9 tech innovations that changed the film industry (through the ages)

One industry that has been expansively affected by technological changes is film. Both mechanical and digital innovations have influenced everything from equipment to distribution, changing how films are made and the manner in which we consume them.

With the medium being just around 120 years old, we take a look at the biggest tech innovations that, through time, changed film for the better.

Movie camera – late 1800s

The movie camera – a camera that could capture a sequence of photographs onto filmstrip in quick succession – was a late invention of the 1800s, and without it we wouldn’t have the visual medium that we all love to enjoy while in dark rooms chomping on popcorn and answering our cellphones.

Trying to date which movie camera was invented first is like trying to determine what the first movie of all time was: futile.

For as many people who say Louis Le Prince’s camera in 1888 was first, an equal number will say it was William Friese-Greene’s in 1889. Someone’s bound to argue the Chinese invented it earlier.

Despite many technical displays of ‘moving images’ around the time, I would argue that it was the Lumière brothers who took the medium to the masses and influenced early pioneers such as George Méliès, who arguably was the first person to add narrative to moving images.

The Lumière brothers held some of the earliest screenings of projected images in 1895, where their film, The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, notoriously showed a train entering a station (literally moving towards the screen).

Allegedly the audience ran away from the screen because they thought it was real. The stuff of legend.

Synchronous sound – 1920s

Before sound could be captured simultaneously to picture, there was the golden age of silent films.

This era was famous for over the top (slapstick) acting, the use of intertitles (titles between shots), and live-music accompaniment to films in theatres. Even early projectionists are credited to have done live sound effects for films too (surely one of the most fun jobs in the last century).

But it all meant there were narrative limitations.

The process of synching sound had been achieved in 1914 with The Photo-Drama of Creation, in which slides and phonograph records were synched up. But it was Warner Brothers’ “Vitaphone” that took the system to feature films.

Recording sound effects (including dialogue) and adding musical scores all started with the major motion picture The Jazz Singer (1927) which is regarded as the first film to have synchronised dialogue – and singing for that matter.

Screenwriting and acting slowly took on a whole new meaning, and new genres were formed, as dialogue became a key component of films marking the beginning of ‘the talkies’.

Colour – 1939 (or 1917)

There’s nothing wrong with a good black and white film, after all last year’s Oscar winner for best film – The Artist – proved that black and white films can still provoke an emotive experience for today’s audiences.

Regardless, colour changed film for the better. Not only because it gave the medium the ability to mimic life more realistically than ever before, but it also led to more narrative possibilities, with the prime example being The Wizard of Oz (1939) which famously depicted Dorothy’s Kansas in black and white, but then brought Oz to magical life in Technicolour.

Film was never the same again… until The Artist of course.

There were examples of older colour films as early as 1917, but most have been lost.

Green screen – 1940

Early digital compositing started in the 1940s with the ‘traveling matte’ – a process that was used to superimpose backdrops with actors performing against a blank, coloured wall. These screens’ colours have changed throughout the decades, but the process and effect have remained the same.

It is a time-consuming technique in which a scene is filmed against the coloured (green) screen, then re-filmed with a filter on the lens that removes all the coloured (green) areas of the film.

Lastly, the layers are composited together in a final recording by laying them over each other one frame at a time. You can’t help but respect the technique.

It allowed for actors to be ‘anywhere in the world’ and also create optical illusions, all the while saving on production costs.

The fantasy film The Thief of Bagdad (1940) is thought to be the first to use a blue-screen effect with its rather entertaining ‘genie’.

Lightweight/portable equipment – 1950s-1960s

Hollywood was famous for building huge studios and sets in its early days. Film always had a larger than life mystique about it. However once lightweight cameras and smaller sound recording devices became available, there was a shift in the style and themes explored in film.

The most famous movement to make use of this tech change was the French New Wave starting in 1950. The revolutionary movement made use of the new equipment that could capture images on location, and a new grittier, documentary visual-style emerged that allowed filmmakers to explore social issues where they happened… on the streets.

