Happy 125th Birthday, Cinema! Part 2

In Part 1 we heard how the Lathams were behind a movie camera that left those of Edison and the Lumière Brothers looking very limited. Now we find out what happened when they beat those two firms to the screen…

The Plan Comes Together

So, the Lambda camera had advantages over both the Edison and Lumière versions – but what was the benefit? Well, it meant they could put much longer, larger loads of film in and therefore shoot without stopping. Instead of 17 seconds of a dance, you could see the whole thing. Instead of a truncated round of boxing in a miniaturised ring, you could film several rounds played out in a full-sized one. You could record outdoor events or perhaps a play – and see it in widescreen with more natural-looking movement. If it all worked, that is.

With Woodville Latham laid up in bed, Otway and Lauste ran a technical test of the new camera at the end of February 1895, with Dickson coming along to help. It was a success. Whilst improving on the camera, they also carried on developing a projector, in which the film would move continuously, as in the Kinetoscope.

Lathams Lauste at Frankfort St with Eidoloscope - 2500 Years - Will Day book edit

The 35 Frankfort St. workshop. From Right: Otway Latham, Gray Latham, Eugene Lauste. On the left, looking out of the window: Woodville Latham

By April, Edison’s business manager, William Gilmore, had got wind of Dickson’s association and challenged him over it. Affronted, Dickson told Edison that he had to choose between Gilmore and himself. Edison opted for Gilmore and Dickson’s glittering career in West Orange was abruptly over.

That same month, the Lambda team were excited and confident enough to bring a journalist to the workshop to reveal what they were up to. They showed a film taken up on the roof showing Lauste’s son Emile messing about with a workshop assistant whilst Lauste senior, Gray and Woodville Latham looked on. The projection was only about “the size of a sash window” but the journalist was most struck by the realistic movement of the smoke from Woodville’s pipe.

Panoptikon sketch from New York Sun Latham

A sketch from the article in the New York Sun

Edison expressed his outrage to the reporter at what he termed “a fraud”. Woodville Latham riposted in print, “If Mr. Edison can project pictures of moving objects on a screen, as he says he can, why does he not do it as publicly as I have done, and do it at once?”. But Edison couldn’t and he knew it. Undeterred, the team moved fast.

Sketches of series of frames of Griffo-Barnett fight Eidoloscope The_Brooklyn_Daily_Eagle_Wed__May_8__1895_ p4 cleaned

Sketches of series of frames from the Griffo-Barnett film

On May 4th they filmed a four-round boxing bout between the Australian “Young Griffo” (Albert Griffiths) and “Battling” Charles Barnett of New York City on the roof of Madison Square Garden in front of an audience of twenty-five and anyone watching from the adjacent Park Avenue and Waldorf hotels.  Otway Latham and Dickson were on camera duty. They shot continuously for twelve minutes and the results were as good as they had hoped.

Up until now, their system had not had a name but now they came up with something suitably exotic and scientific-sounding: The Eidoloscope. As I recounted in a blogpost, this was the title of a widely published 1890 story by an early science fiction writer, about a machine that can project images of the past. The camera, in turn, was called the Eidolograph.

 

The First Public Film Show

Bryan L. Kennelly real estate office in the Haight Building, 156 Broadway, New York City, June 7, 1914 from dcmny.org

156 Broadway in 1914. The building still stands.

They rented a storefront at 156 lower Broadway and on Monday May 20th, 125 years ago, they officially opened the doors to the public. In fact, it seems they had a test run two days earlier, with Otway signing his name on the first 25¢ ticket sold. They did little promotion, probably for lack of resources, but the punters came and engaged vocally with what they saw on screen, as if at the ringside. For this had the look and feel of real boxing rather than the artificial play-acting of the Edison bouts.

Dickson’s former employer would not have been pleased with the news reports declaring “EDISON IS NOT IN IT – Kinetoscope Outclassed by Prof Latham’s Newest” and stressing how much better it was than watching tiny, brief sequences whilst getting a crick in your neck.

roadsheet for the Latham eidoloscope, dated May 1895. Image and date courtesy of Ryan Lintelman and the Smithsonian Insitute's National Museum of American History edited - lower qualityWithin a short time, they also filmed one of the first pieces of actuality, entitled “The Sidewalks of New York”, which showed “an Italian grinding away at a hand-organ, children dancing, boys playing craps etc”. The title was also that of a popular song and when projected it was accompanied by music.

