How It Feels to Be Run Over (1900): The Cinema of Experience


There’s a popular anecdote about the Lumière brothers’ 1896 film “L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat.”  According to the story, theatre-goers were initially distraught upon seeing the moving image, and feared that the approaching train in the movie was coming to run them down. Audience members were said to have fled from the theatre in a panic, only to return moments later in embarrassment. Whether this event actually happened is a matter of debate, but there is no denying the impact that moving images could have on the unsuspecting patrons. Much in the same way that virtual reality tantalizes the senses today, one can imagine the exciting prospects of motion pictures to people at the turn of the century.

How it Feels To Be Run Over could be considered the first exploitation film. Rather than capitalizing on some political/cultural movement, Cecil Hepworth’s 1900 film exploits the human mind. Like Edison in America and the Lumières in France, Britain’s Hepworth was engaged in designing a cinema of experience, rather than a cinema of drama. How it Feels to Be Run Over is unique to the motion picture medium, and tantalizes the viewer with a physiological reaction, rather than a response built on emotion. The plot-free picture presents the passive observer with the image of a car approaching from a distance. As can be imagined, the car commences straight toward the screen, eventually eclipsing the screen in a wash of black. And thus, the shocked viewer has experienced what it feels like to be run over.

How it Feels to Be Run Over was Cecil Hepworth’s third film in a career spanning 30 years. The 26 year old enjoyed an early beginning in the film industry, and built a studio to rival his contemporaries in 1899. The studio was producing about 3 films a week by 1900, and the enterprising Hepworth was looking to find his directorial voice. Early efforts relied on cinematography tricks and other gimmicks to entice the audience, such as his debut about a magician performing illusions. How it Feels to Be Run Over blossomed out of this period as a novelty short, and it seemed to have caught the attention of audiences. Driven by audience intrigue, Hepworth followed this up with the more sensational Explosion of a Motor Car, which he claimed as his most successful movie at the time (Hepworth 51). It appears that today’s explosion-heavy blockbusters owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Hepworth.

Melissa and I watched Hepworth’s early classic a few days ago, almost 117 years after it was released. We had 2 other movies on the agenda, so we were eager to get this one out of the way and move into the 20th century proper. As we anticipated the grainy car coming straight for us, something unexpected happened: Melissa jolted back in surprise.

“That scared me. I wasn’t expecting that,” she said.

I was in disbelief. Given that I knew the title and the general effect of the movie, the “collision” wasn’t much of a shock for me. But Melissa didn’t have had preconceptions, just a grainy image and a slow-moving jalopy. Despite years of movie experience, as well as a solid technical background under her belt, Melissa was taken aback by a cheap effect from 1900.

I think we are too eager to dismiss the films of yesteryear as simplistic or unengaging. We laugh in derision when we hear about the panicked theatre-goers running from a train, yet we find it perfectly acceptable to cry at the latest Oscar-bait. Movies are about reaching us on an emotional level, despite their frame-rate or audio quality. I think Hepworth would be delighted to know that all these years later, his movies are still making audiences jump.

Hepworth, Cecil M. Came the dawn; memories of a film pioneer. London: Phoenix House, 1951. Web.


Falling Cat (1894): More Than the First Cat Video

8falling_cat-mareyMore than 100 years before YouTube and our collective obsession with viral cat videos, there was Étienne-Jules Marey and his falling cat.

Marey wasn’t necessarily a filmmaker, he was a scientist dedicated to studying physiology. More specifically, Marey was interested in how muscles movements and how animals conducted basic motions. Starting small, Marey photographed the flying patterns of insets before moving on to larger birds and mammals. Working at the close of the 19th century, Marey was exposed to a technological and scientific boom that produced innovative new means for composing experiments. Marey became an admirer of the European filmmaking movements, and paid particular attention to Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic collages (he of the Horse in Motion filmstrip, 1878). While others looked at Muybridge’s work as a brave new world of artistic representation, Marey saw a long sought solution for advancing learning. Keeping insights from Muybridge in mind, the industrious Marey set to work completing his own camera.

