#402) Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1975)
OR “History’s First GIF”
Directed by Thom Andersen
Written by Andersen and Fay Andersen and Morgan Fisher
Class of 2015
The Plot: Narrated by veteran actor Dean Stockwell, “Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer” highlights the innovations of Eadweard Muybridge, who, while not the direct inventor of motion pictures, paved the way for the creation of the medium. Throughout the late 1800s, Muybridge took countless stop-motion photos of both animal and human movement, capturing nuances naked to the human eye for the first time (you’re most likely familiar with his “Horse in Motion” series). He displayed his findings on his zoopraxiscope, a spinning disc that was forerunner to the film projector. Director Thom Andersen knows not to get in the way of his subject, and let the man’s life and photos speak for themselves.
Why It Matters: The NFR gives a brief rundown, and charts the film’s path from student film to unaired PBS special to NFR inductee. They also quote film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s critique of the film as “[o]ne of the best essay films ever made on a cinematic subject.” Well I’m glad he likes something.
But Does It Really?: Okay, I see what this is: the NFR is killing two birds with one stone. “Muybridge” is not only your standard “Film School Master Thesis” NFR entry, it’s also a way to celebrate Eadweard Muybridge, whose pioneering photography isn’t NFR eligible, but deserves to be mentioned in the history of film. Pretty sneaky, NFR.
Everybody Gets One: A native of Los Angeles, Thom Andersen studied film at both USC and UCLA. “Muybridge” was Andersen’s final project for his Masters’ degree, and when UCLA’s resources ran out (animating Muybridge’s photos maximized his allotted time in UCLA’s processing lab), Andersen got additional funding from LA’s PBS affiliate. When PBS ultimately passed on airing the film, Andersen found a distributor in the now defunct New Yorker Films.
Seriously, Oscars?: No clue if New Yorker Films distributed the film for Oscar eligibility, but for the record: 1975’s Best Documentary winner was “The Man Who Skied Down Everest”. If only PBS had aired “Muybridge”, then we could have done a “Seriously, Emmys?” segment.
- Fun Fact about Eadweard Muybridge: his birth name is the less complicated Edward Muggeridge. Edward used many variations of his name throughout his career, but settled on Muybridge (pronounced “my-bridge”) around 1867. In 1882, Muybridge returned to his native England and adopted the Old English spelling of his first name. As a testament to his numerous monikers, his tombstone erroneously bares the name “Eadweard Maybridge”.
- At this point in Dean Stockwell’s career, his days as a child actor were long over, and he was making the TV guest star rounds and appearing in B-movies like “The Werewolf of Washington”, so narrating a documentary must have been a step up.
- Before seeing this documentary, I could not tell you one thing about Muybridge, but it turns out he lived quite an interesting life, and the film spends time on the highlights: from his time photographing the natural wonders of California, to that time he shot and killed his wife’s paramour, and was acquitted on grounds of “justifiable homicide”. Did not see any of that coming.
- Muybridge’s famous “Horse in Motion” study came about when railroad magnate Leland Stanford commissioned a study to prove that at some point in its trot, a horse has all four of its hooves off the ground, a belief contrary to the popular opinion of the time. Muybridge set up 12 cameras in a row, each one timed to capture a successive movement in the horse’s trot. Lo and behold, Stanford’s theory was correct.
- The bulk of this film is devoted to studying a selection of the literally hundreds of thousands of photos Muybridge took as part of his motion studies. In a complete reversal of the Victorian era customs of the day, almost all of Eadweard’s human models performed their motions in the nude. I guess they all agreed to do it for science, and were confident that these images would not be preserved and reviewed 130 years later. That being said, this film has more full-frontal nudity than any other movie on this list. But it’s tasteful, so they get away with it.
- For this film, Thom Andersen uses Muybridge’s notes on camera speed to showcase his motion studies in real time. There’s a significant amount of shuttering during these recreations, leading to an effect akin to a strobe light, but for a fleeting moment you actually feel like you are in the moment with Muybridge and these models. It’s a surprisingly astonishing moment.
- Although most of the models featured have remained anonymous over the years, Muybridge did notate details on a few of them, particularly the marital status of his younger female subjects. Gross gross gross.
- Turns out Eadweard Muybridge was one of his own motion studies subjects…and was nude for his movement. Did not need to see any of that.
- The film ends with the only footage shot specifically for this documentary, a modern recreation of one of Edweard’s motion studies. And of course it’s the one of two nude female models greeting each other and kissing. There’s not a lot of information out there about the models themselves, other than Anje Bos has a few costume design credits to her name, and Sharon Hagen had a brief career as a script supervisor.
- While Eadweard Muybridge didn’t invent motion pictures, he is certainly an influential figure in their history nonetheless. Without Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope, we wouldn’t have Edison’s Kinetoscope. And without Muybridge’s multi-camera set-up, we wouldn’t have the “Bullet Time” scene from “The Matrix”.
- Thom Andersen only has a handful of other film titles to his name, but one of them is cinephile favorite “Los Angeles Plays Itself”. Andersen currently teaches film history at CalArts.