Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked


Edison studio with battery of lights and electrically-driven camera, from Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked

There has been a rush of newly-available e-books on the Internet Archive following expansion of digitisation activity on Google Books, and we’ll be pointing out some of the key titles in coming weeks and placing them in the Bioscope Library. First up is one of the classic early texts on film, a reference work still cited today, F.A. Talbot’s Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked.

Frederick A. Talbot was a British writer of popular works on science and engineering subjects, but had a special interest in motion pictures, producing both Moving Pictures (1912) and Practical Cinematography and its Applications (previously written about here) in 1913. Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked was originally published in Britain in 1912, in a revised edition in America in Britain in 1914, and a second, completely re-written edition in 1923. The copy in the Internet Archive is the 1914 revision, though it seems to be largely the same as the 1912 original.

Talbot’s task was to explain the phenomenon of the new age. “A vast industry has been established”, he writes, “of which the great majority of picture-palace patrons have no idea, and he moment appears timely to describe the many branches of the art”. Talbot’s focus is on technology and industry, rather than art or entertainment, and his chief interest is in the motion picture as a medium of discovery. But unlike the many dry works from this period which explain the mechanics of motion picture production and exhibition for the benefit of the technician, Talbot’s book bubbles over with enthusiasm. Some of his judgements need to be challenged, but his keen eye and thorough research (including contact with many of the leading figures in the industry) have kept the book fresh and valuable to this day. It is easy to read, and a easy source for good quotations.

He begins by explaining how we are able to see “animated photography”, and it is this section that has probably had the most influence, as Talbot’s somewhat muddled explanation of the “persistence of vision” has been taken as lightly read by many writers. We now know that the persistence of vision is not the reason why we are able to perceive motion (whether motion pictures or any other kind of motion, which is the real matter in hand – see an earlier post on this for an attempt at an explanation). Michael Chanan’s The Dream that Kicks is recommended for its sympathetic analysis of what Talbot got wrong yet how he struggled for the right answer at a time when science (optics etc.) had not properly supplied the information needed.


Talbot find more solid ground when he traces the history of the medium, through experiments in sequence photography of Marey and Muybridge, the discovery of celluloid, the construction of the Edison Kinetoscope and other machines, before moving on to perforations, celluloid manufacture, the taking, developing and printing of films, and their exhibition. He covers the staging of fiction films, though his interest is more in the mechanics than the aesthetics, while his real passion is revealed to be the trick film. Talbot devotes a remarkable six chapters to the trick film, revealing an almost childish enthusiasm for the simple transposition, substitution and distortion effects which characterised early trick films (and which were mostly well out-of-date by the time he wrote the book). The photograph comes from The Automobile Accident (man is driven over by a car, severing his legs, which are then repaired by a passing doctor) which he illustrates and explains in minute detail.

Talbot’s other great enthusiasm is for the motion picture as a medium of education and science. There is some fascinating, well-observed material on microcinematography, electric cinematography and chronophotography, with information (and fine illustrations) gleaned from experimenters such as Percy Smith, Jean Comandon, E.J. Marey and Lucien Bull. Finally, Talbot speculates most interestingly on the possibility of the motion picture as a news medium (“the animated newspaper”, or newsreel, was in its infancy), films in colour (he is an observant Kinemacolor sceptic) and motion pictures in the home.

Though care needs to be taken over some of the evidence and its presentation, Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked still stands up as a fine illustration of what possibilities lay before a young medium whose rules had not yet been firmly established. In the 1923 edition Talbot expresses some disappointment that progress in the fields of education and science “has been less spectacular than in that devoted to pure entertainment”. In 1912 motion pictures might yet do anything.

Moving Pictures is available from the Internet Archive in Flip Book (25MB), PDF (6.9MB), full text (702KB) and DjVu (8MB) formats). Note that the PDF link takes you to a Google page which seem only to have sections of the book available – the full PDF version can be found by clicking on the Internet Archive’s “All files: http” link.

New science, old science

The New Scientist magazine has published this short video of early science film (from the BFI National Archive) to coincide with the Films of Fact exhibition at the Science Museum and the book of the same title by Tim Boon.

The video is a peculiar hodge-podge (goodness knows what the still from the 1960s BBC series Tomorrow’s World is doing in there), and early cinema clearly isn’t the commentator’s strong point, but you do get Tim Boon sneaking in a few words of wisdom, plus clips from F. Martin Duncan’s now legendary Cheese Mites (1903), Percy Smith’s time-lapse masterpiece The Birth of a Flower (1910) and and his perenially eye-popping The Acrobatic Fly (1908). Somewhat less scientifically, you also get a glimpse of one of my all-time favourite film titles, Edison’s Laura Comstock’s Bag-Punching Dog (1901), plus other Edison clips whose presence is difficult to comprehend.

