That Eureka Moment – 5

“When are you going to get to the point?” is an entirely justifiable cry to escape from you, my dear, (im)patient reader. Well, I have been working on something rather special, just for you. So I hope it will seem worth the wait.

To quickly recap the story so far and what we know:

  • Between early 1889 and early 1891 William Friese-Green was involved in the creation of three distinct moving picture cameras.
  • After the end of 1890 he was completely broke and had to stop inventing.
  • Although he had to sell (almost) everything he owned in 1891, he kept hold of the cameras.

We know about the first camera because of the patent, plus photographs and drawings of it. We know about the second, stereoscopic one because of both the patent and because that camera is still in existence. For the third one, we don’t have a patent, a drawing, a photo or even a clear description, BUT over in the French film archives we have some of the film it took. And that could tell us quite a bit…

King Road in Cinematheque - 2 frames BFor instance, that it was around 60-65mm wide. That’s the large format still occasionally used by film-makers like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino. But remember that, at the time, celluloid wasn’t freely available in any widths smaller than that. The 35mm standard was still years away and was chosen partially because those Edison Kinetoscope images were only to be viewed in a peep-hole machine, so picture resolution didn’t have to be that high. With the poor resolution of film emulsions at that point in time, it was wise to use a larger format if you wanted to project the images.

We also know that the film negative had been hand-perforated before being shot. There were nine round holes of 2mm diameter punched on both sides of each frame. It must have been a painstaking business to do in a darkroom – and pretty hit-and-miss too. But a bankrupt inventor couldn’t get a perforating machine built. The Lumiere Brothers would also favour round perforations over the square ones of the Edison/Eastman format.

And we see he chose to move away from the square picture format of his earlier cameras, which had probably been influenced by the shape of lantern slides, and instead settled on a rectangular ratio. When I measured this, I discovered it was almost precisely the one that would later be adopted as the film industry standard for many long years – the 1.33:1 ratio, which would later be known as Academy Ratio.

 

“So, wouldn’t it be great if we could watch that film?” I hear you say.

Yep, it sure would. I mean, you can just hop on YouTube and see the earliest experiments from all the other pioneers like Donisthorpe & Crofts, Le Prince, Demeny, the Skladanowsky Brothers or Edison & Dickson. So where’s that Friese-Greene film? Well, still tucked away in the French archive of the CNC (Centre National de la Cinématographie) in Bois d’Arcy outside Paris. As I mentioned last time, they did preserve it and also made a copy on 35mm that could be projected. It had its world premiere in a collection of restored very early films from the Will Day Collection (see Part 2) at the Pordenone Festival of Silent Film on 16th October 1997.

Will Day Film Screeening #1

I got my chance to see it (and some other Friese-Greene experiments) seven months later at the Duke of York’s in Brighton as part of a Colloquium on “Will Day and Early British Cinema” which I had been invited to participate in, having inadvertently become the world “expert” on Friese-Greene (a status that I have now expanded and built upon to no discernible financial advantage). It was a really glorious thing to see those early images up there on the cinema screen, where Friese-Greene imagined them but probably never saw them.

Will Day Film Screeening #2

And then it went on a tour all over the world and everybody was finally able to see it.

Just kidding. It went back to the CNC and was put back in storage for a very, very, VERY long time with no video copy made available. Just now I came across a blog from a film programmer who says it was screened once more at an event in Helsinki in 2009. As far as I can tell those are all the outings it’s had in 21 long years.

The people I knew at the CNC are long gone. I have tried to make contact via the Cinématheque Française, but have got no response. So I began to think about those photos I took of the negatives back in 1996. They were done in a rush in totally non-ideal conditions – hand-held over a lightbox – but I wondered if there was enough information there to get something out of them. So I had my negatives (of the negatives) scanned at high resolution and asked a professional photographer to help put them into something like the right relative size and proportions, as they originally were. And then I made them move…

You see? I said I had something special for you.

