Sam Kula

Photograph of Sam Kula by Lois Siegel,

This is just a short notice to mark the sad passing of Sam Kula, one of the leading figures in international film archiving for many years. He was 77 years old and died at Ottawa General Hospital on Wednesday, 8 September 8, 2010. Sam joined the BFI in 1958 and became deputy curator under Ernest Lindgren, before joining the American Film Institute (where he was among those who oversaw the publication of the multi-volume AFI Catalog) and then the National Archives of Canada, where he established its film, sound and television section, serving as the director of the audiovisual archives 1973-1989. He served on the executive committee of FIAF, the international federation of film archives, and its television equivalent, FIAT, and was president of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) for two terms. He was also founding member of Canada’s Board of the AV Preservation Trust. He was the author of The Archival Apprisal of Moving Images (1983) and Appraising Moving Images: Assessing the Archival and Monetary Value of Film and Video Records (2002), and made notable contributions to moving image history and archiving in numerous authoritative articles.

Sam’s work encompassed the moving image medium in all its forms and for all periods. However one of the most notable incidents in his archival career related to the silent era: the Dawson City collection. He played a major role in the discovery, care and historiography of the extraordinary discovery of over 500 reels of silent film that were found in 1978 underneath a boarded-up swimming pool in Dawson City in the Yukon Territory, where the films had been buried in the permafrost (ideal archival conditions) for forty-nine years. The story of the find has been documented in an earlier Bioscope post. It is the film archivist’s romantic tale par excellence, and alone serves as memorial to one of world audiovisual archiving’s most dedicated servants.

There is a memorial web page with a guest book to sign.

The photograph of Sam Kula is by Lois Siegel,

At the Cinema Museum

The Cinema Museum, located in the administration block of the former Lambeth workhouse in which Charlie Chaplin’s mother was incarcerated

As part of a new fund-raising campaign which aims to secure its future and establish it as an exciting new London venue, the Cinema Museum announces a programme of events presented by key film industry figures and film historians. These are the silent-related ones:

Saturday – 11th September

The Silent Majority: Glenn Mitchell
Glenn Mitchell, the author of “The A-Z of Silent Film Comedy”, will show and talk about films from the less well known comedians, many of whom he regards as geniuses in their own right. There will be films of Charlie Chase, Billy Bevan, Alice Howell, Ben Turpin, Snub Pollard, Charlie Bowers, Al St. John, Lupino Lane, Lloyd Hamilton, to name just a few of these forgotten comic heroes of the silent screen.

Wednesday – 22nd September

Chaplin’s London in Hollywood: David Trigg
Charlie Chaplin was born in Walworth, not far from here. His father left when Charlie was only three, and he then lived at various addresses in and around the Kennington area with his mother Hannah for the next few years. With two young children and no work she slid into destitution, and eventually the family were admitted to this site – The Lambeth Workhouse. The memories and stigma of the extreme poverty never left him.

A hundred years ago to this day Charlie Chaplin left for America. The film historian David Trigg marks the event with a screening of “The Immigrant” – Chaplin’s take on what it was like to cross the Atlantic and start a new life. Chaplin made this in 1917; three years after his film career began. This will be accompanied live on the piano by Cyrus Gabrysch.

David Trigg, will also show clips from other Chaplin films demonstrating how much the film star’s life in the Kennington area influenced his film making, even to the extent of having sets built based on his own London childhood. David points out that one even resembles the building that is now the home of the Cinema Museum, where Chaplin and his mother spent some considerable time.

Thursday – 21st October

Clapperboard: Graham Murray
Graham Murray wrote and compiled around 500 editions of the popular film programme “Clapperboard” which ran from 1972-1982. Clapperboard was a programme about film history, and was presented each week by Chris Kelly. The series covered all aspects of film making and cinema history. Graham will show some clips of the programme plus a full 45 minute Bank Holiday edition of “Clapperboard”.

Film historian Graham Murray was born in Liverpool and came to London in the late 1950’s. In 1959 he joined the film division of the government’s Central Office of Information, and then joined Granada in 1962. He has worked over the years on a large number of mainly archive film based programmes starting with “All Our Yesterdays” – which looked at our history through the newsreels.

Thursday – 2nd December

From the Picturedrome to the Phoenix
Film historian Gerry Turvey explains how the Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley (built 1910), featuring a later unique art deco auditorium has outlived rival cinemas, including those of the big chains. Moving from mainstream to art-house programming, then becoming a charitable trust and servicing North London’s local communities.

Gerry Turvey’s illustrated talk is based on his new book The Phoenix Cinema, A Century of Film in East Finchley published by Phoenix Cinema Trust. Following its fortunes through the various name changes (Picturedrome, Coliseum, Rex, and Phoenix), physical transformations and programming policies that have helped it to endure and outlast its rivals. The wide-ranging account will describe the Phoenix’s construction in the 1910s, the introduction of orchestras and live variety acts in the 1920s, and the response to the threat from the super-cinemas of the 1930s, how it dealt with the decline of cinema-going in the 1950s, the introduction of ‘art-cinema’ films in the 1970s. The story of this unique cinema will be of interest not only to its past and present audiences but also to all those with an enthusiasm for local history, cinema history and twentieth century development in popular culture and entertainment.

Other events taking which veer into the strange world of talking pictures include A Conversation with Julie Harris (7 October), A Conversation with Angela Allen MBE (4 November) and A Conversation with Burt Kwouk (18 November). And taking place at the Museum on 16 October is the annual Home Movie Day, London’s contribution to the international event promoting the personal film. Members of the public can bring in their home movies for inspection, projection and advice. More information on this from

Finally on 18-19 September there is a weekend fundraising event, a film and movie memorabilia bazaar between 10:00 and 17:00, entrance price £5. There will be dealers’ tables with books, psoters, stills, films, equipment, campaign books, DVDs and more.

More information on the and other upcoming events from the Cinema Museum site.

Performance, realisation and reception

The AHRC-funded Beyond Text Network “The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain” has issued a call for papers for The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain: Performance, Realisation and Reception. The conference takes place Thursday 7-Friday 8 April 2011, at the Institute of Musical Research and the Barbican Centre, London. The deadline for abstracts is 30 November 2010. Here’s the invitation in their words:

We invite papers from all relevant disciplines for the last in a series of events designed to establish and develop a research network concerned with the sonic dimensions of “silent” film exhibition in Britain, interpreted in the broadest possible sense. Papers concerning the performance, presentation and/or reception of these sonic practices are particularly welcome, as are presentations by composers and performers. We are especially interested in papers on British practices, but welcome proposals facilitating comparisons.

Research questions might focus on:

  • Film accompaniment manuals and photoplay collections
  • Key British cinema performers
  • Sonic and musical practices in Britain compared to elsewhere, variations in practices according to county or region, rural versus urban setting, and exhibition context
  • Aspects of cine-variety
  • How differing sonic practices shape our understanding of silent films
  • Relationships between sonic practices and developments in the narrative structure and purpose of early films (e.g. educational, ‘stories’, newsreel, etc.)
  • The practice and/or reception of live accompaniment of early cinema in Britain today (avant garde/pop/historically conscious …)

They invite abstracts of 250 words for individual papers of up to 20 minutes, which should be e-mailed, as a Word attachment, to with the subject line: The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain. They will also consider shorter presentations of around 10 minutes on specific issues relating to the conference themes. These may be grouped into a panel, or sent individually. You should include your name and title, institutional affiliation (if any), email address, and postal address.

As in 2009, the conference will be running alongside the peripatetic British Silent Film Festival 2011, which takes place 7-10 April 2011 at the Barbican. Papers that include a practice element (composition, performance) are particularly welcome for that day.

Postgraduate students working in this, and/or related areas may apply for one of two scholarships (to include basic travel and accommodation, and conference fee and refreshments). Applicants should send the following information to, marking the subject line “PG Scholarships, The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain: name, institution where studying, and an outline of their (related) research project.

More information about the Network, whose previous events have been advertised here, can be found

For questions about the conference or Network, please contact either Dr Julie Brown (Julie.Brown [at] or Dr Annette Davison (a.c.davison [at]

Salim Baba

From time to time I’ve been posting on the bioscope tradition in India and the delightful examples of the handful who preserve the tradition of the travelling bioscope showmen or bioscopewallahs by taking film projectors – sometimes of great age – into the streets to show film clips to audiences of eager children.

This phenomenon has been picked up on by a number of filmmakers, as noted in an earlier post about the bioscopewallahs. Some of these videos are available online, and we have already posted the wonderful Prakash Travelling Cinema about a man who tours the streets of Ahmedabad operating a c.1910 Pathé projector, handcranked but adapted for sound.

Children crowding round the street projector, from Salim Baba

Now another of the films has been published online, Salim Baba, a 15-minute documentary by Tim Sternberg, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2008 in the best short documentary category. It’s about as good a short film as you could hope to find – not startling in any way, just immaculately observant. It tells of 55-year-old Salim Muhammad, who lives in Kolkata and pushes round a small cart with a hand-cranked, customised projector of venerable age (one source says it is an 1897 Bioscope, another says that it is Japanese in origin). Again it has been adapted for sound, and he shows shows snippets of Bollywood songs and action sequences for a gaggle of excited children who crowd round the cart and pop their heads under a curtain to view the blurred and colour faded images. Salim inherited the tradition from his father, who used the same projector from the silent era onwards, and he is now passing it on to his sons. The love of cinema – its contents, its technology and its effect on people – fills the film. Do take a look.

A previous Bioscope post, The last bioscopewallah, tells Salim Muhammad’s story in greater detail.

Acknowledgments to the Documentary Blog where I found the link to the film.

The Muybridge controversy

Eadweard Muybridge, The Human and Animal Locomotion Photographs, published by Taschen

The long-awaited Eadweard Muybridge exhibition opens at Tate Britain on 8 September, running until 16 January 2011. The exhibition has been developed by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC, where it ran April-July under the title Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change. The Tate exhibition is entitled ‘Eadweard Muybridge: The Photographer who Proved Horses Could Fly’, which has to win some sort of an award for direst exhibition subtitle of the decade, but the change from the Washington show is significant. Because since the Muybridge show opened in America controversy has arisen over the authenticity of some of Muybridge’s works, and in particular the name ‘Helios’.

‘Helios’ was a name adopted by Eadweard Muybridge when marketing his photographs in the United States in the 1860s, in the period before he took up sequence photography. Muybridge had emigrated from the UK to the USA in 1851, when his surname was still that which his parents would have recognised, Muggeridge, and initially was involved in book selling. He moved to California and changed his name to Muygridge. After a traumatic stagecoach crash he returned to Britain in 1860. The biography is a bit vague for the next few years, but somewhere along the line he pick up considerable skills in the wet collodion photographic process. He returned to the United States in 1867, traded as Helios, and revealed himself to be a photographic genius (now named Muybridge), with stereoscopic and panoramic views of landscapes and cityscapes which reached the pinnacle of the art-form. Then in 1872 he was approached by railroad baron Leland Stanford to help settle a debate about whether a horses hooves left the ground when galloping, using rapid photography, and the rest was proto-motion picture history.

‘Helios’ photograph of Yosemite Falls, credited to Eadweard Muybridge, from Yosemite: Its Wonders and Its Beauties (1868) by John S. Hittell, c/o Note the ‘Helios’ credit in the bottom right-hand corner

The controversy lies in the ‘Helios’ period. Just as the Washington exhibition opened, a photography historian Weston Naef was interviewed for a fairly explosive three-part piece about Muybridge for Artinfo which claimed that much of Muybridge’s work at this time was the work of another photographer, Carleton Watkins, who photographed the Yosemite region at around the ame time as Muybridge. Here are the three parts:

