Innovation Behind the Camera: Stop Motion and Other Film Special Effects

Most early movies were made with cameras that looked like this. Photo Credit: Library of Congress.

It wasn’t long after motion pictures were invented before film makers realized that a film was not just an ordinary play acted out before a camera. Instead of a physical theater where plays are limited by the stage and live audience, a camera crew has many tricks and techniques at their disposal to make the impossible appear real on film. In the early days of film, discovering and perfecting these techniques was a long process of trial and error. Even simple techniques like the close-up and scene transitions had to be figured out and perfected before filmmakers could make movies like the ones we have today (for an interesting discussion of the first “modern” film see here.) But if you want to see the birth of special effects for yourself, then the best thing to do is watch the movies!

A good example of early film special effects is a 1900 Vitagraph/Edison film called “An Animated Luncheon.” It’s little over a minute long and depicts a couple ordering lunch in a fancy restaurant. After deciding on a meal of boiled eggs and Welsh rarebit, their waiter brings out their order…but its not what they expected! After cracking the eggs open, the couple is surprised to see two full-grown chickens fly out and across the room. And when the cover is lifted from their next course, two white rabbits spring out and sit on the table until the couple grabs them and put them on the floor. Its only a minute long so why don’t you see for yourself!

For the curious,  here is a link to the film on the Library of Congress website. They have the original copy of the film and there are links to other films created at the turn of the century.

The technique that created these fantastic effects is called “stop motion” (or stop action), where you physically manipulate objects or people on a set while the camera isn’t recording to make objects appear or disappear seemingly on their own, like the chickens and rabbits in the film. This method can also make objects seem to move on their own.

J. Stuart Blackton, special effects pioneer. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

The first known use of stop motion filming was on a 1898 film called “Humpty Dumpty Circus” but unfortunately there are no known prints of the film that exist. Filmmakers J. Stuart Blackton and Albert Smith are credited with creating this technique that may seem simple today, but created some visually stunning early films and inspired many other special effects people in the future. Without this, there would be no Ray Harryhausen, Nick Park (think Wallace and Gromit), or Industrial Light & Magic (think Star Wars!). If you’re interested in learning more about early special effects in film, Eric Patterson from UNC Wilmington has a good resource you can read here.

Image Credit: Library of Congress

“An Animated Luncheon” was created by the Vitagraph Company, a film company founded by Blackton and Smith that worked with Edison Studios. However, the two companies developed somewhat of a contentious relationship. Since Thomas Edison and his studio owned the patents to film recording and projecting technology(he invented the first motion pictures camera, the kinetograph), other companies that made and showed films had to become licensees or face lawsuits. Vitagraph, like other companies, eventually made a deal with Edison to sell their movies filmed on Edison cameras to Edison Studios, who then would distribute them to theaters.

The “Wizard of Menlo Park” was also a tough businessman, and made sure that he got his money’s worth from his inventions. Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery

What does this mean for us early film fans? Well, from what I’ve seen its hard to determine who exactly made certain early films and who to credit advances in film making/special effects. The Library of Congress attributes “An Animated Luncheon,” to Edison (because he patented the film), but most other sources say that Vitagraph made it. I think this makes sense because Vitagraph had more experience making films with stop-motion and other special effects at this time.

Vitagraph also made “Uncle Josh” films, a series of films featuring Uncle Josh, a country bumpkin who experiences a series of mishaps and adventures. One of these, “Uncle Josh in a Spooky Hotel” (1900) also uses stop-motion to make a ghost appear and disappear.

Thomas Edison and his studio made their own Uncle Josh films as well that were directed by Edwin Porter, another bright filmmaker who developed techniques like fading transitions from one scene to another and “cross cutting editing” which could show multiple scenes on the screen at once. One of my favorite Porter films is “Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show” (1902). No stop-motion special effects here, but it’s still creative with its use of film-within-film to show how audiences may have reacted to movies with special effects that seemed too real.

No matter who actually made these films, I still think they’re great!

If you’re interested in learning more about the early history of film, here are a few resources to check out!

Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film by Miriam Hansen (1991)

Film Before Griffith, edited by John Fell (1983)

Inventing Entertainment: The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies, Library of Congress

The Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University has a lot of materials on early film digitized, but there are some issues with the website. Searching can be a bit difficult.


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