This was followed by film of a popular horse race, the Suburban Handicap (Robert Paul would have a huge hit the next year with the 1896 Derby). Then they filmed some wrestling matches and a popular vaudeville act, the Nichols Sisters, doing their acrobatic dance routine.

All of the Eidoloscope films appear to be lost. The only traces ever published are a few tattered fragments of a single second of a wrestling match. However, I recently unearthed a sequence of twenty frames of the Nichols sisters, published in a general interest magazine for women. Now I’m a strong believer that even tiny fragments of film can tell you a lot more when you see them in motion, so I set about re-animating this sequence. It appears to be the “kiss-off” at the end of their act:

I have reproduced the film at 25fps, but suspect it was shot slightly faster than that. Obviously, the image quality is only that of magazine reproduction, but nonetheless one has an immediate sense of how fluid and stable the camera was and the possibilities of the wider frame, compared with the cramped choreography for the Kinetoscope. Indeed, the fragments of the wrestling bout also pay testament to the faster running speeds and steady framing of the Eidolograph.

Problems, Problems, Problems

Film strip from Eidoloscope Latham - poss wrestling on rooftop

One of two wrestling bouts filmed in July 1895

But the truth is, whilst the Eidolograph camera seems to have done a great job, the same cannot be said of either the Eidoloscope projector or the Lathams themselves.

Although their projection system could handle long running films, it only allowed the briefest flashes of each frame, as the film was in continuous motion. That made it an enormous challenge to get enough light on the screen. Like Edison, they were wedded to the wonder of the age: electric light. But electricity could not be had everywhere, and supplies varied from street to street and moment to moment. Early reports of the arrival of the Eidoloscope in various US cities frequently mention issues around electrical supply.

But technical problems could be resolved with the right leadership – and that was not the forte of Otway or Gray Latham who fancied themselves as playboys and were perhaps more drawn to the high life than hard business. Their management had been chaotic. Despite a generous share offer, Dickson did not throw his lot in with the Lathams. Instead, he took Lauste with him to become part of a new project, which would become known as the Mutoscope and Biograph. Enoch Rector and Samuel Tilden chose to go their own way. New finance was found and a new company formed, but now the Lathams were no longer directors, just employees. The Eidoloscope did get around to several cities, but there were not enough regular new films to retain interest, nor the contacts to get in the best places. Despite improvements to the projector, the system disappeared after being bought up by the Vitagraph Company in 1897.

What Could Have Been

Edison meanwhile had continued to flail and fail at the issue of projecting films for a year after the launch of the Eidoloscope. In the end, with the Lumières coming over the horizon hoping to clean up in the market, he bought in the “Phantoscope” projector invented by C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat (whose decades-long conflict is another wonderful story), with which they had been projecting Edison films in late 1895. It was rebadged as “The Edison Vitascope” and launched in New York in April 1896, with the Eidoloscope and Cinématographe as direct competition in New York’s major music halls.

Birth of the Movies - 40 years since Vitascope premiere - many pics and docs - Motion Picture Herald April 25 1936 p15 #3

An artist’s imaginative impression of the premiere of the (not really) Edison Vitascope

There’s a key detail of what happened in the lead-up to that launch which is not much noted but fascinates me as a filmmaker. Raff & Gammon, the Kinetoscope agents who had brought the Phantoscope to Edison and sealed the deal for its exploitation, prevailed upon Armat to adapt the system to a wider film format, as the theatre owners were all complaining that the current picture format was too narrow – more than likely, they had seen an Eidoloscope show.

Armat countered that, although not difficult to do, it would take time to reconfigure the projector and since speed was of the essence in beating the Lumières to market Stateside, such changes would have to wait for later. It would be a very long wait. Ironically, the Edison team had, by then, built widescreen cameras: for Enoch Rector who had maintained good relations there and now had his own project on the go.

