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Introduction to Film History Can Start at an Early Age

With help from PBS, the internet, and Martin Scorsese, getting your children started on Film History 101 at an early age can be easy and fun.
A Trip To The Moon
By  · Published on July 6th, 2020

Welcome to Cinephile Summer Camp, a new column dedicated to introducing children to classic movies as well as learning about film history and other subjects through cinema.

Your kids are out of school for the summer and stuck mostly indoors due to the coronavirus. What are they to do? Play board games and read books all day, every day? Binge-watch all 222 episodes of Phineas and Ferb and virtually experience whatever they’re doin’? Stream everything else on Disney+ as a lead-in to learning about various subjects, including math and history?

Why not take this opportunity to teach your children a brief course in film history? You can start from the beginning, which may sound difficult but is anything but. Sure, many children of today are going to scrunch their faces in disgust of the idea of silent, black and white movies from over a century ago, but believe me when I tell you that especially small children will appreciate the dawn of cinema.

The Crash Course

Begin the lesson, as I did with my own five- and seven-year-old children, with some preliminary educational YouTube videos. I recommend the Crash Course Film History series from PBS Studios starring Craig Benzine. The videos are fairly short and easily digestible for kids with short attention spans. Some of the technical jargon goes over their heads, but there’s a lot of flashy animation to hold their focus visually.

As a basic introduction to film history, I set out to teach the kids primarily about the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès — the most famous pioneers of nonfiction and fantasy filmmaking, respectively. The Crash Course series gets to the Lumières in part three and Méliès in part four. The first two parts go over the background of moving pictures, the invention of the movie camera, and some initial methods of exhibiting films. The kids will see brief clips of Thomas Edison‘s Black Maria films.

The Horse in Motion (1878-1879)

Before showing your children the full examples from the Lumières and Méliès, going back over the contributions of Eadweard Muybridge and his photographic experiments with horses and other studies of animals in motion is a worthy detour. Little kids are fascinated by flipbooks, and you can prepare for this lesson by ordering some of Fliptomania’s Muybridge flipbooks ahead of time as treats. And/or have your children make their own, though that activity is best saved for a future course on animation since they’re more likely to draw their pictures than use photographs.

The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895) and The Sprinkler Sprinkled (1895)

The very first film shown by Auguste and Louis Lumière, as part of their original program in late 1895, was Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, which definitely is not the best initiation for the little ones (it’s just workers walking out of a factory, after all). I started mine off with L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (though I told them the English name, The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat) even though it wasn’t even part of the Lumières’ first exhibition. I knew that even though the film itself is basic and very literally titled, they’d get a kick out of the urban legend of the audience jumping out of the way when the train seemingly came toward them.

It is hard for even the youngest kids to imagine that before these films, there was nothing like it before. No movies, no television, no screens of any kind. So, my children just accepted the alleged reaction more as a gag, similar to what they saw next with Le Jardinier (a.k.a. l’Arroseur Arrosé), or The Sprinkler Sprinkled (which was actually the second Lumière short ever shown, right after Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory). The comedic film, believed to be the first of a fictional nature, works with such a simple execution of humor — a boy steps on a garden hose, making his father look into the nozzle until the boy releases his foot and the water sprays the man’s face — that it easily entertains.

To show how much these early films are taken for granted today, you can recreate them with your kids and any sort of video camera lying around your house, most likely the one on your cellphone. My children remade L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat with their bicycles and scooters, riding them down the sidewalk towards the camera. Then comes the most fun, redoing l’Arroseur Arrosé with Dad (or another parent/guardian) being the one sprayed in the face with the watering hose.

The Man with the Rubber Head (1901) and A Trip to the Moon (1902)

A Trip to the Moon is by far the most famous and most accessible film by Georges Méliès and definitely the best to show your kids as an example of early science fiction/fantasy cinema. But kids also love magic and will therefore also  firstly appreciate the earlier works of the former stage illusionist. I also like the idea of showing how Méliès was often featured in his own films, so I chose The Man with the Rubber Head as a fun and funny example to get the kids started (plus, it’s shown in the Crash Course video). The simple situation/trick: a chemist (Méliès) places a disembodied human head (also Méliès) on a table and enlarges it by pumping air from a bellows.

