First film dogs


The Lumières’ Le Faux cul-de-jatte (1897), from

David Bordwell recently posted yet another jaw-droppingly good piece on his Observations on film art and Film Art blog, whose consistently high quality makes the rest of us look like mere gossip-mongers. This post, entitled Gradations of emphasis, starring Glenn Ford, examines widescreen cinema (you’ll have to read it to find out what the title means). But there was one aspect of it that caught my eye, something captured drifting across the screen, that reminded me of one of the odder corners of early film down which I like to wander sometimes.

In his survey of lateral staging in film (i.e. action happening within the frame, literally coming in from the sides), Bordwell looks at early film strategies, and reproduces frames from the Lumières’ Le Faux cul-de-jatte (1897), in which a fake amputee begs in the street. He describes the action, until one frame (on the right, above), where a stray dog enters the action from the right. He writes, “The cop comes to the beggar, partially blocking the dog, who takes care of other business. (Not everything in this movie is staged.)” What interests Bordwell is the staged action. What interests me is the dog. Let me explain…

Cinema’s first dog, appearing in Edison’s Athlete with Wand (filmed February 1894) is noticeably at a remove from action and camera (though obedient enough to keep within the frame)

It was when I was presenting a series of programmes at the National Film Theatre on Victorian cinema (i.e. films made before 1901), in 1994, that I first noticed a peculiar phenomenon. As I introduced each short film in the compilation, and pointed out those points of central interest which I had recorded in my notes, I started to notice that the audience’s attention was being frequently been drawn away from the supposed subject and centre of the film’s attention, and instead they were detecting action to the edge of the frame, or crossing the frame, interrupting the action or courageously ignoring it, creating a vital counter-narrative. In short, their attention was irresistibly drawn to stray dogs.

This was a surprising phenomenon, which I exploited at the time for some simple humour, but on mature reflection it seemed that here was a hitherto wholly ignored yet clearly important facet of early cinema, a theme overlooked yet superabundantly obvious once pointed out to the idle observer. The number of stray dogs in early films is considerable, as anyone familiar with the period will readily acknowledge, and their distracting and engrossing qualities seemed to be in urgent need of analysis. Why were stray dogs accepted in early film dramas? What were they doing there? Where did they come from? Were there more such dogs in British films than others? What could their presence tell us about early film practice? How could one construct an overarching vision of early cinema that encompasses the animal and the accidental? Why are there no stray cats? Why, ultimately, were the audience looking in the wrong direction? Were the original audiences similarly distracted? In what sense could it said that such canine interruptions were directed, and by what agency? I resolved to write a paper that would answer these nagging enquiries. It would be called ‘First Film Dogs’.


I began first by collating the necessary data, and working on a critical theory which would most usefully and succinctly describe the phenomenon. The examples were easy to find: the exuberant Jack Russell which joins in the punishing of a sweep who wanders into a garden and dirties the laundry in James Williamson’s Washing the Sweep (1898, left); the stray dogs wandering over the parade ground amid the marching soldiers in the Boer War actuality Lord Roberts Hoisting the Union Jack at Pretoria (Warwick, 1900), upsetting the solemnity of the situation; dogs wandering casually onto the studio set of early Pathé films; the dog that takes position centre frame in film of a genuine mining tragedy funeral in the middle of the Pathé mining drama Au Pays Noir (1905); actualities such as Funeral of the World’s Greatest Monarch (1910), where King Edward VII’s own dog takes part in the procession, and is then accompanied by a passing stray (such thematic complexity!); the efforts of ‘Monarch’ the Lifeboat Dog to contribute to a life-saving re-enactment performed on the beach in Launch of the Worthing Lifeboat (Biograph, 1899).


Monarch’s contribution to an actuality which in fact incorporates a dramatic element illustrated the next stage of the theme, where the cinema progressively encroached upon the freedom of the dog, containing the dog within the frame, from Edison’s Laura Comstock’s Bag-Punching Dog (1901, right, though watch the film and see how the dog, Mannie, keeps trying to leap out of the frame only to be drawn back into it); to the passing dogs that enthusiatically take part in early chase films; to the triumph/defeat of Hepworth’s Rescued by Rover (1905), where the dog’s natural motion is contained entirely within the cinematic narrative. Did the sequel to that film, The Dog Outwits the Kidnapper (1905), where Rover gets to drive a car, indicate canine empowerment or slavery? What price the freedom of early cinematic form, when all that results from it in the end is Rin Tin Tin and Lassie?

The critical theory at this stage consisted mostly of a series of such questions, without a key, but I began to work on the concept of ‘canine space’. There was more going on in these early films than first appeared. There was a central performance, or news event, which the original catalogues declared to be the subject matter, but this could not necessarily be what the audience saw, nor was such a dictate bound to be obeyed by those appearing in these films. Anyone familiar with early films will know of the puzzled glances from passers-by that characterise street scenes, of the distracting matter which suggests that the camera operator was not in full command of the subject. In such circumstances, dogs run free. What adds to the fascination, reinforcing one’s belief in the essentially liberated nature of early films, is that stray dogs can be found in studio films of the period. The drama is enacted, the comedy routine performed, and in the background a dog watches, or wanders past, or joins in if it so desires, and this is accepted as part of the total action. ‘Canine space’ is therefore that other space, that world onto which the camera has intruded.


