The balancing bluebottle


The Balancing Bluebottle (1908)

A delightful programme was broadcast today on BBC Radio 4, The Balancing Bluebottle. It’s a 30-minute documentary on the life and work of Percy Smith, pioneering naturalist filmmaker. It’s presented by Tim Boon, curator at the Science Museum, whose recent book Films of Fact is a history of science documentary on film and television.

Normally I would pen you a paragraph or three on Smith’s career, but it’s been a long week (it’s been a long month) and I’m going to take a short cut by giving you this section from my Charles Urban site:

F. Percy Smith (1880-1945) was a modest but brilliant pioneer of scientific filmmaking. He was a clerk with the Board of Education whose hobby was photographing nature, notably magnified pictures of insects. One of these, a photograph of a bluebottle’s tongue, came to Urban’s attention, and in 1907 he invited Smith to do similar work with a motion picture camera. Failing to persuade his employers of the value of film as an educational tool, Smith joined Urban full-time in 1910. Smith’s films soon gained considerable attention, notably The Balancing Bluebottle and The Birth of a Flower, showing plant growth through stop-motion cinematography in Kinemacolor. Smith’s films were made at his Southgate home and involved meticulous preparation over many months. When war broke out in 1914 he made a series of animated war maps for Urban’s Kineto company before becoming a photographer with the Navy. After the war he did a little more work for Urban before he found greater fame with the Secrets of Nature series of nature films, made for British Instructional Films, which gained wide acclaim and were popular for two decades. He is one of the great names in scientific filmmaking.

Smith’s films entrance and instruct to this day. The Balancing Bluebottle itself featured bluebottles performing seemingly extraordinary feats of strength. Tied down with silk (and released unharmed afterwards) the bluebottles juggle a cork, a ball and a stick. The film caused a sensation at the time and can still leave an audience open-mouthed today.

  • A 1910 re-edited and reissued version of the film, under the title The Acrobatic Fly, is available on YouTube, courtesy of the BFI
  • A further retitled and reissued version from 1911, under the title The Strength and Agility of Insects, is available on WildFilmHistory
  • Smith’s 1910 film The Birth of a Flower is available to view at WildFilmHistory

The programme features Sir David Attenborough, Bryony Dixon from the BFI, Jenny Hammerton from AP Archive, and (recorded in a windy side alley off Leicester Square), one Luke McKernan. It’s available for the next seven days on BBC iPlayer, and is warmly recommended for its charm and insight.

The Fotoplayer

Thanks are due to the Bioscope’s continental Europe correspondent, Frank Kessler, for this delightful YouTube clip. It features Maud Nelissen, regular accompanist for silent films at the Nederlands Filmmuseum, playing a Fotoplayer organ at the Utrecht musical museum Van Speelklok tot Pierement. Her explanation is in Dutch, part of which is to announce an upcoming screening in Utrecht, which was on 18 April, so apologies for being a bit late with that, but the Fotoplayer itself plays on.

The photoplayer (the Fotoplayer itself was one make, produced by the American Photoplayer Company) was a form of player piano, electrically-driven, with augmented orchestral effects, including organ pipes, percussion instruments and assorted sound effects (whistles, bird song, thunder etc.). The organ could be played manually, as shown above, but it also took piano rolls as with a conventional player piano, each of which would be designed for particular genres and scenes. An operator (often an usherette, it is said) would therefore have to switch from one roll to another as the action changed.

Photoplayers were first introduced around 1910, and were produced in their thousands in the United States. Generally they were installed in smaller cinemas throughout the silent era, as the amplification was not good enough to larger theatres. Their peak years were the late teens, and production tailed off after 1925. Only a hundred or so exist today. In part they were dumped once the talkies arrived, in part they suffered greatly from the wear-and-tear of all-day operation.

There is more information on the Fotoplayer at The Musical Museum and The Encyclopedia of Australian Theatre Organs.

