‘An odd type of theatre front’: illustration from Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting

One of the indications of the speculative, exploratory nature of early cinema is the uncertainty felt at the time over what it or its products were to be called. Living pictures? Animated photography? Cinema? Kinema? Kinematography? Motion pictures? Moving pictures? Photoplays? Bioscope? It’s worth bearing in mind such terms when searching for early cinema subjects in digitised book and newspaper sources (alongside such other handy terms as kinetoscope, biograph, electric theatre etc.). One term you might not think to use is ‘motography’. I’m not sure how long the lifespan was of this word, but for a short period it was used by some seeking for a distinctive, all-encompassing term for the new art – indeed it was the title of an American film journal of this period (it ran 1909-1918 and was originally called The Nickelodeon).

The term was certainly favoured by John B. Rathbun, author of Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting: A comprehensive volume treating the principles of motography; the making of motion pictures; the scenario; the motion picture theater; the projector; the conduct of film exhibiting; methods of coloring films; talking pictures, etc. (1914), the latest volume to go into the Bioscope Library.

John B. Rathbun was a technical writer (and an associate editor of Motography, which helps explains his attachment to the term). His book is yet another of those all-purpose guides to the new industry of motion pictures, a blend of potted history, social history, technical explanation and marvelment at the rise of this extraordinary business and the huge sums that it was starting to earn. As indicated by its subtitle, Rathbun’s book takes us through the principles, production processes and exhibition of motion pictures up to 1914. It is addressed to a reader with a general interest in the phenomenon, though it sometimes forgets this.

The book starts with the familiar pre-history of the medium, from Zoetropes to Muybridge to Edison to motion picture projection. The principles of the taking and projecting of films are covered, with practical information on film stock itself, including development, printing and colour tinting. Film production follows, covering both studio and non-fiction work, then the almost obligatory chapter on the mysteries of scenario writing with suggestions on how to sell your scenario to the studios. If the lay reader did not fancy his or her chances as a scriptwriter, then they might consider opening a motion picture theatre as the best way to make money out of this new business, and advice follows on setting up a cinema, putting together the programme (with handy advice on dealing with different ages of film reels), advertising the show, an interesting discussion on whether to include vaudeville acts or not, and operating profitable sidelines.

The filming of an ‘industrial’, with Cooper-Hewitt mercury vapour lamps on the right, from Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting

A long chapter on the technicalities of projection seems to belong to another book, and might have been enough to scare off one or two would-be speculators. Rathbun follows this with guidelines on local censorship laws and regulations, then rounds off matters with an interesting chapter on colour (covering stencil colour, the Friese-Greene process, Kinemacolor and Gaumont Chronochrome), stereoscopy and synchronised sound films.

Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting is rather muddled in the guidelines it provides, as it is unsure at what level or precisely to whom it is directing its advice. Buyers at the time might have been less than satisfied, but for us now it has plenty of handy information on how the industry was perceived and some useful data and social observations relating to the exhibition sector. There are illustrations of studio interiors, laboratories, wardrobe rooms, camera operators, cinema floor plans, projection booths and so on, to add to its value as a reference source. It’s available from the Internet Archive, and into the Bioscope Library it goes.

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.

Back to the Bible lands

Jesus’s first steps, Mulsant and Chevalier Bible lands films, from

Regulars may remember that in the Bioscope report on the Pordenone 2007 festival, there was a detailed account of the remarkable find by Lobster Films of a cache of films from the earlier years of cinema taken in the ‘Bible lands’ i.e. Palestine. This collection of some eighty or so films included both actualities and dramatised scenes of the nativity. At the time, no one knew who had made these films, though a good guess was made that the filmmaker might have been the Frenchman Léar (real name, Albert Kirchner), known to have filmed nativity scenes in Palestine in 1897. Some of the films were believed to date from that period, but others stylisically suggested a slightly later date.

A year on, and the mystery has been solved. The films were not made by Léar but by the Abbés Mulsant and Chevalier in 1904, supported by the Roman Catholic promotional organisation, La Maison Bonne Presse. Mulsant and Chevalier visited Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and later Turkey. They filmed the scenes about them, and created dramatised scenes inspired by the celebrated Bible paintings of James Tissot.

Research continues on their work, but Eric Lange of Lobster Films has kindly sent me a text on his discoveries. It’s in French, but that’s not going to present you with any problems (not in these post-Google Translate days). A selection of the films, concentrating on the nativity scenes, can be found on the European Film Treasures site (search under Mulsant or 1904), which has further information on the collection.

Au lendemain de la guerre de 1870, LA MAISON DE LA BONNE PRESSE voit le jour, sous les auspices des Augustins de l’Assomption. Son but est d’affirmer une présence catholique dynamique à travers des manifestations de masse : pèlerinages, enseignements, ou presse avec des organes comme le Pèlerin lancé en 1873 ou La Croix, 10 ans plus tard.

En 1895, le directeur de La Croix confie à Georges-Michel Coissac, futur historien du cinéma, la création et la responsabilité d’un service de projections lumineuses.

Des conférenciers projectionnistes sillonnent alors les paroisses et diffusent la bonne parole grâce aux séries de plaques de verre illustrant sous forme de tableaux vivants, la vie du Christ, des Saints et Martyrs ou les histoires édifiantes de Théodore Botrel.

En 1905, lorsque intervient la séparation de l’Eglise et de l’état, le cinématographe a depuis longtemps perdu son statut de curiosité scientifique pour n’être plus, pour beaucoup, qu’une vulgaire attraction de fête foraine.

Il commence toutefois à intéresser les esprits pieux de la maison de la Bonne Presse.

Lors du deuxième congrès général des oeuvres catholiques de conférences et de projections (19 – 22 février 1906) un conférencier défini ainsi ce point de vue :

« Il n’est personne qui nie l’intérêt des projections cinématographiques et le parti qu’en pourraient tirer les oeuvres catholiques de projections. Celles-ci ne doivent pas, sous peine de rester en retard et de se priver d’un puissant élément de succès, dédaigner cette nouvelle manifestation de l’art dans l’image lumineuse. Aussi semble-t-il tout naturel que le Congrès veuille étudier cette année les moyens de vulgariser le cinématographe et de le mettre à la portée d’un plus grand nombre. »

Ce rapport émane de l’abbé Mulsant qui a déjà mis en pratique sa théorie:

« On me permettra d’exposer ici l’oeuvre que j’ai entreprise en collaboration avec M. L’abbé Chevalier; heureux si notre petite expérience peut être de quelque utilité pour les conférences catholiques.
Ayant à chercher des ressources pour nos écoles du Liban très menacées par la diminution des aumônes venant de la France, et en face de l’impossibilité de quêter en ce moment dans notre pauvre patrie, nous avons songé à donner des conférences aussi intéressantes que possible, et en joignant aux projections lumineuses ordinaires les vues cinématographiques.

Pour cela nous avons fait un long voyage en Orient, pays qui du reste nous était déjà connu, et nous sommes arrivés à récolter en Egypte, en Palestine et au Liban de nombreux documents, clichés et bandes cinématographiques, avec lesquels ont été composées cinq conférences documentaires ou artistiques.

La première, Vers les cèdres du Liban, nous promène à travers les montagnes si pittoresques de la Syrie.

La deuxième et la troisième, s’attachant à la personne sacrée de Notre-Seigneur Enfant, essayent de le faire revivre, soit à la manière de Tissot dans la conférence documentaire Au pays de l’enfance du Christ, soit dans la Vierge et son fils, à la manière des artistes idéalistes qui, si nombreux à tous les ages, ont plus ou moins prêté à la Sainte Famille nos moeurs et nos goûts.

La quatrième conférence, Le Caire pittoresque, conduit dans la capitale de l’Egypte moderne, en fait ressortir les particularités et les contrastes et donne sur la religion musulmane et ses rites, de très curieux documents.

La cinquième, les Hébreux d’autrefois et les Fellahs d’aujourd’hui, transporte l’auditeur à plusieurs siècles de distance et fait revivre les moeurs au temps de Joseph et des Pharaons dans l’étude de la vie des champs et de la construction des temples.

Ces cinq conférences sont établies sur le même modèle, en ce sens que l’illustration lumineuse du texte est toujours composée de vues fixes alternant avec les vues cinématographiques. Un dispositif nouveau, inventé par les conférenciers eux-mêmes, permet la substitution instantanée du cliché à la vue mouvante. Cette méthode a le grand avantage de donner à la conférence plus de vie et de variété, les explications étant données sur les vues fixes qui ne sont que l’analyse du sujet cinématographique suivant.

Le spectateur jouit ainsi beaucoup mieux de la vue cinématographique déjà expliquée et n’est pas fatigue par une projection non interrompue de 600 mètres de bandes. Je puis dire que ces conférences, grâce à l’inédit des documents et à la perfection de l’appareil, ont pu être données en très grands nombres dans les milieux les plus différents, toujours avec le plus beau succès. En dix-huit mois, nous avons fait plus de 250 conférences dans des Grands et Petits Séminaires, des salons, des Sociétés de géographie, des Cercles artistiques, des collèges et couvents, des salles populaires où nous avons réuni plus de 2000 personnes. Nous comptons continuer notre oeuvre et poursuivre notre campagne de conférences, qui, comme nous l’ont dit bien des prêtres et des évêques nos auditeurs, font un bien réel aux âmes et permettent de parler de Notre-Seigneur dans tous les milieux. »

L ‘œuvre entreprise par Mulsant et Chevalier n’est certes pas une première. Dès 1897, Albert Kirchner, dit Léar, avait accompagné le père Bailly dans son pèlerinage aux pays du Christ et en avait ramené les premiers films tournés en Palestine et en Egypte ; des films malheureusement perdus aujourd’hui.

Toutefois, s’ils ont bien été tournés en 1904, comme le laissent à penser les déclarations de l’abbé Mulsant, ces films offrent un des plus anciens témoignages filmés de la vision chrétienne en terre Musulmane.

Tourné in situ, la vie de Jésus détonne par rapport aux nombreuses versions très théâtrales éditées alors par Pathé, Gaumont ou Lumière. Le but est ici de « remettre en scène, sur place, au jour le jour, les personnages bibliques, d’évoquer leurs figures, redire leurs paroles, dans le pays que la Providence avait donné pour cadre à leurs passions, à leur espoir, à leur apostolat. »

Les sujets des autres conférences sont complémentaires puisque l’observation des us et coutumes en Palestine, en Egypte ou au Liban permet de « mettre en évidence les vestiges des traditions antiques, commentaires vivant de l’Ecriture qui éclairent d’un jour nouveau telles pages obscures de la Bible ou de l’Evangile. »

Au delà de leur aspect ethnographique ou religieux, les films de Mulsant et Chevalier sont aujourd’hui le témoignage rare d’une pratique qui va pendant longtemps opposer laïcs et catholiques: celle du conférencier projectionniste.

