In an effort to gleam a better understanding of my favourite art form, my girlfriend Melissa and I are starting the Movie 131 project. Every week we’ll be taking a look at a different movie from a different year, spanning from 1887 to 2017. This week, we’re beginning my journey with one of the world’s first films: Man Walking Around a Corner by Louis Le Prince.
Man Walking Around the Corner dates back to 1887, and was shot on Le Prince’s LPCC Type-16 “animated picture” device. The device was something of a hybrid between a camera and projector, and captured moving images at a lethargic 16 frames per second. The resulting films were pretty sloppy, but represented what is arguably the first motion pictures.
There isn’t much to see in Man Walking Around a Corner, and even if there was, the grainy picture quality make it impossible to distinguish. It is, exactly what the title suggests: a three second collage of images showing a man taking a few steps down the street. The film is basically stop-motion, or a very quick succession of pictures to form the film. Of course, this is how all films are presented, but increasingly faster frame rates make these jumps imperceivable to the human eye.
It’s unfair to call this a film in the sense that we recognize them today. We know movies as entertainment, or informational visual documents. Instead, Le Prince’s early effort is an experiment, likely an early field test of the technology. It seems curious to a modern audience, but 19th century filmmakers simply didn’t know what to do with this new technology. These early movies started as experiments, and were subsequently commercialized into brief documentary style vignettes. It is not until the 20th century that narrative filmmaking was practiced in earnest (more on this is later posts).
Since this movie doesn’t present the most enticing narrative, we’ll have to turn instead to Le Prince’s fascinating life story. Louis Le Prince was born in France in 1841. Early access to the burgeoning photography industry sparked Le Prince’s interests in this technology. Le Prince was educated in Paris, specializing in painting and chemistry and started a school for art with his wife in 1871. The couple’s painting background, combined with Le Prince’s photography expertise, made them known for colouring photographs on metal and pottery. During this time, Le Prince began experimenting with ‘moving pictures’, and patented a device that combined images using 16 lenses. This premier model actually captured images from different angles, resulting in an image that jumped about in perspective. In 1887, Le Prince perfected this technique using a single lens camera that was able to successfully capture a moving image.
Le Prince continued to perfect the single lens technology until 1890, when he mysteriously disappeared on a trip to visit family in Dijon. Le Prince was never to be seen again, and police could not recover his body or luggage after several search efforts. he was declared dead in 1897. Conspiracy theories abound about Le Prince’s death, including a possible suicide, a murder by a jealous rival, or even a case of fratricide by Le Prince’s own brother. Whatever the case, Le Prince died in relative obscurity. Thomas Edison soon patented his own motion picture device, and took credit for the invention of the art form.
The patent wars of the 19th century may have favoured Edison, but film historians have given Le Prince the rightful title as the inventor of motion pictures. Le Prince is now recognized as the genius on which the multi-billion dollar film industry was built on, and it all started with a grainy 16 frames.