The past, like a moving picture, looks different depending where you are standing in relation to it; it is a matter of distance, scale, and clarity. In 1893, in the earliest days of moving pictures, viewing was a solitary activity, seen on a machine for one person at a time—and small—as small as the screen on your mobile phone. How ironic that we see that as an achievement when our 19th century forbears were competing to realize the exact opposite—the bigger picture. W.K.L. Dickson (who will be a key figure in our show) developed the 35mm celluloid film for the Kinetoscope while working for Thomas Edison, but it proved difficult to make money with the individual viewer. It was thought far better to enlarge those fascinating moving images onto a big screen, as the magic lantern did, so that greater numbers of paying customers could view them at once, and more clearly. And so the race was on to find a way to project moving pictures.
Dickson himself decided join the game. He left Edison and joined a consortium of businessmen to develop a projectable film on a format larger than 35mm, to avoid any legal entanglements with his former employer. He opted for a film stock already available for still photography—we call it 68mm—which could be used for projection as films as well as doubling up as flickbook reels for their version of a single-viewer machine, the Mutoscope. But Dickson was not alone—others such as John Prestwich in England and Georges Demenÿ in France for Gaumont also developed large formats, this time on 60mm. At four times the size of 35mm these fabulously clear and steady films could fill the proscenium of a large theater. They astonished early audiences and captured for us to see, more than 120 years later, the end of the Victorian age in all its variety and splendor.
When BFI decided to digitize its entire collection of Victorian film—that is everything from 1895 to 1901—it seemed a good moment to attempt the digital restoration of a small group of nonstandard formats that had survived from the turn of the last century. Some of these very fragile prints had been duplicated in the pre-digital days by reducing to standard 35mm film, but here was an opportunity to see how much extra quality could be reproduced through digital scanning. The result is this program of British films from the Victorian era where you can see for yourselves how they would have looked on the big screen. It consists of the surviving larger format prints in the BFI collections—two by Prestwich and three by the Gaumont company on 60mm, and the rest 68mm films by the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, fourteen of which are held by Eye Filmmuseum.
These rare surviving large format films show a miscellany of views, the pageantry of state occasions, people making funny faces, trains thundering towards the screen, dancers whirling, panoramas of exotic cities, waves crashing against a pier—in short anything that looked good in movement. Dickson, who left the U.S. to film Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, set up the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, which shared content with the American company. His strategy was to produce a prestige product, with steadier, clearer pictures of the best subjects. The company negotiated a regular slot at the highly prestigious Palace Theatre of Varieties, a large new music hall in London’s West End. He recorded on film the fixed events of the British Victorian calendar: thrilling sporting events, military parades, spectacular ship launches, glorious phantom rides, and films of Victorian entertainers from grand Shakespearean actors to music hall artistes. He also traveled widely to film more extraordinary events, returning with pictures from the heart of the action during the Boer War in South Africa, and he even negotiated to film the pope in Rome.
These films give us a new perspective on the Victorian period. The extraordinary quality and clarity of the large format images bring a sense of immediacy and direct connection. These fragmentary moments capture gestures and aspects of human behavior, such as humor, tenderness, and spontaneity, which help dispel any preconceptions of the stiff, austere Victorian, which we have absorbed from still photographs.
Writers in papers and magazines of the time waxed lyrical about the properties of the new medium. As R.H. Mere declared in “The Wonders of the Biograph,” his 1899 article for Pearson’s Magazine: “Posterity will have good cause to bless the nineteenth century geniuses who were responsible for the invention of the Biograph … Already we look back and witness, as they occurred in real life, events of the last two or three years, which might never have been faithfully preserved without the Biograph’s help. For example, we may watch each incident in the Queen’s triumphal procession through the streets of London on the day of her Diamond Jubilee. Providing the films are still in existence our descendants in a thousand years may do likewise.” Mere, like Boleslaw Matuszewski in France, already foresaw the need to archive the films as historical documents, and he clearly considered that as film’s most important feature. He imagined a hundred years hence that people would be able to see “by merely turning a handle” all the “stirring events” of the century.
It has been a little more complicated than that. Film hasn’t survived very well. It is vulnerable to physical and chemical deterioration but also to being undervalued over time. The few surviving rolls of these large format films are very, very fragile. In places the emulsion peels off the base and floats on the slightest breeze like gold leaf, carrying away forever those precious images of the past. Each of the half-minute long films had to be carefully unrolled and photographed frame-by-frame using an 8k digital camera. It has been a monumental task but now we can see the past more clearly and see these beautiful fragments, as they should be seen, on the big screen.
Presented at SFSFF 2022 with narration by Bryony Dixon and live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius