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A Short Note on the Science of Cinema

Hasan Cem Çal    •    26.11.2022


What does the science of cinema mean? Can cinema also have a scientific dimension? History books on cinema often begin with the assumption that cinema is an art form. Very few books on cinema
history deal with its scientific basis. Most books ignore it. But this is not a basis that can be ignored; it has been the main driving force in the development of the media we know as cinema today. The cinematic apparatus was originally seen as a science-making tool. We see this clearly when we think about who the first filmmakers were.


For example, Eadweard Muybridge can be seen as a kind of movement anatomist. Étienne-Jules
Marey is known as a scientist and physiologist. But he also made films. These figures of
science saw cinema as a tool. They didn’t think it was an end in itself. That’s what made them
scientists in the first place. Their approach to cinema was scientific. They were probably asking
a question like: “How can I understand motion by using this tool?” Or like: “If I perceive motion
from within this tool, can I see something different from the way I perceive it?”


So basically, what were they trying to understand? What they were trying to understand was the
movement itself. Contrary to popular belief, this was not the impulse that started with the birth
of cinema, but perhaps the impulse that gave rise to the birth of cinema. Simply put, it was the
drive to understand movement better that made the birth of cinema possible. If only living
things were filmed at the beginning of cinema, with no other quality other than mobility, it was because they wanted to be studied as scientific objects, not as art objects. Of course, making art wasn’t the reason why Marey dropped a cat off a high platform. Falling Cat was not an artistic work.


The Lumière brothers, who are said to have invented cinema, were also making films with the
meticulousness of scientists. They kept records of everyday life, but not without considering the
psychological effects of these records. This is why they often discussed the effects of their films on
people and themselves. They made thousands of films to understand this effect better. They
sent dozens of cameramen to different parts of the world and ensured that they kept a visual
record of the ways of life of different cultures. In this sense, they were working like
anthropologists. What they did was not art; they were considered artists only after the artistic
side of cinema was discovered. They were seen as documentarians after the invention of the
concept of the documentary. The concept of documentary is just one of the concepts that can
be used to label their work. They were making films long before the birth of documentaries.
And the main purpose of their filmmaking was not to document but to understand.


Perhaps the reason why the Lumière brothers said that cinema had no future after shooting
thousands of films is due to the way they approached making films. They thought they had
learned everything they could from cinema because their approach to the cinema had not been
developed from an artistic perspective. They produced a film corpus with the understanding of
a sociologist of the image, and when they realized that they could not produce anymore, they
declared “the death of cinema”. Of course, they were wrong on the whole, but they were right in

part. There was no way to do more. The scientist throws the useless tool in the trash.
This is what makes a scientist.


The scientific dimension of cinema becomes even more evident in the use of the cinematic

apparatus for biological purposes. The scientific filmmaking of F. Percy Smith is a typical

example of this situation. Smith captures the movement of a flower blooming moment

by moment from all directions in his film The Birth of a Flower. In this way, we witness the

moment of birth of a flower, which is impossible to see with the naked eye. Cinema in this

context gives us the chance to sense the movement of things that move slowly. Thus, with 

the help of cinema, we have a sense, a perception, and, most importantly, an idea about the

anatomy and physical orientation of a flower. Before this film, a flower existed for us in only

two dimensions: it had either bloomed or it had not. But this film conveys to us a third

dimension, a dimension where a flower blooms. This is the dimension that marks the state of a

flower as it performs the act of blooming. It is the maturation of a flower. Could it be just a chance

that the birth of cinema and the birth of a flower coincided with the same moment

in history?

Similarly, Jean Painlevé saw cinema as a scientific medium. Although he was a land dweller, he
devoted his life to the sea. He found life there. He wanted to record and seal this liquid vitality. But
what he also wanted was to show that there was another dimension to the biosphere. It was an “aquatic dimension”. In order to show this dimension, he needed a medium that could show it as it is, in an animated way. And the right medium was cinema. Cinema was a medium defined by the quality
(mobility) that defined vitality. And it made it possible to enable the discovery of unexplored
dimensions of life. When shooting underwater, Painlevé does just that. He uses a film camera as a
scientific device. He allows us to observe living things in their natural habitats (exactly because
he does not tear them out of their living space; he does not approach things as objects). We didn't have a chance to see these creatures alive and moving until his films were made. We have learned about the lives of an octopus (La pieuvre), a seahorse (L’Hippocampe), and a jellyfish (Comment naissent les méduses) thanks to him.

Of course, the relationship of cinema with science does not only mark the early periods of
cinema. Much later, some other people made films with a scientific attitude as well; that is, to understand what was filmed. For these people, what is filmed takes precedence; the film is serving what is being filmed. Rose Lowder is one of the most sentient people who shoots films with this
kind of understanding. Her films are of the type that presents a kind of “botanical imagery”. When
she records the movement of sunflowers with a time-lapse camera in Les tournesols, we
witness the movement of something impossible to see with the naked eye. We see
something that we can’t even see moving under normal circumstances vibrating thousands of
times in “accelerated time”. Lowder demonstrates that even the most lifeless-looking thing has a life.
This is her way of doing science. It is not about providing an aesthetic sensation from things, but
rather about gaining a fundamental understanding of their vitality. This is cinebiology. There
is a kind of biology that can only be done through cinematic means.


So, does cinema have a relationship with other sciences? Of course, it has. Cinema as a medium
is a crystallization of scientific developments. In this sense, cinema has a relationship with all
positive sciences, especially physics. After all, making a dynamic model of the motion of light
requires a certain amount of physical knowledge to be made technical. But that’s not all that
matters. The important question is: “Can a medium whose existence is already based on
discoveries in science be used as a tool to enable further discoveries in science?”


Today, we realize that this can be done. We were aware of this yesterday. From yesterday to today, not much has changed in this regard. Possibilities have increased even more. Cinema has been used for many purposes throughout its history. It was even deployed as a piece of war equipment. (It is not in vain that some cameras resemble semi-automatic rifles.) Therefore, one should not think that cinema is just art. This is a reductionist and increasingly inefficient way of understanding cinema. If we want to understand cinema as it is, in its multidimensionality, we must acknowledge its scientific side. We must stop making cinema for the sake of cinema and use it as a tool to produce new ways of relating to our environment. Cinema can be a means of connecting us to the cosmic vitality of which we are a part. In this way, maybe we can better understand the importance of the science of cinema.

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