies became mass-produced for distribution. As a result, filmmakers started to experiment with tinting.
Around 1910, tinting became a standard for adding color. The process was fairly quick and simple. By immersing the film strips into colored dyes, the lighter parts of each picture became colored. Sure, this only created a sort of monochromatic effect. Yet filmmakers chose colors to fit the mood and tone of each scene.
Stenciling and tinting became the standard for coloring film through about the mid-1920s. However, around 1927, filmmakers realized that these processes came with a cost. The colorization process could actually ruin the recorded sound for films that were dyed. Filmmakers eventually abandoned both tinting and stenciling due to this.
The Technicolor Monopoly
Filmmakers tried to capture color on film as early as 1906. However, this process costs a lot. You’d need an expensive camera system to shoot the movie. Then, any theater playing the film would need an expensive projector system. Tinting and stenciling were just cheaper.
Then, the Technicolor Corporation created a more cost-effective process for photographic color in 1922. They used two cameras to shoot a movie. Editors then pasted both reels together to create one reel. Although the final product was fairly fragile, studios could show the footage using standard projection equipment.
By 1928, Technicolor further improved its process with a “dye-transfer” system. This allowed the original two reels to print onto a duplicate. Hence, you could mass-produce film. By the end of the decade, this process became the standard for color film.
However, this process only allowed for two of the three primary colors to be printed. In other words, it still needed improvement.
Around 1932, Technicolor answered the call. It improved the system to include all three primary colors. For the next 25 years, the Technicolor three-color system had a hand in almost every movie shot in color.
Sounds simple, right? However, the business side of things was a little more complicated.
This meant that Technicolor had a monopoly on the Hollywood industry, and they were gonna milk it. Technicolor required studios to rent expensive equipment. Plus, they had to use Technicolor’s labs for post-production. Technicolor’s monopoly ended with a federal consent decree in 1950.
Around this time, Kodak introduced a multilayered film that was sensitive to red, green, and blue coloration. Unlike Technicolor’s three-color system, Kodak’s film was bound together in a single roll. The era of the black-and-white movies faded to the history books… and the director’s artistic choices.
The Camera Dolly
What’s the difference between a movie and a stage play? It seems obvious, right? Unless the program you are watching is live, you wouldn’t really compare them these days. However, back in the early days of movies, these differences were nil at best. Go and watch any movie before 1920. It’s easy to see what we mean.
Back then, movie cameras weren’t moved while shooting because of their bulk. In fact, moving a camera while shooting guarantees technical problems. This limited the directors and camera people greatly. Also, it made movies feel like stage plays.
This all changed in 1915 with the movie David Harum. Director Allan Dwan filmed actor William H. Crane taking a stroll. He mounted the camera on a moving car and followed the actor. This became one of the most important inventions for the film industry, as it improved action shots dramatically.
Dwan likely didn’t realize that this directing choice would completely revolutionize the industry. Indeed, the camera dolly is likely one of the most important inventions today. Something we’ve added quite a lot to.
Suddenly, directors could film scenes that took place in several locations. Cameras could follow actors down the street, through the house, or even down a staircase. Movies became immersive for the audience. This invention further set the film apart from any other sort of media format.
The Different Types Of Dolly Shots
A camera dolly is typically a cart with wheels to which the movie camera is mounted. The wheels let the camera move smoothly in a single shot. Typically, these wheels are on a track of some sort for accuracy and consistency. However, this is not always the case.
Films use several different types of dolly shots. Some of them are fairly basic and easy to recognize. For example, a “dolly in” shot means the camera moves smoothly toward a subject. A “dolly out” shot is just the opposite: the camera moves away from the subject. A tracking shot is another easily recognizable technique: the camera follows an actor through a scene.
Why makes camera dollies so important as inventions for the film industry? Well, they can be used for storytelling effects.
Dolly shots add emotional, dramatic, or thematic elements. In a “dolly zoom” shot, the cameraperson will zoom on an object while the dolly is moving. The object appears to stay the same size, but the background opens up. This creates a sense of drama in a scene. It also adds tension.
Another interesting dolly shot is the “Spike Lee dolly shot.” Several different Spike Lee movies, including Malcolm X and Blackkklansman, use this type of shot.
Both the camera and the actor are on a moving dolly. The actor usually faces the camera. This makes the actor look as though they’re floating through the scene. It gives the scene a surreal feeling. Hence, it’s an effective way to show that a character in a scene is disassociating.
Even though the camera dolly completely revolutionized the industry, it still has its flaws. Setting up a dolly system is time-consuming. Plus, the equipment for a traditional setup is bulky. Sure, the camera moves fluidly, but it’s still limited to a track.