This gonzo-style of filmmaking influenced many modern filmmakers including none other than Quentin Tarentino (don’t tell him I told you). Perhaps the most famous French New Wave film is Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) which is still as exhilarating and fresh as it was over 50 years ago.

Camera rigs: the dolly (1907) and steadicam (1976)

The dolly and steadicam are inventions that signify benchmark camera techniques. You’ll be hard pressed to find a major motion picture that doesn’t make use of either or both of these inventions.

The dolly, to put it simply, is the placing of the camera on wheels that move along tracks. The subsequent smooth movement means that you can follow people walking and talking (a lá The West Wing) or get sweeping opening shots, especially when you combine it with a crane.

One particularly difficult, yet visual striking, effect on film is the ‘zolly shot’, where the cameraman zooms while moving a camera on a dolly to get shots like the one below.

The steadicam was the solution to many a cameraman’s problem – getting the smoothness of a dolly system, but with the freedom of hand-held shooting.

Effectively a rig that places the camera on more than one point on the human body,  the steadicam utilises the cameraman’s back, shoulders and chest/stomach to support the camera as well as his hands.

The result is famous shots such as the boy riding his scooter in The Shining(1980), and the ambitious Russian Ark (2002/3), a film that consists of one 96 minute-long take.


Digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLR) – 1969 (HD video in 2009)

The move from film and celluloid to digital cameras was a big one in cinema history, especially for amateur and budget filmmakers.

The ability to record onto memory cards and internal storage, and not use chemicals, saved on production costs and time. The compact nature of these cameras was also a plus for aspiring filmmakers, because setup times were reduced.

Since Nikon’s D90 (2009), the first DSLR to film at 24 frames per second (film standard) in HD video, the quality difference between digital and film has became minimal.

Each new model of DSLR further reduces that quality difference, indicating that digital cameras will overtake film cameras as the industry standard in the near future.

For proof of just how ingrained DSLR’s are in the industry check out this list of films shot in digital.

Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) – 1973

It’s hard to believe that there were once films with absolutely no CGI, but you have to go back 40 years to 1973, and the sci-fi Westworld, to find the first use of computer-generated imagery in film. Aptly it was a 2-D digital rendition of a robotic-cowboy’s vision… we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Its sequel Futureworld (1976) and Tron (1982), then introduced 3-D to the masses, and the rest is history. Science fiction and fantasy filmmakers rejoiced because they finally had the tools to visually depict the world and themes their characters explored.

Pixar created the first feature-length computer-animated movie in Toy Story (1995) and nowadays it’s more and more uncommon for films not to make use of CGI in one way or another, as it often saves on production costs.

A prime example where CGI would have been a cheaper option is in the infamous Kevin Costner would-be blockbuster, Waterworld (1995), where everything was built on a giant set rather than created in CGI… it only went over budget by US$75-million, a huge sum back in the day.

The internet – 1990s

The internet has to make this list because it has changed, and is changing the manner in which films are consumed and distributed, not to mention the types of films we watch and who is making them.

Instant access, worldwide distribution and everyone with a cellphone are now all players in the video-creation game. What was once a medium of the few – those who could afford the equipment – is now the most democratised (and sought-out) medium available. We all want video, and we want it now.

New formats (web shows, podcasts) and new ways of accessing video (streaming, downloading) means that the power has shifted from the industry to the consumers. It’s all very Romantic, and it pisses off the powers that be to no end.

The future

The industry has to realise that the medium is moving into an age of digitally made, and digitally distributed movies.

Not only must the industry adapt to find new ways of monetising digital consumption so that the legal ways of accessing films becomes more appealing than piracy, so must filmmakers, old and new, otherwise they run the risk of being left behind.

Technology is arguably having its most profound and pronounced effect on film in this day and age. It’s an exciting age in film history — the digital era.

Look, even Keanu Reeves agrees.

If you think we’ve left something out on this list that deserves to be there, or you’d like to share your thoughts on the next big tech innovation in film please let us know in the comments.

Notable mentions:

Multiple-camera setups

Non-linear editing

Cable television

Stereoscopic imaging (3D)

Motion Capture Technology



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