Le Texte des conférences de Mulsant et Chevalier semble avoir disparu, mais on en trouve toutefois quelques extraits dans les séries de cartes postales illustrées, éditées à partir de 1907 et proposées aux abonnées du Fascinateur, revue consacrée à la projection par la Maison Bonne Presse.

1907 est également l’année de la consécration pour Mulsant et Chevalier. Leur Annonciation de la Vierge est présentée au Vatican devant le Pape Pie X, en vues fixes d’abord, puis en scène cinématographique, avec de brèves explications du P. Chevalier lui-même. Le film vient conclure un programme des plus variés où se succèdent des scènes de la vie militaire, des scènes champêtres ou maritimes sans oublier des portraits de Sa Sainteté et de splendides tableaux de la vie du Christ ou des films comiques tel Toto Aéronaute (Pathé 1906)!

Jusqu’alors, les films de Mulsant et Chevalier ne se trouvaient pas dans le commerce, ce que regrettaient certains congressistes lors du troisième congrès général des œuvres catholiques de conférence et de projection. Après la séance faite au Vatican, un accord est conclu avec Gaumont qui propose fièrement sous le numéro 1821 de son catalogue « A Nazareth », collection de MM. Mulsant et Chevalier, projections représentées devant le Souverain Pontife. Ce films de 70 mètres se divise en 5 parties: L’atelier, Fontaine de Nazareth, Retour de la Fontaine, Le puits, le soir qui tombe.

Curieusement le film n’est qu’en distribution ; les droits de représentation sont réservés pour la France et la Belgique et il faut s’adresser directement aux Auteurs, 14 rue Sainte-Hélène à Lyon.

Peut être Gaumont ne veut il pas faire trop de concurrence à sa Vie du Christ éditée en 1906 et dont certains tableaux s’inspirent également de la Passion du peintre James Tissot. Dans ces mémoires, Alice Guy, qui a réalisé le film, indique que Mulsant et Chevalier étaient présents sur le tournage et portaient un vif intérêt à son travail. On pourrait en déduire d’après ces propos que les deux prêtres se sont inspirés d’Alice Guy, alors que ceux-ci avaient tournés leur vie de Jésus 2 ans plus tôt.

La production cinématographique de la maison de la Bonne Presse ne débute réellement qu’en 1909, avec une version de la Passion de 1000 mètres réalisée par Honoré le Sablais qui dirigera la production jusqu’à la première guerre, avant que l’abbé Danion ne prenne le relai.

En 1909, Mulsant et Chevalier sont certainement en Turquie comme en témoignent une série films retrouvés en même temps que ceux d’Egypte et de Palestine. On y découvre le témoignage de la présence chrétienne dans un orphelinat ainsi que les ruines d’Adana après les premiers massacres d’Arméniens. Ces films n’ont sans doute pas encore révélé tous leurs secrets.

Puis nous perdons la trace de Mulsant et Chevalier après une dernière séance de projection à Moulins, mentionnée par le Fascinateur en 1910:

« M. L’abbé Mulsant, le conférencier bien connu, a organisé cette année à Moulins toute une série de conférences religieuses, pour dames et jeunes filles, sur la vie de Notre-Seigneur, dans le but d’aider à l’intelligence des Evangiles.

Les projections ont été exécutées par M. l’abbé Mulsant lui-même, avec un appareil de haute précision, à la lumière oxy-éthérique. Les vues projetées, dont un bon nombre en couleurs, sont en grande partie l’œuvre originale et personnelle de M. Mulsant. Prises directement sur les Lieux-Saints même ou empruntées aux plus grands peintres de toutes les époques, elles ont pour but constant et unique soit la reconstitution historique des faits évangéliques, soit la représentation la plus expressive des mystères sacrés, d’évoquer en un mot, sous les yeux de la vie même du Christ, telle qu’il la vécut parmi nous, il y a dix-neuf siècle. »

Les recherches continues. A suivre …

Eric has also drawn my attention to his Cinématographes site on early cinema technology. Written in French, it’s a fabulous collection of images and descriptions of cameras, projectors etc., company information, catalogues and more, which I’ll cover in greater detail in a later post.

Still going strong

That post on Grace’s Guide, the directory of British engineering businesses, brought up the subject of Vinten, a company which began making cinematographic equipment before the First World War and is still going strong. Which made me think, which other film businesses from before 1914 (the ‘early cinema’ period) are still going strong today?

Obviously, the major Hollywood studios had their roots in this period. Carl Laemmle formed Universal in 1912, Fox (later a component part of 20th Century-Fox) began in 1912, Paramount in 1914. But the majors of today, conglomerately speaking, are very different beasts to the companies bearing their names in 1914. Of the other leading American producers of that time, Vitagraph was absorbed by Warners in 1925, Lubin (absorbed by Vitagraph) was gone by in 1916, Biograph by 1917, Edison, Essanay and Selig by 1918, Kalem (another absorbed by Vitagraph) in 1919.

So, who is around who is still trading much as they did at the start of motion pictures? Well, obviously the granddaddy of them all is Eastman, provider of the first motion picture film stock and still around trading as Kodak. Also on trhe film stock side, Technicolor, though the name dates from 1915, was effectively founded in 1912 as Kalmus, Comstock & Wescott.

In France, Gaumont (formed in 1895) continues as strongly as it has throughout cinema history. Remarkably, its archive library recently amalgamated with that of its great rival from the early days, Pathé (formed as the Société Pathé Frères in 1896) to form Gaumont Pathé Archives. Pathé itself exists as a producer and distributor, with a confusing history of subsidiary uses of the name.

In Japan, Nikkatsu, formed in 1912 out of a merger of four film companies, thrives as a leading production company. One pre-1914 Japanese producer, Inabata Katsutaro, was the agent for Lumière in Japan in 1897 before moving onto other businesses, leading to the multinational Inabata & Co. of today, which deals in information technology, chemicals, plastics, housing materials and foods.

In Britain, Vinten (founded by William Vinten in 1910) is today a leading supplier of motion picture camera supports. It seems to be the oldest British film business still operating (Butcher’s Film Service, started in 1896, was active as a business until just a few years ago).

The title of the world’s oldest film company is often claimed by Norway’s Nordisk, formed in 1906, is still producing films – and boasts the same familiar polar bear trademark that it has displayed since 1906.

Other names persist, even though they are not the original companies. Thanhouser ceased as a production company in 1918, but Thanhouser Company Film Preservation Inc., maintained by the Thanhouser family, preserves the company’s legacy by encouraging film preservation and releasing Thanhouser films on video and DVD. The Institut Lumière maintains the legacy of the Lumière brothers’ work. A peculiar outfit claims to be the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (formed 1895), but is no such thing, being a new business which has acquired the old name and has laid claim to its legacy.

Who else persists, in reality or simply as adopted name? There must be others. Do let me know.

Grace’s guide

W. Vinten Cinematograph Engineers, from

This is something for the specialist, but intriguing for all that. Grace’s Guide bills itself as “the most comprehensive source of information on the engineering industry in Britain between 1750 (the start of the Industrial Revolution) and the 1960s”. Put together by ‘volunteers’ in wiki form, the site (which started life in 2007) is a reference guide to personalities, products and companies in engineering, taken in the main from a wide range of original journals, directories and reference guides, as well as web resources. Entries are are in the form of bullet-point histories, with numerous links, and references assiduously cited. Though much of the site is dedicated to the motor industry, shipbuilding, aircraft and such like, but there is also some information to be found on the early cinematograph industry.

There isn’t a page dedicated to the cinema industry, nor a keyword to use so far as I can see, but enter ‘cinematograph’, ‘bioscope’ or ‘film’ in the search box, and you’ll find plenty. Some of the records are no more than company names taken from directories (particularly the 1914 Whittaker’s Red Book and a 1922 British Industries Fair listing). But a few more give much more detail, and for the film historian it is possible to find useful information on some familiar (and not so familiar) names and their careers in engineering outside film – a useful reminder that for many their professional lives were not necessarily wholly circumscribed by film. Among the people covered I’ve found Birt Acres, William Vinten, and Ernest Moy, while among the businesses there is J.A. Prestwich (rather better known for motorcycles than the cinematograph equipment that the company also produced), W. Butcher & Sons, the Williamson Kinematograph Co. and Werner Frères (another business operating on the motorcycle-motion picture interface).

There’s a huge amount that could be there that isn’t (yet), there are no illustrations, and some of the film information comes from familiar sources (Screenonline, Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema, Wikipedia), but if you know what you’re looking for, this is a resource to keep an eye on (or, indeed, to contribute to).

Colourful stories no. 12 – Tinting and toning

Nosferatu (1922), from Eureka Video

In our history of the use of colour in silent cinema, there has been probably disproportionate emphasis on Kinemacolor. The first ‘true’ colour system it may have been, and importantly technically and in perceptions of cinema it undoubtedly was, yet was only ever witnessed by a minority. Kinemacolor featured in select theatres which had installed the necessary projection equipment, but in the ordinary cinemas and movie houses it did not feature. The mass early cinema audience, where it saw colour – and it often did – did so in the form of tinting and toning.

As the film industry expanded through the 1900s, and as mass production of prints ensued, stencil colouring (that is, applying artificial colours onto the print using stencil cut-outs and a pantograph system) became a speciality, reserved for historical dramas, exotic travelogues and films with a strong fantasy element, and predominantly the preserve of the Gaumont and Pathé multinationals. Such films also commended higher prices, and once films began to extend in length beyond 1,000 feet they became no longer economically feasible (bar the occasional deluxe exception). For most other, so-called monochrome films, colour tinting and/or toning were widely employed to lift them from the mean appearance of black and white.

Tinting meant bathing the black-and-white print in a coloured dye, though from 1912 onwards suppliers started offering coloured film stocks, which gave greater evenness of colour. The colours were roughly analogous to action and mood: yellow or amber for daylight scenes, red for fire and scenes of dynamic action, green or blue-green for seascapes and scenes of mystery, blue the recognised convention for night. Colin Bennett, in his The Guide to Kinematography (1917), lists how to tint for certain well known effects:

  • Early morning: Tint film lightly in one tenth per cent bath of crystal violet
  • Moonlight (night): Use one quarter per cent patent blue solution
  • Lamp or candle light: Tint in half per cent orange brown (Mandarin) dye bath
  • Fire: Use bath containing one per cent each of brilliant yellow and rose bengal
  • Weird effects: Tint green in a half per cent naphthol green bath
  • Bright sunlight: Use half per cent brilliant yellow bath

Though there examples of just the one tint being used throughout a film, it was more common for different colour tints to be employed, enhancing the drama and varieties of mood. By the start of the 1920s, the large majority of films were exhibited with colour tinting. Even newsreels were commonly seen in tinted colours.