Now, you must remember that each of the original Friese-Greene negatives only made up one ninth of the size of my 35mm frame. And the original Friese-Greene negative was about three times the size of a 35mm stills frame. Technically speaking, that means the original had over 25 times the resolution of what you see here (plus not all of my shots were dead-on in focus). Even allowing for the fact that film emulsion back then was a lot coarser, they would still have looked 10 times better than this.

The proof of this is an enlargement of part of one frame, which I must have somehow acquired from the CNC some 20 years ago:

Kings Rd frame enlargement rotate

The name of the newspaper the boy is selling is clearly legible. I can’t help wondering if, with modern scanning techniques, we might be able to see something of the headline, which would help a lot with dating.

Speaking of dating, I did promise to date this film in Part 3 so here goes:

It was shot around the middle of 1891. I can’t be more specific than that (until we can read that newspaper). Why that date? Well…

The view you’re looking at is from close to the front of 39 King’s Road, Chelsea, which Helena Friese-Greene had used her own resources to rent, providing a home for her daughter and sisters, a photographic studio to make money and a basement workshop to keep her husband from going crazy with boredom. We know that at the start of 1891 they had already abandoned their rather lovely Maida Vale home and were holed up in temporary digs in Paddington. They appear to have moved to this address later in the year. It makes sense he would have shot the film when he lived there, not before.

That said, as we’ve already seen, William Friese-Greene now had absolutely no way to build any new cameras or other inventions. So whatever this was shot with had already been built in 1890. He may of course have adapted it in some way, and this was a test of the new arrangement. He would not be discharged from his bankruptcy until 1894 and, until then, all he could use was his ingenuity. Since he had been on a roll with a non-stop series of moving picture camera experiments over the previous two years, it makes sense this was part of that – before his mind moved on to other inventions.

And the time of year? Well, this is Britain. People don’t normally go about dressed like that in autumn or winter.

But it occurs to me that by some terrible oversight, I STILL have failed to explain why this constitutes a Eureka Moment for William Friese-Greene. However, I fear I would once again be trying your patience to go an any longer right now…

 

That Eureka Moment – 3

There are some photographs of Friese-Greene’s early film experiments that seem to have been wilfully ignored by historians writing about the beginnings of cinema. My guess is that this is because explaining and dating them is problematic – and because to attempt to do so might disrupt the status quo of academic opinion around Friese-Greene; which is that he failed and lied and can be safely ignored.

So I’m going to attempt to both explain and date them, because they may represent Friese-Greene’s Eureka Moment. The place where his plans finally came together.

These photos are of artefacts in the Will Day Collection, which has resided in the Cinématheque Française since the late 1950s, when British museums let it be sold abroad, regarding it – as the curator of the Kodak museum put it – as “a load of junk with a few nuggets”. Now, however, it is recognised as a vital source of information about the beginnings and development of motion pictures.

Will Day caricature with his collection

Genuine contemporary photograph of Will Day surrounded by his collection

Will Day was visionary in his understanding that this was history that needed to be recorded through gathering documents, films and equipment, whilst talking to surviving participants. He did this enthusiastically and was a relentless champion of the importance of Friese-Greene’s work, but he was, to say the least, an erratic and unreliable historian – which did neither Friese-Greene, nor himself, any favours in the long run.

In August 1922, a year after Friese-Greene’s death, he first showed a collection of 500 artefacts in the South Kensington Museum (now the Science Museum). From the picture at the top of this article, you can see it was pretty impressive. There was a whole display case dedicated to Friese-Greene’s work. Many of these items remained there on indefinite loan for decades. Ten years on, in late 1932, he made a selection of 64 items for the Royal Photographic Society’s annual exhibition. Looking through the list of what was shown, it’s worth stopping to scrutinise items 45 & 47 [#46 being what Day said was Friese-Greene’s first ever celluloid film – but that’s for another blog post].

