Cinema projection from its origins to the 1940s

After the successful development of the Lumière’s Cinematographe and other film projectors, cinema grew in popularity and became the leisure activity of choice for a great many people across the globe. And while people were amazed by the moving images, reports such as those above of reactions to the Lumières’ first screening were, it seems, somewhat exaggerated: Of course many people at the premiere were already familiar with projected images, and the following is the recollection of one William Riley, a British lantern slide manufacturer who was there: ‘there on a white screen of no great size I saw a railway-train draw up at the platform of a small country station. A few passengers left, and others entered the compartments, and the train went on. It was a thrilling experience, something entirely unprecedented, and the few who saw it found it miraculous’ (Sunset Reflections. London 1957, p.81, cited Bottomore 180). However, one Hélène Dieudonné, recalling the event in 1970 for Le Monde, went further than that and claimed that the audience was ‘not overwhelmed’ at all!

Riley’s and Dieudonné’s recollections suggest not only that not everyone was shocked and terrified by the train apparently coming towards them, but also that the screen onto which the Lumières projected their first films was really rather small. This is no surprise, really, as while large screens had since the eighteenth century been used for Panoramas and Dioramas – which relied on painted-on rather than projected imagery – magic lanternists did not use huge screens, as there were again technical issues that prevented clear projection of images onto especially large surfaces at the time.

As Hanson notes, initially ‘films were shown in any premises that could be converted through the erection of a simple screen and the provision of simple wooden benches’ (13). So while images in early cinema were often referred to as true-to-life, they were not always life-size. And although inventors did experiment with and develop ever-larger screens as time went on – with some spectacular results as early as 1900 – the fact that many early films were projected by itinerant showmen and in portable and temporary premises certainly added to the difficulties involved in using large screens at that time.

By the 1910s, though, the focus in Europe and North America had shifted to purpose-built buildings to meet ever-increasing demand of film-goers, so screens did start to get larger. The standard screen in most Nickelodeons was approximately ten to fifteen feet wide, but screens up to 24 by 18 feet were installed in larger theatres (Belton 35). These measurements seem to have been the norm for a number of years after the demise of the Nickelodeon in favour of more luxurious venues for film screenings – where although the building were larger, the emphasis was more on the peripheral frills and comforts of the venue than on large screen size.

A number of sumptuous and extravagantly decorated theatres were built all across the United States and Europe throughout the 1920s and beyond. So at least until the 1930s, the attractions of the cinema included not just the projected images and narrative tales, but the warmth and “escapism” offered by picture palaces, especially for working-class people who had very limited pleasures elsewhere or at home (Hanson 23-24; 66).

A number of fires blighted the huge success of early cinema, though, with one of the earliest occurring on 9th September 1896 at the Pearl Street Theater in Albany, New York, and others following – for instance on 14th June 1897 at the Eden Musee and on 5th September 1897 at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco. It seems that while very few – if any – fatalities resulted from these projector fires, the press latched onto this and tended to link any accidents at movie theatres with projection technology. This unsurprisingly incensed moving picture exhibitors, especially as the tendency carried on into the twentieth century.

On 16th January 1908, The Kinematograph & Lantern Weekly published an article about the “Barnsley incident” in which sixteen children died as a result of what newspaper headlines referred to as a “cinemtograph disaster” at the Harvey Institute. The article goes to some pains to explain that the deaths were not the result of the cinematograph at all, but of poor instructions to children looking for seats, some of whom were then crushed in the chaos. The author accuses newspapers of making unfounded links in readers’ minds between accidents at exhibition venues and the machinery of projected images, provides further examples of ‘an entirely erroneous impression’ being caused by such reporting, and argues that such ‘[m]isrepresentation has become so common that it threatens to harm the living picture showman’s business seriously’ and must be stopped (cited Herbert 12).

