At one point or another, we’ve all asked the question: what was the first movie ever made? Was it the one with the train robbery? Was it the one where the moon had a face? Both The Great Train Robbery (1903) and A Trip to the Moon (1902) were early examples of movies, but neither was the first one. We’re going to answer the ever-so-elusive question to “what was the first movie ever made?” by placing it in historical context. By the end, you’ll know what the first movie ever made was and some fun facts about the early years of film.
What Was the First Movie Filmed?
Early photographic techniques
Before we jump into our analysis of the first movies ever made, let’s quickly review the historical context that led to their creation.
In 1825, French inventor Nicéphore Niépce captured the oldest surviving “fixed” photograph by channeling light through a camera obscura into a pewter block coated with bitumen. Whew, that’s a lot. Here’s the oldest surviving photograph in all its glory:
It may seem benign by modern standards, but at the time, Niépce’s work was revolutionary. View from the Window at Le Gras set the stage for fifty years of photographic experiments, resulting in great works from Louis Daguerre, William Henry Fox Talbot, and more.
What Was the First Ever Movie Made?
The Horse in Motion (1878)
By 1878, photographers had mastered the art of photographing images on fixed metal plates. But some asked: what if there was a way to photograph images in motion?
Motion pictures are all about tricking our eyes; taking images and projecting them fast enough to appear as if they’re moving. Oddly enough, the first motion picture produced was commissioned to settle a bet about whether or not horses galloped with all four hooves off the ground — English photographer Eadweard Muybridge was given the task by former California Governor Leland Stanford.
Check out a quick video on Muybridge and his breakthrough film The Horse in Motion below.
Eadweard Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion is widely cited as the first movie ever made — but was it the first movie ever made? Well, yes, but perhaps not in the way you think. The Horse in Motion was initially a series of photographs; it didn’t turn into a motion picture until 1880, when Muybridge began projecting it onto a zoopraxiscope disc.
For more on the zoopraxiscope, check out the video below.
If we’re judging “movie” by its dictionary definition, The Horse in Motion was the first movie ever made. You might be thinking “okay I get that, but what was the first movie ever made really?” And that’s a fair question. So, without further ado, let’s move on to movie #2.
When Did Movies First Come Out?
Roundhay Garden Scene (1888)
French artist and inventor Louis Le Prince did more to develop movies than almost anybody in the history of film. The only reason most people haven’t heard his name is because he mysteriously disappeared before showing his movies to the masses.
In 1888, Le Prince produced a few short films (the first of their kind). And when I say short, I mean short. Like as in two seconds short. Check out his most iconic film, Roundhay Garden Scene, below.
Crazy right? It seems funny now, but at the time Le Prince’s work was awe-inspiring. Le Prince’s filmmaking process inspired thousands – including Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers – to research motion pictures. If you want to see something truly crazy, check out this restoration of Roundhay Garden Scene from Denis Shiryaev.
Shiryaev says he used artificial intelligence and neural networking to stabilize and color the film – and boost it to 60 frames-per-second. It’s possible that AI will soon be able to restore damaged films autonomously.
First Movie in the World and Beyond
Legacy of the first movies ever made
The legacy of the first movies ever made live on in every part of cinema – but the works of Muybridge and Le Prince have been largely overshadowed by the works of Thomas Edison, Georges Méliès, and the Lumiere Brothers. To put in other terms, Muybridge and Le Prince may have gotten to the finish line first, but they were at a race with few spectators and even less reporters.
Ten years after their race, Edison, Méliès, and the Lumieres competed in their own race with ten times the spectators and twenty times the reporters.
Here are a couple of other films that are often erroneously credited as “the first movie ever made.”
A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902)
A Trip to the Moon wasn’t the first movie ever made. Heck, it wasn’t even Méliès’s first movie. Méliès started making movies in 1896! So why do people consider A Trip to the Moon the first movie ever made? Well, because it’s the film most scholars tell students to watch to learn about Méliès. And since Méliès is regarded by some as “the first filmmaker,” it’s natural for people to think A Trip to the Moon was the first movie ever made. It wasn’t. But it makes sense why people would think it was.
Here’s a great video on Méliès and his amazing impact on cinema.
A Trip to the Moon was a landmark film for French cinema. Now that we’ve reviewed why it was so important, let’s take a look at the American film that’s often incorrectly termed the first movie ever made.
THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903)
The Great Train Robbery is mandatory viewing for every American history course. The film symbolizes turn-of-the-century American-life from social upheaval to technical achievement, perhaps better than any source of its era.
You can watch the entire 13+ minute film below thanks to The Library of Congress.
So, why do people think The Great Train Robbery was the first movie ever made. Well, probably because they saw it in school; maybe they heard a teacher refer to it as “the oldest movie ever made” and ran with it. Who’s to say for certain?
But if one thing’s for certain, it’s that The Great Train Robbery has had an enormous influence on cinema. Martin Scorsese revered the film so much that he paid homage to it with the final shot of Goodfellas.
Over time, the truth is often muddled. But now you know, the first movie ever made was Eadweard Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion. The works of Louis Le Prince, Thomas Edison, the Lumiere Brothers, and Georges Méliès were all important – but they weren’t the first.
What is Persistence of Vision?
Did you know that there’s a term used to define the trick that convinces our eyes to see moving images? It’s called persistence of vision – and it’s perhaps the greatest trick ever pulled. Up next, we explore how artists and animators use knowledge of persistence of vision to trick the human eye in exciting ways.