CHAPTER 3/Part 1



Table of Contents

Table of Contents





                      R.W. Paul

In 1891, two businessmen who wanted to get into the moving-picture business asked R[obert] W[illiam] Paul (1869-1943), a London electrical engineer and maker of scientific instruments, to build an Edison kinetoscope. The two men had acquired six kinetoscopes in the U.S. and wanted Paul to make several more.[1] “Finding that no steps had been taken to patent the machine,” Paul later recalled, “I was able to construct six before the end of that year. To supply the demand from traveling showmen and others, I made about 60 kinetoscopes in 1895.”[2] His work on the peephole viewer aroused Paul’s interest in the kinetoscope as a means of making money in the amusement trade, and in addition to building the machines for which he’d been commissioned, he constructed several for himself and set up his own kinetoscope parlor in London.

The venture was profitable but soon faced a serious obstacle to growth. Although Thomas Edison had not patented the kinetoscope in Europe, he did register the films made by the Edison Company under international copyright laws. Moreover, although he supplied kinetoscopes to anyone willing to pay his franchising price, Edison kept tight proprietary control over the kinetograph—the camera with which his films were made. The unprotected peephole viewer, therefore, could be examined and reproduced by anyone with sufficient engineering skill. But not so the camera, and without the camera, the kinetoscope owner had no access to new films. If Paul wanted to stay in the moving-picture exhibition business, he’d have to construct a camera that could make original negatives just like Edison’s.

The Paul-Acres Collaboration


                    Birt Acres

Because he knew little about photography, Paul needed the help of a professional photographer. He soon found it in American-born Birt Acres (1854-1918), who’d already drafted plans for a camera calling for a paper filmstrip and a clamping device to ensure intermittent motion. Detecting shortcomings in Acres’ design, Paul introduced some improvements, including, as Paul himself later described it, “a sprocket, 7 pictures in circumference, actuated by a finger wheel and a 7-point star based on the idea of a Maltese cross.”[3]

In March 1895, Paul sent a letter to Thomas Edison, enclosing “a small strip of the first film I have made” and suggesting a future exchange of copyrighted films (Edison rejected the offer). Paul reported that the film had been shot in February 1895—undoubtedly by Acres, inasmuch as it features Acres’ wife and house. Clearly, then, Paul and Acres had succeeded in building a functional moving-picture camera (Figure 3.1), and Incident at Clovelly Cottage (Figure 3.2) is probably the first kinetoscope film shot in Great Britain.

Acres and the Kineopticon
  Unfortunately, the Paul-Acres partnership soon dissolved, and the two men would trade disputed claims about their contributions for many years. Acres patented his own kinetic camera in March 1895 and, within the next two months, shot some popular footage of the Oxford Cambridge Boat Race and the Derby at Epsom Downs. Like the Lumière cinématographe, Acres’ apparatus was designed to be both camera and projector, but when it proved to be an inadequate projector, Acres developed what he called the kineopticon and began giving public exhibitions in 1896 (see Figure 3.3 [4]). His screening before the Royal Photographic Society in January of that year was the first projected exhibition of a moving picture in England, preceding the debut of the Lumière cinématographe by five weeks.[5]

A Preference for Scenes of “Lifelike Fidelity”
  Four of the five films on Acres’ first program—Boxing Match, Dancing Girls, Derby of 1895, and Rough Sea at Dover—had been taken with the Paul-Acres camera (Figure 3.4 [6]). As their titles suggest, the subject matter was much like that of the films which Edison was producing for the kinetoscope. They appealed to the British press, however, as “natural sequences of events and not dramatic episodes rehearsed for the purpose of being photographed.” The images cast by the kineopticon were likewise praised for their “most realistic nature . . ., whole sequences of events being in each case reproduced with lifelike fidelity” (see Figure 3.5).[7]

