The Lumière's Cinematographe
The Lumière's cinématographe - 1895

On December 26th 1894, it was reported in an article in the Lyon Républicain newspaper that “the Lumière brothers [...] are currently working on the building of a new Kinetograph, in no way less remarkable than Edison’s machine and which the people of Lyon will, we understand, be the first to experience”. In fact, it was to be a restricted Parisian audience which would witness on March 22nd 1895 the first demonstration of this appliance, with which Louis Lumière screened the " La Sortie des Usines Lumière " (Leaving the Factory) on the premises of the Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale (French society for industrial incentive) a month before the first New York showing of Latham’s Pantoptikon. For the first time and thanks to the Lumière Cinématographe, a film could be viewed by a whole audience. During 1895, eleven other screenings took place in France (Paris, Lyon, La Ciotat, Grenoble) and Belgium (Brussels, Louvain) with a fuller program of films, prior to the first commercial showing on December 28th, achieving a tremendous success on every occasion.

The appliance is described in detail in the February 13th 1895 patent taken out jointly by the Lumière brothers (as was their custom), even though it was Louis who had uncovered the principle. This principle is summarized as follows in the preamble to the patent: " The basic property of this appliance’s mechanism is to act intermittently on a regularly perforated strip to transmit successive displacements to it separated by stationary periods, during which photographic images are either exposed or viewed ". In the end, the process is very similar to that applied by a sewing machine, which successively feeds then immobilizes the material for the time required to make stitch.


Brevet - 1895 (The Cinematographe) Make positive projection copies

The Cinématographe mechanism is based on using an eccentric cam to convert crank rotational motion into up-and-down vertical motion, which is transmitted to a frame guided by two slots. This frame supports a link, one end of which is flexibly mounted on the frame and the other end of which features two pins (claws), which pass through a slotted partition to feed from top to bottom the film located in the threading slot on the other side of the partition.

Film feed motion can be broken down into 4 stages. The gear ratio selected meant that the 2 revolutions per second rotational rhythm cranked by the operator corresponded to an intermittent film feed of 16 frames per second, a rate sufficient to ensure continuity of break-down and projected reproduction of the filmed motion, whilst providing enough exposure or illumination time to obtain bright well-defined images. Depending on the skill of the filming operator, the frame rate of Lumière films therefore varies between 16 and 18 frames per second (the frame rate was standardized at 24 frames per second since the advent of sound-synchronized motion pictures).

The other important characteristic of the Cinématographe is its capacity to make positive projection copies from a developed negative: to do this one simply had to feed simultaneously an unexposed film and a negative, whilst pointing the lens towards a uniform light source, such as a white wall illuminated by the sun, for the copy to be exposed with the images featuring on the negative.
As a result, the “little mill” was a truly independent picture production unit combining the functions of camera, copier and projector in the same compact appliance, which made life very much easier for the traveling operators.
It is very difficult to determine the precise moment at which the Lumière brothers started to work on the screening of motion pictures, their recollections on this point are contradictory. On the other hand, the Edison Kinetoscope is invariably quoted as being the starting point for their thinking aimed at making motion pictures visible to an audience and no longer on an individual basis: thus, it could only have been from September 1894 onwards that they, or their father, could have seen Edison’s new attraction in Paris. Moreover, it is undoubtedly true that their prototype quickly allowed films to be shot as the trials performed in January 1895 (confirmed by snow on the ground) prove.

These two rediscovered trial films were shot on standard 35 mm wide sensitized paper strips just like the Edison Kinetoscope films. They were filmed using the first prototype appliance now conserved at the Institut Lumière, in which the film transport is ensured by a gripper rather than a claw system, but the motion was already intermittent due to the incorporated eccentric cam system, which was patented shortly after on February 13th 1895. In common with the diagrams accompanying the patent, transmission of the crank motion to the camshaft is ensured by an external belt drive but curiously, the eccentric cam is of triangular, not circular, section. All this seems to indicate that this prototype n°1 was probably used to experiment various technical solutions and was subjected to several successive modifications as a result.

For its part, a second prototype features claws, which penetrate the perforations to give greater film feed precision, a triangular eccentric cam and a built-in chain drive system for transmitting the crank motion. Donated by Louis Lumière to the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in 1942, this unit should be compared with the supplement to the original patent, registered on March 30th 1895, which concerns the adoption of a triangular eccentric cam allowing an increase in film stationary time.

Standard Appliance

In 1895, it was this prototype n° 2 which was used to shoot ten or so films all with similar characteristics: sharp-cornered abutting frames offset to the left due to the shape of the exposure gate. Conversely, films shot from 1896 onwards featured the same frame shape, which became standard from then on : rounded-corner frames centered between perforations and separated by a frame line. Nevertheless, they remained 35 mm wide and 17 m long based on the capacity of the film loader.

The standard Cinématographe

Engineer Jules Carpentier, based in Paris but working jointly with Louis Lumière, built an appliance suited to the technical and economic eventualities of mass production and indeed this unit was used as a model for this type of production, which became effective in January 1896. Jules Carpentier had been present at the March 22nd 1895 screening and had immediately offered to work with Louis Lumière. Correspondence happily exchanged between the two men bears witness to the various development stages and the urgency with which a production series had to be reached if they were not to be overtaken by the competition.

Carpentier’s first appliance was sent to Lyon in October 1895. One can imagine that it closely resembled the diagrams accompanying André Gay’s article on the Cinématographe published in the July 1895 issue of the Revue Générale des Sciences scientific journal. The chain drive had been replaced by a more precise gearing system allowing a reduction in jerking, detrimental to a reliable perforation engagement, and a receiver (a patent supplement registered on May 6th 1895) positioned inside the appliance and enabling recovery of the exposed negative film which, until then, fell freely into an opaque bag positioned beneath the camera. A second pilot production unit continued to journey between Paris and Lyon for modifications prior to the ordering of an initial 200-unit series by Louis Lumière at the end of December 1895.

In 1897, the standard Cinématographe was complemented by a cheaper simplified model intended only for motion picture screening. Louis Lumière worked in parallel with Victor Planchon in developing and manufacturing emulsion-coated films based on the " Etiquette Bleue " (blue label) photographic plates maintain independence from foreign suppliers such as Blair or Eastman. Small-scale production of a few rolls of film right at the start of 1896 allowed copies to be made for purpose of opening a second film theater at 1, place de la République in Lyon. These first rolls also enabled a number of new scenes to be filmed prior to Planchon finalizing the setting up of the factory owned by the newly launched company S.A. des Pellicules Françaises (whose directors included both Louis Lumière and Jules Carpentier) in Lyon’s cours Gambetta.

The large-scale film production and distribution venture could at last commence...

Only for motion picture screening Model  

>> See movies of the first public paying screening about this site!