Now would one of those be fun to have at Pordenone? Possibly a little tricky to transport, but even so…

Update (December 2009):
Maud Nelissen has kindly sent me four photographs of the Fotoplayer in action, with these notes on its performance:

First we explained how this great Photoplayer was used in the earlier days. Then we started our programme:

1) First we showed a film with the musicrolls in the piano and the effects (made by us, by pulling, pushing ropes, buttons etc).

2) Then we showed a Chaplin programme: The Cure, The Rink and Easy Street.

The Photoplayer’s piano was played by me, and I had a very valuable assistant (Daphne, musician of my band The Sprockets) who did marvelously all the effects and was running around me like a madwoman to get everything totally synchronised with the Chaplins. It was incredibly funny and the audience loved the films even more through it!

Although it looked very loose and vibrant at the time … we had numerous rehearsals and Daphne practiced the effects at home (she made a “practice” installation, pulling ropes without sound + running around … can you imagine …?)

Our next aim now is to visit all the remaining photoplayers in the world, We have a great show to put on and we adore the photoplayer!! Daphne is thinking about a career switch, leaving The Sprockets to become a fulltime photoplayer-player. Who knows … Luckily there will always be Utrecht!

Tuff stuff

Smile by Christos Tsirbas, first place award winner at the 2008 Toronto Urban Film Festival

TUFF is the Toronto Urban Film Festival (TUFF), which has the admirable mission to show silent films to the commuters of Toronto. The festival, which takes place 11-20 September 2009, comprises an urban-themed programme of new one-minute silent films, which run repeatedly on the ONESTOP digital network of over 270 platform screens on fifty subway platforms of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) for seven days. The top three films of the festival are chosen by a Guest Judge; this year writer/director/actor Don McKellar. The program for the final Saturday of the festival is determined by audience votes as is the winner of the TUFF Choice Award.

TUFF is open to local, national and international submissions by video artists, filmmakers – trained and untrained – animators and urbanites with cameras or video capable mobile devices. Filmmakers are asked to submit one-minute silent videos addressing one of seven themes: Urban Encounters; Urban Diversity; Urban Journeys; Urban Imaginary; Urban Natural; Urban Secrets; and Urban Ideas. Deadline for submissions is 15 July 2009. It is free to submit; filmmakers retain their rights, and have a chance to win prizes, including a trip for two to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic courtesy of BelAir Travel. Films must be 60 seconds (exactly); 720 x 480, square pixels if possible; 30 fps, deinterlaced if possible; no audio. And you don’t have come from Toronto to take part.

For more information, visit the TUFF Website at and follow TUFF activities through its social media pages: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

The Bioscope twitters


Well, it may be a spurious trend, but if it’s the way the world is speaking (at least a part of it), then the Bioscope is going to follow. So this is to announce the creation of the Bioscope’s very own Twitter presence. If you don’t know what Twitter is, it’s a micro-blogging service in which you are restricted to messages of no more than 140 characters (called tweets).

The way I’ve set it up is that every post made on the main blog will now also appear on the Twitter feed (i.e. the first few words followed by a hyperlink), while I’ll be using the feed to add short news items and musings on early and silent cinema, as the mood takes me. The most recent of these you can see on the Twitter RSS feed on the column to your right. It’s an experiment – it may augment the service, or it may not, in which case I’ll dump it. We’ll just have to see.

To follow the feed, go to

Bienvenue au Festival d’Anères


The Festival d’Anères, the festival of silent film held annually in Anères, Hautes-Pyrénées in southwestern France, takes place 27-31 May. There is an enticing programme on offer, as follows (excluding some music concerts):

27 May

La Femme en gris (A Woman in Grey)
de James Vincent
with Arline Pretty, Henry G. Sell, Fred C. Jones
1920 / Etats-Unis / vidéo / vostf
Copie: Lobster Films
Episodes 1, 2, 3

La Charrette fantôme (Körkarlen)
de Victor Sjöström
avec Victor Sjöström, Hilda Borgström, Tore Svennberg, Astrid Holm
1921 / Suède / 1h48 / 35mm / vostf
Copie : Svenska Filminstitutet (Suède)

