Cinematic Firsts: The First Motion Picture - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Cinematic Firsts: The First Motion Picture

In which we look at the murderous story behind he first motion picture...


Tom Cruise, Michelle Pfeiffer, Demi Moore and Michael Douglas. Four of the biggest box office stars of 1988. Can you imagine if they'd all appeared together in a movie that year? Audiences would've flocked to the the cinema.

Exactly 100 years earlier four unassuming 'actors' paved the way for future Hollywood royalty by starring in the very first motion picture recorded. But this event didn't take place in Hollywood (that wasn't even a thing for another 20 years), it didn't even take place in L.A or New York or even America. It wasn't filmed in Paris or London or any other major city of culture.

The first motion picture was recorded in the North of England at Roundhay, Leeds!

It had been a long journey of scientific experiments and invention to bring projected moving images to a screen (as discussed in our first Cinematic Firsts article here), but as the 1880s opened these images were all being taken on separate cameras and using some clever trickery-pokery of the eye (technical term) to make them appear to be moving. But in 1882 this all started to change.

√Čtienne-Jules Marey developed what he called the Chronophotographe, a device which could take 12 pictures per second, with all the frames recorded on the same picture. Using these pictures he studied horses, birds, dogs, sheep, donkeys, elephants, fish, microscopic creatures, molluscs, insects, reptiles, etc (Marey also conducted the famous study about cats always landing on their feet).


Marey also later made movies. They were at a high speed (60 images per second) and of excellent image quality. His research on how to capture and display moving images helped the emerging field of cinematography. This field would be furthered by Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers, both often credited to have invented moving pictures. Both claims, however, are said to be incorrect as French inventor Louis Le Prince is now credited as beating them to it.

Le Prince's Roundhay Garden Scene, a short silent actuality film, was recorded on October 14th 1888 on Eastman Kodak paper base photographic film using Louis Le Prince's single-lens camera at a rate of 7 frames per second. The result was this 2.11 second film below...



Go on. Treat yourself. Watch it again. We'll wait.

According to Le Prince's son, Adolphe, the film was made at Oakwood Grange, the home of Joseph and Sarah Whitley, in Roundhay, Leeds, West Riding of Yorkshire, England. The footage features Louis's son Adolphe Le Prince, his mother-in-law Sarah Whitley, his father-in-law Joseph Whitley and Annie Hartley in the garden of Oakwood Grange, leisurely walking around the garden of the premises. Sarah is seen walking – or dancing – backwards as she turns around, and Joseph's coat tails are seen flying as he also is turning. Joseph and Sarah Whitley were the parents of Le Prince's wife, Elizabeth. Annie Hartley is believed to be a friend of Le Prince and his wife.

It might not have much of a plot or run to any kind of a length but Roundhay Garden Scene is the oldest known surviving motion picture in existence, and many years later was described by Mark Kermode as,
"...a flickering story that blends intrigue, industrial espionage, and possibly even murder". 
Murder you say? Yes, murder indeed (mwah-ha-ha)...

Only ten days after filming, Sarah Whitley died at the age of 72. OK, fair enough she was 72 and life expectancy was clearly shorter back then so we can let that one go. However, Louis Le Prince himself mysteriously vanished from a train on 16th September 1890, just before unveiling his new technology to the public. His body and luggage were never found, but, over a century later, a police archive was found to contain a photograph of a drowned man who could have been him. The reason for his disappearance varies, with theories including a murder set up by (wait for it)..... Thomas Edison (dun-dun daahhhh!).

But wait, there's more. At the start of 1890, Edison had begun experimenting with using a strip of celluloid film to capture moving images, with the first public results of these experiments shown in May 1891 and billed as the first motion picture, with Edison claiming he had invented the cinematography process. But Le Prince's widow and son, Adolphe, were keen to advance Louis' cause as the inventor of cinematography. The case went to court with Edison originally winning, but his claim being overturned the following year. Shortly after that Adolphe Le Prince was discovered shot dead! (DUN-DUN-DAAAAHHHHH!!!).

Whoever ended up with the credit of inventing cinematography, motion pictures were here to stay, and we'll discover more Cinematic Firsts next time.

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