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Moving Images for the Screen

pictures photographs lantern motion

The cinema (projected motion pictures) was the culmination of long-standing efforts to present ever more lifelike moving images on the screen. As we have seen, lantern exhibitors had always had an array of procedures for creating movement—whether by projecting shadows of living things or by moving multiple lanterns around behind the screen—but the repertoire of such techniques increased during the nineteenth century. The diverse ways of making images move at midcentury were suggested by Benjamin Pike, Jr.’s, 1848 Catalogue of Optical Goods:

The person who manages the lantern must fasten it to his middle with a leather strap passed through the loop soldered to the back of the lantern, and holding the lantern with one hand adjust the top with the other. He should now go up pretty close to the screen and draw out the tube until the image is perfect, which, of course, will be very small; then walk slowly backward and slide the tube in at the same time to keep the image distinct.

To give motion effect to the images, a variety of movable sliders are made for this purpose, many of which produce very curious appearances; but with the usual sliders the images may be made to travel in a circular, elliptical or other direction by moving the lantern in the corresponding way.… A shivering motion may be given to the images by giving the lantern a sudden shake.… By standing at the bottom of stairs a figure may be made to appear to be going up by giving the lantern a slight angular motion.… In the same way this figure may be made to lie on the floor and rise to a sitting or standing posture (quoted in George Kleine, “Progress in Optical Projection in the Last Fifty Years,” Film Index, 28 May 1910, p. 10).

Some slides had levers to make portions of the image move. Rack-and-pinion and pulley systems produced slides that could be rotated without restriction. In one particularly popular comic slide, a rat crawls across a sleeping man and into his open mouth. Chromatropes had design patterns that were rotated using the pulley system.

Panoramic slides were twelve to fourteen inches long and consisted of a single image. They were moved slowly through the slide holder. Dioramic paintings with moving figures had two pieces of glass, “on one of which the scene is painted and the other the figures. The glass containing the figures is moved in a groove, and the figures, vessels, etc., pan across the scene.” 46 Slip slides allowed an image to be quickly altered. On one such slide of a man’s full figure, the head of a pig replaced the human head. As this example suggests, slip slides were generally used to create mystical or comic effects. In 1866 L. S. Beale developed the choreutoscope, a ratchet device with a front shutter that allowed six images of a skeleton to be projected in rapid succession. (See illustration on page 45.) The results suggested a moving image. 47 This repertoire of techniques enabled exhibitors with multiple lanterns at their disposal to present elaborate screen narratives.

Photography, with its realistic aesthetic and its scientific basis, seemed incompatible with such methods of image movement. Instead, the search for movement using photographic techniques was directed toward solutions based on the illusion of movement and the persistence of vision. Once again, two Philadelphians from the world of photography came to the fore, both of whom experimented with the presentation of a series of photographs in such a way as to create “moving pictures.” 48 The first was Coleman Sellers, chief engineer for William Sellers & Company, a manufacturer of machinery and machinists’ tools. In 1861 Sellers patented the kinematoscope, an improvement on the stereoscope that showed movement through a succession of images. As he explained in his patent application:

What I aim to accomplish is … to so exhibit stereoscopic pictures as to make them represent objects in motion such as the revolving wheels of machinery, and various motions of the human body, adding to the wonders of that marvelous invention “the stereoscope” a semblance of life that can only come from motion. It is to breathe into the statuelike forms of the stereograph, as it were, the breath of life. It may have occurred to many the possibility of effecting this desirable result, and the “phantasmascope” gives a clue to the manner of accomplishment of it. That is, that it must be done by viewing in succession a series of pictures (taken in different positions of the moving object) with sufficient rapidity to insure the image of one being retained on the retina until the next one is brought into view (Patent No. 31,357, exhibiting stereoscopic pictures of moving objects, issued 5 February 1861).

Although acknowledging his debt to the children’s toy that was best known as the zoetrope ( i.e., the “phantasmascope”), Sellers concluded that “the pictures should be entirely at rest during the moment of vision or that motion should be in a direction of the line of vision.” He designed several instruments that could be used to show such pictures. If simple, repetitive actions such as sawing or rocking were being shown only three different photographs were needed: the two extreme positions and one in between. These could then be shown as a recurring series in a simple drum-like instrument. For complicated actions, he designed a more complex instrument with “the series of pictures [attached] flatwise to an endless band of cloth.” The technical state of photography, however, imposed certain limitations on what Sellers could achieve. Lengthy time exposures meant that each shot had to be taken individually and with the subject in static positions. 49 Developed at the early stages of the Civil War, the kinematoscope was never marketed commercially.

Some of Coleman Sellers’ principles were applied to projection by Henry Renno Heyl in 1870. Once again the intimate relationship between peephole, privatized viewing and group reception within a theatrical context was continued. Improving upon a mechanism that was invented by O. B. Brown of Malden, Massachusetts, Heyl called his modified magic lantern a “phasmatrope.” This wheel-like attachment held sixteen photographic slides mounted radially along its outer edge. The pictures were successively passed along in front of the light source (using an intermittent mechanism and a shutter) with the views repeated as many times as the exhibitor desired. Heyl made at least three series of photographs for his projection device and showed them at the Philadelphia Academy of Music on 5 February 1870, as part of a benefit for the Young Men’s Society of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. According to the program, these included "a representation of little All Right [a popular Japanese acrobat] in a number of his daring feats " and “a characteristic address from Brother Jonathan [the 1870 name for Uncle Sam] to the audience.” For this second piece, a series of photographs were taken of an “actor” with his lips in different positions. When these were projected, he appeared to be speaking to the audience. This was accompanied by synchronous dialogue delivered from behind the screen:

Ladies and Gentlemen:

We are tonight to see for the first time, photographs of persons shown upon a screen by the aid of a magic lantern, the figures appearing to move in most lifelike ways. How this effect is produced we cannot briefly explain, but you will have the evidence of your own eyes to convince you that this new art will rapidly develop into one of the greatest merit for instruction and enjoyment.

This beginning of greater things is not an imported product but it was perfected right here in Philadelphia, where it adds one more to the list of first inventions of real merit that stand to the credit of the City of Brotherly Love.

The photographs were made at 1208 Chestnut Street in the studio of Mr. O. H. Willard, which place may now be well named “The Cradle of the Motion Picture.”

Another series of a waltzing couple is the only one to survive. For this, the costumed dancers (Heyl was the man) were photographed in four positions and the photographs were repeated four times to fill out the sixteen slots. 50

The phasmatrope provided only one portion of the Academy of Music entertainment, which opened with various stereopticon views of Niagara Falls in winter, Yosemite Valley, and Alpine glaciers, as well as illustrations of the legend of Rip Van Winkle. Magical and comic illusions were created by the phantasmagoria, but tableaux vivants and shadow pantomimes were also among the offerings given for that evening’s cultivated program. Although Heyl subsequently claimed that 1,500 paying customers enabled the organizers to clear $350 for the church coffers, he does not appear to have exploited the phasmatrope’s commercial potential. A somewhat similar device was developed by the Englishman John Arthur Roebuck Rudge in 1875. 51 In all these instances, a series of photographs were shown in rapid succession to create some degree of illusory movement even though the photographs were not taken as part of a continuous series—because they could not be. This important advance in photographic methods was achieved by Eadweard Muybridge.

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