If I had to claim one area of development that signified the importance of cinema studies in the last two decades of the twentieth century, I would argue for the work done on early cinema. Film history once skipped quickly from the Lumière/Méliès distinction to The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915), but following the Brighton Conference in 1978 (1), film scholars started to open up important questions on the stylistic and industrial breadth of international cinemas, and the social context in which the cinema functioned during its first two decades. A wave of revisionist histories appeared to replace the preconceptions that had come from our reliance on the same old secondary sources. Film history courses put aside their copies of Lewis Jacobs and Terry Ramsaye and started reading new work by Charles Musser and Richard Abel based on primary sources (2).

We got to know the glorious richness of nitrate, and archives suddenly became vital places to be as work increased on the preservation, restoration and identification of films that had been sadly neglected. Although the vast majority of films made in the early period have not survived, we now have thriving film festivals such as Pordenone (and, increasingly, Bologna) that devote themselves to exhaustive retrospectives of early cinema. Archivists, academics and devotees descend on these festivals every year and eagerly sit for hours, feasting on everything that survives from a national cinema or a particular filmmaker. On the academic front, Domitor is now into its third decade as an international association for scholars researching and publishing in this area.

While every job that is advertised in media departments these days seems to be for a specialist in Digital Media, to my mind the mark of a good screen studies program is still some degree of emphasis on the period when cinema was coming into being. As someone who teaches people who aspire to be filmmakers, I find it invaluable to deal with a period where the question, “How do I deal with this new thing called cinema?” had the same kind of vitality and urgency as it does today for young people for whom filmmaking is still a new thing, a thing they are discovering. Questions about how to construct and manipulate time and space continue to have a freshness for each new generation where people wonder where to put a camera, how to make a cut come off, how to think through the connections between what filmmakers do, how audiences watch, and all the intermediate contexts that structure these transactions.

Which is a long-winded way of getting to Richard Abel’s Encyclopedia of Early Cinema. With 789 pages, over 950 entries and 138 contributors, it is a reference book that commands respect on anyone’s shelf, and I’m proud to have it sitting next to my copy of Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia (3). The Encyclopediaof Early Cinema first appeared in 2005, and has recently been issued in paperback for the first time, with minor amendments and additions. The list of contributors contains many who have specialised in this period: Ben Brewster, Paolo Cherchi Usai, Thomas Elsaesser, André Gaudreault, Tom Gunning, Roberta Pearson, Kristin Thompson. Some of the contributors have reputations for specialising in the history of national or regional cinemas (Yuri Tsivian for Russia, Ana López for South America, Zhang Zhen in China, Ina Bertrand for Australia).

One of the first questions to pose of any encyclopaedic reference is: how easy is it to find what you are looking for? The primary means of classification within the text is alphabetical, though there is a thematic entry list at the start of the volume that lays out all of the entry headings listed under thematic groupings, with a secondary classification system of national cinema nested within several of the themes (Film Companies, Key Individuals, National Cinemas and Trade Press). If that isn’t specific enough for you, the index, at almost 70 pages, picks up more fine-grained queries.

Encyclopaedias should be the first place you look for information but they make no claim to be the last place – which is the problem with the way so many students use Wikipedia. The lengthier entries here generally end with a series of references for further reading, and this is where the true gold can be found. You can read Lea Jacobs’ two-page summary under the heading of “Acting Styles” and hopefully, it convinces you to seek out Theatre to Cinema and The Decline of Sentiment for a fuller examination of the modes of theatrical performance styles and their influence on the new medium (4). Sometimes a two-page summary is a useful thing to include in a course reader, so entries such as Kristin Thompson’s piece on Classical Hollywood Style acts as a useful précis for several of the chapters of Film Art (5).

Other authors use their space not only to summarise ideas but to sketch out the debates that have taken off around those ideas. Tom Gunning’s essay on the Cinema of Attractions, demonstrates how this concept reconciled the assumed opposition between Auguste and Louis Lumière and Georges Méliès, only to open up an even more contentious division between spectacle and narrative. He gives a useful account of the objections that have been raised to this division in order to nuance an idea that has often been used in the crudest of ways.

Reviewing an encyclopaedia is a thankless task. The organisation of the book doesn’t impose a rigorous discipline upon the order of your reading, so that you hop around. There is no single line of argument with which to engage and dispute. However, this might be turned to advantage with a topic such as early cinema. One of the richest things about this area of study has always been the diversity of approach that it has encouraged. It emerged at a time when film scholars were rejecting linear, teleological narratives of history. Part of Noël Burch’s interest in this period is that the cinema is still open enough to not cohere into a single textual or institutional system (6). Seeing the cinema come into being involves looking closely at the adjacent institutions from which it drew many of its ideas, contents and practices. Studying early films has also enabled authors to seize the points of intersection between style, technology and industry in particularly vivid ways. The connection between the rise of nickelodeons, the business of film rental rather than simply sales, and the need for narrative films as a way of stabilising and regularising the supply of popular film texts is one example of this. The articles in this collection are full of examples of this diversity of approaches and inter-connection of themes. For example, compare Richard Abel’s entry on crime films with Tom Gunning’s on detective films. Abel is interested in the question of the genre’s source materials in other forms of popular fiction, while Gunning concentrates on the stylistic uses that went hand-in-hand with the emergence of the genre – for instance, the narrative emphasis on looking and discovery, and its connection with point-of-view structures that had emerged in previous films of the attraction period.

