Movie studio

A film studio is a building intended for the manufacture of cinematographic or television films whose sets, because invented for the circumstance, or existing but not adapted to a shoot, are built in this vast place, mostly soundproofed, and equipped complex electrical apparatus and tools for illuminating the tray (s) .


In 1891 , the inventor and American industrialist Thomas Edison developed, after many tests, the first film camera, the Kinetic , with the decisive help of his assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson . The films shot with this camera are presented to the public through an individual viewing machine, the Kinetoscope . “The tapes filmed by Dickson are, strictly speaking, the first films 1 . ” To save these films, Dickson and Edison adopt the flexible film in cellulose nitrate (celluloid), invented by John Carbutt in 1887, and marketed in 1888 by the industrialist George Eastman (Kodak) in the form of rolls 70 mm wide. They cut the rolls in half lengthwise, creating the size 35 mm as we know it today, with a double set of four rectangular perforations Edison. In 1893 , considering the interest that his films meet (it is Edison who, first, chooses the English word ”  film “To designate his rolls of impressed film), the manufacturer decides to open Kinetoscope Parlors, rooms where several machines offer so many different programs to a popular public who enters by paying a flat fee of 1 quarter (1/4 of a dollar or 25 cents ).

To power the kinetoscopes, Dickson, who is the first director in the history of cinema, filming dozens of films, and he made manufacture in West Orange , New Jersey , not far from New York , a small room destined to protect the shotsrain and wind, and the curiosity of the neighborhood: the first studio in the history of cinema. This modest construction is made of lightweight materials, wood and tarred paper. Its roof opens wide to let in the sun, essential for shooting. The studio is placed on a circular rail and it can be oriented to benefit the best of the natural light. It is powered by a power line because the kinetograph is driven by a motor. This building, Edison designated as “Kinetographic Theater” is colloquially known as ”  Black Maria  ” by staff who diverts the nickname vans of the NYPD, black and uncomfortable 2 . About seventy films are made inside the Black Maria, from 1893to 1895 3 . At the time, and until the threshold of the years 1900 , the duration of the films, that they are realized by Dickson, Louis Lumière , Georges Méliès or Alice Guy , does not exceed 1 minute . The modern notion of short film is therefore not applicable to these films because it is based on a definition of the great film, the feature film , which will appear only a few decades later. Only the luminous pantomimes of Émile Reynaud , the first cartoons of the cinema, painted directly on a non-photosensitive film of 70mm wide (made of squares of gelatin protected by a layer of shellac, connected together by strong and flexible cardboard), and projected on a big screen, exceed this duration, ranging from90 seconds to 5 minutes .

The first film studio in France, designed by Georges Méliès in 1897.

In 1896 , the international success of Louis Lumière’s films persuaded Thomas Edison to hastily design a projection apparatus and lighten the kinetograph in order to achieve outside documentary views similar to those of the French director. The electric motor is abandoned, a crank, in imitation of the Cinematograph , now entails the mechanism. The Black Maria is deserted 4 .

In 1897 , Georges Méliès began making fiction films in which fantasy and fantasy came together. First of all, he is a stage man, and he adopts, in turn, traditions borrowed from the music hall  : the construction of sets and the manufacture of dummy props. He builds in his property in Montreuil , near Paris, the first film studio in France: a studio 17 meters by 66, whose glass roof culminates at six meters from the ground. This film studio design, all glazed, is spreading around the world. Thus, Edison replaces the Black Maria with a glazed studio modeled on that of Méliès, but with much larger dimensions.

However, outdoor studios are long the most numerous because they have the advantage of being inexpensive. Thus, on the roofs of buildings, many films are shot, taking advantage of the full light. A painted canvas stretched in the background, a carpet to dress the cement, a table and a chair, enough to serve as a backdrop to different stories that use the same accessories as the previous shoot. The decor nevertheless has the disadvantage of fluttering with the wind or when the actors move, defect little noticed at the time [ref. necessary] . In Philadelphia , Siegmund Lubin produces films on roofs of buildings 5 , in Brooklyn , the Biograph, Which now officiates Laurie Dickson, even installs a system identical to that of the Black Maria: a circular rail to guide the décor facing the sun 6 .

In France, the House Pathé-brothers begins its meteoric rise, which will make it before the Great War , the most powerful production companies in the world, which, in 1903, even dares to face the Eastman trust by creating its own chain film making 7 , while turning his films “on a platform erected in open air on barrels 8 …” It is to take up the tradition of the theater, one of the oldest, that of the Commedia dell’arte and the performance trays .