You’ll have to read Naef’s interview to get the full conspiracy theory, but essentially he argues that Muybridge bought negatives from other photographers, particularly Watkins, marketing them under the ‘Helios’ name, then goes on to claim that Watkins taught Muybridge all he knew, sometimes standing over him to coach him (there is no evidence for either of those last two assertions). There are two aspects to this: the arguments and the conclusion. The arguments range from the intriguing to the silly. The silliest is where Naef says that no one could become a photographic genius with the speed that Muybridge showed, giving this reasoning:

It seems very likely that when Muybridge returned to San Francisco in 1867 that he would have acquired — in the same way he acquired patents and the rights to publish books — he would have used the same kind of method to establish himself in a new business in San Francisco, and that new business would have been as a publisher of photographs rather than as a maker of them. There is no evidence for how in 1868 he could have gained the mastery required to make many of the exceptional small works that are on view in the first several galleries. The mystery remains: When did Muybridge perform the 10,000 hours of practice in photography that people who are involved in studying the psychology of learning believe is required to become a world-class master in any subject?

What tosh. There are very few people who put in 10,000 hours of practice at anything and come out geniuses. They come out as averagely proficient. Geniuses tend to leap-frog the stages that we ordinary mortals have to follow, and to do so damn quickly. Muybridge was a photographic genius because he was gifted.

But if some of the reasoning is faulty (and I should add that Naef has many more arguments in favour of the photographer he admires, namely Watkins), the conclusion has an element of probability about it. Why might not have Muybridge marketed the work of others under the Helios trademark? He was a businessman before he became an artist (or scientist, depending on your point of view). It may have taken a while before he saw photographs as something he wanted to create rather than objects he wanted to sell. It’s a speculative area that merits further investigation, but with the realisation that this is but one small aspect of the career of a major creative artist. One of the exciting things about Muybridge is that we are still discovering so much about him, and that so many intriguing mysteries remain about him.

Naef’s allegations have led to all sorts of online speculation. The best responses have been Muybridge authority Stephen Herbert’s Muy Blog, which looks at Muybridge’s ‘lost’ years of the 1860s while artfully debunking Naef, and Rebecca Solnit, author of the excellent Muybridge biography Motion Studies (aka River of Shadows) whose piece in The Guardian ably defends Muybridge against the campaign of innuendo.

Part of Muybridge’s 1878 photographic panorama of San Francisco, from America Hurrah!

Meanwhile, there’s a major exhibition to enjoy, which promises to bring together “the full range of his art for the first time”, exploring the ways win which Muybridge created and honed such remarkable images, works which influenced artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Francis Bacon and Philip Glass’s music, and which continue to resonate powerfully with artists today. Highlights include a seventeen foot panorama of San Francisco and recreations of the Zoopraxiscope (pre-film motion pictures on a disc) in action.

Needless to say, plenty of associated publications and events will be around to coincide with the exhibition. Most exciting among the former is probably going to be Taschen’s monumental Eadweard Muybridge, The Human and Animal Locomotion Photographs (published 25 September), put together by Hans Christian Adam. This reproduces all 781 plates from Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion (1887), the entirety of The Attitudes of Animals in Motion (1881), and an authoritative chronology by Stephen Herbert. At long last it looks like we have a replacement for the venerable volumes produced by Dover Publications. No less essential will be Marta Braun’s new biography, Eadweard Muybridge, published on 24 September, by Reaktion. Plus there’s the exhibition book, Eadweard Muybridge, edited by Philip Brookman, and from the Tate shop an irresistible selection of Muybridgean goodies, including posters, bags, calendars, prints, postcards, notebooks, T-shirts, rulers, and the inevitable fridge magnets.

Muybridge photographic sequences, from

On the events side, Muy Blog provides this list (with the promise of adding more as they emerge):

Eadweard Muybridge at Tate Britain
8 Sept – 16 Jan
Tate Britain, Millbank
First major UK retrospective of Muybridge’s entire career.
Tickets £10/£8.50 from htpp://

Muybridge in Kingston Launch Day
Sat 18 Sept 12.30-7pm
Kingston Museum & Stanley Picker Gallery
Public launch of the Muybridge in Kingston exhibitions with special events for all the family, including a magic lantern show from Professor Heard, shadow puppetry from Zannie Fraser and an evening launch lecture on Muybridge’s links to the history of the moving and projected image by Muybridge expert Stephen Herbert.
All welcome – no booking required.