Rover (played by Blair) and Cecil Hepworth in Rescued by Rover (1905)

I never did write the paper. It was intended as a spoof of early film studies, but I couldn’t quite get the humour right. I was scheduled to give the paper at a British silent film festival some years ago, but in the end got up and apologised to the audience and said that the paper was beyond me. But I gave them enough of the argument that it probably affected the rest of the festival, as people starting spotting stray animals in every film, and ever since I’ve had people send me images or information on roving animals which they’ve spotted in some silent or other. A chord was touched.

It’s not a phenomenon entirely restricted to the early cinema (there a renowned stray dog in Joseph Losey’s Accident for instance), but it is a noticeable characteristic of early film which could make one think about the special free nature of film at that time. A cinema where dogs run free is a cinema that has not yet been pinned down, one that lets us look at the edges. You could call it the cinema of distractions. You could theorise about it seriously – there is perhaps some parallel with Roland Barthes’ concept of the ‘punctum’, the oddity in a photograph that shouldn’t really be there but which draws your attention away from what the photograph is ostensibly trying to convey.

Maybe I’ll write the paper one day. Maybe it’s the sort of paper that’s not meant to be written. Maybe we’re always going to be looking at the centre, while at the edges, or wandering across the frame, another kind of story passes by, always eluding us even though it may for a moment catch our eye. I don’t know. Try asking a dog.

New science, old science

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

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

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

Seeing the unseen world

Francis Martin Duncan with microcinematographical equipment

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

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

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

Cheese Mites (1903)

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

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

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

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

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

The Science Museum exhibition runs until February 2009.

Where the wild things are

Percy Smith

Percy Smith (left), from F.A. Talbot’s Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked (1912)

It’s been a long time in coming, but it’s been well worth the wait. Today saw the launch of WildFilmHistory, a site dedicated to recognising 100 years (so they say) of wildlife filmmaking. Produced by the Wildscreen Trust and supported by Lottery funding, this is a multimedia guide to one hundred years of natural history filmmaking, from the pioneering days when stop-motion films of flowers opening wowed them in the music halls to the age of Attenborough and beyond.

The site is biographical in focus, and at its centre are ninety-one (so far) mini-biographies of wildlife filmmakers, twenty-nine of them with accompanying oral history recordings, which very usefully come with PDF transcripts. So you get interviews with the likes of David Attenborough, Hans and Lotte Haas, Desmond Morris, Tony Soper and the late Gerald Thompson, but also the academic Derek Bousé, whose excellent history Wildlife Films investigates our period – more of which below. There’s also a very useful timeline.

But of greatest value for our purposes are the film clips of early wildlife films. There are thirteen of them (many from the British Film Institute collection):

  • Das Boxende Känguruh (1895) – Max Skladanowsky’s film of a boxing kangaroo and its trainer Mr Delaware.
  • Rough Sea at Dover (1895) – Something of a surprise choice, Birt Acres’ self-explanatory film which they argue is “considered by some to be the first natural history orientated film”.
  • Pelicans at the Zoo (1898) – Pelicans at Regent’s Park Zoo, made by the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, a breathtakingly beautiful film if seen on 35mm (it was originally shot on 70mm), a little more prosiac in Flash.
  • Spiders on a Web (1900) – A new one on me. This was apparently made by G.A. Smith and features two spiders in close-up, viewed through a circular mask (but no web to be seen). Clearly an extract from a longer film.
  • St. Kilda, Its People and Birds (1908) – Made by Oliver Pike, this shows both human and animal life on St kilda, off Scotland, at a time when it was still inhabited by people.
  • The Birth of a Flower (1910) – Exquisite stop-motion photography of flowers opening, complete with stencil colouring, made by the great Percy Smith for Charles Urban.
  • The History of a Butterfly – A Romance of Insect Life (1910) – A fully-fledged natural history film, made by James Williamson, with a fair bit of nitrate damage to remind us of the precious state in which some of these films survive.
  • The Strength and Agility of Insects (1911) – Eye-popping pyrotechnics performed by flies, who juggle corks, twirl matchsticks etc. This is actually a re-issue of an earlier film, The Balancing Bluebottle (1908), filmed by our hero of the era, Percy Smith, for Charles Urban once again. No animals was injured during the making of this film (honest).
  • Secrets of Nature: The Sparrow-Hawk (1922) – One of the famous British Instructional Films series of educational films from the 1920s/30s, this was made by Captain C.W. R. Knight (the site’s synopsis mistakenly says in one place that Percy Smith made the film, though he was associated with many Secrets of Nature productions) (Captain Knight turns up twenty years later as the eagle-tamer in Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going, trivia fans).
  • Secrets of Nature: The Cuckoo’s Secret (1922) – Another title from The Secrets of Nature, this time filmed by Oliver Pike and produced by ornithologist Edgar Chance
  • With Cherry Kearton in the Jungle (1926) – Cherry Kearton was the most celebrated naturalist of the era, and with his brother Richard more or less pioneered the art of wildlife photography and then cinematography. This is a ‘greatest hits’ compilation of some of his African natural history films.
  • Simba (1928) – An African travelogue (extracts only) made by the enterprising American couple Martin and Osa Johnson, blending actuality with staged scenes, and alarmingly also blending shooting with both camera and gun.
  • Dassan: An Adventure in Search of Laughter Featuring Nature’s Greatest Little Comedians (1930) – Cherry Kearton anticipates The March of the Penguins by several decades.