In the 1900s , in the United States, the cinema is the work of a handful of decided men. In addition to Thomas Edison and his flourishing industry, Edison Manufacturing Company, in addition to the four founders of the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company (KMCD group: Koopman, Marvin, Casler and Laurie Dickson, Edison’s defector), other characters, could be described as adventurers, as their careers are amazing, become motors of the film industry. Georges Sadoul , the historian of world cinema, gives a colorful description: ”  Carl Laemmle was a German emigrant. He worked for twenty years in a modest garment company in Oshkosh , Wisconsin) … The cinema made the fortune of the dyer Fox , who became a bankrupt clown, the shopkeeper Marcus Loew , owner of the Penny Arcades , the Hungarian Zukor , former trader of rabbits furrier established, and the four brothers Warner , repairers of bicycles settled in Newcastle , Pennsylvania , disembarked from their native Poland 9 . ”

In 1910 , the first film shoot in Hollywood , a town near Los Angeles , where the predominantly sunny climate allows filming throughout the year. The presence of several waves of immigrants offers the opportunity to engage many extras for films taking place around the world. The varied landscapes of the surroundings are also a definite asset. This is DW Griffith comes first in Hollywood with In Old California, to turn the exteriors. The reception of the village is so warm that Griffith will write in his memories that this shoot had seemed to be a delicious weekend. The fashion takes, soon settle in Hollywood various American production companies, from the largest (the majors ) to the most modest ones. The first “studios” are in fact wilderness locations, where the usual backdrop is set. Very quickly, large areas of land were purchased, and glazed studios were built with velums to sift the sun’s rays. By abuse of language, the term “studios” becomes synonymous with “majors” which designates even today the most powerful American production companies.

The so-called “Hollywood” majors are not confined to the California sun , they keep a foothold in New York , where business is done and undone. Nothing replaces Hollywood as far as exteriors are concerned, but the adaptation of specific electric lighting in the studios of the 1920s favors their establishment in other cities of the United States. For the same reasons, in France, Pathé has a studio built in Joinville-le-Pont , another in Montreuil, and Gaumont prefers to stay in the capital, Buttes Chaumont .


A studio is a large enclosed shed, soundproof, having a large entrance to allow access of decorative elements, made in the annexes (joinery workshops, staff, paint) and assembled to the location needs sequences of ‘a film, located in a given setting, a setting that is called plateau. A studio can gather several independent buildings, which can receive as many trays. At the time of the silent cinema, several trays could be occupied in the same hangar by several filming teams arranged side by side, the noises emanating from each plateau did not disturb the neighbors, since the sound was not recorded.

Some studios are built on a pit (kind of pool) to activate aquatic special effects, with whirlpool machines. Most studios are permanently equipped with large and tall “cyclos”, a plain background that can be painted in the sky by day or night, or receive painted elements behind the “discoveries” of the decor (the openings through which we see another more distant decoration, in trompe l’oeil). These cyclos are now painted blue or green, to serve as clipping characters and accessories of the foreground, during the manufacture of digital effects (virtual sets for example).

The lighting is provided by floodlights installed above the stage, on a grill , identical to that of a theater, centralized by a control panel, a control room where each projector can be put into service or extinguished, and by any a series of standing projectors that are available according to the needs of each plan. The grill allows electricians to access each projector, to adjust and equip it (in color filters, for example). But more recently, it was preferred the command from the ground by long cranks, and more practical still, the control by servomotors, allowing grilles lighter and less bulky (not passable, that is to say without possibility of direct access by the electrician who must use a lift if necessary).

The studios still have huge reserves of accessories and costumes, as well as decorative elements, which can be taken from one film to the next, with modifications of detail. From the beginning, laboratories were set up in the studios’ real estate holdings, which only developed films produced by the house. Finally, offices, both administrative and artistic, completed and supplement their infrastructure today.

Nowadays, the majority of films are shot on stages that do not belong to the producers but are rented to specialized companies.

Notes and references

  1. ↑ Georges Sadoul, history of world cinema from its origins to today , Paris, Flammarion, 1968, 719 pages, p.  16
  2. ↑ Marie-France Briselance and Jean-Claude Morin, film grammar , Paris, New World Publishing, 2010 ( ISBN  978-2-84736-458-3 ) , 588 pages, p.  25
  3. ↑ Laurent Mannoni, “Glossary” in Libération special issue, p.  3 , supplement o  4306 of 22 March 1995, celebrating March 22, 1895, French year of the invention of cinema
  4. ↑ Georges Sadoul , history of world cinema from its origins to today , Paris, Flammarion ,, 719  p. p.  17
  5. ↑ ( in ) Charles Musser, “History of the American Cinema, Volume 1, The Emergence of Cinema, The American Screen to 1907,” Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, Collier Macmillan Canada, Toronto, Maxwell Macmillan International, New York, Oxford , Singapore, Sydney, 1990, ( ISBN  0-684-18413-3 ) , 613 pages, p.  284
  6. ↑ ( in ) Charles Musser, op. quoted, p.  172
  7. ↑ Georges Sadoul , history of world cinema from its origins to today , Paris, Flammarion ,, 719  p. p.  52-56
  8. ↑ Georges Sadoul, op. quoted, p.  48
  9. ↑ Georges Sadoul, op. quoted, p.  63

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