Yellow tint with a green tone added, from

Toning was a little more complex in production and subtler in its effects. While tinting meant simply the application of colour dye to black-and-white film, toning involved converting the black-and-white image to a colour record, reflecting its tonal qualities. There were various chemical methods by which this could be achieved. One was to convert the black-and-white silver image to another, coloured metal. Brian Pritchard’s site on historical motion picture technologies (recommended to the specialist) lists the following effects to be expected:

Iron gives blue
Copper gives red to brown
Vanadium gives green
Uranium gives black to red
Selenium gives red-brown
Sulphide gives sepia

Tinting and toning combined the two methods, for example: a sun setting over the sea might have blue-green toning for the sea and sky, but red tinting for the sun and clouds. The combination led to subtle and often hauntingly beautiful effects, and not just in fiction films, as the illustration from the British Film Institute’s restoration of South, Frank Hurley’s documentary of the ill-fated 1914-15 trans-Antarctic expedition led by Ernest Shackleton, indicates:

South (1919)

Tinting and toning continued as the main means of putting colour before audiences throughout the rest of the silent era. The arrival of sound caused problems, as colour tinting interfered with the sound reproduction, chiefly by absorbing too much of the light that the photocell required to reproduce the sound. Although adapted tinted stocks were produced, and continued in some cases to be used well into the sound era, essentially tinting and toning for films were no more.

The accurate and sensitive reproduction of tinting and toning effects for silent films is a major part of the restoration work undertaken by film archives, and there is much delight taken in the finest results. The Nederlands Filmmuseum, for instance, has built up a worldwide reputation for some of its exquisite colour work on early films. Prestigious silent DVD releases now highlight faithfulness to original tinting and toning. On the other side, and mentioning no names, there have been some real horror stories presented at some silent film festivals, where garish colours grossly applied shock you with their thoughtless vulgarity. It is not, and never was, colour for its own sake, but rather colour for the film’s sake. As with musical accompaniment, decoration had always to be subservient to the drama it was there to enhance.

Trailer for the Eureka Video release of Nosferatu (F. W. Murnau-Stiftung restoration) with state-of-the-art tinting and toning

The outpouring of colour viewing prints of early films (in past years, some archives regrettably had to economise by producing viewing prints in monochrome, even though the originals they were working from were tinted) has in turn encouraged an enthusiastic literature on the aesthetics of colour in silent film. Kinemacolor, interestingly enough, tends not to be discussed so much in such works, owing to the lack of viewing prints. Examples include Daan Hertogs and Nico de Klerk, Disorderly Order: Colours in Silent Films (1996), a special issue of the Italian journal Fotogenia, two essays from which (including a key work by Tom Gunning) are available online in English, and a special issue on colour of the journal Living Pictures (vol. 2 no. 2, 2003), edited by yours truly, which is now alas rather difficult to find. Probably the best text available on tinting and toning in early film, with illustrations, is Paolo Cherchi Usai’s Silent Cinema.

For a rich selection of examples of early colour films – not just tinted and toned films, but Kinemacolor, Prizmacolor, Technicolor and other such processes – Lobster Films has created a marvellous DVD, which is available in the UK from the Projection Box in the 2-DVD set The Birth of Sound and Colour as A Dream of Colour, in the USA from Flicker Alley as Movies Dream in Colour, one half of the Discovering Cinema set, and in Germany from Edition Filmmuseum as part of The First Steps of Cinema set. Under whatever title you find it, it is warmly recommended.

Recommended reading: (reproduces documents from the period with detailed information on dyes, processes etc; also frame illustrations of tinting and toning examples)

Tom Gunning, ‘Colorful Metaphors: The Attraction of Color in Early Silent Cinema’ (from Fotogenia)

The Silent Film Bookshelf

The Silent Film Bookshelf was started by David Pierce in October 1996 with the noble intention of providing a monthly curated selection of original documents on the silent era (predominantly American cinema), each on a particular theme. It ended in June 1999, much to the regret to all who had come to treasure its monthly offerings of knowledgeably selected and intelligently presented transcripts. The effort was clearly a Herculean one, and could not be sustained forever, but happily Pierce chose to keep the site active, and there it still stands nine years later, undeniably a web design relic but an exceptional reference resource. Its dedication to reproducing key documents helped inspire the Library section of this site, and it is a lesson to us all in supporting and respecting the Web as an information resource.

Below is a guide to the monthly releases (as I guess you’d call them), with short descriptions.

October 1996 – Orchestral Accompaniment in the 1920s
Informative pieces from Hugo Riesenfeld, musical director of the Rialto, Rivoli and Critierion Theaters in Manhattan, and Erno Rapee, conductor at the Capitol Theater, Manhattan.

November 1996 – Salaries of Silent Film Actors
Articles with plenty of multi-nought figures from 1915, 1916 and 1923.

December 1996 – An Atypical 1920s Theatre
The operations of the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, N.Y.

