This section contains a number of special presentations on aspects of Victorian cinema. Follow the links on the left-hand menu for individual features.


Stephen Herbert

This short essay gives an overview of the technology of Victorian cinema, explaining some of the key terms and concepts to be encountered on this site. It was originally published in the book Who's Who of Victorian Cinema (minus the illustrations).

The requirements of cinematography

To succeed, cinematography required the availability of a sufficiently sensitive photographic emulsion to enable at least sixteen pictures to be taken in one second; a suitable medium on which to fix the photographic emulsion; and the development of suitable camera and projection mechanisms.

Panoramas, dioramas, and magic lanterns

In the century preceding the introduction of cinematography, something similar to the cinema experience had been provided by huge painted Panoramas, and the changing pictures of the giant Diorama canvas. Since the seveneenth century or earlier, image projection had been possible with the magic lantern, later known as the optical lantern (or in the USA, stereopticon). Projected photographic images appeared around 1850. Late nineteeth century versions sometimes had two (bi-unial) or three (tri-unial) lenses and optical systems, to enable a skilled lanternist to produce dissolving views and moving picture effects on the screen, sometimes by means of mechanical slides. These ranged from simple lever and slipper slides (with one or two pieces of sliding glass) more complex rackwork slides, featuring such favourite subjects as the 'man swallowing a rat' and the twirling patterns of the chromatrope. Some of the more sophisticated slides, such as the Choreutoscope, used mechanisms similar to the Maltese cross (that would later be the prime mechanism for cinema) to produce limited animated effects with painted slides. One version of an early film projection mechanism, the Riley Kineoptoscope, simply fitted into the slide-stage of a magic lantern. Other early film projection machines had their own lenses but used a standard magic lantern as a light source.

Motion perception toys

From the 1830s, revolving optical toys such as the Phenakistiscope, or Stroboscope (disc) and Zoetrope (drum) had demonstrated the illusion of movement produced by viewing a succession of slightly differing images through adjacent slots. In 1868 the Flicker Book (or Flip Book) appeared, and a sequence of drawings could be seen in motion with no more apparatus than fingers and thumbs. By 1897 some 'Pocket Cinematographe' versions were using frames from films, instead of drawings. Reynaud's 1877 Praxinoscope was an ingeniously improved arrangement of the Zoetrope, using a mirror drum. Clever optical design meant that each picture, though travelling continuously, appeared static when viewed, improving sharpness of the resulting moving image. An advanced version (with coloured drawings printed onto glass plates) could project the circle of images in motion onto a screen; a predecessor of his Théâtre Optique.

Instantaneous photography

The development of 'instantaneous' photography in the 1860s/70s led to the possibility of exposures of 100th of a second and less, and the facility to engineer precision mechanisms had long existed in the clock-making and allied industries. During the 1880s and 90s inventors used their ingenuity to adapt known motion mechanisms to the particular requirements of the new art. The photographic and magic lantern industries provided the optical necessities of lenses and illuminants, and by the middle of the decade these various requirements had been brought together by experimenters in many parts of the world.


Initially these developments led to chronophotography; sequence photographs of (mostly) humans, animals, and balistics in motion, intended mainly for analysis. Muybridge famously used a row of cameras, projecting painted versions of the resulting photographs with his Zoopraxiscope. Marey made various devices, some using a single plate: incuding a photographic gun (a successor to Janssen's photographic revolver) for taking a dozen separate pictures, and other cameras for making a sequence of overlapping images. Marey's later machines used paper and celluoid strips, and have been described as protoype motion picture cameras. Chronophpotographic sequences could be animated in zoetropes and similar 'toys'; the first true photographic moving images. The German chronophotographer Ottomar Anschütz projected his sequences in motion onto a large screen, only the brevity of the result distinguishing it (arguably) from the medium that would become known as cinema.

Paper movies, celluloid film and perforations

Théâtre OptiqueLe Prince tried shooting sequences on rolls of unperforated paper; Marey progressed from glass to paper and then celluloid but the strips were still unperforated, being used to obtain sequences of chronophotographic images for individual analysis, rather than synthesis into moving sequences on a screen. For his Parisian 'Pantomime Lumineuse' projections given from 1892 with the Théâtre Optique, Reynaud had provided registration perforations between each painted picture. From about the same time, Dickson's experiments for Edison were on lengths of perforated celluloid film. He used the film manufactured for snapshot cameras. This was approximately 70 mm wide, and when slit in half to provide a manageable material for the Kinetoscope, became 35 mm perforated film; a standard which was to survive with minor modifications to the present day.

