Author: paulsanimatographworks

Back to the Beginnings

My recent book on Robert Paul was just one of a number of studies in recent years that have taken a fresh view of the beginnings of cinema in Britain. Indeed that was (almost) the title of the ground-breaking series of books by John Barnes that appeared between 1976 and 1997, discussing the period from 1894 to 1901 in England at a new level of detail and sophistication. Barnes’ series largely superseded the History of the British Film that Rachael Low had begun in 1948, covering 1896-1939, at least for the earliest years. But since these two monumental achievements, there have been close-up studies of the ‘Brighton pioneers’, of Cecil Hepworth and Charles Urban, and Mitchell and Kenyon, as well as major revaluations of such figures as William Friese-Greene, Wordsworth Donisthorpe, Eadweard Muybridge, Birt Acres and a number of less familiar ‘workers of the eleventh hour’, in Laurent Mannoni’s evocative phrase.

Malcolm Cook and I convened an online symposium in May this year to bring together as many as possible of the scholars and researchers who have been active in this field. Happily, many responded with presentations on what they have discovered, and how they now view the figures they researched. This has now been edited in two parts, including discussion that followed some contributions – and an ‘outside broadcast’ from the Morecambe Winter Gardens, where Vanessa Toulmin was about to chair a meeting of trustees of this historic venue, now undergoing restoration. Here’s a link to Day One; and Day 2 will follow soon.

Corridor of Fame

Bradford’s National Science and Media Museum has just created a new entrance to the Cubby Broccoli cinema, to celebrate its reopening, with life-size figures of an interesting selection of pioneers. In the wake of the Forgotten Showman Robert Paul exhibition, they’ve commissioned the figure of Ellen Paul, Robert’s wife and studio manager (actor and probably producer too), appearing here for the very first time in the company of Alice Guy-Blaché, Louis Lumière, Oscar Micheaux and Lotte Reiniger.

Anyone who’s studied the canon of early cinema knows how long it takes to change this, and do justice to unknown or forgotten figures. By the standards of film history, this marks rapid progress to correct the received view, still widely circulated, that it was the Lumières wot done it all…

Birkbeck College hosted an online Symposium last week, Remapping Early British Cinema, with twenty contributors all offering new perspectives on this topic. The complete recording will soon be online to browse. And you can catch up with Alice Guy’s work at Solax on the Kennington Bioscope YouTube channel all through June: as part of Columbia University’s Women and the Silent Screen conference.

Always in colour?

One of many paradoxes of early film history is that, while Louis  Lumière considered moving pictures ‘an invention without any future’, he had no doubt that colour photographs were the future. His vindication came with the Autochrome process, patented in 1903, though only for still photography.  But if he had managed to combine these, might he have taken more interest in the invention he remains most famous for?

In contrast, Lumière’s contemporary Robert Paul believed from the start that ‘animated photography’ needed to have the same appeal as the normal coloured lantern slides, and the new chromolitho pictorial postcards. Within two months of becoming an active producer and exhibitor, in February 1896 he was offering his films hand coloured as ‘a perfect presentiment of actual life in motion’. Perhaps this was due to his having started with Kinetoscopes, which already featured such coloured subjects as Annabel Whitford’s Serpentine and Butterfly dances.

The late Victorian world offered a riot of coloured materials and media, even if many records of it have only reached us in monochrome copies.  None of Paul’s early subjects was thought to have survived in original coloured form – unlike some films of one of his early clients Georges Méliès. However during 2019, the BFI National Archive discovered it had The Dancer’s Dream, a delightful fantasy from 1905, with its original tinting.

But what if we could see some of Paul’s earlier productions as they would have appeared? Only one film survives out of 80 that were produced ‘by a staff of Artists and Photographers’ specially assembled in his new studio in Muswell Hill during 1898, Come Along, Do! Worse still, of this landmark work, which may be the world’s first two-shot film, only the first scene is intact. But we have frames from the second scene, which have now been animated to complete the story of a Victorian lady chiding her husband’s interest in a nude statue.

The version seen here, now posted on YouTube, has been tinted and animated by Edward Christie, to give some idea of how this might have been seen in October 1898, with accompaniment by Stephen Horne, drawing on the popular song with the same theme. Although Paul left the film business in 1910, he must have had a special feeling for this early colour period, writing to several newspapers in early 1914 to draw attention to when these films were first offered in colour.

For an overview of early film colour techniques, see Barbara Flueckiger’s Historical Timeline of film colour, and her special posting on David Bordwell’s Blog See also the lavishly illustrated Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema, from EYE Filmmuseum and AUP, 2015.

The Magician of Muswell Hill

Booth in action in Undressing Extraordinary

Roland-Francois Lack, intrepid chronicler of ‘film and place’, and especially of activity in his home locality of Muswell Hill in his blog The Cine-Tourist, has just posted a fascinating account of the magician and filmmaker Walter Booth. Booth worked with Robert Paul for at least seven years, appearing in a number of key films, and no doubt contributing much to their conception and execution, as well as playing the lead in many. Whether he was ever a ‘director’ for Paul, as is claimed on IMDb, remains open to debate – especially about whether it’s possible to speak of directors in the collegial production of the early 1900s. But no question that he helped catapult the output of Paul’s Animatograph Works into the forefront of filmmaking in these years. And this blog brings together recent discoveries with new research to give perhaps the fullest picture yet of this intriguing maestro of early British cinema.

Here it is Roland-Francois’s blog: