The IMAX of the 1890s | HOW TO SEE the First Movies

The IMAX of the 1890s | HOW TO SEE the First Movies


It’s hard for us to imagine the kind of impact
that this technology must have had when it first emerged in the 1890s. We live in an environment where there are
moving images just constantly around us. It’s a banality, it’s just a sad fact of life
that we spend too much time staring at screens. But in 1897, this was startling and new and
completely revolutionary. It was a different way of looking at the world,
and suddenly the world was coming to you in ways that people just could not have imagined. That you could go to Europe, that you could
meet the crowned heads, that you could go to see elephants in India… It’s not so much being seduced by a story… it’s the thrill of seeing in itself. Here’s an image of the three royal children. This would be the future Edward VIII, George
VI, and Princess Mary, which was shot by the British Biograph Company in the year 1900. This is an amazingly close, intimate view
of these almost god-like creatures and the royals of course were the rock stars
of their day. These were the people who were known internationally. These were figures of immense power and prestige. Just to see them in person was something that
really very few people could even dream of doing. These living, almost mythological figures
that are suddenly within your grasp. The Biograph Company sent camera crews around
the world, as the Lumière company had. They set up a separate division in England,
and that’s the division obviously shot the sequences of Queen Victoria. We apparently have moving images of her, and
this one is a much better shot than the other ones. This clip becomes particularly interesting
in the year that is the bicentenary of her birth. We can see her here on her last visit to Ireland,
nodding in queenly fashion and wearing a very classy pair of queenly sunglasses. And in a moving image, you get so much more,
even something as brief as this, of the personality, the presence of this woman. This is the embodiment of the British Empire. Here she is. An immediate connection with a figure that
everyone would have known, who had certainly been photographed, but only when you see her
like this when she’s moving, when she’s alive, when
she’s in the middle of a scene do you really get a sense of being in the same world with
her. Really connecting to that living being that
was Queen Victoria. So, this is the can of film that contains
the Queen Victoria footage. It’s very heavy. There’s a lot of film here. So, what we have here for comparison’s sake
is our 68mm nitrate print, our Mutoscope and Biograph print, next to a standard 35mm Edison
print of an 1896 film. And it just shows you the real scale difference. I mean, it’s kind of like the IMAX of its
day, right? You were absorbed by the content. The 68mm film proved not to be all that practical. The reason they had adopted it in the first
place was because Edison had the patent on 35mm, and when William Kennedy Dixon left
Edison to form the Mutoscope Company, which became the Biograph Company, he essentially
had to reinvent the same process he had already invented for Edison but in a way that didn’t
violate Edison’s patents. A lot of these early films were presented
as if they were an act in a vaudeville performance. You know, after the singer, after the dancing
bears, after the comedian, you would have a selection of film views. Views of a, say, a waterfall, a train rushing
into the camera, children playing. No narrative continuity whatsoever, just the
novelty was seeing these images moving on a larger-than-life screen. By the time this particular process, the 68mm
Biograph camera, entered the scene, this allowed just a multiplication of the quality of the
images. These films actually were photographed at
30 frames a second, which creates a very smooth movement, all very much in contrast to what
the Edison and Lumière films were like. So this really, it struck people as something
close to miraculous at the time. So this Queen Victoria reel and the 35 other
68mm nitrate prints and negatives we have came to us in a big acquisition in 1939, just
a few years after the Department of Film had started in 1935. It came to us with all that survived of the
Biograph Company, and it was being stored in an old film studio up in the Bronx, and
it included these 36 reels of 68mm nitrate, and tons and tons of production paperwork
and correspondence. It tells the full history of the company,
and it’s a real asset to researchers and film historians today, just for, not just the Biograph
Company, but early cinema in general. “A hundred years ago, a peculiar toy was invented