28 May

La Femme en gris (A Woman in Grey)
de James Vincent
avec Arline Pretty, Henry G. Sell, Fred C. Jones
1920 / Etats-Unis / vidéo / vostf
Copie: Lobster Films
Episodes 4, 5, 6

Hommage à Charley Bowers:

  • Non tu exagères! (Now You Tell One)
    de et avec Charley Bowers
    1926 / Etats-Unis / 22 min. / vidéo / vf
  • Un drôle de locataire (A Wild Roomer)
    de et avec Charley Bowers
    1926 / Etats-Unis / 24 min. / vidéo / vf
  • Le Roi du Charleston (Fatal Footsteps)
    de et avec Charley Bowers
    1926 / Etats-Unis / 22 min. / vidéo / vf

Chœur de Tokyo (Tokyo no kôrasu)
de Yazujiro Ozu
avec Tokihito Okada, Emiko Yagumo, Hideo Sugawara, Hidako Takamine
1931 / Japon / 1h30 / 35mm / vostf
Copie: Carlotta Films

Les Temps modernes (Modern Times)
de Charlie Chaplin
avec Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard
1936 / Etats-Unis / 1h29 / 35mm / vostf
Copie: MK2

29 May

La Femme en gris (A Woman in Grey)
de James Vincent
avec Arline Pretty, Henry G. Sell, Fred C. Jones
1920 / Etats-Unis / vidéo / vostf
Copie: Lobster Films
Episodes 7, 8, 9

Hommage à Segundo de Chomón:

  • Le Sorcier arabe 1906 / France / 2’52 / vidéo / vf
  • Le Voyage sur Jupiter 1909 / France / 5’51 / vidéo / vf
  • Kiriki, acrobates japonais 1907 / France / 2’37 / vidéo / vf
  • Le Voleur invisible 1909 / France / 4’37 / vidéo / vf
  • Métamorphoses 1912 / France / 5’22 / vidéo / vf
  • L’Épée du spirite 1910 / France / 5’22 / vidéo / vf
  • Les Roses magiques 1906 / France / 2’59 / vidéo / vf
  • Le Rêve des marmitons 1908 / France / 6’54 / vidéo / vf
  • Le Spectre rouge 1907 / France / 8’30 / vidéo / vf
  • Le Scarabée d’or 1907 / France / 1’39 / vidéo / vf
  • Pickpock ne craint pas les entraves 1909 / France / 8’32 / vidéo / vf
  • Copies: Lobster Films

Prapancha Pash (A Throw of Dice)
de Franz Osten
avec Seeta Devi, Himansu Rai, Charu Roy
1929 / Inde / 1h14 / vidéo / vo trad. sim.
Copie: British Film Institute / Eye 4 films (Angleterre)

Le Journal d’une fille perdue (Diary of a Lost Girl)
de Georg Wilhelm Pabst
avec Louise Brooks, Joseph Rovensky, Fritz Rasp
1929 / Allemagne / 1h45 / vidéo / vo trad. sim.
Copie: Carlotta Films (avec l’autorisation de Tamasa Distribution)

30 May

La Femme en gris (A Woman in Grey)
de James Vincent
avec Arline Pretty, Henry G. Sell, Fred C. Jones
1920 / Etats-Unis / vidéo / vostf
Copie: Lobster Films
Episodes 10, 11, 12

Variétés (Variety)
de Ewald André Dupont
avec Emil Jannings, Lya De Putti, Warwick Ward
1925 / Allemagne / 1h29 / 35mm / vostf
Copie: Murnau Stiftung / Transit Films (Allemagne)

Charlot chef de rayon (The Floorwalker)
de Charlie Chaplin
avec Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell
1916 / Etats-Unis / 24 min. / vidéo / vostf

de Dimitri Kirsanoff
avec Nadia Sibirskaïa, Yolande Beaulieu, Guy Belmont
1926 / France / 37 min. / vidéo / vf

