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.
We modern movie-goers are so accustomed to visual effects in films that it’s almost difficult to imagine the awe people felt when they first witnessed such things as traveling shots and fade-outs. But, just as soon as moving pictures became a new form of entertainment at the start of the 20th century, some creative individuals began pushing it to new levels. One was Percy Smith, a London native who found his career as an educator boring and unfulfilling. He turned to the medium of film by going to work for Charles Urban, another cinematic pioneer, before creating his own films. Smith began experimenting with a variety of innovative techniques. Among them was time-lapse.
In 1910 Smith shot the world’s first time-lapse film, Birth of a Flower, which showed an array of different flowers blossoming. It became an international sensation. Smith’s name may have been lost to movie history, but his desire to stretch filmmaking into unknown regions helped transform a novelty into an art form.