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The Story of Experimental Film

by Bob Cotton, June 2012

“The measure of an artist’s originality, put in its simplest terms. is the extent to which his selective emphasis deviates from the conventional norm, and establishes new standards of relevance. All great innovations which inaugerate a new era, movement or school, consist in sudden shifts of a previously neglected aspect of experience, some blacked-out range of the existential spectrum. The decisive turning-points in the history of every art form…uncover what has already been there: they are “revolutionary”, that is destructive and constructive, they compel us to revalue our values and impose new sets of rules on the eternal game.”

Arthur Koestler: The Act of Creation (1964)

Koestler’s 1964 book is about inspiration, innovation and creativity, and it was the first major treatment of this subject in the 20th century. His central point about creativity is that it doesn’t happen if you just do nothing. In order to be really creative you must first of all be immersed in your subject – you must be full of it. Then your personal insight or intuition can work on something ‘tangible’ – you can find an original perspective on the subject – you can provide your ‘selective emphasis’, perhaps on some ‘previously neglected aspect of experience’. More recently Margaret Boden has pointed out that discovery is akin to creativity – and it can have two results – discoveries that are new to the individual (these are common as we learn about things), and discoveries that are new to mankind (these are rare). Creativity can be ordered on the same scale – we often feel really pleased when we make a song, a painting or a story (or a film, or any sort of mediated experience), but when this is put into the historical context of the artefact (ie compared with what everyone else is doing), then we humbly realise that maybe it isn’t so original after all. Or maybe we are really pleased that we have got somewhere close to originality (and – what joy when discover that other people recognise this too!)

“(Ettiene-Jules) Marey made it possible for the avant-garde to become receptive to new values: instead of escape into the past, the unreal or the dream, there was the double cult of machines and their propulsion ….inspiring Giacomo Balla & Luigi Russolo, Marinetti, and ultimately Duchamp (1912 Nude Decending a Staircase)

– Etienne-Jules Marey : a passion for the trace, by François Dagognet


Etienne-Jules Marey: chrono-photographe 1882

The history of experimental film is therefor heavily weighted towards the early experiments – simply, there was much more to innovate and invent then! So what we take for granted as devices ‘natural’ to film – the edit, the flashback, intercut parallel stories, the closeup, medium close-up, long-shot, positioning or location shot, the pan, tracking, back-projection, double-exposure, special effects – all these techniques had to be ‘invented’ by the early film-makers, and this has justifiably made these men and women famous.

Credit for invention of motion pictures is usually given to the American Thomas Alvar Edison (1891) , or to the French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere (1895). The Lumiere brothers have the best claim because their technology used a camera-projector technology that produced a projected image for an audience of many people, while Edison’s first machine was a ‘peep-show’ machine.


1891 Edison – Kinetoscope ‘peep-show’ motion pictures for one


1894 Edison: Kinetoscope Parlour in New York City

Of course these machines only had an audience of one, so  it wasn’t long before Edison was developing a film camera and projector system – one machine could reach audiences of a few hundred! in 1896 Edison launched first the Vitascope then the Kinetoscope Projector.


Auguste and Louis Lumiere: Cinematographe 1895


The other main contenders for the invention of the Movies were August and Louis Lumiere, with their combined camera-projector launched in 1895. Their ingenious invention was commercially supported by a range of films shot by themselves (including the famous Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat), as well as talented new directors, including the first woman film director Alice Guy Blaché:

Alice Guy Blaché: La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) – first narrative filmImageAlice Guy Blache’s film The Cabbage Fairy is widely regarded as the first narrative film

But with this smorgasbord of different inventions in the technology of film-making, viewing and projection, what was actually drawing the audiences into the Kinetoscope Parlours, amusement arcades, and viewing theatres (no proper ‘cinemas’ until 1904), was the films themselves – often no more than a minute or two long. Alice Guy Blaché  was the first female film director that we know of, and the author of the first narrative film – predating those of Lumiere by a few months.

It fell to Blaché to make the first narrative film – the first attempt to tell a story with motion pictures. Although only a minute long, Blaché’s film was the first one of several hundred thousand storytelling movies.

Just to recap the history of the technology of motion pictures, takes us back over the 19th Century, beginning with the optical toys like the Thaumatrope:


1824 John Ayrton Paris: the Thaumatrope

 – the images on either side of a spinning disc fuse in the viewer’s perception to create a composited virtual  image

But recently the complexity of the story of the invention of the Motion Picture has become apparent. After nearly a century of necessary preliminary inventions, including various toys that provided the illusion of a motion picture (like the thaumatrope), the magic lantern, Photography itself, flip-books, cameras that could take successive images on paper, the invention of celluloid film and then film strips, film-projectors (etc). By the last decade of the 19th Century, several dozen inventors, working largely on their own, competed to produce a viable motion-picture system.

