Thoughts On: Blacksmith Scene (1893)
Today we will be exploring the birth of commercial cinema.
When we previously looked at Edison and William K.L Dickson, we introduced the two figures and talked about their Monkeyshines, the first American films; failed experiments conducted by Dickson in 1889/90. The faults of these experiments primarily concerned the manner in which they were filmed and thought of as ‘movies’. As said previously, the Monkeyshines were invented to be seen with a microscope as they spun on a device that resembled a phonograph drum:
This, was an incredibly impractical precursor to what would become Edison’s Kinetoscope whose film was too small and image was captured, with the first of the Kinetographs, very poorly. To improve upon this design, Edison directed Dickson to work on a wider film format (35mm, which was initially created by slicing 70mm stock in half) that would be perforated. Edison was inspired to create (suggest) such inventions through his meetings with figures such as Reynaud, Marey and Ottomar Anschütz.
Having likely seen Reynaud’s Théâtre Optique – which we covered in detail in the previous post – Edison would have then known about the mechanical advantages of perforating film; it allowed for a controlled movement of photographic strips around a system. Added to this, from his meetings with Etienne-Jules Marey, Edison would have come into contact with an idea of flexible film stock through Marey’s chronophotographic gun, which can be considered the first portable motion picture camera – a subject we will likely explore in the next post of the Every Year series.
At the Exposition Universelle, which is where Edison would have seen Reynaud’s work, he would have also seen the inventions of Ottomar Anschütz. Anschütz, a German inventor and photographer, was the creator of the Electrotachyscope, and this was a device somewhat similar to a phenakistoscope…
… in that it played with the phenomena of the persistence of vision (which, as we know, isn’t such a simple topic) using a rotating disc. The difference between Anschütz’s device at the Victorian toy concerns the Electrotachyscope’s size and its use of light. The best way to understand this motion picture precursor is through this video demonstration. (Direct link here).
Having seen this device, Edison would have realised the importance of ‘the persistence of vision’ and intermittent viewing – as represented by Anschütz with the pulsing light (what would have been a Geissler tube – a precursor to neon lights). This combined with his knowledge of flexible film and perforated stock, lead to improved designs of his Kinetograph – the camera with which Dickson shot his earliest films – and, later, his Kinetoscope.
The improved Kinetograph was essentially a horizontal camera. Most notably, it featured a small sprocket system that would allow the passing of film behind its lenses and spinning shutter. The film itself, as said, was perforated – look to the holes on either side of the film:
This was done manually, and would allow the film to circulate the Kinetograph’s horizontal system at around 30 frames per second. The best way to explain this device, however, would be through another video about a replica Kinetograph made in 2012. (Direct link here).
This is, in essence, the device that was invented by Dickson and his team in 1889/90. On a slight side note, what you will find when looking at a lot of Edison’s work are quite a few questions concerning the actual time in which they were invented. The reason why comes down to Edison’s own fabrications, formulated so that he could better push patents and build his public image. With that said, having invented this motion picture camera around 1889, Dickson would have to continue his work on Edison’s Kinetoscope – the device through which his films would be seen.
The Kinetoscope, much like the Kinetograph, was an amalgam and an improvement on the works of Reynaud and Anschütz. It was a system inside a wooden box that, in the simplest terms, rotated lengths of film around a light source and shutter which would allow for the projection of imagery through a peep hole. (Direct link here).
The Kinestoscope was developed over many years and wouldn’t be completed until 1892. And whilst Edison’s Kinetograph camera was partially patented in this year, it wouldn’t be fully patented until 1897, four years after its accompanying motion pictures were released for public viewing in 1893 (for commercial purposes, 1894) with the Kinetoscope. However, before much of this, Dickson and his team would have to construct Edison’s first production studio.
This was called the Black Maria because of its resemblance to the police vehicles of the time, which, in slang, is where this name originates. Moreover, the Black Maria also got its name because it was such a stuffy and humid studio – Edison even called it the Dog House (though, he would very rarely be working in it). The reason why this was such a claustrophobic and stifling space was because it was covered in tar-paper so that it was completely black. This ensured there would be no reflections and that the light, which would flood in through the retractable roof (this can be seen in the above picture), would be as best controlled as possible. Much like many early studios, such as Méliès’ which was completely made of glass, the Black Maria was constructed so that it could allow as much light into its space as possible – primarily because artificial lighting wasn’t yet truly conceived of, nor would it be very functional or practical, leaving early filmmakers to rely on natural lighting.
And so, it’s the Black Maria that is not only thought to be the first American production studio, but the first film studio in the world. It was here that Dickson shot numerous vaudeville acts, dancers, athletes, boxers, actors and showmen from 1892/3 onwards.
With these three major components, the Kinetograph, Kinetoscope and the Black Maria, there was the foundations of Edison’s Manufacturing Studio. The first official film that is thought to have been shot and publicly shown is our subject for today: the Blacksmith Scene. However, that isn’t an entirely true statement. As we’ve explored, the Monkeyshines were Dickson’s first experiments. Following these, and as he developed the Kinetograph and Kinetoscope (and before the Black Maria was full constructed), he began to shoot successful experiments. The first of these that was shown outside of the studio was the Dickson Greeting.
Made in 1891, this is simply William K.L Dickson moving his hat. It was shown with a prototype Kinetoscope at the Menlo laboratory for a convention of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs later that year. But, whilst this can be considered one of first public showings of Edison’s films, it is a somewhat unofficial showing as it used a prototype Kinetoscope. We instead see the culmination of all completed work on the Kinetoscope, Kinetograph and the Black Maria with the Blacksmith Scene. This, possibly among other films which had been previously shot in the Black Maria, were supposed to be presented at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 through up to 25 Kinestoscopes. But, this was delayed due to Dickson, who had had a nervous breakdown because of the gruelling work hours and the stress he was put under by his task to essentially invent the first American motion pictures. Edison’s picture, the Blacksmith Scene, would then be unveiled for the first time later that year at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences to a lesser reception. And this is the film:
Above everything else, Edison’s Blacksmith Scene, as shot by William Heise and directed by William K.L Dickson, is a foreshadowing representative of cinema as produced in a studio – as it was the first of this kind. It had controlled lighting as well as a non-realist aesthetic and setting that pre-dates the Lumière ‘documentary’ shorts – an interesting point of comparison being Les Forgerons (The Blacksmiths) from 1895…
Contrasting the two blacksmith scenes, Edison’s short almost becomes an inadvertent epithet for the re-creation and re-invention of reality by cinematographic manufacturing companies: film studios. What we are thus seeing with the Blacksmith Scene is the birth of commercial cinema–quite literally. A year after this was first publicised, Edison would have commissioned the opening of the first Kinetoscope parlor as managed by the Holland Bros, which would resemble something like this…
Patrons would pay 25 cents to access 5 machines or 50 cents for 10 – and this wasn’t considered to be very cheap; for a high-end Vaudeville show, people would often only be paying 25 cents. Nonetheless, the Kinetoscopes were of course incredibly popular and would spread across America with more parlors joining Edison’s Kinetoscope Company. For the following few years, Dickson, Heise and others would shoot numerous subjects for Edison in the Black Maria, producing a plethora of Kinetoscope strips, all until 1895 when the Lumières fully established and materialised the modern concept of cinema – a pivotal point that we are hurtling ever closer to.
It is from this point that Edison’s company made many ventures into sound, projection and also faced its own trials and tribulations before an eventual dissolution. However, in not wanting to tire us all out, this will all be saved for another post of the series.
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