The Jazz Singer (1927)
Popular history traces the Sound era to the moment in this Al Jolson musical when the star introduces a musical number with the appropriately meta statement, ”You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” But there had been experiments with sound film for decades, and a couple features with synchronized music and sound effects. Jazz Singer is more notable for using the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system for the first-ever synchronized dialogue scenes in a feature film. In that sense, the real key scene is the little piano number between Jolson’s character and his mother. (Bizarrely, for such a landmark moment, most of that dialogue was probably improvised.)
Flowers and Trees (1932)
Film is a technological medium, and animation is often at the forefront of that technology. So it’s no surprise that when Technicolor was in its infancy, the color-film corporation found a champion in Walt Disney. This Silly Symphony short marked the first use of the three-strip process, which offered richer and deeper colors across the spectrum. Flowers and Trees won an Academy Award and inaugurated the color-film revolution; three years later, Becky Sharp was the first live-action film shot using the three-strip process.
For his ambitiously weird anthology film, Disney created an entirely new sound system. It was called ”Fantasound,” and its multi-channel system promised to envelop moviegoers in an acoustic wonderland, with sound traveling from one speaker to the next. (Supposedly, Disney was inspired by the idea that the buzzing of a bumblebee in Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s ”Flight of the Bumblebee” could actually travel throughout the audience.) Fantasia flopped in part because Fantasound required considerable set-up in theaters, but Fantasound was a progenitor of the modern surround-sound system.
The Bellboy (1960)
The French know that Jerry Lewis was an artistic genius, but few people realize that Lewis was an important innovator in film technology. As the star and director of The Bellboy, Lewis wanted to be able to look at scenes even when he was on screen. So he used primordial video technology, putting a video camera next to the film camera. This system became known as ”video playback” and was basically used by everyone in Hollywood, before everyone in Hollywood stopped shooting on film.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Stanley Kubrick wanted to shoot his period piece with period-appropriate lighting?which is to say, without electricity. So Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott got ahold of the same type of camera that NASA used to film the moon landings, allowing for several scenes in Lyndon to be shot using only candlelight. Presumably, this was intended as a thank-you gift from NASA for that time Kubrick helped them fake the moon landing.
Bound for Glory (1976)
Cameraman Garrett Brown radically expanded the visual possibilities of filmmaking in the mid-’70s by inventing the Steadicam. A stabilizing mount built for motion, the Steadicam split the difference between dolly shots and handheld cinematography, crossbreeding the smoothness of the former with the improvisational immediacy of the latter. Brown himself filmed the first Steadicam shot in a feature film, which follows Carradine through a Dust Bowl village. The film won an Academy Award; Brown went on to work on Rocky, The Shining, and Return of the Jedi. The Steadicam itself was used in in just about every long take you can think of: Goodfellas, Kill Bill, Atonement, Donnie Darko, the Before trilogy, and pretty much every West Wing walk-and-talk.
Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)
Otherwise forgettable and forgotten, this Barry Levinson mystery about a teenaged Holmes and Watson is most notable for featuring the first-ever completely computer-animated character, the stained-glass window knight. The character was created by none other than John Lasseter, who would turn computer animation into a mass-media empire as the head of Pixar.
The Matrix (1999)
The Wachowskis’ surprise-hit action opus was hugely influential, setting the stage for a decade of brainy-kinetic pop fantasy. But the most-imitated aspect of The Matrix was the signature trailer-ready effect that appeared to slow down time around the characters during especially cool moments. Created using an elaborate multi-camera rig and lots of greenscreen, ”bullet time” became an inescapable trope in post-millennial action cinema.
Alongside George Lucas and Peter Jackson, James Cameron is a filmmaker-industrialist in the Thomas Edison tradition, with a company that often creates radically new technology for his projects. That was especially true of his long-in-the-works space-rainforest adventure, which was made using a massive motion-capture stage and new performance-capture technology that included a tiny personalized camera pointing at all of the actors’ faces.
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney hung inside of this box (called ”The Cage”) on harnesses. Meanwhile, the cameras were mounted on computer-controlled arms, part of a robot that the crew nicknamed ”Iris.”