Impossible cameras

Birt Acres filming the Derby at Epsom in 1895, and a modern recreation of the Acres camera, from

It is not only films that are lost; too often it is film technology too. Many of the cameras, projectors and other equipment of the earliest years of cinema before such machines were manufactured en masse have disappeared. Other early cameras and projectors exist as single models, lovingly cared for by museums and collectors, but inevitably inaccessible to most. We do have the patent records, and they can tell the specialist a lot, but there is nothing quite like having the real machine in front of you for a proper realisation of history.

In 2000 the collector Gordon Trewinnard began a project to create working replicas of the first motion picture cameras. With advice from early film tchnology specialist Stephen Herbert and with the engineering skills of some bright and dedicated people, he has funded the production of a number of cameras key to motion picture history. This has not been just an exercise in creating objects a collector might not otherwise be able to obtain. The construction of the cameras (which can of course be used to shoot film) not increases our understanding of early film practice, but can overturn previously held assumptions derived from documentation alone.

The key example is the camera illustrated above, used by British film pioneer Birt Acres to film the 1895 Derby. For years film historians have followed arguments made by John Barnes that there was a camera built by Acres and Robert Paul (known familiarly as the ‘Paul-Acres’ camera) which no longer existed, but whose historical validity was confirmed by patent specifications and workshop drawings. The Trewinnard project has demonstrated that the camera posited in these documents could never have worked:

It soon became clear that the design as shown in the British patent would not have worked – there was a serious error in the gear ratio in relation to the cam and sprocket teeth – and the design shown in a workshop drawing would not have produced the profile that can be seen in the photograph of Acres filming the Derby horse race in the Spring of 1895.

Instead the camera ued by Acres to film the Derby (and presumably earlier films) matches a later German patent, Acres having journeyed to Germany just days after filming the Derby. The fine details of who did what, with what, and with what effectiveness, in the earliest months of British film are mostly of concern only to the specialist, such is the complexity of the technical matters at hand. But what is clear is that building the camera that no longer exists has changed film history, and a few bright minds are going to go back to the drawing board and find out what exactly did happen between Acres and Paul in 1895.

Replica of Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince’s single lens camera of 1888

The Acres camera is illustrated in gleaming detail on the new project website, The Impossible Cameras. Other cameras on display, with authoritative explanatory texts, are Georges Demenÿ‘s Chronophotographe of 1895-96 (based on a surviving example in the collection of the Cinématheque Française); Wordsworth Donisthorpe and William Carr Crofts’ lost Kinesigraph of 1889, which successfully shot a test film of Trafalgar Square in 1890 and owes much of its design ideas to the wool-combing machines developed by the inventors’ fathers; the American Charles Francis Jenkins‘ Phantascope of 1894 continuous-motion film camera with four lenses (the original of which is long lost), which has been sucessfully tested i.e. by shooting film; and Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince‘s single lens camera of 1888.

The Impossible Cameras documents the project so far. The aim is produce recreations of thirteen cameras in all. It will be particularly fascinating to find out what they learn from reconstructing the little-known Léon Guillaume Bouly‘s Cinématographe, patented in 1892 three years before the Lumière brothers appropriated the name for their own invention. Meanwhile what we have here is what is known as experimental or reconstruction archaeology – building lost technologies or artefacts to see if they actually worked – applied to film history. It’s a lesson to us all never to take anything for granted, nor to accept that any sort of history is necessarily lost. It just takes a little application, and imagination.

New York, New York

A rare photograph showing the interior of a film business preview theatre, at the offices of American Cinephone Co., 124 East 25th Street, NYC, in 1910, from the MCNY Collections Portal

Now here’s an excellent resource for you. In 2010 the Museum of the City of New York launched its Collections Portal, opening up nearly 100,000 archival images of New York City to the web world. The collection is being added to all the time – a substantial collection of digitised postcards has just been added – and needless to say it offers plenty for the researcher interested in silent films.

The site is simple to use. The front page offers a striking browse option, where you can scroll laterally through images on the themes of Bridges, People, Waterfront, Skylines or Prints for Sale; or else by Borough (Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan etc.), or featured photographer. There is a simple search option, with the advanced search giving you the options of keyword, artist/maker, subject term, excluded subject term, or accession number. There is a lightbox facility for registered users. Each image has a title, description, original dimensions given, date, and is subject indexed under a variety of terms, encouraging further browsing as each term is hyperlinked to further search results (though note that, for example, ‘motion pictures’ as a linked term gets 81 hits, but ‘motion pictures’ simply typed into the search box gets 257 hits. Classification is helpful, but always selective). There is powerful zoom function, though paradoxically you have to squint to find it (look out for the mini magnifying glass bottom left of any image).

Interior of the Automatic Vaudeville theatre, 48 East 14th Street, NYC, c.1904. Mutoscope viewers can be seen on the right-hand side

There is plenty on film-related subjects, and a lot of them from the silent period. It is best to keep search terms simple, and using the terms ‘movie’, ‘film’ or ‘motion picture’ yield the best results (our traditional test term, ‘kinetoscope’, brings up four images). The emphasis is not so much on production as on the distribution, sales and exhibition side of things. So there are are some fascinating interiors of New York film businesses, including American Cinephone, Mutual, Empire Film Co., Pathescope and others, plus exteriors of cinemas and other venues – among the earliest film-related images is a set showing an amusement arcade from c.1904, the Automatic Vaudeville, which includes a line-up of peepshow Mutoscopes among its visitor attractions – a handy reminder that not all films of the period were experienced in cinemas. All in all one gets a picture of the early film business somewhat stripped of its glamour, but very much a part of the ebb and flow of the business life of a great city.

What should be especially interesting for researchers is to seek out film-related subjects which the MCNY people have not identified. Among the many street views and postcard images of early 20th century New York City, there are going to be those which show cinemas, nickelodeons, variety theatres which showed film, and so on, which may not be the main subject of the image. It’s an activity worth undertaking, as I know from having searched not unprofitably for similar images of early London film venues in postcards.

A motion picture industry employees’ ball, New York, c.1910. Among the companies whose pennants can be seen are Moving Picture World, Nicholas Power Co., Hog Reisinger, Thanhouser, Great Northern, Lux, Lumiere, Imp, Buffalo and Rex

If you do find anything new, you should tell the people at MCNY. Their website invites interested users to submit new information or corrections, and I can confirm that they reply promptly, and make amendments quickly.

Finally, although the site is partly aimed as the commercial market, with the lightbox and information on rights and reproduction fees, they also say that any image can be reproduced for non-commercial purposes on personal blogs, for research or other academic study. Good for them, and thank you.

Go explore.


Tacita Dean’s artwork Film, projected in the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London

Will film die? Seen in one way, it never will: our cinematic history exists on celluloid and as long as there are viable film cameras and film, someone will be shooting it. Seen another way, film is already dead … what we see today is the after-life of a medium that has become increasingly marginalized in production and distribution of films and TV. Just as the last film camera was sold without headlines or fireworks, the end of film as a significant production and distribution medium will, one day soon, arrive, without fanfare.

Anyone with an interest in cinema can hardly have failed to pick up on the news that, apparently, film is dead. An article by Debra Kaufman for Creative Cow, ‘Film Fading to Black‘, from which the above quote comes, has had a huge impact, with many writing obituary columns for the medium in the face of the inexorable rise of digital. Kaufman’s specific impetus was the news that three major producers of film cameras, ARRI, Panavision and Aaton, have each over the past year decided to cease production of film cameras.

Kaufman’s article is not quite as brutal as the headlines might suggest. ARRI and the rest might not be producing new film cameras, but it is pointed out that there are plenty of film cameras out there already, which are presumably being kept to good use. There is no indication yet that Kodak and Fuji, the major producers of film stock, are to cease production, even though the demand for release prints is falling and the profit margins shrinking. 50% of American cinemas may now be digital, but that’s still 50% that aren’t, even if digital screens are being added at a rate of some 750 a month. Film archives still see film as the best preservation medium for film itself, with cold storage solutions for a medium already proven to last 100 years preferable to the huge uncertainties around digital, given the rapid obsolesence of file formats and technologies. Film hasn’t quite come to the end of the road yet.

But the end is in sight, isn’t it? Whatever the claims those of a traditional frame of mind make for the special visual qualities of film, it is on its way out. Nothing lasts forever, and film is after all just a carrier of images. If a more efficient, more flexible and – let’s face it – more appealing medium as far as the general public is concerned turns up, namely digital, then we bow to historical inevitability. Moving images may not ever look quite the same, as digital’s cleaness, brightness and rather antiseptic effect override film’s more textured and subtle qualities (though cinematographers are increasingly championing digital as new cameras promise deeper, richer qualities), but who in the end will notice? Things change, because things always change.

Certainly future audiences won’t miss anything in the switch from film to digital, and that’s not just because they will lack our experience of seeing film but because people change just the same as technologies change. They will grow up at ease with something else. So it is a rather odd experience that is provided at the moment by the installation Film at Tate Modern, which bemoans the disappearance of analogue. Film is an artwork by Tacita Dean. It takes the form of a giant projection (portrait shaped) on the far wall of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. Dean has devised the work as an expression of her concern at the threat to analogue film. It was shot, edited and is projected on film, and boasts an impressive list of production credits that is testimony to the craftmanship of film – grading, neg cutting, hand tinting, printing. As the exhibition notes state:

This is not a case of clinging to outmoded technology for nostalgia’s sake. As any practitioner will testify, digital and analogue formats are markedly different. The constraints and disciplines of working with a medium are essential to shaping the finished product. Photochemical film has its own distinctive texture and qualities, capturing light, colour, movement and depth in ways that digital cannot.

The eleven-minute film is abstract in form, being a succession of still and moving images bordered by perforations like a strip of film held vertically (as though passing through a projector). Images of buildings, trees, plants, water, circles, landscapes, rocks, but not people (apart from a fleeting figure passing by some stairs, and at one point a toe) play against and are overlaid with one another, someone with strong colour tinting reminiscent of the work of Len Lye. At a couple of points an eye appears in a circular frame that would appear to be a reference to G.A. Smith’s 1900 film Grandma’s Reading Glass, a key film in early film form. In most cases the images seem private to the artist and do not lend themselves to any particular interpretation except film itself.