Park Nights at Serpentine Gallery Pavilion
Becky Beasley & Chris Sharp
Fri 24 Sept 8pm
Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens
13 pieces, 17 feet is a monologue in thirteen parts that finds its point of departure in Muybridge’s extraordinary 1878 San Francisco panorama.
Tickets £5/£4 from

Late at Tate: Eadweard Muybridge
Fri 1 Oct 6pm-10pm
Tate Britain, Millbank
An evening of Muybridge-inspired events.
Visit htpp:// for further details.

In Conversation: Trevor Appleson
Wed 6 October 7pm
Stanley Picker Gallery
Exploring Muybridge’s influence on contemporary arts practitioners.
Limited seating – to reserve a FREE place please call 020 8417 4074

Muybridge & Moving Image History
Thurs 14 Oct, 28 Oct & 11 Nov 7pm
Kingston Museum
Evening lecture series offering unique insights into the relationship between Muybridge’s work and the history of visuality, film and animation.
Limited seating – to reserve a FREE place please call 020 8547 6460

See also the events programme given on the Muybridge at Kingston site (Kingston-on-Thames being the birth and deathplace of Muybridge and home of a huge collection of his works at its museum).

Once again, the Tate Britain exhibition runs from 8 September 2010 to 16 January 2011.

Well, all I can say is, beat that, Carleton Watkins.

Spinning the Spirograph

A Spirograph with disc in position, from

We all know about having motion pictures in disc form. DVD and increasingly Blu-Ray are the domestic formats of choice, and we all understand that films need not appear as strips of film. What is not generally known is that there is nothing new about films in disc form, indeed that films could be found in this form from the earliest years of cinema – indeed the disc form precedes the motion picture film. The recent appearance online (40MB) of a catalogue for the most significant of the film disc formats before DVD – the Spirograph – is the spur for this quick history of the format.

Before there were films there were motion pictures in disc or in circular form. A number of the optical toys and motion picture devices of the nineteenth century involved sequences of images arranged around a disc, with some form of intermittency to enable the viewer to experience the illusion of movement. They included the Phenakistoscope (figures on a disc with slotted edges, effect illustrated here from MOMI), the Zoetrope (sequential images aranged around the inside of a drum with slit holes) and Eadweard Muybridge’s Zoöpraxiscope, which projected images in motion arranged around the edge of a glass disc.

When inventors first began combining the principles of such optical devices with photography, again some looked to discs to provide the solution, particularly if they were reproducing brief sequences (i.e. brief enough to fit within one rotation of the disc. In 1884 John Rudge patented a device which exhibited seven sequential lantern slides of posed photographs (so not motion truly captured by photography) arranged in a circle. The 1887 Tachyscope of Ottomar Anschütz exhibited a disk of twenty-four glass 9×12 cm diapositives turned by a crank. In 1892 Georges Demenÿ took sequential photographic images on celluloid film which were transferred to a glass disc and projected by means of his Phonoscope device (also known as a Bioscope, above). The sequences, of which a man mouthing the words ‘Je vous aime’ is the most famous, were fleeting, but they were motion pictures derived from photographs.

The problem with the use of glass discs was the brevity of the motion sequences. However, before he introduced his successful motion picture system utilising 35mm film strips, Thomas Edison had instructed his engineers to produce a viewing system which arranged celluloid images in micro-form around a cylinder. This wasn’t just being circular for circularity’s sake – the idea was to match motion pictures to devices for the playback of sounds (in this case, Edison’s Phonograph), and early motion picture efforts at creating a disc-based system were clearly driven by a belief that emulating the gramophone disc was the route to creating a successful device for home use.