in France…” The Victorians were obsessed with moving image
toys, and there were a lot of mechanical devices that were invented, beginning in the early
19th century, that created the illusion of movement. This happens around the same time of the development
of photography, and it took a few decades for photography and moving images to line
up. Popeye: “Oh yeah? Well I’ll think it over young fella. This one’s on the house!” There were a few different ways in which an
audience could experience a motion picture at this point. One of the earliest was through a hand-cranked
machine called a mutoscope. Images were copied to sort of an index card
size format that were flipped through a rotating drum, keeping the illusion of continuous movement. “In 1896, the first moving pictures projected
on public screens were plotless incidents, about a minute long, that amazed and scandalized
their audiences.” When we’re able to start projecting movies
at the theater, you share that experience with a large number of people, and that amplified
the emotional response to these films. And suddenly, that spectacle of a train rushing
toward you, legendarily, audiences, you know, gasped and fainted and thought they were going
to be run over themselves by these giant freight trains. There turns out to be very little confirmation
of that in the actual newspaper reports of the time, but you can still understand the
sense of excitement in seeing these gigantic, incredibly sharp lifelike images being projected. We’re used to seeing these films in very badly
duplicated versions, almost invariably shown at the wrong speeds, so we have a condescending
idea of these films…just looked silly, looked ridiculous. But when you actually can see them the way
they were made to be seen, they are startilingly good. It really could have been shot two days ago,
in terms of the crispness and the quality and the stability of that image. It really is quite, quite striking. They certainly had their issues at the time. You had a problem with static electricity,
with the way the film passed through the camera. We can see little traces of that in the Queen
Victoria film. Looked like little lightning bolts around
the side, and that was caused by static electricity passing across the mechanism that needed to
be there to pull the film down to create the next shot, and it took them quite a while
to figure out how to solve that. But those issues aside, essentially, this
is the process we know today. So when it’s projected at the proper speed,
with a good, bright lens, from a good print, you’re gonna see some pretty startling and
very beautiful results. “George! George! Stop the machine! Stop the machine!” “This film’s so old it just breaks up in your
fingers.” “Can’t you patch it together again?” “Not a chance.” Film preservation didn’t become much of a
movement until I would say the 1930s. The Museum of Modern Art was the first museum
in the world to start collecting film as an art form. Suddenly it seemed to be important to people
to hold on to these old movies even though they had no more commercial value. So in 1996, the Museum moved its collection
to a beautiful new film preservation facility, the Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center
which is located in Hamlin, Pennsylvania. It’s incredibly thrilling for me just to be
in the presence of these original artifacts, that this is the actual film that passed through
D.W. Griffith’s camera. This is an actual printing negative for “The
Great Train Robbery,” 1903. These are the real things. People have the idea that movies are just
infinitely reproducible, but it’s not true. There are original artifacts. A lot of films were lost over the years because
they were stored poorly. Nitrate film stock isn’t very stable, and
if it isn’t kept at a nice cool temperature, it disintegrates. Courtney: “This is what nitrate decomp looks
like.” “No! Yeah, that’s the bad one.” “Oh my God, it smells so bad.” We have ways of stopping deterioration on
nitrate film, but sometimes we get material that’s just too far gone to do much with. These images are a strong reminder that nitrate
is an organic material, and films can die. I think it’s worth returning to these images
to remind us that movies used to be analog. They saw things in front of the camera on
a one-on-one relationship. This was the world. It was an image you could trust. It was an image of physical substance, of
reality. Nowadays we tend not to trust images, because
we know how easily manipulated they are. Digital cinema very often reproduces things
that never existed, never will exist. But there’s an ontological impact, just a
reality to these images that I still find tremendously moving.