The Kinetograph and Kinetoscope

The Kinetograph camera moved the film intermittently by means of an unusual arrangement of a toothed disc turning at right angles to a slotted disc; a tooth on one disc entered a slot in the other, allowing the sprocket to turn one picture-height. But for viewing in the Kinetoscope peepshow the film moved continuously, a very narrow shutter aperture allowing each image to be seen for just a tiny fraction of a second, so that blurring of the moving images was minimal. To keep flicker to a minimum, a high shooting/viewing speed - around 40 fps (frames per second) - was used. Fewer pictures were actually needed to give a result of good motion fidelity, and later intermittent systems, where each image could be seen for longer and the revolving shutter was less obtrusive, used only 16 fps.

Continuously moving film

Non-intermittent projection was attempted in the USA by the Lathams with their Panoptikon and Eidoloscope projectors, but the very brief flash of illumination necessary to ensure that the continuously rolling images didn't present a blur on the screen, resulted in a very dim projected image. Early experimental cameras by C. Francis Jenkins used a revolving circle of lenses to optically compensate for the movement of the film.

Double picture bands

A double band of film was used by Proszynski, and the Skladanowskys; frames from the two bands were projected alternately, ensuring that there was always an image on the screen, thereby eliminating flicker.

The Cinématographe

Lumière CinématographeThe Lumières, aware of the Kinetoscope and its films, created the single-unit Cinématographe camera/printer/projector. The pin (similar to the alternative claw) movement engaged in single perforations on the edges of each picture frame. The pins were attached to a shuttle (inspired by that used in sewing machines) which provided the necessary 'up-down' and 'in-out' movement. After shooting, the negative film was developed, and then run through the mechanism together with blank stock. Light from the printing lamp shone through the negative to expose the blank stock, which was in turn developed to become a positive, ready for projection. The mechanism was set up in front of a lamphouse, and the lens changed for one more suitable for projection. The Lumière films ran for less than one minute. The film passed through the picture 'gate' and fell loosely into a chamber in the projection stand. Soon, most projectors were fitted with take-up spools as the length of the projected films increased.

Latham Loop

In the first cameras and projectors, the intermittent movement of the film in the picture gate was transmitted to the supply spool, causing it to feed the film in jerks. As films got longer the weight of the film on the spool caused the mechanism to tear the perforations. To eliminate this, most designers added a continuously-rolling sprocket above the picture gate, with a loop of film (the 'Latham Loop', named after one of its inventors) between the new sprocket and the gate absorbing the intermittent jerking of the film. The length of the film to be taken or projected was then limited only by the size of the spool. The perforation arrangement chosen by the Lumieres had a serious limitation. Having only one hole each side of the picture, the film could not be wrapped around a toothed sprocket, and was suitable only for pin or claw movements and short films. The Lumière arrangement was therefore soon abandoned in favour of the 'Edison' perforation, with three holes on each side of the frame.

Perforation standards

'Edison' type perforations were used by most producers, making it possible for most films to be used in the majority of cameras/projectors, but small variations between one manufacturer and another in the actual size and shape of hole were a cause of picture unsteadiness, not cured until the adoption of an agreed standard in 1909.

Specialised mechanisms

As well as the Lumières' machine, some other makers' early mechanisms could be used as camera/printer/projector, but quite soon the different requirements of these three devices led to separate mechanisms being designed. Cameras generally used pin or claw movements, and projectors usually a Maltese cross or other intermittently-moved sprocket design.

Maltese cross

The four-arm Maltese cross (Geneva movement) and its 'Star cross' derivatives with five or seven arms were used early on by various inventors, including Max Gliewe and Oskar Messter in Germany, and Victor Continsouza and René Bunzli in France. As the crank handle was turned a pin on a revolving disc entered a slot in one of the arms of the cross, moving it down before leaving the slot. The cross was then static until the pin came round again, and moved the next arm down. The cross was attached to a sprocket, which moved intermittently with it, and in turn moved the film with the required stop-start motion. An important part of the design was that the cross/sprocket (and therefore film) were locked in between movements, ensuring a steady projection of each static frame.