It’s hypnotic stuff, but though plenty of people are watching it and children played happily in the light at the based of the screen, who among them really cares about film’s demise? Where are the lines of protestors outside cinemas, demanding that they see film as film? Where are the queues of unhappy customers returning their plasma screens to the shops, saying that the film experience is so much better? In truth, it’s not an issue that is going to concern anyone other than the afficionado and the specialist – and film/cinema is not the preserve of either of those. It is a popular medium, and the populace likes digital.

But that doesn’t mean the death of film, even after its main commercial life as over. Just as vinyl has survived the introduction of CD and audio files, so film is going to become the preserve of the select. Archives will still depend on it, though the rising costs of an increasingly rare medium (and rare skills able to maintain it) will mean higher access costs – if we want to see those films when they come out of cold storage so many years from now, we will have to pay handsomely for the privilege. Film buffs will still value it, and will collect prints and technologies required to show prints. They will sustain an aesthetic and cultural appreciation of film, and what will be exciting is when that appreciation is taken up by those who have grown up with digital but nevertheless look for something more in film. And artists, such as Tacita Dean, will continue to value it, for as long as it is available to them, for its plastic and particular qualities. Film is a canvas, after all.

The gloriously analogue Lomokino Movie Maker

And the first steps towards the second life of film as being made. I am greatful to Stephen Herbert for alerting me to the existence of Lomokino. Lomokino is a 35mm film camera for amateurs. Advertising itself as ‘gloriously analogue’, the camera allows you to shoot just 144 frames of film (curiously reminiscent of Twitter’s 140 characters) – and silent film at that. You need to find a lab able to process the film for you (which may prove tricky), then you can view your film via a LomoKinoScope viewer, or else scan it frame by frame, convert using iMovie, Windows Movie Maker or the like, and upload it to the Lomography site on Vimeo.

I’ve no idea whether this Austrian-based business is going to succeed, but its website certainly goes into a great deal of detail about how to make and present such films, with a large number of sample videos. There is a great range of cameras, film stock, accessories and bundles available on its online shop (including, I am intrigued to see, a Kinemacolor bundle). Do take a look – it feels like a cult in the making.

Sample Lomokino films

So film lives on, for the time being. It is important to the appreciation of silent cinema, because the entire genre (modern silents excepted) was produced using celluloid, whereas the history of sound cinema may run for centuries yet, of which just a few decades involved film as its primary medium. Yet silent cinema can also be rescued from historical oblivion by digital, given a new look and a new life, and that’s a cause for celebration. Silent films have a life beyond their temporary carriers. That they can change with the times is the best sign we have for their continued survival, and appreciation.

First flight

Seven frames from an otherwise lost film of British aviator Percy Pilcher, flying his ‘Hawk’ glider on 20 June 1897

We were discussing ‘first’ films the other day, and warning of the dangers of lapsing into ‘firstism’ when it comes to films. Too often asking “what was the first such-and-such film?” “what was the first film to …?” is the wrong question to ask, because it presupposes that film forms and subjects that we understand now were understood in the same way when films were being created for the first time. Moreover, no sooner do you announce that such and such a film was the first whatever then someone is bound to pop up and tell you of one that is earlier.

But the heck, it’s still a fun game to play. So here we present to you what may be the first film of human flight. The film – or rather the mere seven frames of the film that survive reproduced in the journal Nature from 12 August 1897 – shows the pioneering British aviator Percy Pilcher (1866-1899) taking off from a hillside, probably outside Eynsford, for 20 June 1897. The glider was one of his own construction, named ‘The Hawk’, and you can just make out that it is being towed as the aviator takes to the air. I have animated the seven frames and repeated them several times, since the action naturally lasts for less than a second. It is not known how long the original film was (it seems to have been made as a scientific record, not as a commercial release).

Aviation enthusiast and photographer William J.S. Lockyer (who may have taken the film) wrote in Nature about the particular point of the action that we see in these seven frames.

The start was made at a given signal, the line being pulled by three boys, and Mr. Pilcher gradually left the ground, and soarred gracefully into the air, attaining a maximum height of about 70 feet. After covering a distance of about 180 yards the line suddenly parted, a knot having slipped. The only apparent difference this made was that the operator began now to slowly descend, his motion in the horizontal direction being somewhat reduced. A safe and graceful landing was made at a distance of 250 yards from the starting-point. the photographs illustrate that part of the flight previous to the attainment of the greatest height.

The film records Pilcher’s first public demonstration of one of his gliders, with a party of scientists having been present to witness the occasion. On the same day Pilcher’s cousin Dorothy also flew the Hawk, in what is believed to be the first instance of a woman operating a heavier-than-air aircraft. It is said that she was being filmed as well when she crashed into the cinematograph operator. I do hope this is true and not just a good story.

Percy Pilcher would die in a crash flying the same glider two years later, aged just 32. Poignantly, Lockyer’s account tells us not only that “in these attempts it must not be forgotten that there is always a certain amount of danger” but adds the following hint of what might have been:

Mr. Pilcher now proposes to employ, as soon as possible, a small and light engine indicating about four hourse-power, this being considerably more than sufficient for flights of moderate length … With this improvement it is hoped that further distances will be covered, and a nearer approximation to a flying machine will be attained.