Genres and cutting immediately bounced to another point in the book – chase films. Jonathan Auerbach’s two-pager describes the basic structure and chronological range of this proto-genre, signals his own thematic interests (the mechanics of running) as well as offering some good discussion of why it is such a significant body of films for the way it wrestles with the problems of time and space in the recently developed multi-shot filmmaking environment. Inevitably, you want more than can be contained in the space: for instance, Auerbach doesn’t pay as much attention to the development of chase films in France as I’d be interested in reading, and he sees chase films almost entirely in terms of repetition rather than the ways they produce variation from within a repetitive structure.

There tend to be two ends of the continuum for those interested in early cinema: those who work from the bottom up, caring about what Léonce Perret did in June 1913 and how it was different from what he did in August 1913, and on the other hand, those who work from the big picture down. The latter are probably more at home with Walter Benjamin’s ideas on modernity as a starting point. There are, however, also essays on big concepts such as modernity, as well as more middle-level types of enquiry, such as the influence of comic strips and the formation of exhibition circuits (and I’m not even out of the C’s at this point).

Inevitably, a detailed reference book such as this is going to favour the bottom-up approach over big theory. It assumes that the historian is going to want access to a mass of detail from which to assemble the small portraits, out of which the big picture emerges. There is also an emphasis on the tangible detail of film production at the heart of early cinema studies. One indication of this is the way that there are four entries for editing: two each by Gunning and Gaudreault. These centre on the earliest practices of editing (done in-camera or by exhibitors), the evolving modes of manipulating space, then time, and in between these two, an entry on non-continuity editing in the form of the tableau film. The return to detail here operates as a kind of reaction against the large scale generalisations about editing and its ontology that were so much a part of psychoanalytic film theory.

Earlier, I mentioned Noël Burch to the effect that the study of early cinema is part of a reaction against the emphasis on the Hollywood studio system. It provides a set of alternatives that are not just temporal but also geographical. The list of entries for national cinemas is impressive with five entries on African nations or colonialist groupings, 12 entries from Asia and eight from South America. Closer to (my) home, it is both inevitable and fitting that the Australian entry should come from Ina Bertrand. Everybody interested in this topic area is going to have their own small list of criticisms that will invariably centre on omissions (Cecil B. DeMille gets a guernsey but not his more interesting brother, William de Mille) or entries that are manifestly too short (a single 100-word paragraph on Birt Acres). But this is to complain that the book is not 1200 pages long. This is an indispensable introduction and source to a field of film studies whose importance is, I would argue, still growing. The debates about the innovation and diffusion of new media technologies are a significant part of our own historical moment – and really, have their ever been times in the last 150 years when there haven’t been new media technologies forcing us to evaluate questions of textual forms, industrial structures, and cross-media influences? Richard Abel’s Encyclopedia of Early Cinema is a reference book to which anyone teaching or researching in this area needs access.

Encyclopedia of Early Cinema, edited by Richard Abel, Routledge, London and New York, 2010.


  1. The Brighton Conference is the name given to the annual conference of the Fédération International des Archives du Film (FIAF, the International Federation of Film Archives) in 1978. The conference is now seen as a breakthrough event that galvanised interest in early cinema. For a brief description and some further references, see David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, “Reviving Interest in Early Cinema: The Brighton Conference”, Film History: An Introduction, third edition, McGraw-Hill, New York, 2009.
  2. Lewis Jacobs, The Rise of the American Film, Teachers College Press, New York, 1939; Terry Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1926; Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1990; Richard Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1994.
  3. First published in 1979, Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia is now in its sixth edition (Collins Reference, New York, 2008), revised by Ronald Dean Nolen.
  4. Lea Jacobs, The Decline of Sentiment: American Film in the 1920s, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2008; Ben Brewster and Lea Jacobs, Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and Early Feature Film, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997.
  5. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, ninth edition, Mc-Graw Hill, New York, 2009.
  6. Noël Burch, Life to Those Shadows, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1990.

About The Author

Mike Walsh is Senior Lecturer in the Screen and Media Department at Flinders University in Adelaide. He is also a programmer and writer for the Adelaide Film Festival. He is a contributing editor for Metro and RealTime.

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