As movie cameras started to become smaller, it became possible for a camera operator to walk around with the camera while recording. While this opened up the flexibility possible for a single shot, the footage ended up wobbly and unfocused. It no longer had the smooth fluidity a camera dolly provides.
All problems have solutions, though. A cameraman named Garrett Brown created new inventions for the film industry. The Brown Stabilizer combined the fluid motion of a camera dolly. It also allowed more flexible movement than smaller cameras did. In other words, it’s the best of both worlds.
Today, we know this device as the “Steadicam.” This device was first used in 1975 in Oscar-nominated Bound for Glory. Brown later used the device to film scenes in blockbusters, including The Shining, Rocky, and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.
It wasn’t too much longer that other directors and camera operators started using the Steadicam. In fact, movies like Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and 1917 wouldn’t have been possible without this device. Like the camera dolly before it, the Steadicam is one of those inventions for the film industry that completely revolutionized it.
How Does The Steadicam Actually Work?
One of the main draws to the Steadicam is how little equipment is needed to use the device. A camera dolly needs a wheeled cart, a large track, some sort of tripod to mount the camera to, and much more to work effectively.
However, a Steadicam uses a support vest that the camera operator wears, an arm that the camera attaches to (to absorb shocks and jolts), and that’s pretty much it.
Without all of this bulky equipment, camera operators take up far less space. They also have far more flexibility. Tracking shots can be performed in close quarters to the actors. They can follow an actor through a sporadic crowd of people instead of a straight, unencumbered line.
Not to mention that dolly tracks no longer need to be edited out in post-production!
Since the Steadicam mimics human movement, it’s also the ideal device to use for point-of-view shots. These shots allow the audience to view a scene from the character’s perspective. POV shots are useful tools for immersing viewers in the scene. Before the Steadicam, these types of shots were almost impossible.
This not only changed the practicality of shooting a movie, but also the practicality of storytelling itself. Making it one of the most important inventions for the film industry ever!
The Digital Camera
Perhaps one of the biggest inventions for the film industry might not rely on “film” itself. Any footage shot with a movie camera is still sometimes referred to as “film.” However, “physical film” itself is not the standard for the industry today. In fact, it hasn’t been for about 15 years. This is thanks to the invention of the digital camera.
However, the history of digital imaging goes back almost 50 years.
In 1975, Kodak wanted to make a photo camera that didn’t use any film. The camera they invented consisted of two important parts: the CCD and the RAM drive.
A charge-coupled device (CCD) works as a sensor that processes 2D images and light patterns into an electrical signal, which is then converted into a picture. The RAM drive then stores the image onto a cassette tape.
In the late 1980s, Sony began its electronic cinematography campaign. They used similar technology to Kodak and began making and selling digital movie cameras. While TV and movie executives were impressed by this new tech, digital movie cameras didn’t hit the mainstream until about 2001 with the movie Once Upon a Time in Mexico.
Of course, the rest is history. Digital cameras have now become the standard.
This Invention’s Impact On The Film Industry
While a lot of digital cameras are expensive (especially these days), many more are fairly cheap. This was also the case back in the late 1990s when digital cameras became more common to find in the market.
Thanks to many cheaper versions being available, digital cameras became a good alternative for indie and low-budget filmmakers. Newcomers and independently-funded artists were able to save a ton of money that would’ve otherwise gone to reels of film and other expensive equipment.
Movies like Russian Arc (2002) and Frances Ha (2012) are just a couple examples of excellent films made with these cheaper cameras.
Digital cameras also revolutionized the post-production process for movies. When editing a physical film, editors were forced to edit the reels linearly. However, the digital film allows editors to record non-linearly, meaning they can move to any scene with a few clicks of the mouse. The editing process suddenly became a lot faster!
In 2009, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire was the first movie shot mainly in “digital film” to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Not to mention, the highest-grossing movie ever made, James Cameron’s Avatar, was also shot on digital cameras. This invention for the film industry is here to stay, and for good.
Thomas Edison takes the credit for inventing the 35mm format for film. Yep, that Thomas Edison again. Until about the 1950s, these 35mm reels remained the standard for the industry. 35mm has an aspect ratio (AR) of 1.33:1. This means that the width of the film is about 1.33 times longer than the height.
This is why most things made before the 1950s (and a while after that) have a square look.
The 1.33:1 film was the standard, but there were plenty of exceptions to the rule, even as early as 1897. That year, the Corbett-Fitzsimmons boxing match was recorded in Carson City, NV. The production team used 63mm film instead of 35mm. 63mm has an AR of 1.66:1.
This makes for a wider screen than the 35mm, yet it’s still fairly box-like compared to the widescreen of today.