A true flying machine to make real the dream of powered flight would finally be achieved by the Wright brothers in 1903. We don’t know if Pilcher could ever have put his dreams into reality, but it is likely that he was the first human to be shown in flight on film. The Lumières filmed a balloonist taking off the following year in 1898 (Départ d’une montgolfière, 998) and a view of the ground below filmed from that balloon – probably the first example of aerial cinematography (Panorama pris d’un ballon captif, cat. no. 997).

The view from the air provided by Panorama pris d’un ballon (1898), from Die Kunst zu Fliegen in Film und Fotografie (Düsseldorf: NRW-Forum Kultur und Wirtschaft, 2004)

Balloonist Alberto Santos-Dumont was filmed by a Lumière operator on 19 September 1900 precariously perched beneath his dirigible, and in 1901 was filmed by the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company in Santos Dumont’s Aerial Flight Around the Eiffel Tower and Santos Dumont Explaining his Air Ship to the Hon. C.S. Rolls The Lumière films survive; the Biograph film of Dumont in flight does not. However the film of Dumont with Rolls was recently discovered in São Paulo as a Mutoscope reel and made the subject of a thoroughly researched documentary film, Santos Dumont’s Mutoscope (2010), directed by Brazilian scholar Carlos Adriano. Rolls was a pioneering aviator himself, and the first Briton to be killed in an airplane crash, in 1910. He was also the Rolls in Rolls-Royce.

Alberto Santos-Dumont (left) and C.S. Rolls in 1901, filmed by the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company and preserved as a Mutoscope reel

Santos-Dumont was also the first person to be filmed flying an aeroplane. A fleeting film exists, taken by I know not whom on 23 October 1906, showing his 14-bis aircraft undertaking the brief but first successful flight by a fixed-wing powered aircraft in Europe. The Wright brothers’ Flyer was not filmed until it was brought to Europe in August 1908 (Wilbur made the trip with Orville following in January 1909), when the aeroplane was filmed near Le Mans. Motion pictures of the Wright Flyer in Europe greatly helped spread the word that powered flight had been achieved.

Alberto Santos-Dumont’s brief flight in the 14-bis outside Paris on 23 October 1906

Orville and Wilbur Wright stayed in France until April 1909, when they moved for a short time to Italy. There another first was achieved, though there has perhaps been no more hotly contested a first in aviation filming than the first person to film from the air. I’ve come across so many competing claims. The film below was taken in Italy from Wilbur Wright’s aircraft, on 24 April 1909 by the Italian film company Società Italiana Pineschi (ignore the erroneous 1907 date given for the clip on YouTube). It is fairly certain that it is the first film taken from an airplane (if not – as already demonstrated – the first film taken from the air).

The view from Wilbur Wright’s Flyer, 24 April 1909

If you want a rudimentary, pseudo-philosophical overview of the relationship between early film and early flight (including pre-cinema and pre-flight), there’s my essay, ‘Taking to the Air‘, on my personal website. If you are interested in investigating the links between aviation and film once the plans were up in the air and the cinematograph was able to record them more fully, it’s well worth browsing through the archives of Flight magazine, covered fully in an earlier Bioscope post. And if I’ve got my various ‘firsts’ wrong – please tell me. It’s all part of the game.

The death of celluloid

Five seconds on the death of cinema as we have known it. As the filmmakers say (in a statement which takes longer to read than the film takes to view):

In this terrible job market with bleak prospects, in a world where film projection is getting replaced by slick machine-operated digital projection, in a culture where black-and-white silent film is all but lost to the winds of time … one doofus with a tie and a poignancy-starved cineaste found magic together. But then everything caught on fire.

One of a long series of 5-second films made by

Pure motion

Slate for Peter Jackson’s production of The Hobbit, showing the 48 frames per second rate. From Jackson’s Facebook page

Here are two quotations. The first is from 1891:

My idea was to take a series of instantaneous photographs of motions so rapidly that in the reproduction the photographic representatives become resolved into a pure motion, instead of a series of jerks. The kinetograph takes a series of forty-six photographs in one second and keeps it up as long as desired. It starts, moves, stops, uncloses the shutter, takes a photogaph, and starts on, forty-six times a second. The result when reproduced is a pure motion.

The second is from 2011:

The key thing to understand is that this process requires both shooting and projecting at 48 fps, rather than the usual 24 fps … So the result looks like normal speed, but the image has hugely enhanced clarity and smoothness. Looking at 24 frames every second may seem ok … but there is often quite a lot of blur in each frame, during fast movements, and if the camera is moving around quickly, the image can judder or “strobe.”

Quote number one comes from Thomas Edison, at a time when he and his team were still at the experimental stage of development for a motion picture camera (and the means to exhibit the results). Quote number two comes from Peter Jackson, writing about his production of The Hobbit on Facebook. Jackson’s announcement has generated a lot of interest. He goes on to say:

It looks much more lifelike, and it is much easier to watch, especially in 3-D. We’ve been watching HOBBIT tests and dailies at 48 fps now for several months, and we often sit through two hours worth of footage without getting any eye strain from the 3-D. It looks great, and we’ve actually become used to it now, to the point that other film experiences look a little primitive.