See the moving Picture


                     R.W. Paul/Birt Acres,

               Rough Sea at Dover, 1895

A few months after it had been shot, Rough Sea at Dover, a picturesque view of waves breaking over a pier, showed up at the commercial premiere, on 23 April 1896, of the Armat-Edison vitascope in New York. As the most popular item on the program, it uncovered a similar preference on the part of American audiences for naturalistic scenes over staged skits and theatrical excerpts. Coupled with the favorable reception soon given Lumière actualités, the popularity of Rough Sea inspired the Edison Company to build a portable camera with which to shoot on-location glimpses of everyday life and nearby scenery, such as Surf at Long Branch (1896), an obvious “remake” of Rough Sea. [8]

The First Modern Projector: Paul’s Theatrograph

Meanwhile, R.W. Paul had also developed a workable projector, which he called the theatrograph and which premiered in February 1896. An improved model was patented in March and first used in performance in April. Paul’s redesigned theatrograph (Figure 3.6) combined at least three features that qualify it as the prototype of the modern projector:

  1. It attained (like the cinématographe) a rate of 16 projected pictures per second, which is the same as the gradually accepted rate of 16 frames per second for projecting silent films.
  2. Paul’s Maltese cross mechanism (which he called “the familiar Geneva stop”) was more precise than the Lumière claw and put less strain on the filmstrip.
  3. Paul’s projector eventually featured continuous-feed sprockets for easing the filmstrip into and out of the intermittent-movement mechanism.

 The Theatrograph at London’s

          Egyptian Hall, 1896

“The Greatest Combination of Entertainment Ever Presented to the Public under One Roof”
  Paul’s first theatrograph screenings included both films taken with the Paul-Acres camera and existing films originally shot for the Edison kinetoscope. These demonstrations so impressed one London theater impresario that he immediately engaged the theatrograph as a variety attraction. The success of the theatrograph (combined with the simultaneous popularity of the Lumière cinématographe) quickly brought more offers, and Paul had soon branched out into variety theaters throughout London. Before long, the theatrograph was being promoted as either a “startling scientific marvel” or the centerpiece of “the greatest combination of entertainment ever presented to the public under one roof.”

“Adding Interest to Wonder”
  The attraction of the theatrograph, like that of the vitascope in America and the cinématographe in France, was “wonder”—the marvel that was the apparatus and not the content of the entertainment. Paul recalls, however, that one theater manager “wisely foresaw the need for adding interest to wonder”—the need, in short, for moving pictures to offer spectators content that was interesting in itself once the mere novelty of lifelike motion had worn off. In response, Paul staged the first comic movie made in England, The Soldier’s Courtship, in which an amorous soldier dumps a prudish busybody from the park bench on which he’s been “billing and cooing” with his girlfriend (Figure 3.7).[9]

The Music Hall and the Fairground

In the music hall—the British version of the variety stage—showmen like Paul found a natural venue for the moving picture, and Paul also enjoyed brisk sales of equipment to music-hall entertainers and proprietors.[10] Before long, the moving picture was a familiar item on music-hall programs throughout the country. True cinema theaters did not appear in England until about 1904, and until then, the music hall remained the center of moving- picture distribution and exhibition.[11] Originally, music-hall managers scurried to sign up moving-picture “acts” because they believed (as did Paul) that “animated photographs” would be a short-lived fad. By 1898, however, the movies were not only thriving in music halls but had been promoted to second billing, behind only the most popular artistes.

In these early years, there was also a current of dynamic interchange between the music hall and the moving picture. The movies, for example, learned to tell stories by borrowing from music-hall sketches (Paul’s The Soldier’s Courtship is a good example). Gradually, however, they learned to develop their own storytelling techniques by distinguishing them from those of the music- hall stage. Soon, for instance, British filmmakers would begin shooting outdoors. An equally important result of this tendency to break out of the stage-bound mold is illustrated by Paul’s Come Along, Do! (1898—Figure 3.8). The premise is vintage music-hall skit: in an art museum, an old man lingers over a nude statue until his wife drags him away. The film, however, is actually composed of two shots, making it one of the earliest known multishot fiction films: the setup takes place outside the museum, where the couple have lunch before going inside, and the two scenes are filmed on separate sets.