And so it continues up to the present day, with many marvellous clips which both amaze and cause a sigh of happy nostalgia (Zoo Quest, Jacques Cousteau). A little oddly, the site includes pages for films that they haven’t tracked down yet – these include Oliver Pike’s In Birdland (1907), which they argue was the first true wildlife film (hence the centenary), but unfortunately no copy is known to exist.

This is a very well produced site, on which a huge amount of effort has been expended on clearing and producing the clips, esearching the history, and presenting the interviews. The early film clips are wonderful to see, even if I miss one or two titles that I think should have been there (e.g. Herbert Ponting’s fine penguin footage from his films of Captain Scott’s Antarctic expedition). The site opens up the history of wildlife film, demonstrating an interconnected heritage, championing excellence, and encouraging us all to find out more.

Wildlife Films

So, if you are interested in finding out more, where should you go? Well, as mentioned, I strongly recomennd Derek Bousé’s Wildlife Films (2000). This is a first-rate history of wildlife filmmaking and television production, good not only on the plain history but on the mysteries of the genre, which ever since its earliest days has had to adopt assorted entertainment strategies, particularly storytelling, to make its work palatable to a mass public. It is thoughtful and informative. Also recommended is the similarly thought-provoking Animals in Film (2002) by Jonathan Burt. There’s also the recent BBC publication, Michael Bright’s 100 Years of Wildlife (2007), which is aimed at the popular end of the market, but does at least name check people such as Kearton, Smith and Urban.

WildFilmHistory is a wonderful resource, which promises to grow and welcomes any information on new material that they might use. In the spirit of the great filmmakers it champions, go explore.

Animals in motion

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

Mohammed running

Mohammed Running, from The Horse in Motion

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

Marey runner

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

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

100 years of wildlife films, maybe

Martin and Osa Johnson

Martin and Osa Johnson, from

Starting this Saturday (August 25th), BBC4 has a wildlife season, marking 100 years of wildlife films. One might protest straight away that wildlife films were made before 1907, but the argument is that Oliver Pike’s In Birdland (1907) was the first true natural history film, as opposed to scientific analysis films, actualities or entertainment films featuring animals. I think F. Martin Duncan‘s work (from 1904 onwards) ought to be acknowledged, even if he mostly filmed in London Zoo, but it’s a bit late now. Ironically or not, In Birdland is believed to be a lost film.

The centrepiece of the season is the programme 100 Years of Wildlife Films, presented by Bill Oddie. Presumably there will be some acknowledgment of the considerable work done in the silent era in this field, by Oliver Pike, Percy Smith, Cherry Kearton, Paul Rainey, Herbert Ponting, C.W.R. Knight, Carl Akeley, Martin and Osa Johnson, and many more.

David Attenborough

David Attenborough with a picture of Cherry Kearton, from

There is a programme on Cherry Kearton, in the Nation on Film series, showing on 29 August, called Kearton’s Wildlife (though it’s actually a repeat). The Royal Geographical Society still awards a Cherry Kearton medal for achievements in photographing natural history (David Attenborough is a recipient), and his pioneering work (often with brother Richard) in still and motion picture photography of animals deserves to be far better known. The BBC4 site provides a full list of programmes in the series.

All of this activity coincides with plans by the Wildscreen Trust to develop a centralised collection of films and information on 100 years of wildlife filmmaking, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. There’s a website,, which promises a full launch at the end of 2007. There’s a book in the offing as well. Such is the power of centenaries.

The Birds and the Bees


Why not pop down to the National Film Theatre on London’s South Bank next Tuesday evening to see a programme of some of the less usual kind of silent films? The Birds and the Bees is a special programme of early natural history films, put together by the BFI’s curator of silent film, Bryony Dixon. Early British film history is rich in naturalist filmmakers who, decades before David Attenborough, were combining science with entertainment to prove that the movies could do more than just distract the masses with slapstick and melodrama. Filmmakers such as Oliver Pike, who specialised in recording birds in their habitat in films such as St Kilda, its People and Birds (1908); or the wonderful Percy Smith, who made stop-frame films of plant growth that could take over a year to produce, as well as meticulous studies of animal life with a touch of showmanship about them. Or what about the extraordinary J.C. ‘Bee’ Mason, war cameraman, adventurer and apiarist, whose films of his life-long hobby, such as The Bee’s Eviction (1909), are mad entertainment.

It’s on at 18.15, Tuesday June 16th in NFT2. More details from the BFI Southbank web pages.