Marey produced several camera prototypes over the next three decades, specializing in a process that captured a rapid series of photographs using a filmstrip spurred by an electromagnet. Marey’s preferred invention resembled a shotgun, and was thus unofficially dubbed the ‘photographic gun.’ It was on one of these models that the scientist captured his famous Falling Cat video in 1894. Common knowledge dictates that a cat always lands on its four feet, but scientists such as Marey were perplexed by just how these flexible felines achieved such a feat. Physicists and physiologists alike wondered at the seeming impossibility of the cat quickly contorting its body, a quandary thats been aptly labeled the falling cat problem. With his trusty photographic gun in hand, Marey set about to finally solve this problem, and unknowingly leave his mark on film history.

Marey’s still images on the cascading kitten were published in the scientific journal Nature in 1894. The scientific community finally possessed solid evidence for the cat conundrum, and Marey was able to prove that the falling body used the force of its own descent to power the rotation necessary to complete a successful landing.

Marey’s explanation wasn’t immediately recognized by the scientific community,  but his contribution to filmmaking started a conversation about how this technology could be utilised. We’ve already classified the war for the spirit of motion pictures as either art or documentary, but Marey’s insights introduce the new possibility of scientific discourse. Too bad today’s cat videos don’t have as much to offer as their great grandkitten.

Blacksmith Scene (1893): A Dramatic Approach

7Blacksmith_Scene-Dickson.pngThis week, the era of experimental filmmaking continues with another venture from William K.L. Dickson and the Edison labs. I’m beginning to realize that Dickson will be this project’s most productive director, with a total of four of his films exhibited thus far. Some of these films have been included out of necessity, but as we will see, Dickson’s insights were integral for shaping the modern movie industry.

To be perfectly honest, 1893 was a dull year for filmmaking. Sources indicate a meagre 3 films were made, all of which were exhibitory products of the Kinetoscope experiments. But while things were stagnant on the screen, a lot of exciting developments were going on behind the scenes. In this year, Thomas Edison’s Black Maria movie studio was built in New Jersey. Edison correctly understood the public demand for motion pictures, and put his resources to use in securing a monopoly over the industry. The Black Maria would take the Dickson experiments out of Edison’s labs and move them to a specialized studio for filmmaking conception. It wasn’t quite Hollywood, but the Black Maria production house was a necessary first step in establishing commercial movie making.

With their impressive new movie studio completed, the Edison team had to gauge public demand and figure out what product they were selling. If these movie things were to survive past pure novelty, the audience had to be engaged, and willing to come back again and again. Dickson’s  Monkeyshines series was a good tech demo, but the team had to step it up if they wanted to survive. Furthermore, should the company carry on with its documentary-style “slices of life”, or was fictional stories more in vogue? The solution was a bit of both. The group decided to produce three shorts that depicted everyday, working-class Americans on the job, but with actors playing the various roles.  The intent was to speak to the audience directly, by giving them a glimpse of the ‘real’ America through film. The scenes selected included a barbershop appointment, a man applying a horseshoe, and three blacksmiths working at their forge. The latter film, Blacksmith Scene, was the first Black Maria film to be presented to an audience.

Blacksmith Scene doesn’t look like much, but it actually represents a remarkable innovation in filmmaking style. In another crossroads moment, the Edison team created a new genre with the merging of reality and theatre. The result is a proto-mockumentary that uses actors to generate the illusion of real-life. Interestingly, this was seen as the winning formula by the Edison team; the type of movie that the public would want to see. It’s archaic and rough, but Blacksmith Scene successfully split from the vaudeville appeal of early American movies in favour of a more mature, theatrical approach.


Newark Athlete (1891): New Innovations, New Directions

5Newark_Athlete-DicksonIn the spring of 1891, the Edison company conducted its final batch of experimentation with the Kinetoscope. The device would make its debut that May, and movie-making would finally wander out of the experimentation era and into the public consciousness.

The Monkeyshines series had presented a few early successes at capturing motion, but the picture quality of these presentations were hardly suitable. The original projection concept included a cylinder-like system where film strips were rotated  horizontally. After visiting a film exposition in Europe, Edison conveniently filed another patent for a new process that used filmstrips rather than cylindrical sheets. The film was run through a series of sprockets (gears) that presented a smoother picture quality.

