Film started here. It started with a question: does a horse ever lift all four of its hooves off the ground as it gallops? For an instant, can a horse fly?
Over 130 years ago, railroad baron and former governor Leland Stanford hired photographer Eadweard Muybridge to answer the question. Stanford had taken up horses as a hobby for health reasons, but the speed of his horses quickly became a passion on par with his business interest in railroads.
Muybridge was an eccentric photographer known as much for his mercurial temper as for his mammoth plate photographs of Yosemite. When Muybridge first took pictures of Stanford’s racehorse Occident, his photographs constituted little more than silhouettes of a horse. Although Muybridge believed the photographs proved that a horse flew for an instant — so-called unsupported transit — others remained unconvinced.
(At that time, photographers used the collodion process. Photographers acted quickly so that the coating, exposure and development of the image occurred while the plate was still wet. To create a good picture, a photographer had to expose the image for a long time in strong light. In his own words, one of the difficulties Muybridge faced in photographing motion “was to obtain a sufficiently well-developed and contrasted image on a wet collodian plate, after an exposure of so brief a duration…”)
Shortly after taking the photographs of Occident, Muybridge learned from his wife’s midwife that the boy he believed to be his son was actually the son of his wife’s lover, Harry Larkyns. In a jealous rage, he murdered Larkyns. At trial, one of Muybridge’s attorneys was a friend of Stanford’s, prompting speculation that Stanford paid for his legal fees. Muybridge was acquitted on grounds of justifiable homicide.
During the summer of 1876, Stanford acquired the Palo Alto Stock Farm on what would later become university grounds. He approached Muybridge to take more photographs of his horses in motion.
Sallie Gardner at a Gallop
Using Stanford’s money, Muybridge ordered twenty-four stereoscopic cameras and the best lenses of the time. While waiting for the equipment to arrive, Muybridge and his assistants collaborated to build a camera shed on the Palo Alto track. On the south side of a mile long track, a building with a fifty-foot counter sheltered twelve cameras, which were arranged to point across the track. Opposite the counter, Muybridge’s assistants built a fence fifteen feet high. They painted white sheeting with black vertical lines and draped the fence with it. Each section was numbered.
Muybridge sprinkled the track with slaked lime (image above) to provide the reflective surface necessary to create contrast. In early photography, the faster the shutter speed, the less light got through to the photographic plate. Needing a shutter speed of around 1/1000th of a second, Muybridge set the stage to create as much contrast as he could.
Each of the twenty-four cameras needed a separate shutter capable of remote operation. Muybridge created “guillotine” shutters from boards positioned in runners. In one method for triggering the shutter, threads were stretched across the track at the horse’s breast height. As a running horse pushed the thread, it released a shutter. When photographing a horse pulling a carriage, Muybridge strung wires underground, so that the carriage wheels tripped the wires and triggered the shutters. In a major advancement, Muybridge employed an electromagnet so that the shutter could be released upon completion of an electrical circuit.
On June 11, 1878, Muybridge arranged to take the first photographic shots of Stanford’s mare Sallie Gardner using this apparatus. To ensure the results would be believed, Muybridge invited the press. Photographers of that time heavily doctored their photographs to show action. Muybridge worried that if reporters didn’t see the whole process for themselves, they would think that he had retouched the photos to get the answer that he and Stanford wanted.
After the photographs were shot, Muybridge took the plates of Sallie Gardner’s gallop to a developing room at the end of the camera shed. The plates were processed while reporters waited. Twenty minutes ticked by. The negatives were placed on view. They proved Muybridge and Stanford’s claims of unsupported transit: for an instant a horse flew.
Over the next year, Muybridge continued refining his experiments with different shutter mechanisms and chemical mixes. Stanford’s wife encouraged Muybridge to move away from horses, and soon cows, deer, dogs, goats, and hogs were sent running down the Palo Alto track. Eventually humans and flying birds became subjects for his photographic studies.
The Invention of the Zoopraxiscope
As the Palo Alto experiments continued, Muybridge began giving public lectures illustrated by his magic lantern images. Magic lanterns were a popular entertainment device that consisted of large-scale transparencies projected onto a screen. Another Victorian entertainment was the zoetrope, a cylindrical toy that contained a sequence of pictures on its inner surface. Viewers peeked through vertical slits spaced around the cylinder to see the dim pictures animated.
Building upon the zoetrope, Muybridge invented the zoopraxiscope (meaning in Greek “animal action viewing device”). This projector held a pair of flat rotating sixteen-inch discs. One disc carried images around its circumference. The other was made of sheet metal with clear gaps. It was the first motion picture projector.
In autumn 1879, Muybridge screened the first motion picture at Leland Stanford’s house in the Palo Alto area. Muybridge had photographed Stanford’s horse for the screening. When Stanford viewed the moving image, he was able to identify which horse Muybridge had photographed from the level of detail. The large-scale projection of details distinguished the zoopraxiscope from its forerunner, the zoetrope.
Perhaps, more importantly, the zoopraxiscope allowed Muybridge to demonstrate little changes occurring over time in an immersive format. Photographs allowed people to capture a single moment. Moving pictures allowed people to tell stories.
The Lumiere Brothers are usually credited as the originators of commercial cinema, and Thomas Edison’s kinetoscopes were used in the first commercial exhibition of motion pictures. However, Muybridge’s work in the Palo Alto area, from his instantaneous photographs to the zoopraxiscope, led to the first “moving picture,” the concept that created cinema.
Learning of this story, PAI asked, “Why isn’t there a festival celebrating innovation and technology in Palo Alto?” PAIFF was envisioned as a way to bring film home — film started here.