The Influence of “Pedlars, Pretended Gypsies,” and Peepshow Proprietors
  A related influence on early British movies was the English fair, originally a center for rural commerce that was regularly served by what one British social historian describes as “a fraternity of pedlars, card-sharpers, real or pretended gypsies, ballad-mongers, and hawkers.”[12] The urban counterparts of these working-class “artistes”—street musicians and singers, acrobats and strongmen, stilt and tightrope walkers, puppeteers, snake charmers, conjurers, sword swallowers, and of course peepshow proprietors—eventually moved from the streets into the music hall. Introduced there to the moving picture, many of them saw it as a logical extension of their stage acts. In turn, they brought to the early motion picture their own brand of unpretentious popular entertainment.


                         Bioscope Show, 1890s

The Bioscope Show
  As a venue for moving-picture exhibition, the fairground proved as popular as the music hall.[13] Traveling showmen brought moving pictures to rural fairs, often in huge tents seating several hundred people. The heyday of traveling motion-picture exhibitions in England—which came to be known as Bioscope shows—dates from about the turn of the century. By 1906, the biggest companies were embellishing their productions with mammoth fairground organs and colored-light shows (see Figure 3.9). Such extravaganzas—which usually included conjuring and other variety acts—established the atmosphere in which the moving picture was introduced to audiences all over the British Isles and flourished until about 1914, when they succumbed to the growing popularity of regular “cinemas”—theaters built expressly for motion pictures—in both large and small urban areas.

Paul as Producer: The Mechanics of the Trick Film

In 1899, R.W. Paul built one of the first film studios in Europe. Written shortly after Paul’s death in 1943, the following description of his facility at Muswell Hill suggests the conditions and equipment that Paul needed to pursue his interests as a filmmaker:

It was comprised of a miniature stage . . ., many trapdoors, a trolley system for running the camera to and fro at speed, and means for turning the camera on its axis. Gradually, at this studio the “trick film” was developed; ghosts, fairies, ogres, dwarfs, and giants became everyday products. Deep-sea divers found boxes of treasure with live fishes apparently swimming around them. A very great success was a collision between two trains on an embankment beside a lake; this was so realistic that the audience usually screamed.[14]

The Seamless Sight Gag: The Stop-Motion Effect
  By “trick film,” this writer means any scene involving special effects, ranging from the simulation of “fantastic” creatures to the spectacle of trains colliding. Paul’s pivotal trick was stop motion or stop action: the effect of stopping and starting a stationary camera so that carefully manipulated changes in the objects being photographed gave the illusion of one object changing instantaneously into another. The screenwriting challenge lay in scripting sight gags that simultaneously amused and surprised, while the technical challenge lay in making the seam between the two shots as imperceptible as possible (see Figure 3.10).

In Extraordinary Cab Accident (1904), for example, the audience witnesses the spectacle of man being mangled under the hooves of a cabman’s horse. Clearly, a dummy is substituted for the actor just before he goes under the horse, and the actor replaces the dummy once the accident is over. By 1904, both the gag and the means of executing it were staples of the comic trick film (see Figure 3.11).

See the moving  


         R.W. Paul, The (?) Motorist, 1906

Mayhem in Miniature: The (?) Motorist
  The well-known film entitled The (?) Motorist, which was directed for Paul by one-time magician Walter (W.R.) Booth [15] in 1906, pulls out many more stops in a caprice about a magic car and its grossly irresponsible operators (Figure 3.12). An early cut between two shots of the moving car occurs just after it strikes a policeman, who ends up on the speeding car’s hood, and before the car reappears rounding a curve where the policeman is thrown off and run over. The continuity—the smooth spatial and temporal transition between shots—is ably handled, and the seam necessitated by the logical cut between two different views of the car masks the stop-action cut needed to substitute a dummy for the actor playing the policeman.

