cinema of attractions

est. 1895 – 1910s

The term “Cinema of Attractions” is one of the most intriguing and transformative concepts in the history of film studies. Coined by film scholar Tom Gunning, this concept emphasizes the early, thrilling, and often surprising qualities of film in its developing years.

Defining the Cinema of Attractions

This early form of filmmaking, prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was all about captivating and dazzling audiences through sheer spectacle and novelty. At its core, the Cinema of Attractions aimed to astonish and amuse rather than focusing on telling a complex story. These films were short, often just a few minutes long, and featured breathtaking stunts, optical illusions, and special effects. 

 

The Cinema of Attractions was all about creating a visceral experience. Audiences flocked theaters to witness the magic of moving images on a large screen for the very first time, and filmmakers took advantage of this curiosity to showcase their technical prowess.

 

Films of the time were often accompanied with live performances, music, and sound effects to heighten the sensory experience, making cinema an event to remember. These early films were a precursor to modern-day blockbuster spectacles, creating a sense of awe and excitement that remains a vital part of cinema.

GIF from A Trip to the Moon (1902) by Georges Melies
A Trip to the Moon (1902) by Georges Melies
GIF from The Great Train Robbery (1903) by Edwin S. Porter
The Great Train Robbery (1903) by Edwin S. Porter

Pioneers of the Cinema of Attractions

Early films were brief and often consisted of simple actions or visual spectacles, like a train approaching the camera in the famous Lumiere Brothers’ film “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” (1895). Audiences were astounded by these basic attractions.

 

Visionaries such as Georges Melies, celebrated for his groundbreaking masterpiece “A Trip to the Moon” (1902), took audiences on a captivating 14-minute odyssey, immersing them in a fantastical and visually mesmerizing expedition with a group of astronomers, and their ambitious quest to reach the surface of the Moon. The film’s pioneering use of effects, such as stop-motion animation, hand-painted color and double exposure, still captivates audiences today. Not only does it highlights Melies’ creative genius but also underscores humanity’s fascination with space.

 

Another notable figure in this era was Edwin S. Porter, who directed “The Great Train Robbery” (1903), a film that introduced continuity editing and paved the way for eventual narrative cinema. However, even in this narrative-infused film, elements of the Cinema of Attractions could be seen in its action sequences and thrilling train robbery scenes.

Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory (1895) by Louis Lumiere
Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory (1895) by Louis Lumiere
The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1897) by Lumiere brothers
The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1897) by Lumiere brothers

Moving Beyond Spectacle

The concept of the Cinema of Attractions gradually evolved into narrative cinema, with filmmakers like D.W. Griffith pushing the boundaries of storytelling in films like “The Birth of a Nation” (1915). However, the spirit of the Cinema of Attractions continued in various forms, such as theme park attractions and immersive cinema experiences.

 

In conclusion, the Cinema of Attractions, an often-underappreciated movement in history of cinema, played a pivotal role in shaping the art of filmmaking. Its legacy endures through contemporary cinema, influencing the ways filmmakers engage and astound their audiences. Understanding this unique era enriches our appreciation of the diverse and evolving landscape of cinema, where the spectacle remains as enthralling today as it was in the age of early film. Exploring the origins of cinema through this lens allows us to appreciate the evolution of the medium, and the excitement it continuously bring to viewers around the world.

Please refer to the Listed Films for the recommended works associated with the film movement.