Film History Essentials: La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (1895)

(English: Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory)

What it’s about:

A wide gate stands open and several dozen people stream out, each going their separate ways to the left or right as they depart the factory. A small door next to the gate opens, and people emerge from that as well. Additional traffic includes a large carriage, a few people on bikes, and the occasional dog.

Why it’s essential:

It is December 28, 1895, and a ticket-holding Parisian audience has gathered in a basement room of the Grand Café known as “Le Salon Indien.” They are about to watch a program of 10 films that are both filmed with and projected by the Cinématographe (or “cinematograph”), a new invention of the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis. In an irresistibly poetic accident of history, their name means “Light,” and in the glow of the projector, their audience is spellbound as the first moving images, of a crowd of people leaving work, appear on the screen. It is the very first projection of a film for a paying audience in France. It is the birth of cinema. It changes everything.

Or at least so the story goes, though there are a few details missing from this telling. Charles Moisson (see right), chief mechanic at the Lumière factory, worked on the design with the brothers, and he was the one who built the first working model. He was also operating the projector at that first December show. (“Moisson,” incidentally, means “Harvest,” though he seems to have reaped very little of the credit that he was apparently due.)

We also know that this famous, momentous screening by the Lumière brothers was not as unprecedented as the hype that surrounds it would suggest. It was not the first device in the world to project a film for a commercial audience, but the third or fourth (that we know of). The brothers did not conceive of their idea out of nowhere, but were inspired to enter the field of motion picture exhibition by Edison’s kinetoscope. They even used the same dimensions of film and image. Chronophotography, of course, had existed for decades already. So can we truly call this the beginning?

I would say, if nothing else, we can call it the end of the beginning. No one can really say precisely when “the movies” were invented, or name anyone as the one person who deserves the credit for inventing them. But as far as I know, although you might get a lot of answers (or no answer) to the question of when movies came into existence, everyone agrees that by December 29, 1895, they did exist. Sometime between 1874 with the production of the first motion pictures that you can see in action (or perhaps some even earlier landmark!) and the Lumière’s first show, after 21-plus years of labor (pun intended) the movies were born.

And the Lumières’ first show does mark the birth of cinema, if for no other reason than that there was no such thing as “cinema” before there was a working “cinematograph.” Oh, and incidentally, to give the brothers their full due, I should note that although public commercial screenings of films had already taken place elsewhere in the world, the brothers gave a private screening of La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon on March 22. This was probably the first projection of a film for an audience anywhere in the world, almost exactly one month before the Eidoloscope was previewed for the New York press.

Plus, the cinematograph was quite a machine (see left). It was a camera, developer, and projector, all in one, and it only weighed about as much as a vacuum cleaner. It was powered manually, rather than by electricity, so it could go anywhere, and as a result it was soon going everywhere. At this point, if Edison wanted something on film, he still had to bring it to the set-up at the Black Maria. The Lumières could send their cameras where the action was. It’s not a mystery at all why they succeeded and were remembered, where so many others failed and fell into obscurity. (It also helps that virtually every film the Lumière brothers ever made, over 1400 of them, still survives today.)

Just as the Lumières were incited to action by Edison’s kinetoscope, the Lumières’ Cinématographe ignited the imaginations of many in their audience, some of whom would go on to play their own roles in film history. But for a few, it was life-changing in a different way. In a stunning example of unlucky timing, the Skladanowsky brothers had arrived in Paris on December 28 to prepare for their engagement at the Folies Bergère showing films with their bioscop projecter. Reportedly, the manager of the venue took them to the next Lumière showing, on the 29th, and then cancelled their booking. At least he still paid them in full.

With patent in hand, the Lumière brothers had France staked out as their legal territory for exhibition, but even if they hadn’t, there was no denying that their device was superior to the bioscop in virtually every way. The Skladanowsky brothers would just have to move on to their next booking, in London. Meanwhile, the cinematograph continued to thrill audiences in France. By the end of 1896, cinematographs had also delighted people throughout Europe and in North America, South America, Africa, and Asia. It was a global phenomenon, introducing the people of the world to the cinema.

Why you should see it:

There are actually three different versions of this film, and you can see all three in the video linked below, one after the other in the order they were made. One way you can tell them apart is by the number of horses that appear in each: one in the first version, two in the second, and none in the third. However, there are other elements that differentiate them.