Torn Lumiere film

Why you need that loop: torn sprockets on a Lumière film

Meanwhile, the Lumière brothers, who would proclaim the originality of their invention to their dying days, had done a remarkably unoriginal thing. Starting, like the Lathams, with a blank page onto which they could have drawn any format of picture and any gauge of film – as it was being manufactured to order – funnily enough settled on a 35mm film width and a 1.33:1 picture ratio. The only divergence was to have one pair of round perforations per frame instead of four pairs of square ones. It was evident that from the very start they had an eye to maximum compatibility with the Edison system. Indeed, within months of the launch of the Cinématographe, their films were also being offered for sale in Edison format.

It’s fascinating to consider what would have happened if the Lathams had done better with the Eidoloscope or if Raff & Gammon had twisted Armat’s arm a bit harder. But hasty decisions driven by the desire for market dominance led to us looking at boxy pictures in cinemas and in the home for an entire century.

It would be some years before cameras carrying loads of 1000 or 2000 feet of film came into use, well after the Eidolograph had disappeared. It would take the firm arrival of sound in the late 1920s before standardised shooting speeds matched how the Nichols Sisters were filmed. And it was not until the 1950s that widescreen imagery was widely seen.

But if you paid your 25 cents at 156 Broadway on 20th May 1895, you could already have it all.

Peter Domankiewicz

First night ad for Eidoloscope at Boston Museum - The_Boston_Globe_Tue__Jun_23__1896_

Ad for the Eidoloscope in June 1896


If you are an academic or other researcher who would like the citations for these articles, please contact me at info@friesegreene.com

Happy 125th Birthday, Cinema! Part 1

This is going to be an epic ride, so strap in. But it’s a birthday worth celebrating, I promise.

It’s Not Them – Or Him

If people know anything at all about how cinema began, they usually assume it was something to do with Edison or the Lumière brothers. Come December 28th this year we’ll see a rash of articles about the first Lumière show in the basement of a Paris café, 125 years ago.

But the first time people paid money to sit in a darkened room and watch movies projected on a screen wasn’t there or then.

And if people have a picture of what those first, crude movies were like, they visualise a rather boxy frame, the films moving too fast at modern speeds and lasting only about a minute.

But that isn’t how it began or how it was supposed to be. The cinema we eventually arrived at could have been had from the start.

So, I guess you’re wondering: if the Lumières didn’t start the ball rolling, who did? Don’t worry, we’ll get there. It involves a pair of chancers, their disgraced professor dad and a couple of disgruntled Edison employees.

Poster_Cinematographe_Lumiere
Forget about this. Don’t even look at it. I mean it. Stop!

The Story So Far

So, it’s 1894. Early moving picture inventor/experimenters such as William Friese-Greene, Wordsworth Donisthorpe, Georges Demenÿ and Louis le Prince have all crashed and burned in a variety of ways. Last man standing, by dint of financial muscle, is the industrial inventor Thomas Edison and his team. The real brains behind Edison’s operation is William Dickson, who’s now getting frustrated by the lack of credit and imagination at the West Orange works.

After several years of experimentation, they’ve gradually advanced from the utterly impractical idea of recording pinpoint images on a cylinder to following the lead of Marey and Friese-Greene and shooting on a strip of celluloid. These films are to be shown in “Kinetoscopes” – boxes containing loops of film, which are viewed by bending over and looking into a slot. The films are vivid, but are only around 17 seconds long, with very small images. The customer pays per film (or group of films), each seen in a separate Kinetoscope.

The first “Kinetoscope Parlor” opens in New York in April 1894 and they roll out across the US, lapping at European shores in the autumn of the year, the smell of money to be made attracting the attention of Robert Paul in Britain, a certain Antoine Lumiere in France, whose two sons are part of his successful photographic company, and a pair of German brothers in the business of projected entertainment named Skladanowsky.

Kinetoscope parlour in Chicago

An early Kinetoscope parlor. Not the most comfy arrangement for viewing a film.

Back in the USA, Otway Latham, a young, New York based, pharmaceutical salesman from a Virginia family, jumps decisively into the Kinetoscope business in May 1894.

Otway and Gray Latham portrait
Otway and Gray Latham. Pretty smooth guys.

He brings with him his brother Gray, engineer Enoch Rector (a college friend who works for the same company), and his father Woodville Latham whose tenure as Professor of Chemistry, Physics and Agriculture at West Virginia University was troubled, to say the least, and who has since been job-hopping around the States. Bankrolling their nascent business is Samuel Tilden Jr., the owner of said pharmaceutical company.