He points out that 24 frames per second – the speed at which films are shots and projected – was determined in the late 1920s as the standard for shooting sound films, probably because it was the minimum speed from which audio fidelity could be gained from the first optical sound tracks, and because a minimum figure would help save on expensive film stock (the faster the speed film went through the camera, the more stock was used up, of course). Films don’t have to run at a particular speed. So long as the frequency is above a threshhold sufficient to generate the illusion of movement – somewhere around 12 frames per second is the minimum – you can have as rapid a frame rate as your technology can bear.

In the silent era, frame speeds generally ranged from 14 fps to 24 fps (sometimes more), and got progressively faster from the earliest years up to the late 1920s. This, however, is a gross simplification, and something of a hotly contested area, particularly when it comes to projecting silents today or presenting them on DVD. I’m not going to wade into that debate. Suffice to say that films could be projected at speeds different to those in which they were shot; indeed different parts of films could be shot at different speeds, and projected at different speeds; and what a producer or cinematographer hoped for, and what was actually practiced in the cinemas were not necessarily always the same thing. Many silent films were exhibited at speeds far faster than those at which they were shot, sometimes because they were comedies or thrillers that benefitted from such treatment, but often simply because exhibitors could squeeze in more film into a show if they showed the films more quickly than their makers intended.

What I am pointing out is that there is nothing new about film speeds above 24 fps, and that the silent era was not simply about a gradual climb in speed from the 1890s to the 1920s. Right at the start of motion pictures Thomas Edison was setting 46 fps as the ideal, fearing that at anything less there would be troublesome flicker. His aim was pure motion, much as Peter Jackson now dreams of, and at much the same speed.

However, although Edison and his chief motion picture engineer William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson often spoke of achieving 40 to 46 fps in the early 1890s, they seldom if ever achieved it. The need for lighting of sufficient brilliance meant that only filming in bright sunshine would be suitable, and the wear and tear on the machinery had to be considerable. The Black Maria studio devised by Dickson for shooting the first Kinetoscope films did use sunlight (from a gap in the roof, with the studio revolving to catch the moving sun) but he shot the films at between 30 and 40 fps, and probably nearer to 30 most of the time. Such films are frequently shown today at no faster than 24 fps, which is why so many early Edison films look like they were shot in slow motion. See Blacksmith Shop (1895) on the British Pathe site for an example of an Edison film shown too slowly, and the examples of early Edison films on the Library of Congress’ YouTube playlist for how they should look.

Edison was not alone in going for the highest frame rate possible. The Mutoscope and Biograph Company (of which Dickson was a founder director) produced films from 1896 with a motor-driven camera that could vary in speed but which generally operated at 30 fps. My not entirely scientific memory from having viewed a lot of these is that the American Biograph productions of 1896-97 were shot at 30 fps and above, but that subsequent Biograph productions of the 1890s in Europe and the USA look ‘natural’ at 24 fps. Higher speeds were also required for some early colour systems. Kinemacolor (1908) required a speed of at least 30 fps, because of its successive red-green frames (i.e. two frames in succession supplied a single colour image on the screen) while Gaumont’s Chronochrome (1911), a three-colour red-green-blue successive frame system, demanded 48 fps. And scientific experimenters working with high-speed techniques for analysing subjects such as animal motion or ballistics were able to achieve filming speeds of 100,000 fps by the mid-1920s (e.g. Lucien Bull).

The essential place to go from an understanding on film speeds in the silent era is Kevin Brownlow’s renowned essay, ‘Silent Films: What Was the Right Speed?‘, written in 1980 for Sight and Sound and made available through David Pierce’s indispensible Silent Film Bookshelf site, which also reproduces a number of articles from the time on the vexed issues of correct shooting and projecting speeds. See, for example, what Brownlow writes about instructions supplied by D.W. Griffith for a 1914 film:

His instructions for Home Sweet Home (1914) recommended 16 minutes for the first reel (16.6 fps), 14-15 minutes for the second (17.8-19 fps), and 13-14 for each of the other reels (19-20.5 fps). ‘The last reel, however, should be run slowly from the beginning of the allegorical part to the end’ (Moving Picture World, 20 June 1914 p. 652). ‘The projectionist,’ said Griffith, ‘in a large measure is compelled to redirect the photoplay.’

Brownlow discusses Edison and Biograph in his wide-ranging essay, but for a more detailed investigation, see Paul Spehr’s recent biography, The Man Who Made Movies: W.K.L. Dickson (see Exposure, rate of, in the index).

And so we wait for Peter Jackson to bring motion pictures back to that pitch of pure motion that Thomas Edison had decided was essential 120 years ago.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 15

Photograph taken filming of Hide and Seek, Detectives (1918): (L-R) unknown, Tom Kennedy, Ben Turpin, Charles ‘Heinie’ Conklin, Eddie Cline, and Marie Prevost. From Steve Rydzewski (see

Behind the scenes the Bioscope is toiling away at two or three major posts, which always take a while to research, but in the meantime here’s your regular Friday round-up of some interesting (we hope) news snippets on silent film and such like.

Cinefest 31
Syracuse’s annual convention of silent and early sound film takes place 17-20 March. Among the auctions and dealers’ tables you can see Lonesome, What Price Glory? (1927), Happiness (1917), The Hushed Hour (1919), Mannequin (1926), and much more. Read more.