For information on book, exhibition and filmmakers, see the earlier Seeing the Unseen World post.

Seeing the unseen world

Francis Martin Duncan with microcinematographical equipment

Opening today is an exhibition at the Science Museum on the history of the science film. Entitled Films of Fact, it looks at the development of scientific films and television programmes from 1903 to 1965. Its subject, and that of the book that accompanies it, is not really scientific film as in film used in the study of science, but rather the presentation of science on film. So it’s about popularisation and communication.

Films of Fact as a title comes from the name of the company of social documentarist Paul Rotha, once renowned not just as a filmmaker but as a theorist and film historian. But the exhibition also focuses on an earlier period, when science film meant films of nature, and it has generated quite a bit of press interest in one film in particular, Cheese Mites, made by zoologist Francis Martin Duncan in 1903 using microcinematopgrahic equipment (microscope + cine camera, basically) for producer Charles Urban. Urban had had the extraordinary idea of putting science films before a music hall audience, in a show he called The Unseen World. This contemporary review from the Daily Telegraph gives an idea of the astonished audience reaction:

Science has just added a new marvel to the marvelous powers of the Bioscope. A few years ago it was thought sufficiently wonderful to show the picture of a frog jumping. Go to the Alhambra this week and you may seen upon the screen the blood circulating in that same frog’s foot. This sounds a trifle incredible, but it is an exact statement of the truth. The new miracle has been performed by the adaptation of the microscope to the camera which takes the Bioscope films. Last night The Charles Urban Trading Company Ltd, who has taken the photographs, had many other miracles to show and explain to a fascinated audience. There was a blood-curdling picture of cheese-mites taking their walks abroad, the tiny creatures looking on the screen as large as small crabs. The minute hydra which lives in stagnant water appeared shooting out its tentacles and taking a meal … Twenty-five minutes, the length of the exhibition, is a long time to give to a Bioscope turn, but the rapt attention of the audience and the thunders of applause at the conclusion testified to the way in which popularity had been at once secured by these unique pictures.

Cheese Mites (1903)

Cheese Mites was the hit of the show, and is only one the Unseen World films to survive (the BFI has it). Originally the film just showed the magnified creatures. Later Urban added a comic framing story, as this Charles Urban Trading Company catalogue entry explains:

A gentleman reading the paper and seated at lunch, suddenly detects something the matter with his cheese. He examines it with his magnifying glass, starts up and flings the cheese away, frightened at the sight of the creeping mites which his magnifying glass reveals. A ripe piece of Stilton, the size of a shilling, will contain several hundred cheese mites. In this remarkable film, the mites are seen crawling and creeping about in all directions, looking like great uncanny crabs, bristling with long spiny hairs and legs.

Unfortunately, these extra scenes don’t survive. There’s a news report on the BBC site about the exhibition, which include the Cheese Mites film, so do take a look, and ponder the alarm that was said at the time to have spread among cheese manufacturers, who begged for the film to be stopped being shown. There’s also an article in this week’s New Scientist magazine which tells the story behind the film and that of Percy Smith, a later collaborator with Charles Urban, who made such classics as The Balancing Bluebottle (1908) and The Birth of a Flower (1910), employing time-lapse photography, before going on to make the once-famous series The Secrets of Nature in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Acrobatic Fly (a retitled version of The Balancing Bluebottle), made by Percy Smith in 1908. As Smith explained, “The fly is quite uninjured and is merely supported by a silken band when performing with weights which would otherwise overbalance it. When its feats are accomplished it is allowed to fly away.”

And then there’s the book. Timothy Boon’s Films of Fact: A History of Science in Documentary Film and Television is something quite special. It’s a history of a type of film which has barely been covered by historians, and has much that is new or revalatory, for the silent era and beyond. But it’s also a cultural history, which addresses why these films were made, what the popularisation of science means, and how science relates to society at large. It’s an exciting read, and I’ll try and give it more space at another time, while looking at the literature of the early science film in general. Anyway, Charles Urban, F. Martin Duncan and Percy Smith are the flavour of the moment, which is unexpected but should be fun while it lasts. I saw Cheese Mites and Percy Smith’s The Acrobatic Fly shown before an audience this evening, and they excited much the same mixture of amusement and amazement as they did a century ago. The filmmakers of old did know a thing or two.