Otway has a vision for how boxing films could get the money rolling in. A series of miniaturised bouts for his Kinetoscopes does well, but the duration is completely inadequate so he lobbies Edison to come up with an enlarged machine that can at least show a whole minute. The expanded Kinetoscopes which show a series of one-minute boxing rounds are a success, but it’s glaringly obvious to Otway, as it was to so many, that projection is the way to go to really make money from motion pictures. But Edison firmly resists this development, seeing it as a dime-collecting, pay-per-play novelty box.

Woodville Latham portrait
Woodville Latham

So the story goes, Otway asked his scientifically minded father if he thought it was possible to project these films onto a screen, who replied that it absolutely was and set to work figuring out how.

A Plan Is Hatched

During the development of the expanded kinetoscope, Otway had spent plenty of time at the Edison works and had made a point of befriending William Dickson. Unsurprisingly, he tried to draw Dickson into their scheme. Dickson knew that any direct assistance by him could be viewed as “treachery” by Edison but at the same time he too was itching to get the films up on a screen, so he did informally advise.

One of his most important recommendations was that they employ Eugene Lauste, an excellent mechanic who had worked for Edison – although not on the Kinetoscope project – until being fired in 1892. They did, setting up a workshop at 35 Frankfort St, where Lauste also slept.

Young Dickson self-portrait
William Dickson having a Napoleonic moment

Possibly as a precaution to stay under the Edison radar, they didn’t incorporate this new business in New York but back in Richmond, Virginia. They named it the “Lambda Company” after the first letter (in Greek) of their name. All three Lathams were directors.

They could have simply developed a projection machine and then commissioned films to be made for it at West Orange, as they had with the boxing films, but they made an important creative and technical decision to take a different route. They decided to also design a camera and with it an entire new approach.

Only a handful of trusted people had ever seen the insides of the Edison Kinetograph camera and only one existed. The patent for it was still unpublished and Dickson was certainly not going to risk his neck by sharing details. So, the technical team of Woodville Latham, Lauste and Rector had to dream up their own.

The Kinetoscope films had a high running speed of around 40-45fps (frames per second). Making a camera work that fast was a considerable challenge and both the Lumières and Robert Paul & Birt Acres would drop to just a third of that – around 15-16fps. Nonetheless, the Lambda team sought to match it, or at least approach it.

The Edison camera was so big and heavy it could not move outside the funny little studio where it was housed. But the Lambda one would go out and about from the very start.

Gauging The Gauge

Butterfly Dance Edison
An early Kinetoscope film, showing the 1.33:1 format

What we now refer to as “35mm film” is still, near as dammit, what Dickson cooked up in 1892. Earlier experiments had all involved circular images but now he had adopted a modest rectangle: a 3:4 or 1.33:1 ratio, depending how you look at it. Dickson never explained his reasons for choosing this and endless theorising has ensued down the years. In the end it would become standardised and known as “The Academy Ratio”, with slight modifications. Then, when television became commercially viable, the boxy 1.33:1 ratio was transferred there.

Some contemporary filmmakers, such as Andrea Arnold, idolise the Academy Ratio as having special powers, but many others, including myself, find it profoundly limiting and not very aesthetically pleasing. It’s a huge relief to me that the TV and cinema standards are now for wider images, which better reflect the human visual field. Of course, in the early decades of cinema great cinematographers did wonderful things within those limitations, but few modern cinematographers long to return to them, beyond the occasional foray.

Starting with a blank sheet of paper, the Lambda team decided that a larger, wider image was needed for projected film. By increasing the height of each frame slightly whilst making the film 51mm wide, they doubled the picture area, which meant twice the picture quality and twice the amount of light getting through onto a screen. When commercial film shows started in earnest in 1896, the low resolution and dimness of the images would be common criticisms.

But it wasn’t just the quality improvement: the pictures were a radically different format. The projected image had a 1.85:1 ratio, which true cinema nerds will know is the standard, most commonly used “widescreen” ratio of cinema films today – a situation only arrived at after many years of flux. It is also very close to the 16:9 of modern TV.

Picture ratios

The most common picture ratios – from Cinemascope to boxy old TV

Looping The Loop

They didn’t stop there.