Les Quatre cavaliers de l’apocalypse (The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse)
de Rex Ingram
avec Rudolph Valentino, Alice Terry, Wallace Beery
1921 / Etats-Unis / 2h13 / 35mm / vostf
Copie: Photoplay Productions Ltd (Angleterre)

31 May

La Femme en Gris (A Woman in Grey)
de James Vincent
avec Arline Pretty, Henry G. Sell, Fred C. Jones
1920 / Etats-Unis / vidéo / vostf
Copie : Lobster Films
Episodes 13, 14, 15

de Marcel L’Herbier
avec Pierre Alcover, Brigitte Helm, Marie Glory
1928 / France / 2h44 / vidéo / vf
Copie: Carlotta Films (avec l’autorisation de Marie-Ange L’Herbier)

La Vendeuse de cigarettes du Mosselprom (Papirosnitsa ot Mosselproma)
de Iouri Jeliaboujski
avec Ioulia Solntseva, Igor Ilinski, Anna Smokhovskaia
1924 / Russie / 1h42 / vidéo / vostf
Copie: Cinémathèque de Toulouse

Charlot machiniste (Behind the Screen)
de Charlie Chaplin
1916 / Etats-Unis / 24 min. / vidéo / vostf

de Jacques Feyder
avec Maurice de Féraudy, Jean Forest, Félix Oudart
1922 / France / 1h16 / vidéo / vf
Copie: Lobster Films

A fine programme indeed, albeit heavy on the vidéo. There are full details on the festival site, though wholly in French, please note.

Charlie in the Heartland


The 120-year-old Charlie Chaplin (as of two days ago) is the subject of a conference taking place 28-30 October 2010 at Ohio University Zanesville, Zanesville, Ohio. Charlie in the Heartland: An International Charlie Chaplin Conference is inevitably at the early planning stage, but confirmed speakers include keynote speaker and honoree Charles J. Maland, professor and head of the University of Tennessee English Department and author of Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image; David Robinson, author of Chaplin: His Life and Art; Kate Guyonvarch, director of Roy Export S.A.S. and the Association Chaplin office, Paris; Cecilia Cenciarelli, archivist and head of Progetto Chaplin, Cineteca di Bologna, Bologna, Italy; and Frank Scheide, Professor of Communications at the University of Arkansas and co-editor of The Chaplin Review.

The call for papers reads as follows:

In keeping with the theme of the conference, “Charlie in the Heartland,” which was chosen to commemorate Chaplin’s first trip to the United States with Fred Karno’s comedians in October, 1910, we are seeking papers in a wide range of areas, all to do with Chaplin, his relationship with, influence on, or evocation of America, either during or after his long residence here.

The following topics are meant to generate ideas for presentations, not limit creativity or exclude participation:

  • Maland’s Chaplin and American Culture 30 Years later
  • Reconsidering “Chaplinitis”
  • From Karno to Keystone: eliding the music hall stage and the silent screen
  • American vaudeville audiences of the 1910s – a herald of silent film popularity?
  • Chaplin’s company: who were Charlie’s character actors and what were their influences?
  • Vulgar film comedy as high art
  • Chaplin and public appearance: a reconsideration of the Liberty Bond tour
  • The Chaplin imitator phenomenon
  • Film audience reception in the Heartland
  • The Heartland rebels: Chaplin and the American Legion
  • Brother Sydney Chaplin: what was the magnitude of his impact?
  • The representation of America or Americans in the films of Charlie Chaplin
  • Chaplin’s little tramp and the Beat Generation in America

Individual papers or full panels are welcome to submit proposals.

Please send a 500-word abstract, a short bio and your contact information to Lisa Stein, Assistant Professor of English, OU-Zanesville, 1425 Newark Road, Zanesville, OH 43701 or via email by February 1, 2010. Graduate and undergraduate students are welcome to submit.