National Inventors Hall of Fame
Stephen Herbert’s estimable Muy Blog (on Eadweard Muybridge) reports on the National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees for 2011. They include some major names from the worlds of photography and early film: Thomas Armat (1866-1948), for his motion picture projector, Hannibal Goodwin (1822-1900), for discovering transparent flexible nitrocellulose film, Frederick Ives (1856-1937), for innovation in colour photography, Charles F. Jenkins (1867-1934), for the projector he developed with Armat, and Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), for stop action photography. Read more.

The Great White Blu-Ray
The British Film Institute much acclaimed restoration of Herbert Ponting’s The Great White Silence (1924), will get a Blu-Ray and DVD release in June. The film documents Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s failed attempt to be first to the South Pole. It’s also the first British silent film to make it to Blu-Ray. The dual-format package will include the 1933 re-edited sound version of Ponting’s film, Ninety Degrees South. Read more.

The Marie Prevost Project
Stacia Jones at the excellent and supremely well-named She Blogged by Night has been surveying the career of Marie Prevost in a series of posts. Her trawl through Prevost’s many lost films from the late teens brings up a marvellous array of photographs, posters, lobby cards and slides for the actress who went from Mack Sennett bathing beauty to 1920s stardom to a wretched end in the 1930s. Read more.

The hipster YouTube
Fortune magazine looks into the success story that is Vimeo, the online video site that just does everything right – and apparently invented the ‘like’ button. Proof that you can succeed in online video without recourse to theft, negativity or skateboarding dogs. Read more.

‘Til next time!

La photographie animée

The De Bedts Kinetograph (1896), from La photographie animée

The latest publication to enter the Bioscope Library of early film texts freely available online is Eugène Trutat’s La photographie animée. Trutat was the director of the museum of natural history at Toulouse, a naturalist, mountaineer and photographer. He wrote a number of books on photography and discovery, and in 1899 he produced one of the first books to document the new technology of cinematography, in La photographie animée.

It is a book known to the specialist but not as widely cited as say its British counterpart, Henry V. Hopwood’s Living Pictures which was published the same year (and can be found in the Bioscope Library and on the Internet Archive, in its 1915 edition). That may simply be on account of its comparative rarity, and because it is in French. The Internet Archive has triumphantly overcome the rarity hurdle; whether the language remains a challenge is down to the individual. In any case one of the book’s particular riches is its copious illustrations of film technologies, which need no translation.

A film winder, from La photographie animée

The main part of the book is a survey of moving image technologies up to 1899, with a particular emphasis on French machines. There is the usual opening thesis on the principles of animated photography and its antecedents found in the ‘pre-cinema’ work of Muybridge, Marey, Londe, Janssen and others. Trutat had a particular interest in multiple-lens cameras, and includes his own invention among those discussed. He then describes the principles and the mechanics of the film devices of Thomas Edison, Georges Demeny, Georges de Bedts, the Lumière brothers and Henri Joly, along with many minor names and technologies now mostly forgotten. For those who have a grasp of such things, Trutat is much given to marking his many illustrations with letters to point out particular mechanical points. It is very much a technician’s book.

He concludes with some practical advice on the production and presentation of films, finishing with a handy list of French patents. So, not a book for everyone, but an invaluable text for the specialist and a fine resource for the iconography of late nineteenth-century motion pictures for the rest of us.

The age of colours

Kinemacolor projector (left) and Kinemacolor camera, on display at the Capturing Colour exhibition at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. The projector is from the Sarosh Collection at the National Media Museum; the camera is from Hove Museum

This is the age of colours, it is colour everywhere.

So wrote Charles T. Kock, in a 1909 essay surveying the history and philosophy of colour printing in Penrose’s Pictorial Annual. Kock was marvelling at number of forms of colour reproduction – in printing, clothing manufacture, building, household goods, photography and cinematography. The interesting inference to be made is that it would have been within the experience of his readers to remember a time when the world was not filled with colours; a monochrome Victorian age from which the Edwardian era had gratefully escaped.

Of course there had always been colour, but it was the reproducibility of man-made colour that was brightening Kock’s world. The roots of this can be traced back to the 1850s. It was in 1856 that William Henry Perkin, at the tender age of eighteen synthesized an artifical dye, mauveine, which could be applied to clothes to give an intense purplish hue (mauve). Previously clothes had been coloured used natural dyes, which often lacked stability. Now lasting colours through aniline dyes could be created, and the process industrialised. The year before, in 1855, physicist James Clerk Maxwell demonstrated the principle of three-colour photography, showing how bringing together three separate versions of the same image photographed through red, green and blue filters, could, when aligned together, create a colour record (Maxwell was expounding the theory; he did not present a practical demonstration until 1861).

American chromolithograph showing a roadside inn c.1872, from Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, via Wikimedia Commons

The creation of man-made colours acrosss different media and forms continued throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. Other aniline dyes were created. Colour printing was given a huge boost by the commercial development of chromolithography (lithorgraphy was first invented in 1796 but didn’t properly include colour until 1839), bringing colour reproductions of paintings into millions of homes. Louis Ducos du Hauron, Charles Cros, E. Sanger-Shepherd and Frederic Ives experimented with forms of colour photography, culminating in the hauntingly beautiful Autochrome process in 1907, invented by the Lumière brothers (founding fathers of cinematography, of course).