There was another major issue, which would hamper the early development of the film industry. The longest film the Edison equipment handled was 150ft, lasting one minute. The Cinématographe, which the Lumières were developing at the same time, could turn 50 feet of film into 50 seconds of screen time, by dropping the running speed, but its design was incapable of handling large loads of film, and significantly greater lengths were unthinkable.

The Lambda team solved the problem off the block. Now this involves a tiny bit of techno-geekery to explain, but I’ll try to make it painless.

As each frame of film goes through the camera or projector, it has to be jerked down into place, held and exposed, then jerked away again as the next frame comes down. And that’s happening many times a second. Now, in early equipment, when the film was jerked down into place, the mechanism was pulling against the whole reel of film that was sitting in there. If your reel is only 50ft (15m) that’s not much weight, so it’s not a big deal. But how are you going to move a modern 1000 ft roll, which weighs a couple of Kilos? The inertia is so great that the film would snap or the sprocket holes rip, or the mechanism would break.

Detail of Latham US patent showing loops in colour
“The Loop” from Woodville Latham’s 1896 projector patent

The answer was surprisingly simple. Whilst one frame is being exposed, feed out the length of the next frame ready, so all you have to pull down is a single frame, weighing a mere 2g or so. Woodville Latham would later embody this principle in a patent, which became known as the “Latham loop”, the rights to which would be bought and sold and fought over in court battles for an extraordinary fifteen years.

But was it really his idea? William Dickson was later very clear in attributing the credit for the idea to Eugene Lauste. Lauste wholeheartedly endorsed this version of events. But perhaps neither of these Edison ex-workers were being completely honest.

In June 1889, as regular readers will know, William Friese-Greene and Mortimer Evans took out a patent for a motion picture camera which would later be widely reported in the USA as well as Britain. By the April of 1890 we know that Dickson was fully acquainted with its particulars and had his own copy of the patent, which he later shared with some collaborators. The patent clearly describes the loop and its uses, whilst articles about the camera homed in on this as one its cleverest features: that whilst one frame was being exposed, a loop of film was paid out which was the exact length for the next frame.

Given that Dickson and Lauste were close and would work together on many projects across decades of their lives, it stretches credulity a very long way to assert that the idea of “the loop” was invented by the Lambda team, rather than acquired from existing sources. It is one of many misnomers of early film history that everyone still talks of “The Latham Loop” instead of “The Friese-Greene Loop”.

FG Machine Camera interior - Mr Friese Greene and his inventions Pt1 - Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly July 8 1909 p416 edit

The Friese-Greene 1889 camera which already embodied “The Loop”

In Part 2 you’ll find out how they staged the first public film show ever and see one of their films in motion for the first time in over 120 years. Go on: you’ll bloody love it.

Sci-Fi Movies Before Celluloid

[ NOTE: If you would like to watch/listen to a “blogcast” of this post, click HERE ]

Years before H.G. Wells introduced us to his time traveller and marauding Martians, another writer was predicting what science might bring us in the future, for good or for ill. Once read on both sides of the Atlantic, he’s now all but forgotten. His name was Robert Duncan Milne and he was seeing moving pictures before there was even a strip of celluloid.

From Reality to Fantasy

Robert Duncan Milne photo editMilne was born in Cupar in Scotland to a well-to-do family, the son of a minister, and received a fine education. But having shown talent for the Classics, he dropped out of Oxford University, and in 1868 he took the bold step of heading to America, all the way to the burgeoning state of California and a life of adventure.

After some years as a cook, a labourer and an itinerant shepherd, truly living the life of the New West, he re-emerged as an inventor in 1874, patenting a number of ideas, one of which seemed set to make him rich. It didn’t.

The next we know of him, he had morphed into a journalist and writer, contributing accounts of his roaming experiences in a well-respected publication, The Argonaut, which would be his literary home for many years, based as it was in the city that became his adopted physical home: San Francisco. Connected up to the east coast by the Pacific Railroad in 1869, its population would double over the following 20 years. Then, as now, it was a place for innovation and new thinking. Milne’s mind was in tune with this.

Maintaining the same documentary style, Milne began to write stories which were wildly imaginative and rich with new science. Often framed as if they were occurrences he had witnessed or encountered through his circle of acquaintance, they would include tales of global interconnected communication systems, a drone strike on San Francisco, surveillance culture and an ability to see the past through moving pictures.