Only registered users can comment.

  1. Nice work, but there's nothing wrong with things that never existed. Just look inside the museum's galleries.

  2. Watching all this footage at the BFI IMAX is one of the ultimate cinematic experiences you’ll ever have.

  3. Amazing! Thank you for your preservation work and helping all of us gain a deeper sense and respect for film history.

  4. Fantastic video. Thank you MOMA for uploading such a fascinating and insightful video of a bygone, analogue world.

  5. incredible quality!
    it gives a completely different feeling of whats portraited
    i could watch them the whole day

  6. Seeing Victorian Era footage restored in the same way as 'They shall not grow old' is going to be beyond incredible. Put AI on the job, pronto.

  7. For the love of all that is sacred I just wish people would play old film at the proper speed so it doesn't look like you should be playing the benny hill theme over top. It was very nice to see this

  8. Where can I find the full version of the clip "panoramic view of the Berlin u bahn crossing oberbaum bridge" from 1902 (timestamp 10:29). I live in Berlin and this really interests me, its just so surreal to see such clear pictures from an area I know so far back in history.

  9. This footage is 40 plus year's after the potatoe famine in ireland which smelly queen Victoria was responsible.

  10. About 10 years ago Kevin Brownlow screened The London United Electric Tramways Opening Ceremony 1901 footage (starting at 8:04) at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Watching this was the most emotionally powerful movie experience of my life. The images were so huge, vivid, and detailed that I nearly gasped. It felt as if you could call out to the people on the sidewalk and they would turn to answer you. Somehow these people from more than a century ago and I were directly connected, sharing a common experience, seeing the same things. The sense of time travel was so overpowering that my eyes welled with tears, and when the film ended I felt shaken and torn. How wonderful that such films are being preserved and shared – bravo, and thank you.

  11. All those people in this movie are no longer with us, be nice if some one watching this is seeing an ancestor on the screen, amazing a part of history on moving film.

  12. Will this footage be available for viewing separately? I'm interested in the footage of Queen Victoria.

  13. Brought tears to my eyes. I had no idea this format existed. We've lost so many nitrate prints over the years; it's great to see a concerted effort to save/restore those that are left.

  14. I'm here, directly from Brasil, i like much this channel. Please, make a video about restouration of Star Wars classic saga. Thank you for attention.

  15. Aside from anything else (and there's a lot) the QUALITY of the film is stunning. I'll be watching this over and over. Thank you so much.

  16. INCREDIBLE, AMAZING, OUTSTANDING PRIMARY MOVING LIVING PICTURES EVER IN WIDE SCREEN! BRAVO BRAVO BRAVO BRAVO! MERCI BEAUCOUP FOR THIS RENDERING EVER! Emmanuel from Paris

  17. It's almost as if we are literally looking directly into the past at these people and places, watching them on this film. Incredible!

  18. With respect, it seems a bit patronizing to tell us "how to see" these films. I knew several people personally who remembered that period, or shortly after. It is not dead, it made us who we are. Please may we see all of these films in their entirety, without modern critique or comment?
    Then we can decide for ourselves what they mean to us.
    Respectfully yours, A Briton.

  19. It's kinda crazy how much of our public perception of old silent films are colored by decades of seeing bad prints shown at the wrong frame rate. Even my film history professor offhandedly remarked that Charlie Chaplin tottering along at 150% speed must have been for comedic effect rather than him showing us a cheap public domain copy that carelessly showed a film at 24 fps that was actually shot at 16.

  20. Since the film is 30 frames/sec, it would have been nice if the video here was as well. It's still mind blowing.

  21. nah… film artifice existed at the very birth of cinema – georges melies was every bit the illusionist as those we have now with digital tech. and stuff like matte paintings were like just months behind the starting gun. from its inception, film was thought of as a medium for visual trickery.

  22. Beautiful! Perhaps someday the moving image will be considered one of the greatest achievements of the 20th Century. Maybe it already has been. It is marvellous to watch these old moving images; some of your restorations make it look like it was shot yesterday. Thank you!

  23. Breathtaking. The entire collection needs to be released to the general public in a digital format, either on Blu-ray or streamed online at 4k. They are a cultural heritage that must be preserved. It is usually difficult for the general public to access such early films in high quality (especially after the media sensation of a new discovery calms down). That's what happened with the 1902 Turner color film. I know that a selection of the Lumière brothers' films, Méliès' "A Trip to the Moon," and the 1903 version of "Alice in Wonderland" are among some early films released on Blu-ray. These films have even more of a reason to be released on a high quality format because of the 68mm gauge.

  24. beauty makes me want to cray involuntarily … and these 'ancient' footage are so beautiful … very nicely done little documentary as well btw … and such a great piano music in the background as well …

  25. Please come and see my special film-related project called "Lost 35mm Nitrate Film FOUND !" ( Just type 'Lost 35mm' in the Search Box here ), and see all my thirty lost 35mm films that I discovered it from around the world since 2014. Go and see it with your thrilling pleasure. Robert.

  26. Wow, such a great interesting video and this is the first time watch queen victoria in HD and smiling with such kindness. 🙂

  27. This is why I love history. It Grounds us, It shows us what no longer is here, it shows us what we used to be, It shows us the Beauty of times past, Its Beautiful, Yet Harrowing, Gauche, yet Elegant, Its Alive.

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