Junior Moviegoers Academy: Introducing Elementary-Age Kids to Film History II

Last time, we talked about instilling a love of movies and using kids’ familiarity with animation as a foundation for explaining the illusion that is the basis of motion picture technology. This time, we’re gearing up to travel through time. But first, now that we know what movies are, it’s time to discover how they happened.

Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.

Lesson 2: The Invention of the Movies

This is where the real Film History part begins. And, like a lot of histories, there’s a lot of confusion about exactly where film history itself begins. No one person “invented” the movies in any meaningful sense. What we think of as film arose across decades of technological innovation and evolution that was happening all over the world. Because of that, it would be really easy to get bogged down in detail, which is the absolute last thing we need in this case. So, how to proceed?

If you aren’t familiar with Crash Course, it’s an educational YouTube channel launched by writer John Green in 2011. At this point, it has series of short, highly-engaging videos covering over 40 different subjects. Their Film History series was created in 2017 in partnership with PBS Digital Studios, and it provides an excellent framework for how to cover the era from the beginnings of motion photography through the first feature films.

Of course, grade-schoolers are not the intended audience here. These videos are geared towards high-school or college-age students. It’s not that they’re inappropriate for younger children in general (though they do occasionally use examples from films your kids probably aren’t old enough to watch), but they’re relatively fast-paced so there are always a few points where that amounts to a wave of names and terms that will probably just wash right over your elementary student. And that’s fine. Our goal here is not to memorize names and dates or be able to list all the differences between a kinetoscope and a cinématographe. This is about broad strokes. They don’t have to remember who Eadweard Muybridge was to get how a series of tripwires tied to cameras produced an early motion study of a galloping horse.

Having said that, part of what’s going to make those key points take root is a spiral approach. I found multiple relevant videos that I liked, and there is a lot of overlap between them (this is actually ideal), but each also offers a little something unique. “The First Motion Picture Ever Made” posted by Yestervid is a very short video that repeats the story of Muybridge’s horserace photography, but also actually shows the illusion it produced. Think of it as running a highlighter through a key point from the longer video.

“The Very First Motion Picture (1889)” posted by KKD1247 once again discusses Muybridge (and shows another of his motion studies), but is mostly about Thomas Edison. It describes and shows his “Monkeyshines,” the very first “film” shot in the United States. This is a good transition to our next important figure.

“The Kinetoscope” from AmericanExperiencePBS is excerpted from their Edison documentary. It does a really great job of describing the significant technical challenges that Edison and William Dickson had to overcome in order to create their motion pictures. It shows lots of clips from Edison’s many short films, and discusses how they were exhibited to audiences of one person at a time. All of this pre-loads some of the key information from the next lesson.

All told, the above collection of videos runs under 20 minutes, which is a great length for a weeknight. At this point in the story, “movies” still don’t really exist. Beyond the technical challenges that haven’t been completely solved, no one has fully connected this emerging technology with the idea of a dedicated production of mass entertainment for profit that we would come to know as The Movies. The kinetoscope is sort of the beginning of that, but it’s more like if you had to go stand in line in order to watch television through a peephole, and even then all of the programs were less than half a minute long (but no commercials!)

To wrap up, here’s a playlist of 85 of Edison’s early films posted by the Library of Congress. To really give your kids a sense of the experience, start the playlist running on your smartphone and stick it in the bottom of a shallow box, then close it up and have them take turns watching through the slit in the top. (If you have some kind of VR technology, I suppose that could work as well, but it’s not quite in the spirit of the thing.) There’s a certain novelty to this, even today, especially since each film is so short and you never know what sort of image is going to pop up next. Will it be cats boxing? A pillow fight? A Japanese dance? You might just be surprised by how long this holds their attention. I was! Pretty soon my kids got tired of taking turns (shock) and figured out a position where they could each fit one eye to the hole if their heads were side-by-side. Watching movies like it’s 1894!

Lesson 3: The Lumiere Brothers’ Reel Life

We begin this lesson by looping back to review and expand the last lesson’s brief introduction of Edison’s innovations in film. Crash Course Film History #2 describes how Edison and Dickson came to develop the Kinetoscope, what it was like to watch movies on it (of course, we’ve already gotten a taste of that . . . be sure to apologize to your kids for not selling refreshments while they waited their turn to peek inside the box), and the methods and limitations of film production using this technology. And, of course, there are several clips from Kinetoscope films interwoven throughout.

And now it’s time for two major innovations that we haven’t seen yet: Movies that are longer than an animated gif, and movies that were made to be projected for an audience. Crash Course Film History #3 is mostly focused on the Lumiere Brothers, but it spends relatively little time on their actual films. Little eyes might start to glaze over during the last couple minutes as he throws out a bunch of names of inventors and their various technologies without a huge amount of explanation or illustration. That’s okay, there’s excitement ahead!

