Thoughts On: Hyde Park Corner (1889)
A lost film depicting the bustling corner street near Hyde Park in 1889.
William Friese-Greene, much like Louis Le Prince, is a by-and-large forgotten filmmaker from the days of pre-Edison and pre-Lumières. His story is an unfortunate one filled with a stark lack of success.
Born William Greene in 1855, he modified his name to Friese-Greene when he married in 1974. Starting as an apprentice photographer as a young man, Greene would go on to found studios in Bath, Bristol, London and Brighton. It’s in his Bath studio that he met John Arthur Roebuck Rudge, inventor of the Biophantic Lantern. Similar to the magic lantern, this device could project imagery on slides, but could do so in rapid succession, utilising 7 frames to conjure the illusion of moving pictures.
Greene would go on to work with Rudge on this device so that it could project photographic glass plates – they called this new device a Biophantoscope. However, what had held motion pictures back all through the mid 1800s was the impracticality of metal and glass-plate photography. Muybridge, among others in the late 1800s, found success with circular glass plates and chronophotography (movement caught through several individual pictures, often taken from multiple cameras), but it was apparent that this technology barely surpassed the movement seen in earlirer devices such as the phenakistoscope due to gif-like short photographic cycles and a reliance on some form of animation. If ‘cinema’ was to evolve from this point, it would need a new photographic material.
Initially, ‘film’ was paper based with photographic chemicals layered on top of it – however, this was often discarded in favour of glass plates in the mid 1800s and so remained widely unpopular. Nonetheless, paper-based stock was the type of film that Le Prince would use to capture his shorts, and Greene would initially use this as well. However, in 1888, he began to experiment with celluloid.
Celluloid had been around since the 1850s and had a wide variety of applications. The more popular the material became, the more advertisers would try to market it, and many suggested that it could be used as an alternative to glass film plates. This idea never caught traction until 1888 when John Carbutt released ‘flexible film’. Note, this film was not very flexible and so couldn’t be stored in roll holders. This left a gap in the market that was soon filled by Eastman’s Kodak company. However, infamously, Eastman’s product was not the first of its kind. Before Carbutt and before Eastman (in 1887) a relatively anonymous Clergyman, Hannibal Goodwin, invented and patented a form of flexible film that was superior to Carbutt’s. Due to a patent dispute, Goodwin engaged in a court case with Kodak that lasts almost two decades. However it wasn’t until almost 15 years after his death that this case was won by Ansco, a film company that acquired his patents.
With that being a side-note, in this period Greene is also experimenting with celluloid. In 1889, Greene had invented and patented a chronophotographic camera. This could take 10 photographs a second with celluloid film, making him one of the first known moving picture filmmakers to use this technology. The film he shot with this camera and film is our subject today: Hyde Park Corner.
This, unfortunately, is a lost film. The only incite we could gain as to what this film may have looked like would be through a film made in 1896, preserved by British Pathé, that also depicts Hyde Park Corner…
Shot at only 10 fps (frames per second), Greene’s short wouldn’t have functioned very well. As you may remember from earlier Every Year In Film posts, it’s only at over 16 fps that the brain begins to perceive flickering imagery as a single fluid moving frame. And it’s this technological downfall that reportedly lead to the underwhelming reception of this film when screened in 1890.
Greene’s Hyde Park Corner scene then marks the first of a number of failures. From here, he’d go onto work on stereoscopic cameras. These devices would take two exposures on separate strips of celluloid film through two lenses. This would produce an image like this…
… that would be designed so that one eye would be focused on each picture. The purpose of this stereoscopic process would be to create the illusion of three-dimensional depth. A modern example of this would be the film Capitalism: Slavery by Ken Jacobs that uses such a process and an antique stereoscopic image to produce an experimental short. Click on the image to follow a link to see this short…
It was experimenting with technology like this, technology that was too complex to garner any commercial success, that Greene eventually went bankrupt in 1901. It’s at this point that he sold the patents for his chronophotographic camera – which quickly went to waste a few years later when the patent was never renewed.
From this point, Greene tried to develop the use of colour technology, pioneering Biocolour – a process that used filters to capture the true colours of an image. However, more failure looms. This technology was rather unrefined and would flicker noticeably. This is an example of what this process would look like:
What’s more, as was very common in the early era of cinema, lawsuits ensued over patents. George Albert Smith was also a pioneer of colour technology in film and in 1906 invented Kinemacolor – a subject we may go into greater depth on at a later date. Smith and Greene went back and fourth in court cases that were reversed and revisited time and time again, eventually ending with Greene actually winning – though, not to much effect.
Whilst Greene’s son, Claude, would go on to develop this technology in the 20s, William died in 1921 whilst attending a film industry meeting in London. What remains of William Friese-Greene’s legacy has been captured by British films and television series like the romantic and inaccurate 1951 film, The Magic Box. Ultimately, Greene is a figure that attempted to do a lot for early cinema, but never managed to handle his (poorly constructed) outputs in a way that could remain significant in the soon-to-be hyper-competitive field of early cinema.
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