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The Moving Image
Three Americans created the art of the motion picture, and made it the universal language of the twentieth century
April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
Adventures followed one upon the other. Porter went to work for Kuhn and Webster, projecting the first advertising films on a billboard facing Herald Square, from a booth on top of the Pepper Building. Crowds jammed the streets; Porter was arrested on a charge of blocking traffic. Next, he toured Quebec and Nova Scotia with the Projectorscope, accompanying the renowned Wormwood’s Dog and Monkey Show. Then he went to work for Eden Musée, the most illustrious exhibition hall in the land, which sponsored a film version of the celebrated Passion play in twenty-four scenes, alleged to have been photographed at Oberammergau. As it happened, the camels, donkeys, and actors had gone through their paces on the roof of the Grand Central Palace in New York. Porter was getting his apprenticeship in the film business.
By this time Edison was starting suits for patent infringement, and Porter shrewdly decided to go to work for the Wizard as a cameraman. An early assignment was to photograph Sir Thomas Lipton’s famous sailboat Shamrock I, and he succeeded beautifully, catching her with her sails against the sun, her hull gliding through the sparkling sea. Edison had reduced the size and weight of the Kinetograph, so that the camera could take to the open road, shooting fire engines, horse and car traffic, trains pounding around curves, as well as set pieces inside Black Maria. Recorded (or subject) movement had been augmented by manipulated (or camera) movement. Promio, a cameraman of Louis Lumière of France, had shot the Grand Canal of Venice from a gondola in 1896; that same year Dickson, who had left Edison for the Biograph Company, had shot a Panorama of the American and Canadian Falls. What hadn’t as yet been accomplished was mounted, or edited, movement. This was to be Porter’s unique contribution, and it earned him the title of “father of the story film.”
To appreciate Porter’s revolutionary approach, one might compare his work with productions of the same period in France and England. In the fall of 1894 Edison had exported several Kinetoscopes to help him realize part of his investment—a most curious move, inasmuch as the Wizard had neglected to protect himself with an international patent. Two enterprising Greeks, George Georgiades and George Trajedis, who had been greengrocers in England, returned to London with Kinetoscopes purchased from Edison’s eastern agents. One Lionel Werner did the same, and opened a Kinetoscope parlor in Paris at 20 Boulevard Poissonnière in October, 1894. In a letter to Terry Ramsaye, Louis and Auguste Lumière, photographic manufacturers in Lyons, admitted that they got into the business when they strolled down the Champs-Élysées one day, spied a Kinetoscope in a shop, and promptly bought it.
The master magician of the Lumière camera was Georges Méliès, a theatrical prestidigitator who discovered that camera tricks could be achieved by manipulating the crank—for example: reverse motion, slow motion, superimposition (double exposure), fadeins and fade-outs. However, the trick shot in The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots by Heise preceded by at least a year Méliès’ accidental discovery of stop-motion when his camera jammed. In his country place in Montreuil, Méliès built a studio stage equipped with trap doors, overhead pulleys, and machines to produce sea waves, wind, and clouds. Méliès proudly claimed, and rightly so, that he was the first to “push the cinema toward the theatrical way.” But for all his fertile imagination and audacity, his shots remained stage tableaux.
Porter was impressed by the number of sets Méliès employed to tell a tale of magical adventure, as he had been impressed by the twenty-four scenes in the Passion play, but he was unimpressed by the rigid perspective, as of a spectator seated in the orchestra. Porter found what he was looking for in the work of the British photographers, James Williamson and G. A. Smith of Brighton, who used cameras manufactured by Robert William Paul of London. In 1899 Williamson took six shots of a Royal Henley Regatta, from the beginning to the end of the race. The remarkable feature in what might otherwise have been an ordinary news film was Williamson’s use of inserted shots, taken from a boat, of the crowd cheering on shore. This seems to have been the very first expression of the camera’s power, through cutting and splicing the film, to give an audience two points of view concurrently: in this instance, the race as seen from the shore, the crowd as observed from a boat.
In December, 1901, Williamson produced an enacted newsreel, Fire!, in which a man was rescued from a burning building. It was undramatic, but Porter, remembering some news shots he had made of fire engines, decided to edit these and add others to tell a story. In doing so he added plot to reality, and it was like adding life to facts.