January 1997 – “Blazing the Trail” – The Autobiography of Gene Gauntier
The eight-part autobiography (still awaiting part eight) of the Kalem actress, serialised over 1928/1929 in the Women’s Home Companion.

February 1997 – On the set in 1915
Photoplay magazine proiles of D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett and Siegmund Lubin.

March 1997 – Music in Motion Picture Theaters
Three articles on the progress of musical accompaniment to motion pictures, 1917-1929.

April 1997 – The Top Grossing Silent Films
Fascinating articles in Photoplay and Variety on production finance and the biggest money-makers of the silent era.

May 1997 – Geraldine Farrar
The opera singer who became one of the least likely of silent film stars, including an extract from her autobiography.

June 1997 – Federal Trade Commission Suit Against Famous Players-Lasky
Abuses of monopoly power among the Hollywood studios.

July 1997 – Cecil B. DeMille Filmmaker
Three articles from the 1920s and two more analytical articles from the 1990s.

August 1997 – Unusual Locations and Production Experiences
Selection of pieces on filmmaking in distant locations, from Robert Flaherty, Tom Terriss, Frederick Burlingham, James Cruze, Bert Van Tuyle, Fred Leroy Granville, H.A. Snow and Henry MacRae.

September 1997 – D.W. Griffith – Father of Film
Rich selection of texts from across Griffith’s career on the experience of working with the great director, from Gene Gauntier, his life Linda Arvidson, Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish and others.

October 1997 – Roxy – Showman of the Silent Era
S.L. Rothapfel, premiere theatre manager of the 1920s.

November 1997 – Wall Street Discovers the Movies
The Wall Street Journal looks with starry eyes at the movie business in 1924.

December 1997 – Sunrise: Artistic Success, Commercial Flop?
Several articles documenting the marketing of a prestige picture, in this case F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise.

January 1998 – What the Picture Did For Me
Trade publication advice to exhibitors on what films of the 1928-1929 season were likely to go down best with audiences.

February 1998 – Nickelodeons in New York City
The emergence of the poor man’s theatre, 1907-1911.

March 1998 – Projection Speeds in the Silent Film Era
An amazing range of articles on the vexed issue of film speeds in the silent era. There are trade paper accouncts from 1908 onwards, technical papers from the Transactions of Society of Moving Picture Engineers, a comparative piece on the situation in Britain, and overview articles from archivist James Card and, most importantly, Kevin Brownlow’s key 1980 article for Sight and Sound, ‘Silent Films: What was the right speed?’

April 1998 – Camera Speeds in the Silent Film Era
The protests of cameramen against projectionsts.

May 1998 – “Lost” Films
Robert E. Sherwood’s reviews of Hollywood, Driven and The Eternal Flame, all now lost films (the latter, says Pierce, exists but is ‘incomplete and unavailable’).

June 1998 – J.S. Zamecnik & Moving Picture Music
Sheet music for general film accompaniment in 1913, plus MIDI files.

July 1998 – Classics Revised Based on Audience Previews
Sharp-eyed reviews of preview screenings by Wilfred Beaton, editor of The Film Spectator, including accounts of the preview of Erich Von Stroheim’s The Wedding March and King Vidor’s The Crowd, each quite different to the release films we know now.

August 1998 – Robert Flaherty and Nanook of the North
Articles on the creator of the staged documentary film genre.

September 1998 – “Fade Out and Fade In” – Victor Milner, Cameraman
The memoirs of cinematographer Victor Milner.

October 1998 – no publication

November 1998 – Baring the Heart of Hollywood
Somewhat controversially, a series of articles from Henry Ford Snr.’s anti-Semitic The Dearborn Independent, looking at the Jewish presence in Hollywood. Pierce writes: ‘I have reprinted this series with some apprehension. That many of the founders of the film industry were Jews is a historical fact, and “Baring the Heart of Hollywood” is mild compared to “The International Jew.” [Another Ford series] Nonetheless, sections are offensive. As a result, I have marked excisions of several paragraphs and a few words from this account.’

December 1998 – Universal Show-at-Home Libraries
Universal Show-At-Home Movie Library, Inc. offered complete features in 16mm for rental through camera stores and non-theatrical film libraries.

January 1999 – The Making of The Covered Wagon
Various articles on the making of James Cruze’s classic 1923 Western.

February 1999 – From Pigs to Pictures: The Story of David Horsley
The career of independent producer David Horsley, who started the first motion picture studio in Hollywood, by his brother William.

March 1999 – Confessions of a Motion Picture Press Agent
An anonymous memoir from 1915, looking in particular at the success of The Birth of a Nation.

April 1999 – Road Shows
Several articles on the practive of touring the most popular silent epics as ‘Road Shows,’ booked into legitimate theatres in large cities for extended runs with special music scores performed by large orchestras. With two Harvard Business School analyses from the practice in 1928/29.

May 1999 – Investing in the Movies
A series of articles 1915/16 in Photoplay Magazine examining the risks (and occasional rewards) of investing in the movies.

June 1999 – The Fabulous Tom Mix
A 1957 memoir in twelve chapters by his wife of the leading screen cowboy of the 1920s.

And there it ended. An astonishing bit of work all round, with the texts transcribed (they are not facsimiles) and meticulously edited. Use it as a reference source, and as an inspiration for your own investigations.