A more noticeable effect is the use of miniatures. After he emerges from the wheels of the car, for example, the policeman pursues the fugitive vehicle on foot. There follows another well-handled continuity cut as the car, now shown from behind, approaches the face of a building directly ahead of it. At this point, there is a stop-motion cut, and two ambitious changes are made in the content of the image: (1) a miniature is substituted for the real car, and (2) the face of the real building is replaced by a façade painted to match it. More importantly, the camera has been moved. It’s now looking down at the painted façade, which is lying on the floor so that the miniature car can be moved across it by a sequence of stop-action shots: each time the camera is turned off, the miniature car is moved a very small distance “up” the wall, where it’s photographed again, and so on until the sequence of shots gives the impression of continuous movement. Another miniature is used to depict the car’s ascent into space, its trip around the moon and the rings of Saturn, and its sudden descent back to earth, where it crashes through the roof of a public building.

See the moving  


              R.W. Paul, The Countryman

             and the Cinematograph, 1901

The Picture within the Picture: The Countryman and the Cinematograph
  The film alternately entitled The Countryman and the Cinematograph and The Countryman’s First Sight of the Animated Pictures (1901—Figure 3.13) survives only as a fragment. The trick here involves the insertion of a movie screen (as a picture within a picture) in the upper right-hand sector of the frame that constitutes the overall projected image. The effect is achieved through superimposition—the process of printing one image over another that’s already been passed through the taking lens of the camera. In the early silent cinema, the trick is made possible by the fact that the camera is being hand-cranked: the operator can rewind the already exposed filmstrip to a selected point and then expose it again by filming a second image as the filmstrip is once more cranked forward. (The process is explained more fully in Reading 3.3.)

Unfortunately, the existing footage of The Countryman and the Cinematograph is merely a segment from the middle of the film. In order to appreciate what came before and after, we must look to Paul’s sales catalogue:

The first picture thrown on the screen is that of a dancer, and a yokel in the audience becomes so excited over this that he climbs upon the stage and expresses his delight in pantomime as the picture proceeds. The next picture (within the picture) is that of an express train, which rushes towards the yokel at full speed, so that he becomes frightened and runs off at the wings. The last scene produced is that of the yokel himself, making love to a dairy maid, and he becomes so enraged that he tears down the screen, disclosing the machine and operator, whom he severely handles.[16]

Note that The Countryman and the Cinematograph was made in 1901—just six years after the first screening of the Lumières’ Arrivee d’un train en gare à La Ciotat (see Chapter 2.2). Paul’s film suggests, therefore, that self-reflexivity came very early to the cinema: the reference to an image from an earlier film is clearly used to enrich a little jest about the tendencies of the audience sitting in the dark to watch the picture currently being screened.[17] Self-reflexivity is clearly intentional in The Countryman—a fact confirmed by the revelation of the “operator” as the yokel’s nemesis. As for Paul’s positioning of his operator behind the screen, this was standard practice in moving-picture projection: “At the time,” explains Paul, “we showed [films] from behind, through a transparent screen . . . which was thoroughly damped with water and glycerine.”[18]


Bioscope   Traveling motion picture exhibitions in England, ca. 1896-1914

continuity   Smooth spatial and temporal transition between shots

stop motion or stop action   Effect of stopping and starting a stationary camera so that carefully manipulated changes in the objects being photographed give the illusion of one object changing instantaneously into another

superimposition   Process of printing one image over another that has already been passed through the taking lens of the camera

theatrograph   R.W. Paul’s projector, featuring a Maltese cross mechanism for intermittent motion and continuous feed sprockets for easing the film through the intermittent-motion mechanism


