Rue Du Premier Film:

A Pilgrimage

Jay Woods’ accidental pilgrimage to the site of the world’s first cinema film shoot:

‘A couple of weeks ago I found myself in Lyon, France. I was en route to Provence with my family for our summer holiday. Rather than steam on through (or ‘crawl on through’ – no one steams through traffic in Lyon), Mrs W chose a lovely hotel for us to stay in to break up our drive. 

It took a little time for me to realise but she’s chosen somewhere spitting distance from what could arguably be describe as the birthplace of cinema.

In the late 19th century the neighbourhood was dominated by the magnificent residence that belonged to one Antoine Lumière. The residence still dominates to be honest, though now it’s a museum dedicated to Antoine’s pioneering sons Auguste and Louis. Antoine was a portrait painter turned photographer. With his sons’ help, he ran a successful dry plate film developing business from their factory just behind the Lumière residence. 

In 1894 Antoine travelled to Paris to see a demonstration of Edison’s peepshow Kinetoscope. He returned to Lyon with a souvenir strip of film and challenged his sons Auguste and Louis to develop a cheaper version to the peephole viewing device, and its bulky camera counterpart, the Kinograph. The Kinetoscope was only able to show a motion picture to one individual viewer at a time. Antoine asked his sons to develop a system to project the film on to a screen, so many people could view it at the same time. 

The brothers began their experimenting in the winter of 1894. By February the following year they had come up with their own device, which they christened the Cinématographe. Weighing in at 5kg it was significantly lighter than Edison’s cumbersome Kinetograph. It was operated with a hand-crank mechanism, as opposed to electric power needed for the Edison’s device. 

The Lumière Brothers' Cinématographe
The Lumière Brothers’ Cinématographe

The Cinématographe photographed and projected film at a rate of 16 frames per second. Compared to Edison’s 48 frames per second Kinetoscope, it was not only quieter and lighter but also used much less film. 

The key innovation was the mechanism that moved the film through the camera. Two pins inserted into sprocket holes at each side of the film, moved it down, and were then retracted, leaving the film stationary for exposure. This intermittent movement designed by Louis was based on the principal mechanics of a sewing machine. The hand crank at the rear of the Cinématographe rotated the shutter and the take-up magazine as well as the film transport. True to the Lumière reputation for quality it was innovative, portable and reliable. 

Not a bad winter’s work eh?

On a sunny August morning I stood on the spot of the world’s first film shoot. It’s a street now named Rue Du Premier Film (Lyon’s street naming authorities must’ve thought long and hard about that one). I whipped out my iPhone and shot my own little film in homage. After all it would’ve been rude not to, right? You can see my recording and the superimposed Lumière film below.

With my back to a Lyonaise townhouse the view in front wasn’t that different to the view that Louis Lumière had on the 19th March, 1895. Back then he was positioned to capture a doorway and big gate to his family’s factory, The Hangar. Only fragments of the Lumière factory now remain, but gaps in the modern concrete wall show where the old doorway and gate once were.

The first ever film shoot was in fact a documentary. With a running time of less than a minute, Louis captured workers leaving the factory at the end of the day. By December of the same year the brothers had amassed a collection of short films. 28th December, 1895 goes down in history as the day cinema was born. A paying audience attended the the Grand Cafe in Paris to watch workers leaving the Lumière factory; a gardener using a sprinkler; a baby having lunch and girl trying to catch a goldfish.

Portrait of Auguste and Louis Lumiere
Auguste and Louis Lumière

Edison conceded defeat to the Lumière brothers, admitting he never considered motion picture as an information or entertainment medium for the masses – rather a personal education device. We all know the rest is history but a rather sad footnotes ties up the story. 

Unable to fully exploit their creation, the brothers later stated that “the cinema is an invention without any future” and declined to sell their camera to other filmmakers. Instead they concentrated on colour photography and in 1907 launched their colour photography process, Autochrome Lumiere. Their legacy ultimately became tainted by associations with fascism. Louis was hired by Mussolini to create propaganda films, while Auguste sat on Lyon City Council in support of the Vichy regime in World War II France. When it was suggested that the pair appear on a 200-franc note in the 1990s, the public outcry forced a rethink.

I was unaware of the murky history as I stood on that street in Lyon. Film history classes must’ve glossed over their right-wing tendencies. It’s certainly sobering to contemplate the leap from ‘pratfalls of a gardener looking down a hose’ to ‘nationwide facist mobilisation’. 

To bring a modicum of romance back to the pioneering story, a footnote I’d prefer to end on would be this: French cinema writer Georges Sadoul was mooching around a French junk shop in the late 1940s. He picked up what he later realised to be an original Cinématographe. Testament to the quality of the Lumières’ product, he cranked it up and it worked first time.’

Jay Woods is Executive Creative Director for Thieves Kitchen.

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