Filmmakers continued to experiment with AR in other ways. In 1927, Napoléon was filmed with an AR of 4:1, in a style the makers called “PolyVision.” They accomplished this style by placing 3 different 1.33:1 projectors in a row to shoot scenes.
While this idea did eventually lead to other feats and inventions for the film industry, it did not take off for Hollywood at the time. After all, three cameras mean three times the cost of film, camera operators, etc. It was far cheaper to keep recording with 35mm.
Competition In The Marketplace
It wasn’t until the 1950s that Hollywood faced a tough competitor for American entertainment: television. While at first a novelty that most Americans couldn’t afford, TVs soon made their way into most homes and took over the entertainment industry. Hollywood’s essential monopoly on filmed entertainment suddenly had to reassess its hold on the market.
Why would people leave the comfort of their homes to go to the movie theater when they could broadcast quality entertainment in their living rooms?
However, TV was limited by its design.
Almost all shows were recorded and broadcast at 1.33:1 AR. Anything that didn’t use this looks blurry, small, and squished. TV had to use 35mm. Movies had no such limits, especially due to the screens they played on. Thus, the transition to widescreen began.
The standard aspect ratio today is 16:9 (or about 1.77:1). Both TV and movies are actually mainly made with this aspect ratio in mind. Of course, there are always exceptions. Keep in mind that this AR allows for wide shots. The benefits of wide shots are that scenes look grander, which just makes for a better viewing experience.
No, the change to widescreen didn’t revolutionize the industry. Still, it’s an invention for the film industry that completely changed it, for the better.
For the first sixty-ish years of film history, movies consisted of whatever the camera person shot. This seems obvious, right? However, technology grew by leaps and bounds in all fields during the twentieth century. Computer tech spilled over into Hollywood. A little something called computer-generated imagery, or CGI, began appearing in movies.
CGI refers to any image in a movie that’s created using a computer instead of something filmed. This includes background images, terrain, lighting, and more. CGI can even create characters in a scene that wasn’t there during filming. This has even been used to revive long-dead actors.
Of course, CGI wasn’t always so sophisticated. In 1958, Alfred Hitchcock used some simple animated patterns in the title sequence and opening credits for Vertigo. Still, it wasn’t until around twenty years later that CGI really took off.
In 1973, the movie Westworld used CGI and live-action together to show the POV of a robot character. George Lucas also used CGI in Star Wars: A New Hope in the rebel base scene. The blueprints of the Death Star? All computer-generated!
Finally, in 1995, Toy Story premiered. This was the very first completely CGI movie ever made. It was wildly successful.
When watching this classic animated movie these days, it’s easy to see just how far this technology has advanced. Movies in theaters these days have CGI so advanced that it’s hard to tell the difference between these images and reality. Without a doubt, CGI revolutionized what was possible to show in movies.
This invention for the film industry brought the fantastical to life!
Arguably the most important of the inventions for the film industry on this list, the internet isn’t just an invention for the film industry. The internet completely changed the world.
At the end of the 1960s, the US military began using the ARPAnet as a safety net in case the Soviet Union knocked out the US’s telephone system. This system, which allowed only 4 military computers across the country to communicate, eventually became the world wide web that we know today.
Honestly, we here have a hard time imagining life without the internet nowadays!
The internet heavily influenced the movie industry as well. It didn’t hit the mainstream until about the late 1990s or early 2000s. But once it made its way into people’s homes, Hollywood executives saw its potential. The internet became a whole new avenue for advertising the latest movies. For consumers, the internet lets movie reviews reach the audience.
This new mode of communication came with some pitfalls for Hollywood. The internet acts as a mode for transferring data, including video. People have found ways to distribute movies illegally, commonly referred to as “pirating.”
Streaming: Invention For The Film Industry
The market changed again completely in 2007 when Netflix began offering streaming services through the internet. Now, consumers could (legally) watch movies, on-demand, without having to leave the house. Goodbye video rental stores, hello streaming services! (RIP Blockbuster.)
The streaming giant didn’t stop there. Before too long, Netflix began creating original content. In 2012, the series Lilyhammer premiered on the service. They went on to make more hit series, like Baki Hanma and Stranger Things. Soon Netflix began making original movies, such as Beasts of No Nation in 2015.
They even won a few Academy Awards in 2017 for Roma.
Of course, Netflix isn’t the only streaming service these days. Hollywood had no choice but to jump on the bandwagon. Now, it’s not uncommon for producers and executives to partner with services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, and even YouTube to make content.
In fact, since events like the COVID-19 pandemic, movies have started premiering simultaneously on streaming services and in the theater.
There are many more inventions for the film industry not on this list. However, these inventions show us how far we’ve come in a century. From how films are made, to how audiences watch the film themselves, these inventions made the biggest impact on the industry as a whole.
Who knows where the industry will go next?