Progress on the Kinetoscope halted for the remainder of 1890 to make way for other innovative endeavours. After these undertakings fell through, the team pursued motion pictures again with a newfound vigour. Chief lab technician William K.L. Dickson made a crucial breakthrough in early 1891 with the creation of a new projection process. Relying on the insights of the European inventors, Dickson and his team perfected a series of loops and spindles that pulled a series of 19 mm filmstrip under a magnifying glass. The film was simultaneously lit underneath by a lamp, and the illuminated images were projected onto a glass peephole for viewing. This updated Kinetoscope was presented to a Women’s club in May 1891, where the unsuspecting filmgoers were treated to what was perhaps the first public screening.

The team assembled three experimental films for their updated model. These films: Dickson Greeting, Men Boxing and Newark Athlete, presented a new maturity in Dickson’s filmmaking ethos. The picture quality was a significant improvement over Monkeyshines, and the team seemed more imaginative in their depictions. In Dickson Greeting, the aforementioned technician beckons the audience, dramatically welcoming the viewer to a new era in communication. Men Boxing is another tongue-in-cheek production in the vein of Monkeyshines, but it is Newark Athlete that takes movie-making seriously. In this short film, a man stands stoically before the camera, twirling Indian clubs as part of an athletic routine. This was a popular sport at the turn of the century, a type of workout fad practiced across the world. Here we can see the team experimenting not only with technology, but also the possibilities of this format. Goofy presentations in front of the camera are a good start, but what do people really want to see? After all, this was a powerful new tool, and the team had to decide what future productions would entail. Would filmmakers strive for simple entertainment, or would presentations of reality be the goal. As we’ll come to find out, this debate dominated the first few decades of film production, and allowed for exciting innovations that are still felt today.

Monkeyshines No.2: The Patent Wars (1890)

4Monkeyshines_No2-DicksonIn mid-1889, Thomas Edison filed a patent with the United States Patent Office for a new invention. He would name it the Kinetoscope, a device for capturing and displaying motion pictures. After three years of testing, Edison’s invention was displayed for pubic consumption in 1891. Unsurprisingly, the Kinetoscope was a success, and another breakthrough was added to Edison’s impressive repertoire. On paper, Thomas Edison was hereafter known as the inventor of film.

Edison was inspired by European advancements in motion picture technology, as well as insights from photography experts. In 1888, Edison attended a lecture given by film pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, whose famous series of galloping horse photographs introduced the concept of moving images. Muybridge had demonstrated his own motion picture device, the zoopraxiscope, but its reliance on manual effort by the participant made it more of a glorified flip-book. Edison theorized that moving images could be projected to an audience at high speeds with the assistance of an automated process, therefore eliminating the need for manual participation in the projection process. An early patent was filed in 1888, and lab technician William K.L. Dickson was assigned to the project. Edison himself acted as more of a supervisor, with most of the production and testing attributed to Dickson and his colleagues. Nonetheless, when the device was perfected, it was Thomas Edison that garnered the glory.

But as we know, Edison’s breakthrough came two years after Louis Le Prince developed the world’s first film in 1887. Despite this, Le Prince’s contribution was mostly forgotten, and Edison endured in popular culture as the father of film. There are several reasons why history favours Edison, primarily because the Kinetoscope was the first patented motion picture device in the United States. Le Prince applied for a patent in the U.S., but his request was denied (only to be given to Edison a few years later). Furthermore, Edison was already a near-mythical figure in the field of technological innovation, so his insights into filmmaking made for a better story. Finally, Le Prince never had the opportunity to contest Edison’s claim, since he died one year before the Kinetoscope’s debut.