What I want to zero in on for the remainder of this lesson is this idea of actualités, “slices of everyday life.” The appeal of these sorts of films doesn’t exist for us in the same way as it did for contemporary audiences. I’m not going to go to a theater and watch 10 minutes of someone filming out of the back of their car as they drive through town. For audiences at the time, these commonplace sights were made new through the sheer novelty of seeing even familiar images captured in one place and then reproduced somewhere else through the magic of technology. But there is a novelty for us as well; the technology is now commonplace, but the sights are not. I submit that some of these movies are the closest thing to time travel that actually exists.

These are pieces of film from the very dawn of motion picture photography that perfectly capture a moment in time and transmit it across a gulf of over a century for us to witness today. It is literally like looking through a window into the past, watching people who died long before we were born go about their everyday lives, totally unaware that they are being immortalized to be viewed by the great-great-great grandchildren of their contemporaries via technology that is beyond their wildest imaginings. I find this endlessly fascinating.

I definitely recommend watching a bunch of these. I begin with this collection of 7 of the Lumiere Brothers’ films, all produced in 1895-1896, posted by YouTube user Siyanure. This clip contains: Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory, The Photographical Congress Arrives in Lyon, Baby’s Meal, The Sprinkler Sprinkled, The Card Game, The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, and Demolition of a Wall. Do not watch these in silence. Point things out and describe what you’re seeing, and invite your kids to do the same. Note how people are dressed, and how so many men seem to be wearing the same straw hat. Draw particular attention to “The Sprinkler Sprinkled.” Unlike the other films, this one isn’t an actualité. It’s the earliest known instance of a fictional story on film, as well as the first known film comedy.

I also recommend showing this clip of “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” posted by Denis Shiryaev, even though we’ve just watched it and it was featured in Crash Course. This is one you’ll want them to remember. Also, Shiryaev is one of a number of people online using AI algorithms to upscale old films to 4k and 60 FPS, and he’s also added ambient sound. In general I’m skeptical of anything that smacks of a Turner-esque “colorization” of classic films, but this is a pretty incredible process that brings out a stunning level of detail. And I really believe that it can help approximate for a younger viewer what this experience might have been like for the original audience. If you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s incredible work in They Shall Not Grow Old, you know how effective this sort of thing can be. In this instance, it’s not an effort to make a classic film more palatable to a modern audience by clumsily updating it. Rather, I think it breathes even more life into the historical scene before us. I think this is so cool.

I think it’s a good idea to expand out a bit beyond the Lumiere Brothers, as well. The video below has definite traces of clickbait about it. They ask upfront for the viewer to “like and subscribe” and they incorrectly refer to old film as “video” right there in the title. The video’s thumbnail features a rather salacious shot from the notorious “After the Ball” (1897), but don’t worry, that film does not actually appear at any point. Aside from those missteps, though, this compilation is a solid collection of 12 different clips ranging from 1874 to 1911. A few are clips we’ve watched already, but what I particularly like about it is the narration. Despite a few indications to the contrary, it’s actually quite good and provides some details about the history of what we’re seeing that I wouldn’t have been able to provide.

Finally (?), I’ve included one of my all-time favorite pieces of film: “A Trip Down Market Street” (1906). The previous video features about 40 seconds of it, but the whole thing is well-worth watching. Seriously, anytime I stumble across this film, I just get totally lost in it. I’ve watched it over and over. And Denis Shiryaev has given it the same treatment as the “Arrival of a Train” above. In this one, he does spend the first couple of minutes talking about his process, so if that bothers you, you can mute it or find a different clip, but I find it very interesting.

Also, as with the other clips, I encourage you to do a lot of talking yourself. Point out how chaotic the street seems. Automobiles and horse-drawn wagons weave in and out of lines of trolley cars, often seeming to just narrowly miss a collision, and pedestrians brush right up against vehicles as they cross. Children dart around, mug for the camera, and hitch rides on passing vehicles. This film was actually taken only 4 days before the catastrophic 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and at the very end, Shiryaev edits in footage from the same street taken immediately after, so we can see the scale of the destruction. It’s an incredible journey.

The length of all of these clips combined comes to about 50 minutes, but if you have time and are so inclined (or, you know, if your kids are) there’s a lot more out there. Shiryaev has given this treatment to several similar films from this period. I particularly recommend “A Trip Through New York City” (1911). There’s also some good work on the channel “Nineteenth century videos. Back to life.” Your kids might really enjoy “Kids in Lumiere Films 1896” (though, fair warning, some of the sound work on this isn’t great). There’s a whole rabbit hole here for anyone interested in tumbling down it.

In the meantime, hopefully you’ve been able to share some of the fascination of how very early cinema can give us an incomparable glimpse of life in another time. It’s something I never get tired of experiencing. Still, we haven’t yet encountered a true “filmmaker” with a vision of the vast possibilities of motion pictures as an artform. Something to look forward to . . .

Next Time: Movies and Storytelling

~ by Jared on November 30, 2020.

2 Responses to “Junior Moviegoers Academy: Introducing Elementary-Age Kids to Film History II”

  1. […] Next Time: Motion Pictures Are Invented […]

  2. […] and how I used their experiences with animated movies to teach them about how motion pictures work. I continued last week describing how we explored the invention of the earliest motion picture technology, the […]

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