History of projection screens

Written and researched by: Dr Samantha Holland

Graphics: Diego Israel Peralta Paredes

Visualisation of the history of projection screens
Click for a full size image

Editor: Otto Tromm

Kind support from: Matt Gatton, Henc



We can now watch films on laptops, TVs and even ipods, but cinema has since its inception in 1895 been defined as the projection of films onto a screen for a (usually paying) audience. This is of course why a projection screen is essential for those of us who want to enjoy “home cinema” – and why projection screens have throughout cinema’s history been crucial to people’s enjoyment of films.

But screens and projected images have a far longer history than cinema does. It might amaze you to find out that projection screens were in use by a number of travelling showmen in the 1600s, for instance – and before that, screens of various types captured the projections of camera obscuras, even as far back as pre-history… Yes, it’s true – even cavemen enjoyed what might be described as “home cinema”!

Caveman seeing a image projected onto the cave wall - the first natural projection screen

Natural camera obscuras

As multi-media artist Matt Gatton and others have argued, it’s highly likely that small holes in animal hides used by cavemen to cover cave mouths created – if only sometimes – natural camera obscuras which projected images onto the cave walls of these people’s dwellings. Indeed, Gatton challenges us to ‘Imagine… a Paleolithic person waking in the morning to find the image of animals walking around on the wall, the three-dimensional world reduced to two dimensions on a surface inside the tent’!

If you want to see what that could have looked like – including the projection on the wall – have a look at his site: http://www.paleo-camera.com/reconpage.htm

This idea is really not so incredible. A camera obscura is nothing more than a dark room or other space which has a tiny hole in one side through which light reflecting off an object outside the room projects an upside-down image of that object – and this would clearly have happened in a darkened space cut off from daylight by an animal hide put up to keep in the warmth. It also helps to make sense of early cave paintings since many of them were upside-down, and also seem to suggest movement and a sort of blurriness. Both these elements might well have come from mimicking camera obscura images projected onto cave walls.

While these first projection screens were not man-made, they were in many ways more like the home cinemas we have today than were many intervening inventions, precisely because of their status in darkened living spaces – spaces not so very different from the “man caves” created by many of today’s home movie enthusiasts!

However, those who did not have the luxury of a cave, would have had their first projection screen made of fabric. Though not intentionally, but through a coincindental camera obscura created by a small hole in their tent.

Below, you can see the reconstruction that Matt made and how the an image is projected onto the tent’s interior. Keep in mind that the image would have been upside down in the tent. The image is rotated 180 degrees to make it easier to understand what was projected inside.

A tent based camera obscura with the tent's interior functioning as a projection screen

Images used with the kind permission of Matt Gatton. See http://paleo-camera.com for more camera obscuras

While camera obscuras occur in nature, photography was developed as a result of observing the phenomenon and experimenting with it throughout history. And long before the development of lenses and cameras, philosophers puzzled over the peculiar qualities of projected images – associating them, as Plato does in The Republic in 360 BC, with an imaginary and mystical realm of experience, or as Aristotle does some decades later, with more “scientific” problems about light, shadow and images.

In these very early writings, the projection screen at issue seemed to be natural rather than man-made phenomenon – usually a cave wall or something of that ilk. However, Plato’s Republic does in most translations mention a “screen” similar to those used by “conjurers,” so it’s not impossible to imagine that shadow puppets might have been projected onto a screen as early as 360 BC.

The first projection screens for sure were used for shadow plays

Shadow plays

What is certain, is that around a thousand years before cinema was invented, in the eleventh century, the Chinese were projecting images of cut-out figures onto screens made from thin cloth and lit from behind. As Kao Ch’eng of the S’ung dynasty wrote:
In the time of Emperor Jen-tsung [r. 1023-63] of the Sung dynasty there were townsmen who excelled in telling tales of the Three Kingdoms, and someone adapted their stories, linking them up, and made shadow-men [ying-jen], the first of these being representations of the wars of Tripartite Division …of Wei, Shu, and Wu” (cited by Keith Rawlings, “Observations on the historical development of puppetry,” at http://www.sagecraft.com/puppetry/definitions/historical/index.html).