#45 from Will Day RPS exhibition 1932#47 from Will Day RPS exhibition 1932

And here is Will Day holding up #45, that roll of paper negative film, with an indecipherable image on it, followed by a couple of clippings featuring the strip of celluloid film #47 (reversed to be positive), from sources as disparate as the British Chemist & Druggist from 1955 and the American Moving Picture World from 1927.

Will Day holds up paper film - from book edit

So, according to Will Day in 1932, the strip of paper film is from 1885, although he appears to have changed that to 1888 on this photo.

And Day says these other frames were filmed in Kings Rd, Chelsea in June 1900, but then later said it was in November 1889, whilst the Moving Picture World (on the right) says they are from Brighton in 1889. The Chemist & Druggist doesn’t venture a date but does say it’s in the Kings Road.

So that’s crystal clear. Isn’t it?

If Will Day knew Friese-Greene as well as he claimed, then they must surely have had conversations about all this, but the impression one gets is that Day made no notes at the time and later made up a chronology from poorly-researched guesswork and half-memories.  He then appears to have amplified some of his errors over time, occasionally correcting others. So that means that we’d be best off ignoring almost everything he said about dates and checking for ourselves.

In the earlier parts of this post, we established that Friese-Greene had spectacularly crashed and burned at the start of 1891 and was hung out to dry financially over the course of that year. Not only were his household belongings sold, but he had claims from debtors flying at him. He wasn’t allowed to borrow money and you can be sure that all those clever scientific instrument makers who built his inventions would not be offering him a line of credit – or even an invitation to come round for a cup of tea, when he’d defaulted on paying his bills.

So he couldn’t possibly have had a moving picture camera constructed – be it a new design or a copy of an earlier model. But, as we have seen, he had held onto the ones that were already built and in his hands (if not paid for in full). We know for sure about the two that he showed off at the Royal Institution and he had the others tucked away, safe from the bailiff’s grasping hands.

But what were these cameras like and how many were there in the first place?

Friese-Greene’s own account of which cameras he had made and in what order, is not terribly clear – on one occasion he says there were four different ones, but five made in all. We know that he had a model of the working parts of a moving picture camera built in 1889 and later that year, the completed camera was ready. We know that with Frederick Varley he developed a stereoscopic (3D) camera in 1890. We know that a second stereoscopic camera that was meant to double as a projector appeared later that same year. And in late 1890 and early 1891 there are several mentions of yet another camera. This camera does not appear to be stereoscopic, but at photographic societies he and Varley show bands of film taken with it with 400 exposures on, which they say are typically recorded at 5 frames per second. It seems likely that it was this last camera which was shown at the Royal Institution on Feb 6 1891, alongside a stereoscopic one, the day before Friese-Greene had his household goods auctioned off.

[There are also a records of Friese-Greene taking out a provisional patent for “Cameras” in June 1890 – during the Chester Photographic Convention – and in January he had applied for a patent for “Obtaining photographic representations” – but the full patents were never submitted.]

So, there we have five cameras constructed, but the first two or the stereoscopic two could be regarded as of the same type, which just might fit Friese-Greene’s account.

But what was it like, this last camera? How was it different from the other ones? There’s no description I’ve come across so far that can help answer that, so I’d prefer to look back at those inscrutable images above of people on a street and work backwards from there, asking: what sort of camera might have taken them?

Allowing for shrinkage with age, the film is probably of the celluloid rolls that were manufactured by Eastman in 1890-91 to fit their popular “Kodak No. 1” camera – 2⅝ in wide (67mm) –  so that would have been easily available at that time. But it definitely wouldn’t have come with holes along the edge.  Friese-Greene did say that he had the scientific instrument makers A. Légé & Co, who built some (possibly all) of his cameras, make him a couple of custom hole punches to perforate both sides of the film simultaneously. Close examination of the film shows that groups of holes are well aligned, then there is an irregular space, then a regular group – suggesting that the film had to be punched laboriously by hand, leading to intermittent errors.

Oh yes, I said “close examination”, which would suggest someone had been close to the original film to check this. I should clarify, that person was me, about 20 years ago. How that happened needs some explaining…

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