John Barnes RIP

It is with sadness that I have to report the death of John Barnes, film historian, collector, curator and filmmaker. John is best known for the five volume series The Beginnings of Cinema in England, 1894-1901, his unparalled study of the earliest years of English cinema. Begun in 1976, completed in 1998, it is as much a work of archaeology as historiography. John’s real passion was for the technology of film in the 1890s, and he was prodigious and exhaustive in tracking down every kind of motion picture machine from the period, explaining its distinctive qualities, tracing its use and recording its ownership.

Around this deep understanding of the technology of the era, he weaved stories of the personalities of the time (his great hero was Robert Paul, whose battles with fellow pioneer and rival Birt Acres he recorded with journalistic fervour), the modes of exhibition, and especially the films – each volume of his history contained filmographies of the whole of British film production for one year, information gleaned from catalogues, journals, posters, flyers, and a host of other sources. Details of hundreds of films from this era have been identified from Barnes’ work alone, a huge benefit to scholars and film archivists alike. An era of cinema that previously had been idly documented and frequently misinterpreted was enriched by an exhaustive study that has inspired a huge range of subsequent studies. No one has been able to write about this period of cinema history without reference to the works of John Barnes. He found the material, provided the signposts, and his work remains the sure foundations on which all other research in the field must be built.

With the Gypsies in Kent (c.1938), film by John and Bill Barnes, from Screen Search

John and his twin brother William (who survives him) were born in 1920 and discovered film during the 1930s, becoming enthusiastic amateur filmmakers while still at school. Two of their films, Gems of the Cornish Riviera (1936) and Cornish Nets (1938) featured at the Pordenone silent film festival in 1997, the year in which both were awarded the prestigious Prix Jean Mitry for services to silent film scholarship. Eighteen of their silent films are now held by Screen Archive South East in Brighton, including The Wheat Harvest (c.1935), In the Garden of England (c.1938) and With the Gypsies in Kent (c.1938), clips from which can be seen on the Archive’s Screen Search site.

On leaving school the brothers studied film design and technique at Edward Carrick’s AAT film school, at which time they began collecting Victorian optical toys and associated literature, often frequenting the bookshops of London’s Cecil Court which three decades before had been ‘Flicker Alley’, home to the nascent British film industry. They hatched a plan to collect artefacts and documents that would trace the history of motion pictures from the 17th to the 20th centuries, an ambition put on hold while they served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War.

After the war, the brothers moved to St Ives in Cornwall, where Bill opened a second-hand bookshop. It was in rooms above this shop in 1951, during the Festival of Britain, that the brothers put on the first exhibition of their film history artefacts, the success of which encouraged them to collect all the more. This was at a time when relatively little was appreciated about pre-cinema tchnologies, and John’s great work was not simply to collect such objects but to understand them, explain them and to be able to contextualise them. Eventually the bookshop was closed and the brothers sold by catalogue alone, supplying books and artefacts to scholars and film museums around the world.

Objects collected by John and Bill Barnes now in Hove Museum

In the 1960s, while Bill went filming overseas, John and his wife Carmen (who also survives him) opened the Barnes Museum of Cinematography in St Ives. This famous collection attracted film scholars from around the world, and its catalogues became treasured documentary sources as serious interest grew in the roots of cinema. Collecting continued, and many objects were lent to museums around the world or formed the subject of illustrations in numerous text books. The Museum never found a London home, as John had hoped, and closed in 1986, its pre-cinema holdings going to the Museo Nazionale del Cinema in Turin, while much of the remainder is now housed in Hove Museum, near Brighton.

But John’s greatest monument is The Beginnings of the Cinema in England. The series began in 1976 with the book of that title, which documented the arrival of film in England, 1894-1896. Establishing his style, the book traced the history through the machinery, out of which followed the personalities involved, the modes of exhibition, and a thorough filmography for the period. It would be hard to underestimate the value this book (which was revised and republished in 1998) to the early cinema specialist. It simply defined a period. Subsequent research has built on his work, and occasionally challenged its findings (Barnes’ arguments around the so-called ‘Paul-Acres camera’), but those solid foundations remain. It was followed by volumes doggedly documenting the cinema in Britain (he wavered between England and Britain in his descriptions) for 1897 (perhaps his best work), 1898, 1899 and 1900, the whole series eventually being republished in a uniform edition by University of Exeter Press in 1998. While the original volumes are quite rare, the re-issued set can be found relatively easily and cheaply and is strongly recommended to any serious student of early film. In the historiography of British film, only Denis Gifford and Rachael Low can match John Barnes’ achievements.

John Barnes devoted his life to the history of cinema. He was as much a pioneer in his field as were those whose lives and technologies he championed in theirs. He faced innumerable battles with publishers and institutions, but that all goes with the part played in being an independent scholar-collector. His knowledge, unfailing help and sturdy friendship were valued by scholars and enthusiasts around the world, and his parting (he died on June 1st) will be recognised as a huge loss. But few of us who work in this field will be able to leave behind so much of such solid and lasting value: objects rescued, identified and their importance recognised; documents saved, preserved and republished; films identified and treasured; and books written that preserve the knowledge of a lifetime and which will benefit research for many years to come.