The first one was filmed on March 19, 1895, just three days before it was shown at that first private screening. It was filmed as workers were leaving for lunch, and you can feel their sense of purpose as they march out. Notice the woman who hurries across the street just past the camera about 20 seconds in. These are people who have something to do and a limited amount of time to do it. They also seem completely oblivious to the camera’s presence.

The Lumière brothers, Auguste (left) and Louis (right)

For some reason, the Lumière brothers decided to remake La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon during the summer of 1895. It has been suggested that perhaps the negative was deteriorating on the first film, or perhaps they had made some improvements to their equipment and wanted that reflected in a film they intended to exhibit publicly. But I think there’s a better explanation.

Both the second and third versions were filmed on a Sunday, the workers’ day off, and they were called in to “perform” the act of leaving the factory. You may have wondered, as I did when seeing the last version for the first time, whether many of the workers had changed clothes after finishing their shift before leaving for home, because so many of them seem to be dressed in nice clothes, with dresses, suits, and hats that suggest leisure and fashion. Turns out, it was because they were in their Sunday best.

There are a few key things that set the second and third versions apart. First, in version two, the workers seem very self-conscious in a way that they didn’t in the first version. It doesn’t feel natural because it isn’t, and they don’t seem to know how to act naturally under the circumstances. Notice the woman on the right-hand side of the frame about 45 seconds in. She comes wandering forward almost in a daze, gazing off to her right, and then makes as if to walk that way. Suddenly she stops, seeming totally lost, then suddenly catches herself, grabs the hand of the woman who has come up next to her, and darts off in the opposite direction as though getting out of the shot as quickly as possible.

Somehow, the mood has completely shifted in the third version. The atmosphere feels festive. There is a spring in the workers’ step. Some talk animatedly to each other. Several appear to be smiling. Notice at about a minute and 26 seconds, a woman leans over and playfully grabs at another woman’s skirt before running away. A dog appears in all three films, but whereas in the first two it seems to be totally ignored by the people, in this version a man seems to be playing with it as he bounds through the gate.

Notice also how the first two films begin with the gates standing open, and there are still people exiting as the film ends. The third film begins much more cinematically, with the gates swinging open to reveal the exiting swarm of people. The last person exits and the gates begin to close behind them just as the film ends. This likely was pre-planned and timed, and may be why the horse-drawn cart that blocks off the entire entryway and snarls up the foot traffic in the first two films is absent from the third. Like Edison’s kinetograph, the cinematograph had a very limited recording time—about 50 seconds—so the entire action had to be accomplished within that limit in order to get the desired shot.

All of these clues point to deliberate choices and a filmmaker’s vision. If the original film was remade due to deterioration or merely to showcase improved equipment, there would have been no reason to call the workers in on their day off. They presumably left the factory twice a day, every day of the work week and could have easily been filmed doing so at any of those time. There also would have been no reason for the third version to apparently be made so soon after the second version that they hadn’t even had a chance to wear it out by screening it for any audience. Calling the workers in on Sunday had the added benefit of ensuring that everyone looked their best, which would be a boost for the factory’s image, and it would have allowed time to direct the “performances” along with the other elements of the scene.

I suspect that they made the second version with some of this in mind, but were dissatisfied with the results, and did it again, perhaps after some direction for the workers or even a practice run. And indeed, the third film was the one audiences saw in December. Watching these three versions back to back with those details in mind almost feels like witnessing the beginnings of learning how to make a film rather than simply point a camera at something as it happened. Of course, they did that, too. And though they weren’t the first to do it (that would probably be Louis Le Prince), they coined the term “Actualité” (or, “actuality”) to describe this genre of filming real events as they transpired. But it seems that, right from the beginning, they sometimes blurred the line between what was real and what was staged.


~ by Jared on February 10, 2023.

4 Responses to “Film History Essentials: La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (1895)”

  1. […] La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon […]


  2. […] “staged” in some way, including some that don’t appear to be, like the version of La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon that appears on this program. All of Edison’s films by this point were, quite literally, […]


  3. […] of the program, the films that simply point a camera at an ordinary scene on a city street or at a factory entrance, represent a genre that had only a brief future in commercial filmmaking (though some might regard […]


  4. […] distance between the camera and the subject. With one or two (very noticeable) exceptions, the workers leaving the Lumière factory turn right or left and come no closer than several yards away from the camera. Even the […]


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