Colour came to cinematography as well, in the form of artificial colours applied by hand or in mechanised fashion by use of stencils, until the invention of the first natural colour motion picture colour system, Kinemacolor, patented in 1906 and first commercialised in 1908. Kinemacolor, as with the man-made colours to be found enlivening clothes, illustrations, advertisements, popular prints, posters, magic lantern slides, wallpaper designs, photographs and so much more, had a particular dual appeal at this period when colour was a saleable attraction in itself. I note this in my thesis, which I will take the liberty of quoting here:

There are, however, two kinds of colour reproductions to be considered here. There is the colour picture in the purely naturalistic sense, which offers an approximately faithful record of nature (or, as was more accurately the case with chromolithographs, a faithful record of a work of art that reproduced nature), and there is the colour picture where colour itself, to whatever form or degree, is the attraction in itself. These two forms were not mutually exclusive.The attraction, the desirable commodity, was colour. It was seen as something additional to that which had gone before, an enhancement which could denote beauty, superiority, social status or commercial value, according to usage. Colour was truer, better, brighter; colour drew attention to itself. This twin appeal of colour as natural and colour as the subject in itself was central to the exploitation of Kinemacolor. Tom Gunning sets out colour’s ‘contradictory role’ in cinema by stating that on one hand ‘there is the claim, made most explicitly by Bazin’s essay “The Myth of Total Cinema”, that color plays an essential part in the fulfilling of the ideal of cinema’s first inventors, “the reconstruction of a perfect illusion of the outside world in sound, color and relief”’, while on the other, ‘color can also appear in cinema with little reference to reality, as a purely sensuous presence, an element which can even indicate a divergence from reality’. The evidence of chromolithography, Kinemacolor, and other media from this period, however, indicates a more complex situation, a desire for reality and super-reality at the same time, which was to a significant extent created by the very limitations of the technical processes that enabled such colours to be reproduced.

Colour that draws attention to itself while at the same time trying to denote reality (and so by implication striving not to be noticeable at all) is the subject of Capturing Colour: Film, Invention and Wonder, an exhibition at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. The exhibition positions itself within the history of capturing colour across different forms, but concentrates on film’s part in this history, with a particular emphasis on early film. Brighton is the right location for such an exhibition, because it was here that George Albert Smith discovered that by employing red and green filters only (leaving out blue) he could achieve a satisfactorily realistic colour motion picture effect, which would be named Kinemacolor (patented in 1906, but a letter on display makes it clear that Smith had made his breakthrough in 1904). As well as Smith, the inventor William Norman Lascelles Davidson, Benjamin Jumeaux, Otto Pfenninger and William Friese-Greene were all working on colour photography and cinematography at the same time, each of the Brighton and Hove residents.

Kromskop viewer (left) and projecting Kromskop, on display at the Capturing Colour exhibition

The exhibition takes us from innovations in colour reproduction in the nineteenth century, to the arrival of film and the extensive use of applied colour (hand[ainted, stencil, tinted), the work of Brighton photographers and filmmakers, the three-colour principle established by Maxwell and its exposition by Frederic Ives with his Kromskop camera (which produced fine colour images but which did not solve the problem of how to fix these in a form you could hang on the wall), the first motion picture colour system of 1899 (which failed to work) of Frederick Marshall Lee and Edward Turner, the successes of Kinemacolor and its rival Biocolour (invented by Friese-Greene), later colour processes such as Technicolor, Dufaycolor, Kodachrome and Eastmancolour, colour television, and finally digital colour today – with a fascnating comparison of different digital images of Brighton beach, showing how various and relative our ostensibly ‘perfect’ means of reproducing colour remain. Colour, ultimately, is all in the mind.

I warmly recommend the exhibition, which not only tells of a time when colour could not been taken for granted, but reminds us never to take colour for granted. It includes such treats as stereoscopes, a Kinemacolor camera and projector, a Lee-and-Turner three-colour projector, an Ives Kromskop and projecting Kromskop, a Technicolor camera, and impressive use of film clips throughout which serve as a model of how to integrate moving images with more traditional museum objects. There are also things for children to do in every room.

The Brighton Museum & Art Gallery has produced an online version of the exhibition, which duplicates each of the sections with some lovely colour images (no film clips though, alas).

The Tom Gunning essay referred to above, ‘Colorful Metaphors: the Attraction of Color in Early Silent Cinema‘, is an excellent (and freely-available) guide to the meanings of colour in early cinema, placing films within the wider context of contemporary colour reproduction (particularly book illustrations).

The history of mauve is told by Simon Garfield in Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour That Changed the World – a first-rate read.

The great book on chromolithography is Peter C. Marzio’s The democratic art: Pictures for a 19th-century America: chromolithography, 1840-1900. It’s well worth hunting down a copy.

You can find links to all of the Bioscope’s posts on colour film in the Colourful Stories series (from Maxwell to Chronochrome) here.

The Capturing Colour exhibition, which has free admission, remains open until 20 March 2011.

