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Stephen Herbert

The full-size illustrations accompanying this essay are available in downloadable PDF format, requiring the free Adobe Acrobat Reader. Click on the high or low resolution images at the end of a paragraph (please note that the high resolution files are quite large and may take a while to download if you do not have a broadband connection).

Popular culture has occasionally attempted dramatic reconstructions of the origins of motion pictures. In the movies this most notably resulted in The Magic Box (1951), the story of William Friese-Greene, ‘Inventor of Kinematography’. Most other attempts to make feature films about the very earliest moving picture pioneers have failed - including several tries to bring to the screen the dramatic story of Eadweard Muybridge. The old chronophotographer has, however, provided the material for an opera and at least one play.

The comic strip and comic book world provides us with a wider range of examples. From the 1930s, as the myths about the invention of the cinema grew, several accounts were illustrated with artists’ impressions of the moments of triumph enjoyed by Friese-Greene, the Lumières, Edison - or whoever was being lauded as the ‘onlie begetter’. These drawings ranged from single pictures to short strips, to full-blown comic books. The interpretation of those mythical moments of the genesis of the movies - some based largely on fact, others a concocted amalgam of real and imaginary incidents - are interesting as they illuminate for us the thinking of a particular period, and/or culture. In this short article for the Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema, I have brought together examples from different periods, and different cultures.

1. There are many graphic representations of Muybridge’s horse photography, and even a four-page biography of Muybridge himself; ‘Grandfather of Motion Pictures’, in the comic book Camera Comics no. 4 (US Camera Publishing Corporation, 1945). The story concentrates on his sequence photography and projection of ‘motion pictures’ with the Zoopraxiscope, showing a clean-shaven Eadweard - the writer no doubt considering that the young men who were the target audience for this publication would have difficulty in identifying with a grey-bearded old geezer - and no mention of the dramatic killing of his wife’s lover. This omission is intriguing and not apparently due to any sensibilities of the publisher over violence - there’s plenty of wartime killing throughout the rest of the comic - but perhaps the delicate nature of the reason for the shooting was deemed unsuitable. The story concludes with the unveiling of a centenary plaque in 1931 but Muybridge’s birthplace of Kingston-on-Thames, correctly stated in an earlier panel, has now become ‘Upton-on-Thames’. An admirer remarks, in what is presumably supposed to be a local Surrey accent, “Aye, he was a great man!”. High res images (1.08 MB) Low res images (174 KB)

2.The representation of the galloping horse snapping its way through a line of threads to expose the sequence of negatives is dealt with imaginatively in a panel from a c.1970s Chinese book, with a conventional view of the horse placed over a plan view of the track - this mixing of perspectives being a perfect method for explaining Muybridge’s technique with a single, simple graphic. 'Pre-cinema' is introduced with a picture of the Altamira cave painting of a boar with two sets of legs, supposedly an attempt to indicate motion - a theory now long since dismissed; the faint superimposed legs apparently show where one animal picture has been drawn over another. A drawn portrait of Edison together with a sketch of the Armat/Edison Vitascope projector is one of the illustrations for the 'early film' section of the book. The final drawing is quite accurate, but it's doubtful whether a young child would be able to work out the function of this contraption from the picture alone. High res images (1.22 MB) Low res images (137 KB)

3. Emile Reynaud’s Théâtre Optique is a favourite subject for picture stories of the beginnings of cinema, but the subjects shown on the screen within these representations are often imaginary. Although this musketeer swordfight scene (from Ernest Coustet’s Le Cinema, Hachette, c.1914) gives a good impression of the possibilities of Reynaud’s unique procedure - repeated actions such as swordplay could be usefully manipulated, the same few frames being wound to-and-fro to produce extended action from a short sequence - I don’t think any such scene appeared in Reynaud’s actual cartoon productions.

Reynaud's earlier, domestic machine, the projection Praxinoscope - of which few examples survive - featured painted sequence pictures of moving subjects on glass segments, mounted as bands The backgrounds were provided by a separate lantern. A single light source was used, with a mirror attachment deflecting light from the lamp to the spinning ring of glass plates. The device is correctly represented in a colour painting in Tell Me Why (1969), but the result shown on the screen is a silhouette, giving the impression that this was one of the many variations of 'shadow theatre' popular at the time. In fact, the brief animations were in colour. High res images (204 KB) Low res images (55 KB)

4. Thomas Edison’s story has been told many times - there are over 100 biographies - and selected elements have been the subject of cartoon strips. These panels are from Edison: Inspiration to Youth by Arthur J. Palmer, a paperback published by Thomas A. Edison Incorporated, copyright 1927. The examples are taken from an edition printed as late as 1954. Edison dreams of the possibilities of ‘talkies’, which were very much in the news when the strip was first published. He is the shown in his shirtsleaves, trying to make motion pictures on a cylinder - a historically-accurate scene technically, although in reality of course the actual work was done by Edison’s assistants, in particular William K.-L. Dickson. Edison then recognises the importance of continuous film. The next panel shows an Edison Projecting Kinetoscope, a motion picture projector of around 1900 - followed by details of film production in the Black Maria Kinetograph studio. In reality, the projector was introduced after the Black Maria had been abandoned; the Kinetograph films were originally shown in peepshow Kinetoscopes. Was this version of events - with no mention of the short-lived peepshow machine - a deliberate attempt to eliminate this aspect of the story; and if so, was this for narrative reasons, or a ‘whitewashing’ of the dead-end Kinetoscope venture?