While information about the technology and fire hazards of early cinema is now readily available to any keen researcher, information about the screens onto which early films were projected is far harder to come by. Indeed, for much of the history of projected images, the wall or screen that displays the projections seems to have very little attention paid to it – it is just assumed to be there, and to be a simple part of the set-up, whether for magic lantern displays or celluloid film projection. In numerous books and articles detailing the architecture and internal designof many an early picture house and movie theatre, for instance, screens are barely mentioned. In an effusive 1910 article about the Ealing picture house, for example, the screen is referred to just once, even though it appears in the centre of the main image at the start of the several pages of text: One paragraph simply notes that ‘[t]he pictures themselves are steady and well projected,’ while ‘[t]he screen is 14 ft. by 12 ft., and is set in a beautifully finished proscenium’ (cited Herbert 16).

It is odd that comparatively little attention has been paid to projection screens. Not only does this seem to be an intriguing part of projection history, but the type and quality of the screen so clearly affects a film viewing experience in a number of ways. The clarity, brightness, colour and contrast of the image are all crucially important to many spectators – whether or not they are consciously aware of it – as is the absence of distracting imperfections such as visible seams or marks on a screen’s surface.

One source of information is businesses that have provided screens to picture houses since the early years of the twentieth century, such as Da-Lite and Harkness Screens. The latter, a British company founded in 1929 by Andrew Smith Harkness, saw an opportunity to ‘improve and standardise the visual experience’ offered by moving picture theatres by offering bespoke screens for them. In the late 1920s, ‘’cloth’ screens were fashioned from a cotton muslin type material which was webbed, eyeleted and stretched across wooden frames on the front wall of the auditorium,’ but these yellowed quickly due primarily to the amount of smoking that regularly took place in auditoria, and often less than impressive ventilation (A Robinson). As a result, screens tended to have to replace their cloth screens on a regular basis – or else lose trade as the images ‘struggled to compete with the nicotine coating’ (Ibid.).

Businesses such as Harkness Screens, though, managed to capitalise on this situation, and enterprising individuals like Tom Harkness developed business relationships with laundries who could wash the screens, and sold cinemas with the idea of having multiple screens so that they could have one laundered while another was in use. This sort of marketing created repeat business, of course – as did the shrinking usually engendered by repeated washes, where old, shrunken screens could be sold on to smaller theatres and re-used again!

In the 1940s, plastics started being used to make cinema screens in the United States, in an attempt to combat some of these problems. This practice soon spread to Europe, although the new material of course gave rise to new problems and challenges – not least of which was managing to make invisible seams. Methods such as Harkness’s patented Tearseal in England were developed, however, and plastic screens became the norm during the 1940s.

A major influence on screen technology development was the advent of sound in 1929, and the resulting scope for changes to be made to the very basic screens of cinema’s early years. Until the late 1940s, sound generally came from speakers placed next to screens. By the 1904s, however, screen perforations had been developed in the United States and soon spread across Europe. ‘Perforations of 1mm to 1.2mm in diameter and with a 5% “open area” are usually considered optimum for cinemas,’ according to Andrew Robinson, the current MD of Harkness Screens, who also notes that although better acoustics can be obtained by using smaller perforations, this is considerably more expensive to produce.

The issue of matt versus “gain” screens also arose after the initial excitement about moving pictures gave way to interest in ways to improve the quality of the projected images by developing screen as well as projection technologies. While matt white screens scatter light, gain screens direct a higher percentage of that light back at the audience, although the level of gain needs to be carefully controlled to avoid making the centre of the screen appear excessively bright. As Andrew Robinson explains, ‘[m]att white screens are best installed on flat frames,’ while ‘gain screens are best installed on curved frames to optimise the light return and viewing angles in different parts of the auditorium’.

In addition to these developments, various coatings for cinema screens were experimented with – from the starch and gum arabic mixture mentioned earlier for magic lantern projections, to the aluminium paint used to reflect more light thereby making screens seem brighter when using old carbon arc projectors (this paint being what gave rise to the term “silver screen”). More complex chemical coating solutions have been invented more recently, especially in response to the increase in interest in and use of 3-D screens, and of course to the different requirements of home cinema screens.

Continue to the post-war era and the widescreen phenomenon