These included:


Louis le Prince:  Roundhay Garden Scene 1888 

(this is the earliest surviving motion picture, predating both Edison and Lumiere) 1888

Leeds Bridge 1888


Louis le Prince was French, and later worked in England and the USA. As a child he spent time with his father’s friend Jacques Louis Mande Daguerre who in the 1830s had perfected the first positive photographic system the Daguerrotype. So Le Prince learned about chemistry, cameras, lenses, and the art of photography from one of the great inventors. (Daguerre had made his own name initially by the production of large scale Dioramas (360-degree panoramas) – huge paintings on canvas that were mounted in specially built circular pavilions, and showed famous city-scapes, battle-scenes or notable countryside vistas)

Louis le Prince: Leeds Bridge 1888

Louis le Prince went on the study Painting in Paris, and Chemistry in Leipzig.He went to Leeds in 1866 where he married an artist and with his wife’s brother set up a company specialising in printing coloured images onto metals and ceramics, they also founded Leeds Technical School of Art. In the early 1880s, Le Prince first worked on a 16-lens camera in an attempt to make a motion picture, by exposing a sensitised sheet of paper – one frame per lens, but the results were jerky as each lens was taking an image from a slightly different perspective. Then Le Prince made a single lens camera, shooting onto a strip of sensitised paper 90mm wide and 1.2 metres long (very short movies!).

Georges Demeny: Phonoscope 1892


Demeny worked with Etienne-Jules Marey on his chrono-photographes, and then in 1892 devised his Photophone for taking motion images and his Phonoscope for projecting them.


Georges Demeny pronouncing ‘je vous aime’ to Marey’s chronophotographic gun camera in 1882


Etienne-Jules Marey: Chronophotographic Gun 1882


Etienne-Jules Marey: Chronophotographe 1882

Photography was spurring innovation in other directions too – both HP Bowditech and Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, who was mainly interested in research into faces, and whether facial features could reveal anything of the inner psychology or character of the sitter (he made many composites of criminal types) – both Bowditch and Galton produced studies or composition images (over-printed or sandwich-printed) portraits, where several negatives would be printed onto one sensitised plate.

HP Bowditch 12 Boston Doctors composite overprint 1894


These were still images formed from overprinting 12 negatives in order to produce an ‘archetypal’ or average image (centre) for a doctor.


Nancy Burson: The New Face of America 1993

A hundred years later, working at the New York Institute of Technology, Nancy Burson developed sophisticated computer-graphic layering techniques to create composite portraits. By averaging dozens of photographs of models, film-stars, great society beauties (etc) can you create the portrait of a type of person?
2004 Nancy Burson: One (Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha)
Wanda Wulz 1932 Self-Portrait

1932 Wanda Wulz: self-portraits

Wulz was a late-Futurist artist – she met Marinetti in 1931. By this time the Futurists were aligning behind Mussolini’s fascist. A very beautiful woman, she made a variety of Futurist photographs using multiple exposures, photodynamic long exposures, and she was a very proficient conventional photographer too – running her father’s studio in Trieste. But Wanda and her sister Marion also flirted with Surrealism In this double-exposure, Wanda has retained a human eye – her own. She also made a portrait of her cat again with her own left eye superimposed on the cat’s.

Marcel Duchamp: 5-Way Self-Portrait 1917
Of course artists and experimental photographers – like Duchamp, Man Ray, Moholy Nagy, Dziga Vertov – had experimented with multiple exposure composites or ‘sandwich printing’. The discovery of how photography could be a flexible tool for compositing images together, had been sharred by Mid Victorian photographers like Henry Peach-Robinson and Oscar Rejlander.

Oscar Rejlander: Two Ways of Life 1857 – the kindly father shows his sons the rewards of the life of Vice and a life of Virtue. A Composite of 32 separate negatives were used to create this, (at that time) a really large photograph – 41cm x 79 cm –  one of the first great examples of multiple-printing.