From Kinetoscope to Kinoscope

70 Oxford Street, London, today (from Google Street View) and in October 1894, from The Westminster Budget, 26 October 1894

If you travel eastwards down London’s Oxford Street, keeping to the north side of the road, you will come across an electronics shop of unprepossessing frontage, currently named McDonald’s. It claims to be the oldest electronics shop in Oxford Street, but it tells you nothing about its place in film history. Because it was here – at 70 Oxford Street – that the first public exhibition of motion picture film took place in the UK. On 17 October 1894 the Continental Commerce Company exhibited the Edison Kinetoscope, a peepshow device showing short films, no more than a minute long, which people could see by peering down through a viewer at a tiny image. No photograph exists of this Kinetoscope parlour (as they were called), but a drawing in a newspaper gives us some idea of the layout and clientele. We know that there were ten machines available, and that among the films on show were Blacksmith’s Shop, Cock Fight, Annabelle Serpentine Dance, The Bar Room, Carmencita, Wrestling Match, and Barber Shop.

Edison’s Carmencita (1894), one of the films featured at the first public film exhibition in the UK

Strictly speaking we’re talking about two different 70 Oxford Streets, since the original building is long gone. Around the time of the centenary of cinema (1995/96) we tried to get a plaque put on the building that now stands there, but the owners weren’t interested, so the plaque was put up nearby at no. 76. Sadly the owners of 76 showed a similar lack of respect for cinema history, and the plaque has now gone. Kinetoscopes themselves didn’t last too long, either. It was obvious to budding film entrepreneurs that films would be a greater attraction on a screen, not least because this would attract a greater number of paying customers, and within fifteen months (in the UK) projected film on a screen was a commercial reality, and the Kinetoscope’s era was over.

Wind forward 116 years and the Kinetoscope is making a sort of a comeback. The biennial Fashion in Film Festival takes place in London 1-12 December and among the side attractions, running 15 November-14 December is Kinoscope Parlour, a project supported by Film London’s Digital Film Archive Fund, which is bringing back something like the Kinetoscope experience to London. Here’s how Film London describes it:

Twelve different locations in the run-up to, and throughout, the festival will host a contemporary re-imagining of the Kinetoscope – presenting a selection of feature films made by the pioneers of early cinema, as well as archive footage that will reveal hidden layers of local cinema history. The six units, specially designed for the project, will be placed in key locations in the capital’s outer boroughs from 15 November, before the Kinoscope Parlour is re-located to London’s central boroughs for the course of the festival. For four weeks, passers-by will be able to transport themselves back to a bygone era through the magic of the moving image.

Between 15-28 November the Kinoscope will be found at these London sites: Castle Green in Dagenham, CREST charity shop in Walthamstow, Kilburn Library, Lewisham Library, Queen’s Market in Upton Park and Wolves Lane Nursery in Wood Green. Between 29 November-14 December it will be located at BFI Southbank, The Horse Hospital in Bloomsbury, Somerset House, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Viktor Wynd’s Little Shop of Horrors (Hackney) and The Wapping Project. Further details including a map are on the Fashion Film Festival site.

It won’t be too difficult to spot the Kinoscopes as they are strikingly designed in black and white stripes by designer Mark Garside. There are six of them, one for each location, unlike the original parlour idea where ten were arrayed together in rows. The original Kinetoscopes were coin-operated; the Kinoscopes are free and you have to turn a wheel to view the films, which through “cutting-edge digital technology” allows you to control the speed of the films. The films themselves are a mixture of productions from Georges Méliès, the Lumière brothers, Thomas Edison (the only one of the films originally designed for showing in a peepshow), Gaston Velle, Segundo de Chomón, Robert Paul, Ferdinand Zecca and Alice Guy-Blaché, with an emphasis on “dress manipulations and magical transformations” to tie in with the fashion on film theme. Additionally there will be archive film of London’s cinema history up to the 1930s. The full list of films, indicating which ones will be available at which locations (you won’t get to see them all on the one Kinoscope) is also on the festival website.

Silent films also feature heavily in Fashion Film Festival itself, under the thematic title of ‘Birds of Paradise’. Early films are paired with experimental films on Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, Ron Rice, José Rodriguez-Soltero, Steven Arnold at Tate Modern; the Barbican is showing diva Lyda Borelli in Rapsodia Satanica (1915-17), Germaine Dulac’s La Princesse Mandane (1928); and Michael Curtiz’s Red Heels (Das Speilzeug von Paris / La Poupée de Paris) (1925) and The Golden Butterfly (Der Goldene Schmetterling); while BFI Southbank has a panel event The Gossamer Wings of Early Cinema, and is showing Cecil B. De Mille’s Male and Female (1919) and The Affairs of Anatol (1919), the Nazimova films The Red Lantern (1919) and Salomé (1923), Josephine Baker in La Revue des Revues (1927), E.A. Dupont’s Moulin Rouge (1928), Alexandre Volkoff’s Secrets of the East (Geheimnisse des Orients / Shéhérazade) (1928) and Jean Durand and Berthe Dagmar’s The Island of Love (l’Île d’amour) (1928). Fashion or no fashion, it’s an impressive line-up of silents, most of them rarely shown.

Finally, over 1-12 December, Somerset House is hosting Hemline: the Moving Screen, an artwork by Jason Bruges Studio on belle époque dancer and film performer Loïe Fuller, which they describe as “a light sculpture that uses three-dimensional volume as a ‘moving screen’ to approximate the swirling movements of fabric in a serpentine dance”.

Dates and booking details for all these screenings and events are on the festival website.