N.B. We have tried to make this an accessible conference for young scholars by offering several low-cost housing options, as well as a reduced registration rate. We will also have a student travel grant available for applicants. Check back in early 2010.

Attendees are also promised a Chaplin feature film plus shorts, outtakes and oddities; a Chaplin film parody competition; a Chaplin lookalike contest (is it to held among the attendees? This sounds to be a highly promising development for academic conferences); and a ‘juried art show: “America in 1910”.

More details are promised on the conference website in due course.

And the winner is…

As promised, we bring you the winner of the Vimeo Weekend Project to produce a silent film. Vimeo, the video-hosting site, has these regular weekend competitions inviting new videos to be uploaded on a particular theme, and this time chose silents. The process seems to be a bit confusing, as many just submitted any kind of video in the hope of getting noticed, while others submitted silent but old videos – not surprising, giving the rapid turnaround demanded by the competition.

The winner, above, is Two Knives One Motive by Tyler Capeheart, who says it was written, shot and edited within four hours. It lasts 3mins 19secs. See what you think.

The standard of some of the silents, both those newly produced and some of the older titles submitted, was higher than I’d expected. The video below would probably have got my vote – Guard Duty, by Andrew C, which makes a droll silent comedy pastiche out of the Call of Duty video game (being ignorant of these things I’ve no idea how one makes a new film out of video game software, but clearly this is second nature to some):

And then among the older titles, I was quite struck with Fleeting by Robin Brown, from 2008. It’s longer than usual, just over 15 minutes, and features black-and-white cinematography of a high order. There is engaging use of intertitles early on and some good performances, though I feel the film doesn’t quite know where to go with its theme, and the music is distracting. But it looks so good (the filmmaker says that his influences included F.W. Murnau):

You can find other titles in the Weekend Project section of Vimeo, though there doesn’t seem to be a link I can give you that will only have those films submitted for the competition. Anyway, good to see the several ways in which the art of the silent film continues to inspire.

Digital delights


Eadweard Muybridge’s Descriptive Zoopraxography

You know, there are times when the Internet just spoils us. The Cinémathèque française has just issued an online digital library of some of the key books on early and pre-cinema (and related arts), the Bibliothèque numérique du cinéma. The collection is based on two sources: that collected by pioneering British historian Will Day, which includes many key books from 1895 onwards on the new art and science of cinema, but also going back all the way to Athanasius Kircher’s Ars magna lucis et Umbra of 1646; and a collection of historic works on film and photography amassed by the Cinémathèque itself from 1936 onwards, in particular through the efforts of those greats of film archiving and film historiography, Henri Langlois and Lotte Eisner.

So what have we got? Well, first of all, it’s all free. Every text is available in word-searchable PDF format, and comes with full catalogue record. The site offers the titles by author, title and date. There are 118 titles available. They are in the languages in which they were published, fairly obviously, and so many are in English (while a challenging few are in Latin). Here are some of the highlights:

  • Bayley, R. Child, Modern magic lanterns, a guide to the management of the optical lantern, for the use of entertainers, lecturers, photographers, teachers (1895)
  • Bennett, Colin N., A guide to kinematography, projection section for managers, manager operators, and operators of kinema theatres (1923)
  • Brewster, David, A treatise on new philosophical instruments, for various purposes in the arts and sciences with experiments on light and colours (1813)
  • Dickson, Antonia, The Life and inventions of Thomas Alva Edison (1894)
  • Dickson, William K.L., The Biograph in battle, its story in the South African War related with personal experiences (1901)
  • Ives, Frederic Eugene, Kromskop, color photography (1898)
  • Jenkins, Charles Francis, The Boyhood of an inventor (1931)
  • Marey, Etienne-Jules, Movement (1895)
  • Muybridge, Eadweard James, Descriptive zoopraxography, or the science of animal locomotion made popular (1893)
  • Rathbun, John B., Motion picture making and exhibiting, A comprehensive volume treating the principles of motography; the making of motion pictures; the scenario; the motion picture theater; the projector,…etc. (1914)
  • Talbot, Frederick A., Moving pictures, how they are made and worked (1912)
  • Trutat, Eugène, La Photographie appliquée à l’histoire naturelle (1892)

Some of those titles you may recognise as having been covered here already because copies are available in the Internet Archive. Others not listed above will be for the optics specialist or magic lantern historian. But all in all here is a specialist library open to everyone, immaculately digitised and ably presented. I’ll be adding individual titles to the Bioscope Library in due course, plus adding the extra links to those titles already in the Library.