Muybridge 1876

Muybridge in 1876

In 1881 he published The Paleoscopic Camera in which he encounters a photographer named Millbank, whilst visiting the beautiful church of San Xavier del Bac in Arizona, near the Mexican border. Millbank has made an extraordinary discovery: used the right way, his photographic system can capture images of the past, from the resonances of light energy in the walls. Putting his head under the camera’s black cloth the writer sees years of events shooting past in fast time-lapse: images that Millbank can photograph.

Millbank is described as “a rather tall and slightly stooping figure, in a loose blue serge jacket and a slouched hat surmounting a bronzed and heavily-bearded face.” Although based in San Francisco, he has been “travelling here and there in Mexico and Central America”. For anybody well-versed in pre-cinema developments loud bells will now be ringing about a real person who fits this description very well: Eadweard Muybridge.

Muybridge’s sequence images of animals and human beings in motion are iconic, but he already had a powerful reputation as a photographer who could capture what others couldn’t. Having been acquitted of the murder of his wife’s lover on the extraordinary grounds of justifiable homicide at the start of 1875, Muybridge disappeared into Central America for a long time, later exhibiting the images he captured. It was in the five years after his return to San Francisco that he took the first of his famous sequences, sponsored by Leland Stanford (who was closely associated with The Argonaut) and then created a way to project them with his “Zoopraxiscope”.

640px-Eadweard_Muybridge-Sallie_Gardner_1878It seems highly likely that Milne had witnessed one of his illustrated lectures, possibly even spent time with Muybridge, and would have been well aware of his story. But even though Muybridge was just capturing short cycles of motion, Milne saw the possibilities of photography capturing history in living detail.

A Secret Uncovered

It was a subject that Milne would return to in more prescient detail eight years later when the story The Eidoloscope appeared in the same publication. Here the narrator encounters an inventor he knows: Mr. Espy, who has a lonely display table in the Paris Exposition. He claims to have a device that can play back visual scenes from the past the same way a phonograph can play back an audio recording. Although sceptical, the narrator finds himself bored over Christmas in a friend’s country house and so calls on Mr. Espy to give a demonstration – resulting in a terrible secret being revealed. In this case all the images are seen running in reverse as they move back in time, like a film on rewind.

I have done a decent audio recording of the story to save your eyes from the tiny print of the original, which can be found below. The first half is mainly full of the “science” of Espy’s device and the drama is more in the second half, so I won’t be deeply hurt if you skip forward to 19.18.

Milne could not have chosen a more apposite setting for encountering Mr. Espy. The Paris  Exposition Universelle of 1889, in retrospect, reveals itself as an extraordinary confluence of those who first sought to capture motion with photography and those who would take it forward.

Edison had an impressive display there and headed over from New York in August to spend a month in the city. Back in Orange, New Jersey, his workers were still trying and failing to record micro-photographs on a cylinder (akin to the phonograph). But in Paris he spent time with Jules-Etienne Marey who had used paper film and early celluloid-like material to capture his “chronophotographic” sequences. On his return Edison ordered that they now start experimenting with rolls of film and so began work towards the Kinetoscope.

Paris Exposition 1889 posterBut that wasn’t all. Also featured at the exposition was the Electrical Tachyscope of Ottomar Anschütz with its short but incredibly vivid moving picture sequences, which Edison’s workers would also experiment with. Whilst in Paris Edison was a guest of honour at a dinner to celebrate 50 years of photography with other attendees that not only included Marey but also Antoine, Auguste and Louis Lumière – who would be his direct rivals six years hence.

At the exposition at that very same time was another visitor, probably unknown to all of the above: William Friese-Greene. Quite aside from the brand new Eiffel Tower, scientific exhibits to see, the photographic congress and the pleasures of Paris, William had another reason to feel excited and happy. Having completed the prototype of a moving picture film camera a month or two previously, he had taken out a provisional patent along with his collaborator – a civil engineer, Mortimer Evans. As he took in the sights, back in London the scientific instrument makers Légé & Co were already working on the Mark II – a camera with a larger capacity and faster running speed, which would be ready in September.

From Fantasy to Reality

So Milne’s instincts were good. And even if his vision of a way of not only recording the present for the future but also capturing the past, has not yet been realised, there is one way that his story – which was reproduced in many publications – did leave an indelible mark on the future of film.

The first people to create a film camera and projector system with which they shot films and showed them to a paying public were not the Lumière brothers. Yes, you read me right: there was nothing about the premiere of the Lumière Cinématographe on the 28th December 1895 which constituted a significant first or the start of the film industry. That honour belongs to a group of people which included Woodville Latham and his two sons, plus the former Edison moving picture workers William Dickson and Eugene Lauste. They began their public film shows in New York in May 1895, which moved out to many American cities.

When the first results were shown to the press it was called a “Panopticon” (or “Pantoptikon”) but this was a confusingly overused word already applied to various forms of entertainment, including the magic lantern. Over the following weeks they searched around for an appropriately impressive name to launch it upon the world at large.

They found it, christening their projector “The Eidoloscope”. Milne must have been pleased.


If you’d like to know more about Robert Duncan Milne and his stories, start HERE.

For everything in the universe about Eadweard Muybridge, The Compleat Muybridge really is.

Milne 2 vol set-01

The only published volumes about Robert Duncan Milne and reproducing his stories

 

William Friese-Greene & The Art of Collaboration

Last Friday I got back to doing something I used to do 20 years ago: talking about William Friese-Greene in public. The occasion was the British Silent Film Symposium 2018 and the place was King’s College London. Almost as terrifying as finding myself in front of a roomful of early film history experts was using PowerPoint for the first time. Then I discovered my carefully prepared notes wouldn’t be visible on screen after all and had to wing it. But in the end, it all seemed to come out pretty well, so I put together this video of my talk and the visual presentation for any who might be interested.

The response made the sleepless nights and sessions re-animating experimental sequences worthwhile; it was clear there was a lot of interest in this long-ignored story. I got to know some great new people and the possibility of writing a proper article for an academic journal was raised. Even more surprising is the way Friese-Greene somehow dominated the day.

First of all, Prof. Ian Christie spoke about the story of Friese-Greene showing his first moving pictures to a policeman – as memorably depicted in The Magic Box and how this anecdote originally belonged to Robert Paul, “The Father of British Film”. Then I did my bit. In the afternoon, Geoff Brown (a regular contributor to Sight & Sound) brought Friese-Greene into his discussion of what role British inventors played in the coming of sound to the movies. And as if that wasn’t enough, at least three films were referenced that were shot by his son Claude, who became a well-respected cinematographer. Tony Fletcher, of the Cinema Museum, volunteered a VHS of an old TV programme about Friese-Greene, and that doyen of film writers, David Robinson, offered some research materials on Friese-Greene’s early mentor, John Rudge, and his support for me getting William Friese-Greene back on the historical agenda

It was categorically the most Friese-Greened up any event has been in many a long decade. I’ve already got a plan for next year’s…

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…

 

Old School vs New School

These two contrasting books about William Friese-Greene came through my letterbox this week.

In the Blue Corner we have “Close-up of an Inventor” from 1948, written (under a pseudonym) by Muriel Forth, a journalist for women’s magazines . Conspicuous by its absence is any section at the back which explains what her sources were. This shows – many misnomers are recycled and amplified. That said, she had the enormous benefit of spending a lot of time with Ethel, Friese-Greene’s first child, who was already a young adolescent when he was creating his first film camera, so she remembers plenty of detail. Her future husband was also around in that time. Plus, Ms Forth had access to a wealth of documentation which has since been dispersed and/or lost.

So if a book can simultaneously be a treasure trove AND a minefield, this is it. I haven’t read it in many, many years and it’s good to be able to enjoy the stories it contains whilst not being misled about certain factual and technical details.

Aaaaaand…. in the Bluer corner we have a book published just a week ago that aims to engage over-8s in the study of science and technology by turning the invention of cinema into a smackdown. It’s short on detail – well, it’s short on words in general, which I guess is the idea – but it’s largely accurate and makes clear the difference between being a lone inventor with a good idea or an industrial one with serious money behind you. There are some annoying errors, but overall it does a good job and at least does list some sources at the back! I won’t tell you who wins as I don’t want to spoil it for you…

70 years separates these two works, but it’s encouraging to the likes of me to see that the story of Mr. Friese-Greene won’t just quietly go away.

Old School vs New School