Monkeyshines No.2 was another experiment devised by Edison’s labs in 1890. It’s similar to its predecessor, but the film quality has markedly improved. The films are getting better, and within a few short months the invention would be ready for prime time. But there’s something artificial here, almost cold. Filmed in the bowels of Edison’s labs, we see a worker standing in a pitch black room, cooly testing the capabilities of the camera. We understand filmmaking today as an artform, but it would be difficult to call this art. Rather, this is a technical document, a demo for a product in development. I can’t help but recall Le Prince’s Roundhay Garden Scene, a jovial celebration of a new innovation that displayed the emotions and culture of the era. You got the sense of a burgeoning auteur, an innovator whose true passion was art. Edison was not an artist, he was a businessman. Unfortunately, this business attitude would influence the remaining 19th century films, and continues to hold a domineering presence on the film industry to this day.


Monkeyshines No.1: American Ingenuity (1889)

3Monkeyshines_No1-DicksonOk, so before we get into it, I have to admit that we may have cheated with this one. According to some accounts, Monkeyshines No. 1 was filmed in November 1890, rather than June 1889. As we’ve seen with previous efforts, these primordial pictures were really experiments in filmmaking technology, so their significance as historical documents weren’t considered at the time, and thus an adequate cataloging was neglected. In any case, the film represents an important next step in early filmmaking, and marks the beginning of the American monopoly on the industry

Monkeyshines No.1 was directed by William K.L. Dickson and William Heise, two technicians for Thomas Edison’s labs. We mentioned Edison in a previous post and his efforts to invent his own means of producing motion pictures, and he accomplished this goal with this film. Likely influenced by the work of Louis Le Prince, Edison and his team began working on a film exhibition device in the late 1880s. Le Prince had demonstrated that moving images were possible, but Edison wanted to perfect the process and – more importantly – sell it to the public. The result was Edison’s Kinetoscope, a type of booth where movies could be observed through a peephole viewer. 

With Monkeyshines, the team sought to test out the new filming technology. As with the previous films by Le Prince, Monkeyshines was essentially a tech demo, used to get an idea of how the device operated, and based on the resulting film, it looks like the techniques needed quite a bit of work. The movie looks like a step backwards from Roundhay Garden Scene of the previous year. Focus is blurry, the frame rate is poor, and its difficult to even understand what’s going on. In fact, the quality is so bad that historians aren’t even sure who the principal actor is in the film (some attest that its technician John Ott, while others claim its G. Sacco Albanese). It was a solid effort, but the Edison technique needed a bit more time before it could be sold to audiences.

More on this next week, when we look at the first sequel in film history: Monkeyshines No.2. 

Roundhay Garden Scene: The Victorian Era Comes Alive (1888)

A year after his first motion picture, Louis Le Prince filmed Roundhay Garden Scene at his in-laws house in England. Like Man Walking Around a Corner, the movie is brief at 2.11 seconds, but offers a significantly clearer picture than the earlier effort. 

The movie ‘stars’ Le Prince’s family engaging in a short trounce in front of their home. The four principal actors are Sarah and Joseph Whitley, (the parents of Le Prince’s wife), as well as Le Prince’s son Adolphe and family friend Annie Hartley. The participants seem to be engaging in a dance for the camera, with Adolphe and Hartley taking centre stage. 

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 2.57.00 PM.pngThe short was filmed on Le Prince’s LPCCP Type-1 MkII single lens camera, and offers an improved quality from the last model. The cut was remastered in 1931 by the National Science Museum, presenting a 20 frame copy of the original film. This version also inverted the scene so the house was on the right of the frame to pertain to Western ‘right-to-left’ reading preferences. Unfortunately, it seems that this edit damaged what is now the right side of the image, as a filmstrip bar is noticeable running along the edge of the frame. The film was later digitally remastered with the image reversed to the original orientation and a further 32 frames were added to the picture. The digitally remastered version is widely available online.

Le Prince’s first film was merely an experiment in capturing motion, and the testing continued into Roundhay Garden Scene. However, this film is more complex then its predecessor, and it offers uniques challenges that were unfounded in the previous Le Prince picture. For example, this movie included four actors, rather than one, and a clearer quality. The goal of the movie was to display motion to Le Prince’s stakeholders, and it seems that the company decided to represent this through dance. The movie must account for blocking, staying in frame, and establishing a unique motion for each actor. While experimental in conception, the resulting film has all the qualities of a carefully-directed movie. Unwittingly, Le Prince invented the art of directing with Roundhay Garden Scene