Part of a Bamforth lantern slide sequence illustrating ‘Sally in our Alley’, from 1902

And there’s more. The Cinémathèque française has at the same time published La laterna magica, a beautiful and superbly-organised site on magic lantern slides. There are around 1,500 images, chiefly from the Royal Polytechnic Institution collection. The site is French but the titles of the slide series are all in English, and searching is easy – by theme, title or producer. Clicking on each thumbnail yields a larger picutre, then a click again and you get a larger one still. A model presentation, with exemplary catalogue data.

Go explore. We are so lucky.

Killruddery tales, and a touch of Dante

Kevin Brownlow at Killruddery Silent Film Festival 2009

Two interviews from the recent Killruddery Silent Film Festival, made by Irish company DOCUMENTAVi, have appeared online. The first is with Kevin Brownlow, an engaging twenty-minute film in which Kevin ranges widely over a lifetime promoting the silent film. He discusses discovering silent film while at school, the first films he collected, befriending silent directors (Al Parker in particular) and the task he took on of interviewing those who made the silent film. He covers film festivals, the Thames Silents series, Ireland and silent film, the power of silents experienced live as opposed to online or on TV, and the importance of live, ‘authentic’ (he is amusingly scathing of the taste for modern rock groups to dabble with silents). It’s a delightful encounter.

Stephen Horne at Killruddery Silent Film Festival 2009

Then, looking somewhat bleary-eyed, as anyone might who had just accompanied three silents in a row at the festival, pianist Stephen Horne talks about how he got into providing music for silent films, how this combines with the work he does accompanying dance, and his recent experiences performing the ‘original’ score for The Battle of the Somme. It’s an eloquent, informative seven-minute piece.

Talking of the estimable Mr Horne, he can be heard this Sunday at the Barbican in London, accompanying Guiseppe di Liguoro’s L’Inferno (1911), together with percussionist Martin Pyne and a smattering of electronic samples amid the piano accompaniment. Stephen assures me that it will be nothing like Tangerine Dream (whose DVD score for the film has pained many – doubtless Kevin Brownlow among them), so there’s every reason to go along and catch the Dante-inspired film which caused such a sensation in its time (chiefly on account of copious nudity among the damned). Fragments from a second 1911 L’Inferno, directed by Giuseppe Berardi, will also be shown, apparently for the first time in the UK.


L’Inferno, from

Silents for the weekend

Those in the know know that the classiest online video site around is Vimeo. It’s home to the work of budding filmmakers, film school graduates, animators and those for whom YouTube is altogether too low grade. It is not particularly a place where one is going to find silent films, but that may change with its recently-announced Weekend Project on silent films. The site organises occasional Weekend Projects where Vimeo members are encouraged to produced films along a particular theme. This time they are being asked to produce silent films. One of the site’s organisers says says:

Last time I suggested a Weekend Project, it was all about making noise. This week, I’m swinging the pendulum to the opposite side and proposing a Silent Film project. And when I say silent, I mean no sound. At all. This means you’re going to have to make actions, edits, and direction speak for you. You are allowed to use those old-timey slides to show what people are saying and to narrate your story. But remember, silence!

Well, not strictly silence, since the filmmakers are allowed to include music (not songs), with the less than encouraging suggestion that “Cheesy piano music is the way to go if you use music.” Winners will be announced next Friday. I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, the above video by Benjamin VanderVeen exploring the School of Art and Design at Northern Michigan University is held up as a model effort. Hmm.