But these composites were a interesting sideshow in media development compared to the work of the Englishman Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge had taught himself the wet-collodion photographic process in the 1860s, and settled back in California, becoming a noted landscape and architecture photographer. In the 1870s Muybridge had been contracted by Leland Stanford, a wealthy race horse owner (and founder of Stanford University), to settle a bet – whether all four feet of a horse were off the ground when trotting. Muybridge had already done some time-lapse photography of the building of the San Francisco Mint, and had already invented and patented a device for printing – and a washing machine – so he was an inventor. He created a special test-track where horses could be encouraged to trot, and set up a series of cameras and trip-wires, so that as the horse trotted along the test-track, it would break the trip-wire and trigger an exposure in each camera in turn.


Muybridge: test-track for the Leland Stanford-funded horse locomotion  photographs – 24 cameras, 24 trip-wires = 24 photographs of each stage of a horse’s locomotion.


Of course, when you displayed these images one after the other (when you animated them), you could ‘see’ the movement of the horse:

Realising this, Muybridge revisited an older invention and produced his Zoopraxiscope – a simple spinning device that created the illusion of movement, and could be projected


Muybridge: Zoopraxiscope slide-disk 1893

Muybridge, another great media innovator from this period had started to animate drawings based on his chronological photographs in a device based upon a magic lantern that he called the Zoopraxiscope (from 1893).


Muybridge: Zoopraxiscope Projector 1893


Hughes: Portable Triple Magic Lantern c1880

Gradually through the 19th Century, first with oil-lamps, then with large electric bulbs, the public were getting used to seeing projected images – at fairgrounds, music halls, sea-side variety theatres, carnival tents and market arcades. In Brighton – still a fashionable and slightly risque holiday venue – they saw shows produced by George Albert Smith, one of the pioneer British film-makers. Smith (who started his career as a professional hypnotist) performed with his wife, creating a mix of story-telling, illustrated lectures, and music-hall comedy sketches accompanied by projected images using magic-lanterns like this one.

By 1898-1900 Smith had created significant innovations – like the film title, the inter-title, and parallel action – as in Santa Claus 1898.


George Albert Smith: Santa Claus 1898

 – frame within frame parallel action.

The technology of moving pictures was roughly coeval with that of another medium that told stories with pictures – the comic strip. The comic strip began to appear in American papers in the last couple of decades of the 19th Century – Rudolph Dirks Katzenjammer Kids was one of the first great strips – it appeared regularly in American newspapers for nearly a century – as The Captain and the Kids until 1979! There is a kind of interplay between comics and the movies – especially the development of the storyboard, reputed to be from the Walt Disney studios in 1933. Now of course, comic strip characters are becoming major box-office – think of Sin City, and the comics movies like Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Thor etc….

1897 Rudolph Dirks: The Katzenjammer Kids

1897 Rudolph Dirks: The Katzenjammer Kids

George Albert Smith, like Georges Melies, came from a theatrical, music-hall background (as a hypnotist), running his own stage-show with his wife, a professional music-hall entertainer and actress, who appears in several of his films. Smith began by showing magic lantern slides as part of his stage-show, amplifying these with live performance and narration (and presumedly smoke, mirrors, lighting effects and music and sound effects), before experimenting by transferring these skills and techniques to film-making.


George Albert Smith : Grandma’s Reading Glass  1900 – first close-up

George Albert Smith pioneered ‘dissolving views’ – presumedly using cross-fades between magic lanterns – and he developed a movie camera in partnership with local Brighton camera-maker Alfred Darling, and he invented Kinemacolor – one of the first colour filter-based colour movie film formats:


Alfred Darling: Biokam – movie-camera/projector/stills camera 1899


1910 George Albert Smith: Kinemacolor Camera


George Albert Smith: Film Studio at Hove Sussex 1897

And he built his own filming studio with glass roof, proscenium stage, barn doors for extra daylight. And as noted, in 1897 Smith invented and patented a double-exposure technique in 1897, enabling him to produce ‘frame-in-frame’ parallel action sequences.


Georges Melies: Voyage dans la Lune (1902)

In France, Georges Melies the great experimental film-maker, had also enjoyed a background in music hall and variety theatre – as a magician. This was an ideal background for his work with cinematic special effects. Voyage to the Moon (1902) is his masterpiece – the first science-fiction film – and a catalogue of innovative effects, stage designs and cinematic story-telling.

Edwin S. Porter: Great Train Robbery 1903Image

Between them, these early pioneers (George Albert Smith, RW Paul, Georges Melies, Edwin S. Porter (and others) invented most of the basic grammar and syntax of the motion picture, including: the close-up, the double-exposure, stop motion, elapsed time, hand-colouring, editing shots into sequences, parallel action, titles and inter-titles, prosthetic make-up, and much more that would become the major art and entertainment form of the 20th Century.

