Silents are Golden: Paving The Way For The Movies–A Nod To Victorian Film Pioneers

Paving The Way For The Movies — A Nod To Victorian Film Pioneers

When you study the origins of film, it almost seems to have begun by magic. For centuries there was painting and sculpture. By the 19th century there was also photography. And near the start of the 20th century, suddenly, there were films. But “moving pictures” didn’t just spring out of thin air, of course. They were not only the descendants of magic lantern shows, but they were the result of many experiments and breakthroughs by a variety of individuals, who persisted through technical difficulties, patent wars, and the use of some pretty wacky Victorian machines.

The first inklings of what would become “film” are usually credited to Eadweard Muybridge (who spelled his first name that way on purpose). The very picture of a somber Victorian professor, Muybridge was actually a creative and at times erratic individual who became deeply interested in professional photography in the 1860s. (His personal life was quite the doozy–try looking up “Muybridge” and “homicide” if you’re curious.) He specialized in landscape photos, travelling far into the Old West to capture its wide open spaces.

Eadweard Muybridge

He also specialized in incredible beards.

In 1872, he was asked to help settle a much-discussed debate that had been raging from sea to shining sea — when a horse was trotting, was there an instant when it had all four feet off the ground?! (Those 1870s debate topics, they were intense.) Muybridge decided to photograph trotting and running horses by lining up a series of cameras attached to threads stretched across a racetrack. These snapped photos when a running horse triggered the threads. After a few years of increasingly sophisticated experiments, Muybridge took his photography show on the road and gave lectures on the topic with the help of his zoopraxiscope — a kind of fast-working early slide projector. One journalist described it as a “magic lantern run mad.” (And yes, his photos of running horses with all four hooves off the ground did settle the debate.)

One man who was directly inspired by Muybridge’s experiments was Étienne-Jules Marey, the maker of many delicate and beautiful machines that measured heartbeats and muscle movement. An admirer of Muybridge, Marey wanted to take similar, rapid-succession photos of birds in flight. In 1882 he devised a “chronophotographic gun,” a camera that could take 12 photos per second on one image plate and which looked very much like a chunky, cumbersome gun. His experiments in Naples amused the locals, who dubbed the man walking around all day aiming at birds without actually shooting them “the silly from Posillipo.”

They may have had a point.

The Parisian Charles-Émile Reynaud invented the praxinoscope in 1877, where a strip of figures on the inside of a spinning cylinder blended together to create an apparently moving image. Initially devised as a child’s toy, he would continually tweak his invention and eventually figure out how to hook it up to a projector. By the 1890s he had fine-tuned his creation to the point where he could put on “Pantomimes Lumineuses,” or moving picture shows which used colored animation on moving bands (similar to film strips). In later years Reynaud would become penniless, throwing his animations into the Seine not long before passing away in a hospice in 1918. Little did he know that one day Walt Disney himself would pay him homage on an episode of the Disneyland T.V. show.

One of the world’s oldest “movie posters.”

Another key figure in cinema’s development was Ottomar Anschütz, a photographer who quickly gained an esteemed reputation thanks to his work in chronophotography in the 1880s (a bit different from Marey’s multiple images) as well as his invention of a shutter that took photos at 1/1000 of a second. He invented the tachyscope, which had a glass disk printed with images viewed by spinning a crank, and eventually upgraded it to an electrotachyscope, which used two discs and a projector. Although his work was widely admired (he even worked for the family of Kaiser Wilhelm II), he was such a perfectionist that when celluloid film strips came into vogue he ended his chronophotographic work, convinced that the new medium produced images of slightly inferior quality.

The 1880s in general was the decade when cinema made its most rapid strides. Inventors were taking notice of all the new glass, brass and wood cameras and projectors and were rapidly devising machines of their own. Thomas Edison and his assistant W. K.-L. Dickson were inspired by Muybridge, Marey and Anschütz to do experiments with “moving pictures” themselves, resulting in the invention of the kinetoscope around 1891. Edison was probably the most instrumental figure in making moving pictures a profitable business — he and his team were responsible for creating the “Black Maria,” the first film studio in the world.

Humble beginnings.

George Eastman figured out how to replace the usual glass plates with new, emulsion-coated paper strips in 1885. In 1888 inventor Louis Le Prince created a single-lens camera capable of recording images on Eastman’s film. His experimental shots, Roundhay Garden Scene and Leeds Bridge (both 1888), are the very oldest films that exist today, earning Le Prince the title of “Father of Cinematography.” He beat William Friese Greene to that title by a year — in 1889 Greene invented a camera that could take 4-5 frames per second on paper film. However, Le Prince’s camera was more efficient.

Brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière were comparatively late to the party when they debuted their cinématographe in 1895. However, they not only had the inspired idea of adding perforations to their film strips — so that a mechanism could “grab” the film and advance it through the camera more easily —  but they were among the earliest to give public demonstrations of their work. While the brothers (amazingly) considered film little more than a novelty, one man who attended one of their demonstrations recognized its artist power immediately — Georges Méliès.

Little did the Lumières know what they had unleashed.

While it’s easy to argue over which inventor receives the most credit for the creation of the cinema — Muybridge often gets cited, as does Edison, and I’m a Le Prince gal myself — in reality it was an informal group effort with many inventors studying and building upon each other’s ideas, lens by lens, and boxy camera by boxy camera. It took dreamers like Georges Méliès and other visionary directors to take film to the place where it is today, but the great inventors of the past will always have a massive share in its legacy.


Note: To read more about these and other Victorian film pioneers, I highly recommend paying a visit to the very thorough and well-researched Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema site — a very helpful source for this article!


–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.

Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.

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11 Responses to Silents are Golden: Paving The Way For The Movies–A Nod To Victorian Film Pioneers

  1. Pingback: A Big Thank You from CMH: “Give a Gift, Get a Gift” Holiday Contest Promotion… | Classic Movie Hub Blog

  2. David Hollingsworth says:

    Amazing post giving praise to those who started it all. We should never forget where Film came from.

  3. Brett Doze says:

    I am a film school grad, and even then I had not heard of some of the names you include on your list! The Lumiere brothers seem to get the most credit for being the inventors of motion pictures, but you prove here that there were actually plenty of pioneers before they came along. I agree with your stance on Le Prince. It seems like he was the first to truly hit on the idea of film as we know it today.

    • Lea S. says:

      Yes, some people will cite Muybridge as the ultimate film pioneer–and I understand why–but Le Prince’s invention was the earliest form of moving images on celluloid that’s familiar to us today. That’s what I would argue, anyways! Glad you enjoyed the article, Brett!

  4. Gloria Elizabeth says:

    Thanks for this post. I knew little about the technical foundations of film and I feel you’ve chipped away a bit from my ignorance. What you really highlight here is the way progress is pushed along by many different dreamers going in many different directions. In the end someone is credited for a leap ahead that is built on the work of many whose stories are generally lost to us. Someone makes a leap but the leap isn’t made from mid-air.

  5. Thank you so much for this history lesson. I think most people nowadays take film for granted – they don’t know what the past genius inventors had to go through to get to the point of what we have today. I often wondered how it must have felt for the early audience to see “moving pictures” for the very first time – the awe it must have generated.

    • Lea S. says:

      I wonder that, myself. Children especially must’ve been absolutely amazed, you would think!

      Inventing the cinema was clearly an incredible amount of work, by everyone involved. And the machines themselves were often so complicated, too–can’t imagine the time it took to design, test, and re-design some of them.

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