It seems that few people realize that motion pictures were actually invented here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Though the techniques were further refined by Thomas Alva Edison in New Jersey, it was Leland Stanford and Eadweard Muybridge who first developed a system for showing photographic frames that, if shown in rapid succession, would provide the illusion of movement the very basis for all filmmaking. This first movie experiment was done using a running horse as a subject at Stanford's racetrack on his estate in Palo Alto in June 1878.
Stanford and Muybridge went on to make several more short motion pictures of various other subjects around the peninsula and in San Francisco. Their first human subject was a gymnast at the San Francisco Olympic Club named William Lawton. He thus became the world's first movie star! (Lawton Street, though, in case you were wondering, was actually named after General Henry W. Lawton.)
On 4 May 1880, Stanford and Muybridge's collection of films was shown at the San Francisco Art Association, located on Pine Street, between Montgomery and Kearny, approximately where the Bank of America complex used in The Towering Inferno now stands. This was the very first time an audience sat down to a real movie screening! Admission was a mere 50¢ for those who were present for for such a historic occasion.
By the turn of the 20th century, the techniques of filmmaking had become easier and cheaper and were also becoming more commonly used to provide entertainment. While the majority of the early works of such people as Eadweard Muybridge, Thomas Edison, Louis Lumière, and others were simply everyday objects in motion, the new films had storylines performed by actors. Two of the most famous fictional films were La Voyage Dans La Lune (1902, aka A Trip to the Moon) by Georges Méliès, and The Great Train Robbery (1902) by Edwin S. Porter, both of which are pictured above at right.
These were the forerunners of the great classic films made over the next several decades by such filmmakers as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson, Fatty Arbuckle, Beatriz Michelena, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford. All of these actors made many films in the San Francisco Bay Area. Though only a handful are currently easily available to modern audiences, Broncho Billy Anderson made about four hundred short films in the hills of Marin County, Alameda County, and the rest of the Bay Area.
Many movie studios were built all around the Bay Area. The largest and most famous was Essanay Studios, located in the town of Niles, now a district of Fremont. The California Motion Picture Company was located in the Sun Valley district of San Rafael. There were also studios located all over the rest of the Bay Area.
Many advances in movie-making techniques were made in the Bay Area. Most notably, the first talking moving, Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer, released in 1927, filmed near Union Square in San Francisco. The first color movie was Cupid Angling which used innovative new color techniques created by Leon F. Douglass in a workshop on Lincoln Avenue, San Rafael. This movie filmed in Marin County, Yosemite, and Yellowstone.
It wasn't just the silver screen that was invented in the Bay Area, but also the small screen. The first television set was invented by 21-year-old Philo T. Farnsworth on 7 September 1927 at 2910 Derby Street, Berkeley. This address, Farnsworth's home, is known as the "house where television was invented". He did most of the physical work, though, at his laboratory at 200 Green Street in San Francisco's North Beach. In 1930, this was also the site from which the TV broadcast was sent over the airwaves.
A decade later, the computer revolution had its earliest roots in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was in 1938 that the Hewlett-Packard company was born at 367 Addison Avenue, Palo Alto, when William Hewlett and David Packard started work. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak later started the Apple / Macintosh computer company in nearby Los Altos. Throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, the entire region around San José became known as Silicon Valley due to the many computer companies in the area. This was also one of the major locations of the dotcom boom and bust at the turn of the 21st Century when companies started experimenting with using the world wide web for commerce.
It was George Lucas' visual effects company, Industrial Light and Magic (formed during the creation of Star Wars around 1976 to 1977), that succesfully combined the digital world of computers with the cinematic world of movies. The first computer-generation visual effects for movies were created at their facilities in San Rafael on movies like Willow (1988), The Abyss (1989), and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Over the years, they have won many Academy Awards for their achievements.
Pixar Animation Studios, a spin-off of ILM that was originally based in Richmond and now located in Emeryville, took this a step further. They created Toy Story (1995), the very first movie that was created entirely within a computer. They have followed this with several other films, as has another company, Pacific Data Images, located in Palo Alto, who themselves made Shrek (2001), one of the most successful movies of all time.
The film industry moved to Los Angeles after the Earthquake of 1906 and World War I put a lot of Bay Area movie companies out of business. Los Angeles was promoting its nice weather and offering other incentives for filmmakers to settle there. Had these two events not occurred, it is interesting to speculate on what San Francisco would be like today. The Chinese Theater and Hollywood Walk of Fame would be on Union Street, Los Angeles Center Studios would instead be San Francisco Center Studios and would be located in South of Market, the mansions of Beverly Hills would be in Daly City, Disneyland would have been built in Santa Rosa with Knotts Berry Farm just over in Petaluma, Warner Bros. would be in Alameda, Universal Studios would be in Sausalito and Marin City, and Paramount Pictures would be in Millbrae, and MGM Studios would be in Hayward.... Or maybe not, but it's fun to imagine!
Despite everything going to Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area is still where it all began and where a lot of innovations happened along the way. Even today it attracts maverick filmmakers and actors like Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Saul Zaentz, John Lasseter, Sean Penn, Chris Columbus, Danny Glover, Robin Williams, Chris Isaak, Amy Tan, and Sharon Stone, all of whom are based here. With Los Angeles losing productions to Canada, Australia, and Eastern Europe, it will be interesting to see what happens to the film industry someday in the future....