Kammatograph, from

It is often forgotten that many of the first motion picture producers saw the domestic market as being their route to riches. This made sense. The Eastman Kodak had put still photography in the hands of anyone; surely the same would occur for motion photography. It was a market that would remain elusive until the introduction (by Eastman) of 16mm film in 1923, but among the various attempts to crack the amateur market were disc-based systems, which offered a simpler, safer option to cameras and projectors using inflammable film.

Among the first and most significant of these was the Kammatograph. Invented in 1898 and marketed from 1900 by Leonard Ulrich Kamm, a Bavarian-born, London-based engineer, the Kammatograph utilised a 12-inch circular glass plate with notched edges caught by gearing with provided the necessary intermittency. There were 350 or 550 sequential images on the disc, arranged in a spiral, giving 30 or 45 seconds running time. It was aimed at the amateur market, and with those lengths of ‘film’ the idea must have been to encourage the filming of portrait shots, akin to snapshots. Not that much is known about the actual use of the Kammatograph, but two of the most prominent users of the device were not ordinary members of the public. William Norman Lascelles Davidson used a Kammatograph for his 1901 experiments on colour cinematography, while Rina Scott (Mrs D.H. Scott) was a botanist who used a customed Kammatograph to make time-lapse films of plant growth.

Theodore Brown with his invention, the Spirograph

There were other disc-based systems at this time, often developed as toys for children, among them Cinéphot developed by Clermont-Huet in 1904 and the Animatograph of Alexander Victor in 1909. However the great name is the pre-DVD history of disc-based cinema is the Spirograph. Its history is one of what-might-have-been, and it has of late become an almost cultish subject for those interested in forward-thinking technologies that nevertheless failed to succeed commercially.

The Spirograph was the creation of British inventor Theodore Brown (his wife Bessie was co-patentee) in 1907. It followed the basic idea behind the Kammatograph in presenting motion pictures in the form of miniaturised images arranged on a disc – though Brown’s original idea was to have the images arranged concentrically (he was thinking of very brief sequences and aiming for the toy market), and was tending towards using celluloid rather than glass. However his patent stated that the images could be arranged concentrically or spirally. Brown took the idea to documentary producer Charles Urban, who purchased the patent outright from Brown (supposedly for the hefty sum of $18,000, or £3,600). Urban did not work on the idea immediately, and indeed it was in need of considerable development work before it could be brought to market on the scale that Urban envisaged.

During the First World War, Urban put his engineer Henry Joy onto the task. The images were now arranged in a spiral, the results looking remarkably close to Victor’s earlier Animatograph. The first commercial version was due to appear in the USA in 1917, under the name of the Spiragraph [sic], and then the Homovie. There was no camera planned for sale, only a projector. But a hoped for $1,000,000 flotation of the Urban Spiragraph Corporation was a failure, and further work was held off until after the war.

Spirograph disc and the disc in its sleeve, c.1924, from

Urban attempted to re-introduce the re-named Spirograph through his post-war American business Urban Motion Picture Industries, located at Irvington-on-Hudson. The Spirograph in its final form was designed for simplicity of use, being a compact box on a small plinth, operated by a handle, with the exposed disc mounted on the front. The 10½ inch disc was made of safety (i.e. non-flammable) celluloid film, and carried 1,200 frames in a spiral of twelve rows, each frame being 0.22 inches x 0.16 inches. These were miniaturised via a microscopic device from standard 35mm films in the Urban library (using original films between 85 and 100 feet in length, or no more than one-and-a-half minutes long). The Spirograph could project an image four feet wide at a distance of twenty-five feet. It was hand-cranked, with an electrical lamp, and users could halt the disc at any point for illustrative purposes. It was a liberating technology, devised with the teacher in mind – portable, flexible, affordable (the price was to have been $125 per machine and $1.00 per disc), easy to use and useful, except that the films themselves were so short. You can only get so many physical images on a disc. And that probably spelled the Spirograph’s doom

Urban’s intention was to make a huge impact on the burgeoning educational market. While his initial target in 1917 seems to have the home user, now he saw schools, clubs and libraries as his main audience, and he devised imaginative subscription schemes for the hire and return of discs. Urban’s extensive library of non-fiction films stretching back to 1903 would supply the content, thereby finding a new outlet for films that had otherwise ceased to have a commercial value. By the end of 1922 a substantial library of discs was prepared, described in lavish catalogues, with 4,000 Spirographs ready for shipment [update: it is very unlikely that there were actually 4,000 Spirographs made], and a major publicity programme in readiness. But it never happened. Urban’s business overall hit the rocks in 1923 – a simple case of trying to do too much with too little money behind him – and Urban Motion Picture Industries went into receivership in 1924. The Spirograph never made it into the thousands of schools, clubs, halls and homes that Urban dreamt of, and 16mm film (introduced in that fateful year of 1923) gave the target audience a technology that was just as safe and could provide longer films. The Spirograph could be spun no more.

However, that wasn’t quite the end of the Spirograph. The appearance online at the Bibliothèque numérique du cinéma of a 1928 catalogue of Spirograph discs (40MB) shows that the Spirograph did have some sort of commercial life. After the collapse of Urban Motion Picture Industries in 1924 various parts of the Urban empire were picked up by a number of companies, some created for the purpose, among them the Spiro Film Corporation. Little is known about the New York-based company except the obvious source of its name, but clearly it was catering for a market which already had its Spirograph players, since the catalogue makes no mention of how to obtain these, instead restricting itself to listing and describing the 400 discs in the Spirograph collection under such headings as Science, Literature, Government, Physical Activities and Our Government. Theodore Brown himself picked up on residual rights in the Spirograph to market the device in the UK after 1924, but neither he nor Spiro made any success of a technology whose time had passed before it even had a chance to get going.

So the Spirograph Library of Motion Picture Discs (1928) goes into the Bioscope Library’s Catalogues and databases section as part of Catalogue month (which has now crept inexorably into September). The Spirograph is a fascinating technology, not just for its ingenuity but for its potential based around the needs of those outside the commercial exhibition sector. It put the individual user first. Film history, indeed technological history overall, is filled with blind alleys. Looking back on failed systems and collapsing businesses we can see different ways in which things might have gone, and contemplate an alternative cinema history. Instead it took until the 1980s for films to return to disc form for the domestic market (Laser Discs) and the mid-1990s for DVD to gain widespread acceptance among people at large, not because they wanted to be educated but because they wanted to be entertained. And the films were longer.

Finding out more

  • Stephen Herbert’s Theodore Brown’s Magic Pictures is a beautifully-illustrated biography of the Spirograph’s multi-talented inventor
  • On Charles Urban’s Irvington-on-Hudson venure, including the fateful development of the Spirograph, see my Charles Urban website
  • Close-up images of a Spirograph and disc are available on the Spira Collection site (no connection with Spirograph itself – it is the collection of George Spira)
  • A illustrated list of glass and disc-based motion picture systems is given on the very useful One Hundred Years of Film Sizes site (though the dates given for the Spirograph are incorrect)
  • In 2003 a George Eastman House restoration of a Spirograph disc entitled Man’s Best Friends (i.e. dogs) was presented (on the big screen in 35mm!) at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival (the catalogue date of c.1913 is incorrect – the disc would be c.1921-22)

Tuff times are here again

“emBodying Toronto” by Joyce Wong and Sonia Hong, 1st Place Winner at TUFF 2009

TUFF is the annuel Toronto Urban Film Festival, which has the noble ambition of showing new silent films to the commuters of Toronto. The festival, which takes place 10-19 September 2010, 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 ten days, reaching 1.3 million daily commuters. The top three films of the festival are chosen by a guest jury and guest judge; this year the judge is director, producer and screenwriter Deepa Mehta. The festival is now in its fourth year.

TUFF films on exhibition on a Toronto subway platform

TUFF is open to Canadian 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. Only the leading entrants in each category get to be screened on the TTC, from the hundreds of submissions made each year. The winning videos in each category from 2009 are now available to view on the TUFF site or on the festival’s YouTube channel (including entries from previous years).