If you see some of the earliest films, one characteristic is almost always obvious: they often appear to be in stop-motion. But footage in “The Flying Train” from 1902 is as impressive as the feat of engineering it captures. Depicting a ride on a suspended railway in Germany in 1902, it gives the contemporary viewer a sense of 21st-century drone footage. Throughout the two-minute film, riders see residents of Wuppertal (Wupper Valley), Germany walking across pedestrian bridges and down dirt roadways beneath the city’s schwebebahn – a style of hanging railway that’s unique to Germany and first appeared in 1901.
The Museum of Modern Art recently pulled the film from its vaults and – upon closer examination – were surprised to learn it had been shot in 70mm, instead of 68mm. While the difference may seem small, it’s considerable in the technology of film formatting. It’s also a unique footnote in cinematic history, since 35mm has been the standard for decades. But many of those early films by studios such as Biograph were recorded on either 68 or 70mm and displayed on then-state-of-the-art devices like a Kinetoscope or a Mutoscope. These larger formats provide a larger image area affords stunning visual clarity and quality, especially compared to the more standard 35mm or 16mm.
While standing in a somewhat alien landscape called North Carolina (perhaps, at least to him) on May 28, 1900, Nevil Maskelyne probably thought of his artistic predecessors. The British magician knew that, just a century or so earlier, many people still thought a solar eclipse was an omen. But, for people like Maskelyne, an eclipse was the grandest trick of all – even if it was a natural phenomenon and not sleight of hand. And, in 1900, Maskelyne had a new device that he could surely add to his chest of magic: a celluloid camera.
Now, more than a century later, Maskelyne’s short film of that extraordinary celestial event has been digitally scanned and preserved in a collaboration between the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and the British Film Institute (BFI). Simply titled “Solar Eclipse”, it is believed to be the world’s oldest surviving astronomical film.
As a practicing magician, it’s no
surprise Maskelyne realized the potential moving pictures bore, even at the
dawn of the 20th century. He
recognized the possibilities for both entertainment and education. His own interest in astronomy had led him to
the RAS, where he became a fellow and traveled to North Carolina with an
expedition to view – and record – the eclipse.
Viewing the eclipse – as people had done for millennia – was simple. But recording it with this new technology was not. The intuitive Maskelyne, however, didn’t let that deter him. Perhaps foreseeing the difficulty, he had designed a special lens attachment called a cinematograph telescope.
“He had previously taken out a patent
for engineering equipment, so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he
may have developed his own camera to capture this event,” said Bryony Dixon,
BFI curator of silent film. But as the
original British Astronomical Society report about the film doesn’t mention
whether Maskelyne used a camera of his own invention to shoot the eclipse, “it’s
something we’ll probably never know for sure.”
Despite the challenge, Maskelyne was
still able to capture the exposure changes that occur throughout an eclipse.
“The diamond ring effect of the corona at
totality* affects the exposure of the image,” Dixon said. “Maskelyne was able to change the exposure and
camera aperture as the event occurred, tracing the gradual fading of the corona
in increasing sunlight.”
After capturing the eclipse, Maskelyne screened the film for the Royal Astronomical Society at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly – London’s most popular magic stage at the time – as part of a larger program of magic illusionist acts.
In 2018 RAS archivists handed the film
over to preservationists at the BFI, where they began the delicate process of
digitalizing it. Each frame had to be meticulously
and carefully copied onto 35mm film.
Although at only one minute long and in scratchy
black and white, “Solar Eclipse” is yet another one of those rare treasures of
early cinema; a moment that puts you back in time, more than a century ago,
when the new medium of film held the promise of a new world of surprise and…well,
magic. A door between the “old world” and
a new century had opened.
*This refers to the “path of
totality”, which is the track of the umbra (the fully shaded inner region of a
shadow cast by an opaque object) on the Earth’s surface during a total eclipse.
Followers of the Chief surely know of my fascination with the early days of cinema. Recently the UCLA Film & Television Archive preserved and restored a 1906 piece by pioneering Spanish film director and cinematographer Segundo Chomón. Bob’s Electrical Theatre (also known as Miniature Theatre) features puppets engaging in a variety of routines, including wrestling and fencing. It’s a follow-up to Chomón’s 1905 The Electrical Hotel, a short about a modern hotel, where luggage appears to unpack itself.
Both film and electricity were new inventions at the start of the 20th century and were naturally synchronous. Chomón’s made innovative use of early splice-based tricks, which complimented his penchant for optical illusions. He is often compared to another pioneer of animated films, France’s Georges Méliès. Méliès is best known for such classics as “The Vanishing Lady” (1896) and “A Trip to the Moon” (1902). Though there are similarities between the two, Chomón differs from Méliès in the variety of his movie subjects and his overall use of animation, an art form he played a key role in developing.
Although Bob’s Electrical Theatre is one of the earliest stop-motion puppet films ever made, it is sophisticated and unique. The lifelike use of puppet dolls here predates the work of Ladislas Starevitch, another pioneering stop-motion puppeteer, and Willis O’Brien who is best known for such classics as The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933).