I’ll finish with a section from a review I made of The Beginnings of Cinema in England when the series was republished, as it rather sums things up for me:

Enthusiasm is the key to John Barnes’ history. Perhaps the chief reason why this area of film studies is so vital, is that in the hearts of its enthusiasts it is as if it were happening now. While other areas of academic cinema history seem doomed to atrophy, as films that were once entertaining no longer entertain, Victorian cinema is alive with debate and discovery … This is perhaps Barnes’ greatest achievement, to have achieved the trick that film has always claimed to do, to abolish time. Thanks to the finest work of empirical early film history that there is, the cinema of the 1890s is very much with us still.

Thank you John.

Of Mutoscopes, Filoscopes and Kinoras

Another day, another outstanding website. Out of the blue has appeared (well, out of the blue to me – it’s been around for a while), and I warmly recommend it to you. It is a site dedicated to the history, definition and usage of the flipbook, that sister technology of the silent cinema. It defines the flip book, or flick book, thus:

A flip book is a collection of combined pictures intended to be flipped over to give the illusion of movement and create an animated sequence from a simple small book without machine.

Flipbooks became very popular in the late nineteenth century, and are still produced today – indeed, who among us has not created their own basic flip sequence by drawing successive figures at the corner of the pages of a school exercise book? (You mean you haven’t? – go out and do so straight away and discover what intermittent motion and animation mean). But it was at the end of the nineteenth and into the early years of the twentieth century that flipbook technology overlapped with, indeed shared with cinema technology.

The Mutoscope (left), better known to many as ‘what the butler saw’, was one of the first photographic motion picture viewers. Invented by Herman Casler in 1895, the Mutoscope presented radially-mounted photographs on card which were flicked over in rapid sequence to give an illusion of movement. The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company was formed to exploit this invention, in tandem with 70mm films created by the Mutagraph camera, so that the same source generated product for showing on the big screen to a variety theatre audience or as a private pleasure for the single peepshow viewer. The company eventually shed the Mutoscope part of the business and became simply Biograph, took on a film director by the name of D.W. Griffith, and you know the rest. Other such hybrid technologies, using cinematograph films to generate the photographic sequences for flip cards, were the smaller Kinora viewer, invented by Auguste and Louis Lumière, and the Filoscope, invented by Henry Short.

All this and much, much more is covered by the site, which describes (with beautiful illustrations) an amazing range of flipbook views from the early years of the twentieth-century, demonstrating the interelationships with cinema, and how the form has been employed to illustrate sport, advertising, comic strips, pornography, even news and politics, how it has been used by artists, and how books themselves have use flipbook images. It is an astonishingly diverse field

And that’s not all. As well as the rich selection of images, there are demonstration movies for some of the types of viewer, including the Filoscope and the Kinora (frame grab right). The bilingual (English and French) site is the creation of Pascal Fouché, and is divided up into History, Typology, Viewers, Links (publishers, retailers, artists etc) and a blog (in French). The pags come with footnotes, and the knowledge on display is mightily impressive. Indeed my only criticism is that the search option only works in French – but do use it, because it brings up a whole load more images from a database, apprently of 4,250 flipbooks. Amazing stuff, lovingly put together, but as accessible as it is scholarly. Go explore.

World’s first sound recording


Phonoautogram, from

Well, this item fails our criteria on two counts – it’s not about cinema, and it’s not silent. But it’s relevant, so here goes.

It was announced today that researchers have uncovered the world’s first sound recording, dating from 9 April 1860, an astonishing seventeen years before Thomas Edison received the patent for his Phonograph. The recording was created by something called a Phonoautograph, and the recording itself is a Phonoautogram. The Phonoautograph was designed to create a visual record of sounds. Invented by the Frenchman Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, the device comprised a barrel-shaped horn connected to a stylus, which etched impressions of sound waves onto sheets of paper which has been blackened with soot. There was no means of playing back the recording. It was a visual record of sound designed for analysis.

The recording is a ten-second burst of the song Au Clair de la Lune, sung by an unidentified female. You can hear it (all ten seconds of it), and discover the background to its discovery and the ingenious use of optical imaging technology by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California that reconstituted the sound in a New York Times article.

Or just click here for the MP3 file.

So it’s the world’s earliest known sound recording, but is it a true sound recording if it could not be played at the time? Surely the invention is only complete with the full realisation of the technology; that is, when Edison combined both sound recoding and playback, the earliest playable example of which (part of a Handel oratario) dates from 1878. And this is where the relevance bit comes in, because we face exactly the same dilemma with motion pictures. Eadweard Muybridge first photographed motion in sequence in 1878, and we can reconstitute such images to display motion. They look like movies, but at the time they never moved. Etienne-Jules Marey photographed humans and animals in sequence from 1882 onwards, soon to be followed by other chronophotographers, but his purpose was the same as Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville – analysis. Yet we can convert these film strips (Marey used celluloid) into fleeting semblances of motion. Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince took perfectly serviceable motion pictures (on paper) in 1888, but much as he wanted to he was not able to project them.

So we award the laurels to Edison and to Lumière for having brought together the full package. Or so I’ve always argued. Now I don’t know. It seems to me that Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville (great name) achieved the essential business first – to capture sound. Being able to play it back was secondary – desirable, of course, but ultimately an inevitable follow-up that would just take a little bit longer to achieve (in his case, 148 years). So, on that basis, Edison and Lumière came last. They realised, but it was others who pioneered. Stand up Eadweard, the laurels are yours.

Debate, anyone?

Muybridge 1878

Muybridge’s photographs of a horse in motion, from Scientific American 19 October 1878