As a bit of trivia to begin with, the first known piece of moving film footage was the The Horse in Motion (1878), a 3-second experiment consisting of 24 photographs shot in rapid succession. It’s just a scene of a jockey riding a horse, but it ultimately led to the development of modern film.
Most early films were short, silent bits of daily life, showing such exciting events as boarding a train, which was captured in The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (1895). This film footage supposedly scared the bejesus out of the viewing audience, who thought a real train was coming at them and ran for cover. Early films began to include documentary footage and newsreels, which were shown on the Cinematograph and the Nickelodeon.
The First Narrative Film…The Life of an American Fireman (1902)
This six-minute short was the first movie to utilize a linear, narrative storyline. There had been earlier one-scene/one set movies (usually 5-minutes or less) adapting moments from famous stories such as A Christmas Carol (1901) or historic events like The Execution of Mary Stuart (1895), but this was the first-ever original screenplay, using narrative screenwriting. It builds up the suspense over several scenes, (nine separate scenes) until the fireman rescues the woman and her child from the burning house.
The First Science Fiction Film…A Trip To the Moon (1902)
The grandfather of the sci-fi genre, this wonderfully silly (and scientifically ridiculous) 13-minute film was created by legendary filmmaker Georges Melies, who pioneered SFX in the movie industry. The story of scientists visiting the moon and meeting hostile Moon Men was based on the novels of Jules Verne (“From Earth To The Moon”) and H.G. Wells (“The First Men In The Moon”.)
The First Film with Parallel Editing (and Other Filmmaking Techniques)…The Great Train Robbery (1903)
This 11-minute short film introduced multiple initiatives, like parallel editing, moving cameras and other new techniques, including exterior locations. The simple plot of a steam engine being robbed was taken from the real-life train robbery committed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
The First Film to Use Color…The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (La Vie Et La Passion de Jesus Christ) (1903)
This 44 minute French silent movie was mostly filmed in black-and-white but it has a number of hand-colored scenes (the process was called Pathechrome). It’s also one of the first Full-Length films to have a narrative plot. This film is a series of vignettes playing out stories from the New Testament.
The First Film to Use Animation… Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906)
This three-minute silent short featured a cartoonist drawing characters on a chalkboard, after which the characters would begin to move and interact, before being erased. It is generally regarded by film historians as the first animated film, even though the cartoonist is a real guy.
The First Horror Film…Frankenstein (1910)
This 12-minute short was the embryo of the entire horror genre. Appropriately, the most famous horror story of all time was the first to be made into a film. It was made by Thomas Edison’s film Studio, which is ironic because Edison was an inventor making a film about the dangers of science out-of-control. As a footnote, there was a 3-minute French film made in 1896 (one scene shot on a single set) called Le Manoir de Diable, AKA The Devil’s Castle, about a vampire and some ghosts scaring a pair of unwary visitors in a haunted house. Frankenstein, however, had multiple sets and a linear plot.
The First Movie Filmed Fully in Color…With Our King and Queen Through India (1912)
This British documentary about the coronation of King George and his proclamation as Emperor of India is generally accepted as the first feature-length color film. It’s the oldest film listed on IMDB as being “color”.
The First Animated Film with a Character and a Story…Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)
The seminal piece of animation helped jumpstart the animation industry. Using the process known as “Keyframe”, the 13-minute film is half live/half animated. It involves cartoonist Windsor McKay (known as the world’s greatest animator at the time) introducing his dancing, animated pet dinosaur Gertie to a live group of viewers at the Natural History museum. This is the first time animation was used to tell a story and the first original animated character to be given a name.
The First Use of Sound on Film…The Photo Drama of Creation (1914)
In 1913, Thomas Edison had created the Kinetophone, which was a cylinder-based sound apparatus, where the phonograph was connected to the film projector. The first public use of this was sponsored by the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1914. This was a four-part series of religious films (eight hours total) using still-images to tell the Biblical story of Creation from Genesis to the end of the Millennium. The movie contained spoken narrative from the phonograph record, and even included some background music.
The First Full-Length Horror Film…The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
An early example of German expressionist filmmaking, this movie not only began the horror genre, it was the first time we ever got a zombie on screen. This story of an evil doctor and his zombie slave also introduced the first surprise twist-ending in early cinema. This is regularly shown in film schools and universities to students as an example of how to do horror right.
The First Film to Win the Best Picture Oscar…Wings (1927)
When the Academy Awards were introduced, this adventure/romance/war movie mix was the original winner for Best Picture because critics hailed it’s technical skill and realism.
The First Full-Length Sci-Fi Film…Metropolis (1927)
This 1927 German expressionist science-fiction film, directed by Fritz Lang, was the first film to show that science fiction could be done seriously. This story of revolution in a futuristic dystopia is regarded as a masterpiece and set the standard for the type of smart and allegorical stories science fiction could tell.
The First Full-Length movie to Use Synchronized Sound…The Jazz Singer (1927)
Called the first “talky”, this is the first film to ever have synchronized sound, and is also the first-ever Musical. While the majority of the movie is silent, there are a few “talky” scenes interspaced throughout with synchronized dialogue. Additionally, there are nine musical numbers, six of which are sung by the film’s star Al Jolson, who was the biggest singing star of the mid-1920s.
The First Film to Use 3D…In Tune With Tomorrow (1939)
Sponsored by Chrysler Motors for the 1939 World’s Fair, this short film used both 3D and Stop-Motion FX to show how a car is built piece by piece. Each part comes alive and has its own unique characteristic.
The First Full-Length Commercial 3D Movie…Bwana Devil (1952)
This film ignited the 3D craze of the 1950s. Despite being a critical bomb, it was a hit with audiences. It tells basically the same story as The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) about a pair of killer lions disrupting the building of a bridge in Uganda, and the Hunters who are hired to stop them.