Motion Picture Cameras - A Brief History

Motion picture cameras are also commonly referred to as movie cameras, film cameras, and cine-cameras. While the original, basic camera only took a single snapshot at a time, the motion picture camera works by taking a series of pictures and playing them in a sequence at a set speed. This speed is so fast that the human eye cannot detect the lapse and it generates the illusion of motion. Five years ago the digital movie camera more-or-less replaced the film-based camera which has for many decades served as the resource for capturing movies.

According to some sources there is debate surrounding the invention of the first motion picture camera. This is primarily due to the fact that, within the first couple of years, a few different people came out with the idea and it is still argued as to which person actually came up with the invention first. One thing is certain, however, and that is that this all happened more than a century ago in the late 1800s.

Thomas Edison is believed by many to be the first inventor—sort of. As the story goes, Thomas Edison's Scottish assistant and fellow inventor named William Kennedy Laurie Dickson was the original designer, not the famous Edison himself. Dickson is believed to have invented a machine called the Kinetograph in the year 1889. There are some mixed opinions about this date, but the name and function of the machine are generally agreed upon. The Kinetograph was a camera powered by an electric motor and capable of photographing moving images by way of a shutter system. The machine was brilliantly made. It worked so that each frame stopped long enough to be fully exposed and then, as soon as it was, it would move rapidly to the next frame. It used the new spocketed film to capture its images.

Other people give credit to a Frenchmen named Louis Le Prince who, at around the very same time, also came up with his own evident invention for the same purpose. As the legend goes, before he had actually succeeded in building a camera which could capture motion, he had built and patented a 16 lens camera. This was how the project began, and this first camera worked with an electromagnet shutter which triggered the first 8 lenses, moving the film forward, and then the following 8 lenses would proceed. After about two years of hard work and learning from failures he developed a single lens camera which he would use to shoot Leeds Bridge and Roundhay Garden.

There was yet another Frenchmen named Louis Lumiere who is also, sometimes, given the credit for making the first such camera. He is reportedly responsible for designing a machine known as the Cinematograph which was a portable-motion picture camera. It was a film processor and projector.

This period of time was known for many inventors who were working on the possibility of a camera which could capture motion, so it seems it had developed in several different forms. To backtrack somewhat, William Lincoln invented the first patented machine in the U.S. which displayed animated pictures and this was in the year 1867, but this was slightly different from other later inventions. William Friese-Greene and Eadweard Muybridge are a couple of other individuals who took part in inventing a camera-like mechanism, but who also fell just a little short of the objective or missed the right time.

The Progression of the Motion Picture Camera

These first machines were drastically different from the cameras we use today. These first were heavy, awkward, and of course they played images in black and white and were unable to film in the quality or length of time that we now can with the modern camera. These first cameras produced extremely short films that were only seconds long. As time went on adjustments and improvements were made in regards to the quality and usability of the machines.

Emanuel Goldberg was an inventor of the 20th century who made some of these improvements. He designed a camera called Kinamo, which, loosely translated from the Greek and Latin means “I love movies.” This camera, made in 1921, was quite compact and a couple of years after its birth a spring motor attachment was added to it. It was used for the purpose of making amateur or semi-professional movies.

While the Kinamo was 35 mm, the 8mm camera was invented by Bell and Howell in 1934. The film for this light-weight camera came in a plastic cassette. This was another improvement, as it allowed people to load the camera in the daylight.

The 1950s and 1960s saw cameras which were powered by way of clockwork motors. These cameras could operate for 30-90 seconds depending on whether or not the device had a geared drive. This time also saw an improvement on lenses, some of which had more than one which had varying focal lengths and apertures. The Standard 8 was the film used for these cameras.

In 1965 the Super 8 camera was released by Kodak. This slightly revolutionized the old way of filming as it introduced a new film format. Not only did this new camera use cassettes, making it easier for the process of changeover and developing, it could also produce sound. Before long this type of camera became increasingly popular as the price was driven down. This was a hand-held camera that many families used to make home movies.

1983 marks the date of the first camcorder which the general public could utilize. These camcorders used a magnetic tape cassette so that there was no longer a need for the camera-recorder cable. In 1983 JVC made another big leap by introducing the first VHS format camera.

There were a range of different companies in the 80s which began to bring compact video cameras to the recording scene. Some of these companies included Sony, JVC, RCA, and Panasonic. They continued to compete with one another over the next couple of decades, ever trying to make filming easier and better in quality. Of course, this eventually lead to today's digital recording devices.

Professional Motion Picture Cameras

As technology increases the distinction between professional cameras and consumer cameras becomes more and more vague. In reality the term “professional camera” is even becoming somewhat subjective. The primary difference between professional cameras and consumer cameras is the control one has over their image. Studio cameras are commonly used on movie sets and they stand on the floor, and these are what commonly comes to mind when many hear the phrase “professional movie camera.” 

The height of these cameras is adjusted with hydraulic or pneumatic mechanisms and when these cameras are used alongside one another they are controlled by a device called a camera control unit. There are also such things as proprietary IMAX cameras. These are unique cameras which are made specifically for the IMAX screen and they possess the highest resolution of any camera in the world. Thus, the image can expand the full length of the IMAX screen and be seen with clarity. Is uses custom lenses and 70 millimeter film.