One of the reasons early sci-fi films like A Trip to the Moon are so fascinating is that they were made before a lot of real science could explain away their ideas. Yet they’re still as prophetic as they are imaginative, as in the case of Méliès adapting Jules Verne’s classic space exploration story (for comparison to the real thing, Apollo 11 is one of the best documentaries for kids and worth showing to them before or after this lesson). A Trip to the Moon is best remembered for its crash landing into the face of the Man in the Moon, but my kids also really like the shots of the people playing stars and other planets as well as the impish aliens, especially the one that hitches a ride back to Earth.

Just as we did after watching the Lumière shorts, the kids and I attempted our own take on Méliès films with in-camera effects and editing courtesy of a simple phone app like iMovie. You can do almost anything with your camera phone that Méliès was able to do in his time, but we settled on a simple disappearing act similar to the alien’s poof-and-gone stunt in A Trip to the Moon. In their film, my son walks over to hug his sister, but she disappears, leaving him hugging himself and falling to the ground.

Alice Guy-Blaché

While I did say that the primary filmmakers featured in this lesson were the Lumières and Méliès, it’s important to also acknowledge Alice Guy-Blaché, a pioneering woman filmmaker (and a significant figure for Black cinema, with 1912’s A Fool and His Money, despite being white herself) who has only recently been receiving her due recognition. The Crash Course video on Méliès mentions her, so she really can’t be ignored in this lesson.

There are a number of different kinds of films of Guy-Blaché’s that are appropriate for kids, including The Cabbage Fairy (1896), about a fairy who grows babies in a cabbage patch, the hand-tinted dance film Le départ d’Arlequin et de Pierrette (1900), and The Glue (1907), about a boy who creates sticky situations for people all over town. Also, I recommend the picture book Lights! Camera! Alice! The Thrilling True Adventures of the First Woman Filmmaker by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Simona Ciraolo.

Hugo (2011)

Finally, I like to end these cinephile summer camp sessions with a feature screening with little explanation of its relevance so that it seems like an entertaining treat after all that instruction rather than more learning. Hugo probably isn’t a movie your kids have known about or sought out (unless they knew the book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret), but it’s perfectly fine for younger viewers — never mind that it’s directed by Martin Scorsese; he can make great family films, too!

I had sold the kids on Hugo by comparing it to Harry Potter, only without the magical/fantasy elements. You’ve got the clever orphan boy and his more mature and intelligent female friend at least. Also, as my son pointed out, Harry’s uncle (Richard Griffiths) is in love with Hagrid’s girlfriend (Frances de la Tour). Beyond the Potter appeal, there’s a mechanical man, a dash of slapstick, and just a very cool train station set to follow the characters through.

Maybe I did mention to the kids that Hugo features Méliès as a character, but I definitely had to remind them of this when Ben Kingsley appeared on the screen. And even then, there’s a long time before they get to see Kingsley as Méliès the filmmaker. But when the moment came, they loved it, and even better, when the main characters learn about the first movies and a montage ensues featuring a clip of L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (complete with a reenactment of the legend of the first showing), my son and daughter turned into the Leonardo DiCaprio pointing at this television in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood meme.

In a way, Scorsese has already done the work of introducing kids to the dawn of cinema with Hugo. He also shows them how early movies were made (with some minor inaccuracies) with the flashbacks to Méliès in his studio filming The Palace of Arabian Knights (1905) and other works. You could show your kids Hugo and then show them all the films it features and references, but I like the idea of pulling a Mr. Miyagi and preparing them for something without them realizing. Besides, Hugo is more a tribute to Méliès than a collective homage to the pioneers of cinema.

The way I’ve laid out the lesson, the original films are the focus rather than something to be revealed. And by going chronologically through essential moments in those first years, from Muybridge to the Lumières to Méliès and Guy-Blaché, kids should have a foundation that can lead into further study and/or enjoyment of documentary, comedy, effects-driven cinema, women filmmakers, and more.

Got your own stories of showing classic cinema to your children? I’d love to hear about them. Tweet me @thefilmcynic.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.