In fact, shadow plays – and so the screens on which they were projected – were widely used not only in China but across India, Indonesia, Turkey, Greece and other countries from at least as early as the eleventh century. This means that projection screens were a familiar site for many people long before the birth of cinema or even its technological precursors. There is, however, one key difference between shadow plays and cinematic projection: For shadow plays light is projected from behind the screen – from the opposite side of the screen to the audience – while for films, at least since the early 1900s, projection takes place from the same side of the screen as the audience. Another difference is that while the first man-made screens in Europe and the Americas seem to have been fashioned from bed-sheets and canvas, projectionists in India and China apparently favoured saris and lengths of silk!

Picture of the camera obscura - making the wall a projection screen

Camera Obscuras

While man-made camera obscuras were in regular use in the 1500s and 1600s, the first written mention of a camera obscura was made by Chinese philosopher Mo-Tzu in the fifth century BC, who ‘formally recorded the creation of an inverted image formed by light rays passing through a pinhole into a darkened room’ which he called ‘a “collecting place” or the “locked treasure room”’ (cited from Jack and Beverly Wilgus’s website, “The magic mirror of life,” at http://brightbytes.com/cosite/what.html).

Much later, and in far more detail, Basrah-born scholar and scientist Alhazen (Abu Ali al-Hasan Ibn al-Haitham, c.965–1039 BC) provided a full account of how the camera obscura works, and developed his observations to produce a scientific explanation for the process of vision. His works were translated into Hebrew, Latin and European languages at least until the fifteenth century, so it’s likely that some of the other scientists I mention read his early work on optics. Perhaps the most widely acknowledged early written description of a camera obscura, though, is by none other than Leonardo Da Vinci, who clearly described them in his notebooks from 1490.

Spectators of camera obscura shows would sit in a darkened room, while the bright sunshine outside was provided only one tiny point of entry through a small hole behind them. To their amazement, they would see not just light on the white sheet hung at the front of the room, but a clear reproduction of the scene outside the room – and then, very often, actors performing a play with a musical accompaniment. All of this would be in colour, with moving figures, just as in real life – the only difference being that it would all be projected onto the screen upside-down.

While this wasn’t the projection of films onto a screen, it was the projection of moving images, and so surprisingly close to our contemporary experience of watching a film. This is truly remarkable when you realise we’re talking about events that took place nearly 500 years ago, and some 300 years before the invention of cinema – even if the images were upside-down!

Problems with projecting images upside-down in the sixteenth century, it turned out, were at least two-fold: First, it reportedly often resulted in causing spectators to run away screaming, which was hardly good for business. And second – far worse – some showmen were charged with sorcery and ‘hauled into court’ for it by Pope Paul V (Clee 3). There’s doubtless nothing like the threat of the Inquisition to get one experimenting with mirrors and lenses!

If not for religious reasons, Da Vinci was also frustrated and concerned that the camera obscura projected images upside-down, grappling with what this meant for the human eye and its mechanics. He ultimately proposed that the eye has multiple lenses to reverse the inversion of the image, and this idea was picked up on by the physicist Girolama Cordono in 1550, when he suggested the addition of a lens to the camera obscura to correct its projection. But it was scientist and showman Giovanni Battista della Porta (c.1535–1615) who suggested the use of a mirror to correct the image projected by camera obscuras.

However, while in 1570 a scholar named Daniel Barbaro improved the camera obscura still further by adding an adjustable diaphragm to its aperture, it’s unclear from the sources whether anyone actually implemented ideas to combat the upside-down projection before 1609: At that time, though, astronomer Johannes Kepler added lenses that rectified the image and projected it the right way up on a screen. Finally, then, from 1609 images projected by camera obscuras really were true-to-life when they hit the screen, right way up!

Continue to the next era in projection screen history: magic lanterns