Thoughts On: Every Year In Film #9 - Roundhay Garden Scene


Every Year In Film #9 - Roundhay Garden Scene

Thoughts On: Roundhay Garden Scene (1888)

Four figures walk in circles within a garden.

In the previous post, we introduced one of the most poorly documented, yet incredibly significant, figures of cinematic history, Louis Le Prince. In such, we covered a little of his life leading up to the creation of his first (surviving) film, Man Walking Around A Corner, which was shot with a sixteen lens camera and paper film. Though this was a huge jump towards what we know to be cinema nowadays, it has to be made clear that most would not consider Man Walking Around A Corner to be the first film ever made - just like most wouldn't consider the films of Muybridge and Janssen to be the birthing points of cinema either. This is primarily because of the problem with perspective that arises when a filmmaker uses multiple lenses or cameras. In short, cinema, if we had to begin to define it, is known for a single lens, or a singular perspective. However, if we stop and think about this definition, it is a very arbitrary one that has dissolved with technological jumps in cinema.

Consider, for example, digital cinema and animation that doesn't really have a singular perspective, nor a camera. Without question, we would consider films such as Toy Story as cinema. Moreover, we would consider The Matrix, a film that uses multiple cameras in the bullet time sequences, as cinema also. This begins to imply that maybe it was Muybridge, maybe Janssen, that made the first films, as the key defining factor of cinema is the moving image. And whilst we had moving imagery with devices such as the zoetropes, stroboscopes and phenakistoscopes; photography as well as projection through camera obscura and the magic lantern, this motion and projection didn't meet with the capturing of the real world until the likes of Janssen and Muybridge. So, when we consider Le Prince's films, what makes them so significant is not that they are given the label of "the first films", rather, that they represent a form of the technology that remained relevant for over 100 years. We begin to see this with the LPCC Type 16, but, as said, the 16 lens model of a cinematic camera was not a very viable option. After all, Le Prince had to devise a complex system that involved numerous shutters and two reels of film that were, as we would imagine, cumbersome to manage. This is why, in 1888, Le Prince built and patented his next cameras.

The Le Prince Cine Cameras Type 1 Mark 1 & 2 both had singular lenses that would allow paper film to be exposed as it moved intermittently. These were significant cameras as they were the first to use a single lens through which to expose a moving reel of film to light. However, why didn't Le Prince just create the single lens cameras in the first place?

There are two reasons for this. The first concerns the patenting of his original 16 lens camera from 1886. Included in his patent, Le Prince proposed the construction of a camera with one or more lenses, but, this detail was rejected by the office as it was seen to interfere with an already patented camera of Dumont's from 1861. However, it has to be noted that Dumont's patent was for a still photography camera that used glass plates, not a motion picture camera that used paper film. Nonetheless, Le Prince was only granted a patent for a camera with more than 2 lenses - a decision he could not object to soon enough as he was in England and the patent office he submitted to was in the U.S. This is one reason as to why his first camera used 16 lenses, but, he also needed to devise a manner in which to pass film across a single lens.

Employing J.W Longly, inventor of the automated ticket machine, as his assistant, Le Prince constructed this system to do just this. The LPCC Type 1 passes paper based or gelatin film from two spindles, positioned above and below the lens of the camera, intermittently being stopped at a gate through an electronic and clockwork-like mechanism.

Having constructed and successfully patented this design in 1888, Le Prince would go on to shoot what is often referred to as the first film ever. This is the Roundhay Garden Scene...

Shot with the LPCC Type 1 MkII in his father-in-law's garden in Leeds, this is 20 frames depicting Le Prince's parents-in-law, a family friend and his son walking in circles. A question we may come to again, however, is: what qualifies this as the first motion picture?

I would certainly reassert that this has been reduced to a somewhat arbitrary definition as cinema has evolved, but, simply put, the Roundhay Garden Scene is shot with film and a single lens camera. This is something that no one else had managed to do up until this point and is the formal and technical focal point from which cinema grew from for decades to come.

So, with the first motion picture under his belt, Le Prince would go on to shoot scenes of Leeds Bridge and his son playing an accordion.

What is significant about the Leeds Bridge film is that it is, arguably, the first non-staged depiction of people. Whilst the Passage Of Venus could be considered the first documentary as it is the simple documentation of a planetary process captured with imagery that could be manipulated into motion, Le Prince's Leeds Bridge scene does what Muybridge, whose films predate his, never considered. Le Prince not only took his camera out of a controlled setting, but captured life and people unknowingly. What is then significant about this short clip is its symbolic representative of a more truthful observational cinema that would be developed over time - often with reference to Lumière pictures which, at later dates, also observe in a documentary-esque manner.

A particularly interesting element of Le Prince's Accordion Player is the staged act of playing music. It is difficult to even ponder about Le Prince's thought processes in 1888, but it seems that he recognises the importance of sound in relation to the moving image - despite its absence in this short. It's with this very early film that it is then implied that maybe the moving image was never intended to be silent.

Keeping this in mind, when we look back to the works of Muybridge, the only prolific 'filmmaker' up until this point, we see images from a man with incredibly illusive motivations. As we've discussed, he wasn't really documenting scientific material. It instead seems that Muybridge was conducting hundreds of experiments that were exercises in control, revelling in the human ability to freeze and manipulate time. This is not what we see with Le Prince. There is no fixation on control apparent in his small body of work, instead, something that will continue to become more common as more films are made over the years: an interest in what exists within the frame. In such, whilst Muybridge's work seemingly marvels at the invention of moving imagery and the power it gives humanity, Le Prince's uses the technology to peer into the world and share the content, not just the form, of cinema. What I then personally feel when looking at the works of these two pioneers can be summed up with two reactionary statements. When looking at Muybridge's work, I think: "Wow, look at that technological achievement. How did he do that?". When looking at the works of Le Prince, also Edison and the Lumières, I think: "Wow, look at those people/places/things from over 100 years ago. Who are they? What was it like back then?".

So, whilst I love to look at the early works of the mentioned figures, Muybridge sits in a class of his own as Le Prince is a great representative of what would later be deemed a "cinema of attractions". So, with this we see another distinguishing element of what makes the Roundhay Garden Scene a significant film and, arguably, a first.

To start to move towards a conclusion, we'll return to the initial idea that Le Prince is a poorly documented, yet incredibly significant, filmmaker. The answer to this paradox largely comes down to the fact that Le Prince never marketed himself like Muybridge, Edison and the Lumières did. He was thus never really famous - and such was a significant element of filmmaking (and still is to a certain extent) in what was almost the wild west of cinema. To paint a picture, we only need to consider figures such as D.W Griffith and Charlie Chaplin. Both are remembered not only because they were great filmmakers, but because they were insanely famous.

However, Le Prince's significance through time is not so cleanly attributed to "bad marketing". The fact is, he never had a chance of becoming really famous for his work. Le Prince disappeared, never to be conclusively found, in 1890. What is unfortunate about this is that this is how Le Prince is remembered - even to this day. Instead of being seen as the man who made the first films, Le Prince is often only made note of because of conspiracy theory and a rather cinematic conclusion to the end of his life. In such, Le Prince's legacy is always overshadowed by this, admittedly, intriguing disappearance that may have had links to Edison and patents, maybe his family, or even suicide.

However, this is not a detail that I want to focus on as most probably already know this element of his story. Instead, what I want to conclude with is the idea that Le Prince was significant for many "firsts". He not only pioneered the first single lens cameras that used film, not glass plates, but implied a form and aesthetic that would be bound to, later developed upon by, early silent cinema. If anything, this is what should underscore his title as the "Father Of Cinematography".

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