Filmmaking as an artistic medium has always been about innovation. Early filmmakers realized that to push the art form forward, the technology needed to advance as well. When we think of technology and innovation today, ones and zeroes pop into our heads. But back in the day, technological advances came about simply because the filmmaker yearned to tell a better story.
Smooth tracking shots were practically impossible because of bulky camera systems, so crew members shifts backgrounds to give the illusion of a moving camera. Before audio recording was possible, music and title cards allowed silent films to present dialogue in a meaningful way. Once the camera could move around, and sound was possible, it opened up a new world of on-location shooting, and movies would never be the same again.
Here's a list of five of the top filmmaking innovations to come along since Louis Lumiere gave us the first motion picture camera back in 1895.
In 1976, cameraman innovator Garret Brown had a problem to solve: how to make a hand-held shot appear smooth and fluid rather than shaky. Before the Steadicam, the only way to move a camera was either by mounting it on a dolly, or by holding it over your shoulder. What Garrett wanted was a technology that allowed for the smoothness of a dolly, with the freedom of the hand-held technique.
Enter the Steadicam. Through a lot of trial and error, Brown invented a system that used weight distribution and a rotating gimbal to smooth out hand-held shots. To operate a Steadicam, the operator essentially wears the camera on the front of what looks like a bullet-proof vest. The camera is mounted, via the gimbal, onto a flexible "iso-elastic" arm that's attached to the vest. A system of counterweights distributes the weight of the camera and allows for -- wait for it -- a steady shot. In the end, a cameraman was able to follow Rocky Balboa up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and track Jack Nicholson through a snowy maze in "The Shining." Thanks to Brown, filmmaking would never be the same.
Segundo de Chomón probably didn't realize what a difference he'd made when, in 1907, he invented the camera dolly. In fact, it would be another seven years before the first tracking shot was used in a popular movie. Putting the camera on wheels seems like a no-brainer now, but for more than a decade in filmmaking's early years the camera was stuck in one spot. The camera dolly you'd find on today's movie set is much like the early dollies, heavy and stable. But today you'll likely find one of two manufacturer's names on the side -- J.L. Fisher or Chapman/Leonard.
The key to making smooth shots is the weight of the unit and the surface that the dolly rides on. Many smooth, hard concrete surfaces can be used with the dolly alone, but most of the time a track made from round metal tubes, much like a railroad track, is necessary to get the smooth tracking shots we're all used to. Modern dollies are essentially heavy sleds on four wheels that can move in any direction, with a hydraulic lift system for the camera. The cameraman rides on a seat attached to the dolly, and the whole unit is pushed with great accuracy by a dolly grip. Next time you see a movie shot of a couple walking down the street, just think of all the metal track laid on the ground beside them.
Computer generated imaging, or CGI, was not born on a film set, but in research labs at universities, with the goal of making pictures from computer data. In the late 1970s, the early imaging technology was adopted by special effects teams at movie production companies, starting in earnest what we now recognize as CG effects.
The sci-fi western "Westworld" is credited with being the first movie to make use of 2-D CGI. Shots from the perspective of Yul Brenner's robotic cowboy were mind blowing at the time, but look a little silly now. That film opened the door for movies like "Tron" in 1982, the first film to make extensive use of CGI. A few years after "Tron" was made, director Barry Levinson had his digital team create the first CGI character in "Young Sherlock Holmes." From there, innovators like James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and the Pixar studio revolutionized CGI in movies like "The Terminator," "Jurassic Park" and "Toy Story." Today, you'd be hard pressed to find a mainstream movie released by a major studio that doesn't have some kind of CG effect.
When digital camera technology was first introduced on a small scale by Sony in the late 1980s, it's doubtful anyone had any idea what impact it would make, and how soon it would make it. Only a few years later, in 1995, the Fox broadcast network first used a digital camera for a mainstream television production, a pilot for a short lived show called "Pasadena."
Major Hollywood films were a little slower to adopt the emerging technology, however. Digital cameras were clearly more efficient and easy to use, but until they could produce a product that looked as good as developed film, they wouldn't be adopted. Pioneering director George Lucas was the first to shoot a major motion picture with a digital camera -- 2002's "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones." Since then, cameras have gotten smaller and more compact. Today, consumers can shoot HD video on their cell phones, hand-held cameras and camcorders.
Stereoscopic Imaging (3-D)
Some people believe that the final great filmmaking innovation is the advent of stereoscopic imaging, which you may know better as 3-D. Stereoscopy, the allusion of a three-dimensional picture, has been around since 1838. The first "golden age" of 3-D took place between 1950 and 1960, with movies like Albert Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder." The technology and screening techniques were too limiting at the time, though, and it wouldn't be until the early 1970s that 3-D really took hold.
Cardboard glasses for movies like "Jaws 3-D" and "Friday the 13th Part 3" did a decent job, but 3-D was still more of a passing novelty than a filmmaking revolution. The mid 1980s marked the beginning of the true stereoscopic revolution with the release of "Transitions," an IMAX 3-D film shown at a Canadian technology expo in 1986. Breakthroughs in screening technology and the cameras used to shoot in 3-D have spawned a boom in big-budget stereoscopic films. James Cameron's "Avatar" was the first mainstream film to jar the world's consciousness by thrusting the audience into a CGI world.
The HowStuffWorks podcast The Soundtrack Show looks at the movie life of the 13th-century Latin hymn 'Dies Irae.'
- "CGI Historical Timeline." Design.osu.edu. 2011. http://design.osu.edu/carlson/history/timeline.html
- "Dolly History." Chapman-leonard.com. 2011.http://www.chapman-leonard.com/history.htm
- "Garret Brown Bio." Garrettcam.com. 2011.http://www.garrettcam.com/bio.php
- "History of 3D." Sensio.tv. 2011.http://www.sensio.tv/en/3d/3d_history/default.3d
- Cairns, David. "The Forgotten." Mubi.com. July 30, 2009.http://mubi.com/notebook/posts/857
- Innes, Erikka. "From Hobbits To Dinosaurs: 10 Moments In CGI History." Flixster.com, Nov. 19, 2008.http://www.flixster.com/blog/from-hobbits-to-dinosaurs-10-moments-in-cgi-history
- Lipton, Lenny. "The Last Great Innovation: The Stereoscopic Cinema." Smpte.org. 2011. http://www.smpte.org/journal/wp-content/uploads/2008/01/07-12-stereo.pdf