The Birth of Film – the Beginning of Motion Picture Making

Birth of Moving Images As often is the case, when new technology comes along, many people are afraid of what it represents; they scoff at it, or dismiss it as a fad. (3D movies anyone?) Thus was the case of Eadweard Muybridge's photographic experiments – which later turned out to be what many people now think of as the birth of movies, certainly the birth of moving images.

Until his experiments in the 1880s, photography was the rage, but no one had yet figured out how to make moving images work. Then along came a gamble, so the story goes. A wager was set by Leland Stanford, governor of California at the time, (to whom Stanford University is named after, among other notable estates.) Stanford was a horse owner, race horses in particular, and he made a wager that all of a trotting horse's hooves couldn't be off the ground at the same time. Apparently, popular thought at the time was that at least one foot was grounded at all times.

It's alleged that Stanford just wanted to find out if it was true, but in equine circles, they say he was trying to study horses gaits for breeding. Either way, Stanford contacted Muybridge, who had been doing landscape photographic experiments and asked him if there was a way to satisfy his curiosity. [image:blog_post:13125]In 1872, Muybridge worked out an elaborate trip-wire system by placing 12 stereoscopic cameras 21 inches away from each other over a 20-foot stretch, covering the length of a horse's full stride using a 1/1000 shutter speed.

When all the pictures were strung together, amazingly, the experiment worked, and showed that a horse DOES, at some mili-moments in its stride, have all four feet off the ground while trotting. And, this moment in history was the beginning of motion picture history. The original moving pictures of that experiment no longer exist, but Muybridge went on to study other 'bodies in motion' and his famous "Galloping Horse" footage as well as bison, sheep, and many different studies in human motion are still around. (The moving image at the top of this page is the Galloping Horse experiment from a different time, not the trotting horse images of the Leland Stanford bet.)

And the scoffers? They weren't the horse people, or the photographers at the time, the people who pooh-poohed his work as fake were the artists. You've seen their paintings – similar to this one below – they painted running [image:blog_post:13126]horses with all legs extended, the two lead legs way out in the front, the back legs jutting behind, in what was called a "Rocking Horse" stance – which Muybridge's galloping horse images proved was not realistic.

Muybridge showed that when the horse's feet are all off the ground, they are under the horse, not extended – important things to know for Stanford's horse trainers. The horse "pulls" with it's front feet, then "pushes off" with the back feet. It just goes to show how interesting history is, and how film, photography and video have helped history find the truth along the way.

Want more video-centric history? read this story on the History of Video Editing and this interesting piece from 1997 where manufacturer's debate the Future of Nonlinear Editing. To find out more about Muybridge and his experiments, check out these sites:

Jennifer O'Rourke
Jennifer O'Rourke
Jennifer O’Rourke is an Emmy award-winning videographer & editor.

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