The Science Museum exhibition runs until February 2009.

Shell shocked

War Neuroses: Netley 1917, Seale Hayne Military Hospital 1918, from

I’ve been reading (well, skimming through) Philip Hoare’s Spike Island, which is a poetic, not to say rococo history of the Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley, Hampshire. This is a building with a rich cultural history centring around its role during the First World War, where it was home to many casualties of the war, including Wilfred Owen, and became well known for treating victims of shell shock.

You’ll find many an account of the experiments and therapies for shellshock at Netley and elsewhere, from the sentimental to the Freudian. What concerns us here is the contemporary film record. One of the most notable films of the First World War, by what ever criteria you care to mention, is War Neuroses: Netley 1917, Seale Hayne Military Hospital 1918, made by Pathé (British branch) in 1918, which Hoare covers in some detail. War Neuroses shows the psychotherapeutic treatment of shell shock victims at Netley and Seale Hayne (Devon) military hospital, featuring the treatments undertaken by Doctors Arthur Hurst and J.L.M. Symns of the Royal Army Medical Corps. The catalogue of the Wellcome Trust Moving Image and Sound Collection describes the film thus:

Shows the symptomatology of “shell-shock” in 18 British “other rankers” and its treatment by two leading R.A.M.C. neurologists in two British military hospitals towards the end of the First World War. Captions tell us the men’s names, rank, medical condition, details of their symptoms and how long it took to complete the cure, which in one case was in two and a half hours. Clinical features shown include a variety of ataxic and “hysterical” gaits; hysterical paralyses, contractures and anaesthesias; facial ties and spasms; loss of knee and ankle-jerk reflexes; paraplegia; “war hyperthyrodism”; amnesia; word-blindness and word-deafness. Although there are no precise details of the kind of treatment given, apart from the description ‘cured and re-educated’ we do see a little physiotherapy and hypnotic suggestion in treatment, and of ‘cured’ men undertaking farm-work, drill and a mock battles entitled ‘Re-enacting the Battle of Seale Hayne / Convalescent war neurosis patients’.

At least three versions of the film exist. There are copies at the Wellcome, the BFI National Archive and the Imperial War Museum, but the ones to draw your attention to here are the versions held by British Pathe (currently managed by ITN). Pathé were the original producers, but not everyone might think to find it in the British Pathe online newsreel library, but there it is – or there they are – available for free download, albeit in low resolution.

Private Ross Smith (above), facial spams, and Private Read, hysterical gait, swaying movement and nose-wiping tic

There are five parts of the films on the British Pathe site: War Neuroses Version A reel 1, War Neuroses Version A reel 2, War Neuroses version B reel 1, War Neuroses version B reel 2 and Wonderful Shell Shock Recovery. For some impenetrable reason only two come up if you type in the words ‘war neuroses’ into the search box; type ‘netley’ instead and you’ll get all five. As indicated, there are two versions available (Wonderful Shell Shock Recovery is a fragment repeating scenes from the other films). The different versions, however, appear to be simply re-edits of the same material, with Version B being the most complete, with opening titles and scenes of some patients that Version A lacks. In its fullest form the film last around 25 mins. It is necessary to download the films (i.e. they won’t play instantly), with the site requiring you to fill out personal details before you do so.

The film demonstrates the symptoms of those suffering from shell shock, and are often quite heartbreaking. Private Preston, aged 19, we are told suffers from ‘Amnesia, word blindess and word deafness, except the the word “Bombs!”‘ He is shown sitting up in bed talking to one of the doctors, the key word is spoken, and immediately hides under the bed, and only reluctantly coming out again. Private Meek, aged 23, suffers ‘complete retrograde amnesia, hysterical paralysis, contractures, mutism and universal anaesthesia’. We see him seated in a wheelchair outside the hospital, legs rigid, leaning sideways, mvoing in awkward jerks and biting his thumb, while a nurse attends to him. It is a characteristic of War Neuroses that we see see before-and-after cases. So, after unseen treatment, we next meet Private Meek walking stiffly towards a group of patients weaving baskets (his peace time job), and later walking completely normally.

There are numerous such examples, the men shown with various forms of uncontrollable nervous spasms, next shown moving more or at less at ease, their return to normality sometimes illustrated by their performing tasks around the hospital as occupational therapy. One of the most distressing sequences is that of an unnamed patient (illustrated at the top of this post) suffering from hysterical pseudo-pseudohypertrophic muscular paralysis. We see the man in a dormitory, dressed only in a loin cloth. He walks with pathetic, angular awkwardness in a circle, before falling down, unable to get up without huge struggle. Next we see him in hospital uniform, walking calmly towards the camera. The reassuring scenes of rehabilitation seem almost as disturbing as the scenes of affliction. How can such mental wounds be healed so easily?

The purpose of the physical and psychotherapeutic treatment was not simply to cure, but to make the men literally fighting fit once more. Four-fifths of men who had been entering hospital suffering from shell shock were unable to return to military duty; the military authorities wanted to reverse this. What happened to the named and nameless soldiers seen in War Neuroses? One hopes fervently that none were returned to the battlefield. So what to make of the final scene from the film, where patients are shown taking part in a re-enacted battle scene: ‘The Battle of Seale Hayne, directed, photographed and acted by convalescent war neurosis patients’? Innovative psychodrama aimed at a final cure, or rehabilitation for war? Have we seen an actuality record, or a dramatisation of recovery to satisfy the wishes of those who chose to commission the film?

I don’t know enough of the history, either of the film (no one knows who the cameraman was, or much at all about the film’s production) or of the treatment of shell shock. It’s a subject that some have written about in great depth, yet it seems a subject where we still have much to learn. The film – which I urge you to see – provides no answers, only asks searching questions. Which is what films are there to do, whether they realise it or not.

Update (April 2009): A higher resolution copy of the film is available from the Wellcome Trust site, at, as complete film and as four segments, plus a detailed catalogue record. Also, British Pathe is no longer managed by ITN Source.

Animals in motion

These are heady times for the Bioscope, with hundreds of visitors all in pursuit of information on Paul Merton, following the mention of his new book and Silent Clowns tour on Have I Got News for You. So, what can we do to catch the eyes of these passing visitors and maybe entice them to find out more about the worlds of early and silent cinema? Well, what about some nineteenth-century studies of animal motion?

Mohammed running

Mohammed Running, from The Horse in Motion

So, we have two new additions to the Bioscope Library, the first of which is The Horse in Motion, by J.D.B. Stillman, published in 1882. Who he? Well therein lies a tale, because the true author of this work should have been the rather better-known Eadweard Muybridge. The book, commissioned by Muybridge’s patron, the railroad baron Leland Stanford, was based on Muybridge’s now famous photographic studies of a horse galloping. But master and reluctant servant had fallen out, and the book was published under Stillman’s name, giving Muybridge negligible credit. The book contains detailed description of the studies into the motion of the horse (and other quadrupeds), with five of Muybridge’s photographs and ninety-one lithographs based on his photographs, plus line drawings. The book’s publication caused considerable embarrassment to Muybridge at the time, as his contribution to the scientific studies was now questioned by several authorities, but it is an important publication nonetheless in the history which took us from sequence photography (or chronophotography) to the successful creation of cinema. It’s available from the Internet Archive in DjVU (6MB), PDF (67MB) and TXT (279KB) formats.

Marey runner

‘Runner provided with the apparatus intended to register his different paces’, from Animal Mechanism

It’s a happier tale to tell with our other, complementary, addition to the Library, Etienne-Jules Marey‘s Animal Mechanism, or La machine animale, first published in 1873. This was the published expression of Marey’s ‘methode graphique’, where, by a variety of graphical devices devised for the measurement of animal motion, Marey was able to demonstrate diagrammatically the walking motion of humans and horses, and the the flight of birds and insects. By this publication, Marey opened up a world of study not previously imagined, and inspired Muybridge and Stanford to undertake their own investigations. Marey did not use photography for Animal Mechanism, but, inspired in turn by Muybridge’s work, would go on to experiment extensively with sequence photographs, developing the science of chronophotography, and through it the mechanism for cinematography. The Internet Archive has both the 1879 American edition, in DjVu (9.9MB), PDF (20MB), b/w PDF (12MB) and TXT (582KB) formats, and the English third edition (not so well scanned), in DjVu only (33MB).

Science is Fiction

The new BFI DVD of the surreally beautiful films of scientific filmmaker Jean Painlevé, Science is Fiction, looks marvellous just by itself, but for lovers of early scientific films (there are a handful of us) the DVD also includes Percy Smith‘s The Birth of a Flower (1910) and The Strength and Agility of Insects (1911, though this is actually the retitled The Balancing Bluebottle from 1908), with its cork-juggling flies.