[1] See esp. John Barnes, The Beginnings of the Cinema in England (London: David & Charles, 1976), pp. 10-115; and Rachel Low and Roger Manvell, A History of the British Film: 1896-1906 (1948; rpt. London: Allen and Unwin, 1973). See also Roy Armes, A Critical History of the British Cinema (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 16-22; Barnes, “Robert William Paul,” Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema (British Film Institute, 2016), at (accessed June 5, 2016); Luke McKernan, “Paul, R.W. (1869-1943),” Screenonline (British Film Institute, 2003-2014), at (accessed June 5, 2016); “Pioneers of Early Cinema: Robert W. Paul (1869- 1943),” National Media Museum (Bradford, UK, 2011), at (accessed June 5, 2016); and Charles Allen Oakley, Where We Came In: Seventy Years of the British Film Industry (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2013), pp. 35-37, at (accessed June 5, 2016). Paul published an account of his activities in the motion-picture industry from 1894 to 1910: “Kinematographic Experiences,” Journal of the SMPE [Society of Motion Picture Engineers] 27 (November 1936); rpt in A Technological History of Motion Pictures and Television, ed. Raymond Fielding (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1974), pp. 42-48.

[2] Quoted by Barnes, The Beginnings of the Cinema, p. 17.

[3] Quoted by Terry Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights: The History of the Motion Picture through 1925 (1926; rpt. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986), p. 150.

[4] For Figure 3.3: See Barnes, The Beginnings of the Cinema, pp. 57-79. Acres published a user’s manual for the Birtac entitled The “Birtac” for At Home Animated Photography in 1898. For a contemporary test report, see “Moving Photography for the Million:—All about the Birtac,” The British Journal of Photography, Volume 48, ed. Thomas Bedding (London: H. Greenwood, 1899), pp. 15-16, at (accessed June 5, 2016).

[5] On the career and contributions of Birt Acres, see Low and Manvell, A History of the British Film: 1896-1906; Barnes, The Beginnings of the Cinema in England, esp. Chapters 2 and 4; and Deac Rossell, “Second Thoughts: A Fresh Look at Birt Acres in the Light of New Discoveries” (1998), (2013), at (accessed June 5, 2016); Richard Brown, “Birt Acres,” Who’s Who in Victorian Cinema (British Film Institute, 2016), at (accessed June 5, 2016); Luke McKernan, “Acres, Birt (1854-1918),” Screenonline (British Film Institute, 2003-2014), at (accessed June 5, 2016); “Pioneers of Early Cinema: Birt Acres (1854-1918),” National Media Museum (Bradford, UK, 2011), at (accessed June 5, 2016); “Birt Acres,” Pioneers, in, at (accessed June 5, 2016); and Robert Shail, British Film Directors: A Critical Guide (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 2007), pp. 13-14, at (accessed June 5, 2016). Acres’ grandson has published a biography: Alan Birt Acres, Frontiersman to Film-Maker: The Biography of Film Pioneer Birt Acres, FRPS, FRMetS 1854-1918 (Hastings, UK: The Projection Box, 2006). Also consulted: Acres, “Apparatus for Animated Photography” (1899), Adventures in CyberSound, at (accessed September 5, 2011).

[6] For Figure 3.4: The Beginnings of the Cinema, pp. 26-31.

[7] Quoted by Barnes, The Beginnings of the Cinema, pp. 68, 63. For Figure 3.5: For brief discussions of Rough Sea at Dover, see Michael Brooke, “Rough Sea at Dover (1895),” Screenonline (British Film Institute, 2003-2014), at (accessed June 5, 2016); and Matt Barry, “Rough Sea at Dover (1895),” The Art and Culture of Movies (September 11, 2009), at (accessed June 5, 2016). See also Katherine Manthorne, “Experiencing Nature in Early Film: Dialogues with Church’s Niagara and Homer’s Seascapes,” in Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film 1880-1910, ed. Nancy Mowll Mathews (Manchester, VT: Hudson Hills Press, 2005), pp. 58-60. For a brief discussion of Derby of 1895, see “Derby, The (1895),” Screenonline (British Film Institute, 2003-2014), at (accessed June 5, 2016).