The storyline of Jim Corbett fighting a ‘colored boxer’ in the Black Maria Kinetograph studio has no basis in fact, and merely provides an excuse for a regrettably racist ‘joke’, when the ‘dusky battler’ is terrified, and runs away. Ironically, the back cover of this book features a tribute to Edison: “He commands a devotion ... rooted deep in human gratitude, and untinged by bias of race, color, religion or politics”. Escapades during shooting fake Boer War films show the great man himself directing the cameraman. The Kinetophone is said to be a combination of the phonograph and motion-picture projector. In fact, it was a combination of the Phonograph and Kinetoscope peepshow (which is once again is eliminated from the story). Projected films with sound eventually appeared under the Edison name (c.1912), using large-format cylinders, after many others had achieved some success with similar systems. Finally, Edison is credited with being the father of the nickelodeon “without being responsible for that institution’s objectionable characteristics”; the unsullied hero to the end. High res images (554 KB) Low res images (320 KB)

5. In 1969 the English children’s colour magazine Tell me Why featured a picture strip of Edison’s achievements, including a representation of filming in the Black Maria studio. The scene as imagined by the artist has a rocky set, with an Indian Chief on horseback as well as Buffalo Bill himself. Although this has the appearance of a sequence from a 1950s western - with the studio shown larger than it was in reality - in 1894 Edison did indeed film Buffalo Bill. One of the Wild West Show’s other filmed scenes was a bucking bronco, shot in a corral outside the studio; one of the first external scenes to be filmed. High res image (680 KB) Low res image (51 KB)

6. The story of a policeman being dragged into a late-night viewing of Robert Paul’s first successful motion picture projection test (probably first told by F.A. Talbot in 1912, while Ray Allister, Leslie Wood and others ascribe it to William Friese Greene - it was also memorably recreated in the film The Magic Box, where Laurence Olivier played the policeman) - is represented by two artists’ pictures. The first is from ‘Robert W. Paul. Pioneer Instrument Maker and Cinematographer’ by W.H. Eccles, in the periodical Electronic Engineering (1943). The other version is from an unidentified 1952 newspaper. View images (89 KB)

7. Friese-Greene and his associate Frederick Varley appeared in an altogether less likely periodical, Battle for a Three Dimensional World (3D Cosmic Publications, 1982), dramatically drawn in anaglyph form by top comicbook artist Jack Kirby and magically transformed into anaglyph 3D by Ray Zone, with villains Cyclops and Circe attempting to stop the development of stereoscopy. Many of the earliest pioneers tried to make moving pictures in stereo, as described in H. Mark Gosser's book Selected Attempts at Stereoscopic Moving Pictures. High res images (685 KB) Low res images (112 KB)

8. The Lumières featured in a 1956 Mexican comic book, Vidas Illustres (Ediciones Recreativas), in an issue dedicated entirely to ‘Los Hermanos Lumiere’. The blotchy artwork illustrates a romantic version of the story. The full-page initial panel shows the brothers screening a love scene showing a boater-hatted, moustachioed gent offering flowers to a lady. To attract potential buyers the scene has been significantly ‘hotted up’ for the cover, with the lady (in a more revealing dress) and gent (minus moustache and considerably more suave) now shown in a passionate clinch; a shot straight out of a 1950s steamy feature flick rather than an 1890s Lumière subject. The ‘first cinema’ (the Grand Café) becomes the Casino, and the event is dated 28 December 1896 - a year after the actual show. The artist, perhaps being misled by the 9.5mm centre-perforated film format popular at the time these pictures were drawn, represents the Lumière filmstock as having a centre perforation between the pictures, rather than a perforation on either side of the frame. The amateurish inside cover features a b/w rendering by a different, perspectively-challenged artist, showing Auguste and Louis projecting a rather boring mountain landscape picture, overlooked by a collage of ‘modern’ filming equipment. High res images (1.67 MB) Low res images (130 KB)

9.The brothers have also been featured on a variety of postage stamps, trade cards and similar labels, including this 'stamp' in the Inventeurs series by the Cailler company of Switzerland - the first company to mass-produce bars of chocolate. The artist has chosen to represent the Lumières' achievement with a view of a domestic filmshow, perhaps because this gives an opportunity for placing both machine and projected image within the same scene, not easy when illustrating cinema projection. Exact dating is difficult, but the projector shown is not as we might expect French, but a German Ernemann Kinoptikon of c.1920. View images (315 KB)

10. Colour came to the cinema early on; every frame of each print being coloured over the photographic image, initially by paintbrush. The Méliès studio was just one of many to offer coloured prints of certain productions. In ‘The Story of Photography’, Tell Me Why (1969) has Méliès undertaking the overpainting personally. In reality, numerous women were employed to spare the busy director-performer this particular task. In later years, stencils - made from copies of the film, with sections representing a particular colour cut out of each frame - superseded hand-colouring. High res image (215 KB) Low res image (41 KB)

Do you have a favourite painting or drawing of a scene from the cinema’s earliest days? If so, send it to us - together with your observations - and we’ll try to include it in an expanded version of this article.

© Stephen Herbert, 2006

The illustrations in this article remain the copyright of their respective publishers and creators, and are reproduced here for purposes of review.