Beater movement

Demeny beater movementPatented in 1893, it was late 1896 before one novel arrangement, the Demenÿ 'Chronophotographe' beater movement camera/projector appeared on the market. A rod attached to one side of a revolving disc beneath the picture 'gate' revolved eccentrically, 'beating' the film down by the required amount (the height of one picture) with each revolution. Others made use of this mechanism (also referred to as the 'dog' movement), until about 1910, including Thomas Armat whose projector was bought by Edison and promoted as the Edison Vitascope, and the Bioscope promoted by Charles Urban in America during 1897 and then Britain.

Gripper roller movement

The American Mutagraph and Biograph cameras used a segmented gripper-roller movement. Holes were punched in the unperforated film as it was exposed, to act as a registration guide when making the projection prints. The projectors also used gripper-rollers, needing frequent adjustment of the picture framing during projection of the unperforated print. Distinctive pressure marks caused by the gripper-rollers can be detected in many surviving 68 / 70 mm Biograph prints. Other ingenious mechanisms for moving film intermittently were used in the 1890s, in part to avoid patent infringements, but these gradually died away in the early years of the twentieth century.

Projector development

TheatrographIn Britain, the first projections were by Birt Acres with his Kineoptikon, and Robert Paul with his Animatographe / Theatrograph. Paul made various technical improvements in the first year, abandoning his double-sprocket intermittent for a single sprocket version, and incorporating a top rolling sprocket and film loop to reduce film strain. With his later Century and Reliance machines, he changed his seven-arm cross to a three-arm version to increase film pulldown speed, thereby requiring only a very small shutter - and consequently reducing flicker. Similar improvements were made by many other equipment manufacturers, including those in France and Germany.


With only one shutter blade (to block projection while the film was being pulled down to the next picture) flicker of the images was sometimes disturbing, and often commented upon by early film viewers. One method of attempting to reduce this was to use a translucent shutter - of ground glass, or oiled paper - so that some light was on the screen during the 'pulldown' period. This was used by Rudge in his early Phantascope multi-slide projector, and was suggested by the Lumières in their Cinématographe patent - but in practise was not successful. Flicker was eventually reduced by adding a second (and later a third) blade to equalise the periods of light and dark on the screen and increase their frequency, making them less evident.

Many names

Most manufacturers and some showmen devised their own names, used in their advertising, for their projectors - frequently derived from Greek and Latin, and usually cumbersome; such as Vever's Viviograph, Wood's Movendoscope, and the Chronophotographoscope. The names of some machines introduced during this period - the Biograph, Cinematographe/Kinematograph, Bioscope - became generic terms for motion pictures. The latter term was also used by travelling fairground showmen. Film shows were also referred to as Animated Photographs and Living Pictures.

Film production

The Black MariaAs the requirement for longer films grew, camera capacity increased from 45/70 ft to 400 ft and more. Daylight was used to illuminate scenes, with interiors usually constructed as outdoor sets. The early Kinetoscope films were shot in a studio known as the Black Maria, a shack which could be turned to catch the light through its hatched roof. Later, some glass-roofed studios were constructed. There were no exposure meters; camera operators used their experience to judge exposures. Optical printers were not available at this time; special-effects (such as dissolves and superimpositions) were produced 'in camera', by running the same strip of film through more than once. Most companies used 35 mm film, but some (Biograph/Mutagraph) used film of twice the width, giving an image of much greater resolution. The original Biograph camera was huge and was driven by electric motor, but most cameras/projectors were hand-cranked. Because of this, cameras needed heavy tripods. One turn of the camera handle was geared to give eight exposures, so for the normal speed of sixteen frames per second, the cameraman cranked the handle twice a second. Camera movement was limited (there were few pan-and-tilt tripod heads), but cameras were sometimes mounted on vehicles to produce tracking effects. Especially popular were 'Phantom Rides', where the camera was mounted on the front of a train.

Mutoscopes and home movies

KammatographFor arcade viewing, the Mutoscope - a development of Linnett's 1868 flip book - was introduced in 1897, with pictures on 'flip cards' printed from large-format Mutagraph/Biograph camera negatives, and it soon superseded the Kinetoscope. A miniature mutoscope for amateur use, the Lumière Kinora first allowed safe viewing of movies in the home; Leo Kamm's Kammatograph camera/projector, patented in 1898 and marketed from 1900, used glass discs with images arranged in a spiral, giving a maximum of forty-five seconds of motion pictures. Toy projectors by Nuremberg toymakers Bing, Plank and Carette using oil-lamp illuminants and both star-cross and beater movements, appeared from 1897/98. These utilised 35 mm films; some photographic, and others specially printed in full colour lithography; many of the latter consisting of image sequences 'rotoscoped' (traced) from live-action films, to produce short loops that gave a repeated action (similar to the limited motion sequences of that earlier Victorian optical toy, the Zoetrope). The professional film size was not necessary for the smaller home picture, and from 1898 manufacturers tried narrow gauge films for economy and convenience. The Mirographe of Reulos and Goudeau used a 20 mm film and an odd 'snail' movement that engaged in perforations in the edge of the film. Birt Acres' Birtac camera/printer/projector used film of half the normal width, and this was followed by the similarly compact Biokam from Wrench & Son, the Petite of Hughes, and the Chrono de Poche of Gaumont.

Celluloid and illuminants

Nitrate based film (nitro-cellulose) was highly inflammable and could be dangerous for home use, and also in professional applications. The May 1897 Charity Bazaar fire in France led to regulations, and 'safety' (acetate) film was eventually produced. (This was used for all amateur formats after 1912, but would take 50 years to come into general professional use.) The main cause of this fire was the ether saturator limelight illuminant, which was eventually banned. Other forms of limelight, usually involving a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen were still used, but were gradually superseded by electric carbon arc lamps, requiring a generator. With all of these illuminants, a glass condenser lens in the lamphouse gathered the light and concentrated it onto the small film aperture. Some machines, including the early Lumière Cinématographe, used a water-filled glass flask as a condenser, in an attempt to reduce the heat on the film.

Sound films

Kinetophone, with the user wearing rubber-tube earphonesRecorded sound was first used with films in the Kinetophone, a special version of the Edison Kinetoscope. A cylinder player built into the machine provided loosely-synchronised audio accompaniment through rubber-tube earphones. Auguste Baron produced experimental sound films in 1898, and at the Paris Exposition of 1900, Léon Gaumont showed a 'Portrait arlant' of himself, using a cylinder phonograph mechanically coupled to a cine camera for filming, and to a Gaumont Chrono projector for the 'talkie' screening. By 1901 Ernst Ruhmer of Germany had recorded and reproduced sound on 35 mm motion picture film with the Photographon; one of the very early experiments that would later lead to the optical sound film systems still in use today.

Coloured films

One of the earliest examples of coloured film projection was by Robert Paul in London in April 1896 with an 'Eastern Dance', and the following month with a coloured film of the 1895 Derby. A Serpentine Dance, coloured red, blue, and pale green, was in the first programme of the Vitascope in New York that same month. By September 1896 the British Journal of Photography reported that coloured films were almost a matter of course. Some of Paul's colouring was done by Mr Doubell, formerly a slide painter to the old Royal Polytechnic Institution, who, it was said, painted only two or three frames a day, under a powerful magnifier. Normally the colouring was by a team of painters, usually women, each of whom applied one colour to the print before passing it on to a colleague. Exceptionally as many as six colours might be used, although two or three were more usual. The colouring presented great problems, since the picture was only one inch by three-quarters in size.

Natural colour films

Modern recreation of Lee and Turner colour film c1901 taken from black-and-white records originally filmed and then projected through red, green and blue filters. Image created by Martin Hart, www.widescreenmuseum.com.In 1899 Edward R. Turner, financed by F. Marshall Lee, devised a system for filming and projecting a motion picture in 'natural' colour. By filming consecutive frames through red, green and blue filters the black and white filmstock contained a 'colour' record, which it was intended to reproduce on the screen by projection through similar colour filters. Registration of the images proved difficult, and the Lee and Turner projector of 1901 was unsuccessful. When Turner died in 1903, his backer Charles Urban bought the patent rights and the principle was eventually evolved by G.A. Smith into the successful Urban-Smith Kinemacolor system, using red and green filters only.

Stereoscopic moving pictures

There were several attempts at stereoscopic (3-D) motion pictures from the very beginnings, with the 1861 Kinematoscope peepshow machine of Coleman Sellers in America, and similar devices produced by Shaw and Wheatstone. In the Victorian film period, Jenkins in America, Grivolas in France, Dickson in England, as well as other less well-known pioneers experimented with and patented systems for shooting and projecting stereoscopic films, but it would be some years before there were any commercial developments.