[8] See Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1990), pp. 118, 180.

[9] See Barnes, The Beginnings of the Cinema, pp. 105-06. See also Mike Jay, “Adventures in the Fourth Dimension: The Time Machine and the Birth of Cinema,” Strange Attractor 3 (2006), at (accessed June 5, 2016); “The Lost Cinemas of Oxford Street,” Down in the Tube Station at Night, March 22, 2008, at (accessed June 5, 2016).

[10] Edward R. Mergenthal Jr., “Music Halls,” Theatre through the Ages, at (accessed September 21, 2004).

[11] This section is based on Michael Chanan, The Dream That Kicks: The Prehistory and Early Years of Cinema in Britain (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), pp. 130-46. See also Bryony Dixon, “Film and Music Hall,” Screenonline (British Film Institute, 2003-2014), at (accessed June 5, 2016); and Andy Medhurst, “Music Hall and British Cinema,” in All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema, ed. Charles Barr (London: British Film Institute, 1986), esp. pp. 170-73.

[12] Quoted by Chanan, The Dream That Kicks, p. 141.

[13] See University of Sheffield Information Service, National Fairground Archive (2010), at (accessed June 5, 2016).

[14] Electronic Engineering, quoted by John Brosnan, Movie Magic: The Story of Special Effects in the Cinema (1974; rpt. New York: New American Library, 1976), p. 16.

[15] See Luke McKernan, “Booth, W.R. (1869-1938),” Screenonline (British Film Institute, 2003-2014), at (accessed June 5, 2016); Denis Gifford, “Walter Robert Booth,” Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema (British Film Institute, 2016), at accessed June 5, 2016); and Donald Crafton, Before Mickey (Chicago: Chicago Univ. Press, 1993), pp. 25-33, at (accessed June 5, 2016). For Figure 3.10, which focuses on selected trick films by Booth and Paul, see the Screenonline entry on Paul at, which includes brief discussions of Artistic Creation, Magic Sword, and Upside Down; or, The Human Flies. There is also an entry on The (?) Motorist; see also James Walters, Fantasy Film: A Critical Introduction (Oxford, UK: Berg, 2011), pp. 44-46, at (accessed June 5, 2016); and Kage Baker, “The (?) Motorist” (2009), in Ancient Rockets (San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2012), at (accessed June 5, 2016). For a discussion of how 19th-century magicians like Booth influenced the development of cinematic special effects, see Erik Barnouw, The Magician and the Cinema (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1981).

[16] Quoted by Musser, notes to “The European Pioneers,” The Movies Begin. Volume II. (Kino International, 1994).

[17] For brief discussions of The Countryman and the Cinematograph, see the Screenonline website at (accessed June 5, 2016); Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, Framed: The New Woman Criminal in British Culture at the Fin de Siècle (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 2008), pp. 1-3, at (accessed June 5, 2016); and Lynda Nead, The Haunted Gallery: Painting, Photography, Film C. 1900 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2007), pp. 25-27, at (accessed June 5, 2016). For more detailed theoretical considerations, see Isabelle Morisette, “Reflexivity in Spectatorship: The Didactic Nature of Early Silent Films,” Offscreen (July 31, 2002), at (accessed June 5, 2016); Leon Gurevitch, “The Cinema of Interactions: Cinematics and the ‘Game Effect’ in the Age of Digital Attractions,” Senses of Cinema 57 (December 2010), at (accessed June 5, 2016); and Gert Jan Harkema, “‘All True and False’: Kine-attractography and the Shock of Presence in the Absence of (Film) Language” (2013),, at (accessed June 5, 2016).

[18] Quoted by Chanan, The Dream That Kicks, p. 132.

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