Raoul Grimoin-Sanson: Cineorama 1900ImageRaoul Gromoin-Sanson: The Cineorama (1900)

The Paris World Exposition in 1900 was the launchpad for a number of innovations and continued an artistic obsession which re-occurs throughout the history of media developments from Greek Theatre, through Wagnerian Opera, Victorian Dioramas and the Ballets Russes, – it was the interest in making immersive multimedia experiences. Wagner christened this the Gesampkunstwerk or ‘Composite Art Work’. Gromoin-Sansen’s fabulous Cineorama was shown at the Paris Exposition and was a brave attempt to create a 360-degree simulation of a balloon flight over Paris, using 10 synchronised 70mm projectors…

Lumiere: Photorama 1900-1902

The Lumiere Bros also exhibited in 1900 – their Photorama was another sophisticated attempt to create a photographically mediated ‘immersive’ experience for the audience… this was to become a recurring motif in new media art…


Autochrome colour Photography 1903 Autochrome – subtle, painterly, impressionist colour in a photograph

During this same period, the Lumiere Brothers were experimenting with a colour photography technique that they called Autochrome (patented in 1903). This produced beautiful, soft-coloured images, the soft colour coming from the microscopic potato-starch partlcles that had been dyed with three primary colours – red-orange, green and blue-violet, then randomly mixed onto a paper substrate, coated with a lamp black background, then covered with a pan-chromatic photo-sensitive solution. 


These 3 additive primary colours had been specified in the Young-Helmholtz-Maxwell Theory of Trichromatic Vision in 1861 – which analysed the light-sensitive rods and cones in the eye, and determined that they were sensitive to red, green and blue and that all other colours were made by mixing RGB values.


Clerk Maxwell’s theory of colour vision sparked a number of innovations – the Autochrome Process was one, Pointillist (post-Impressionist) painting another, and the third was a commercial printing technique for printing full-colour images by breaking the image down into dots of the primary colours:


close-up of a pointillist painting (Seurat 1884)


trichromatic colour printing (enlarged to show colour dots ) – from 1892

Edward Steichen: Autochrome c1904
Claude Renoir: Baigneuse 1888
Renoir and the impressionists began to explore the the nature of vision in the light of the Young-Helmhotltz-Maxwell theory of colour vision, often using a pointillist brush-mark – dots of pure colour – to create their subtle paintings. So trichromatic printing, the Autochrome colour photograph, and the pointillist painting shared some features in common, all being derived from the same theory.
Stereo-Autochrome c1900
Stereo viewers had been invented by Charles Wheatstone in the 1850s, and a spate of stereo cameras became available soon after. When Kodak launched its Stereo Brownie camera around 1904, stereo photography became widespread. The brilliant photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue made most of his early work in the stereo format.
Charles Wheatstone (who had previously invented a telegraph system) proposed his theory of stereo vision in 1838. By 1851, stereo-cameras and viewers like this one were available.
Thomas Sutton (for James Clerk Maxwell) the ‘first’ colour photograph 1861

By exposing a panchromatic plate through three colour filters (RGB of course), Maxwell was able to create a colour scene (the tartan ribbon):

“The first color photograph made according to Maxwell’s prescription, a set of three monochrome “color separations“, was taken by Thomas Sutton in 1861 for use in illustrating a lecture on color by Maxwell, where it was shown in color by the triple projection method. The test subject was a bow made of ribbon with stripes of various colors, apparently including red and green. During the lecture, which was about physics and physiology, not photography, Maxwell commented on the inadequacy of the results and the need for a photographic material more sensitive to red and green light. A century later, historians were mystified by the reproduction of any red at all, because the photographic process used by Sutton was for all practical purposes totally insensitive to red light and only marginally sensitive to green. In 1961, researchers found that many red dyes also reflect ultraviolet light, coincidentally transmitted by Sutton’s red filter, and surmised that the three images were probably due to ultra-violet, blue-green and blue wavelengths, rather than to red, green and blue.[2]

Maxwell’s 1855 suggestion and this seriously defective 1861 demonstration appear to have been quickly and completely forgotten until being brought to light again in the 1890s. In the intervening decades, the basic concept was independently re-invented by several people.” (wikipedia)

Mutoscope: flick-book tableaux vivants



One Comment

  1. Reblogged this on blog it and commented:
    Something to read again..

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