Eye Filmmuseum’s contribution to Narratives from the Long Tail is a selection of high-resolution digitized films from its Mutoscope & Biograph Collection. As explained elsewhere on this website, these remarkable early silent films were made between 1897 and 1903 by the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company, which was based in the United States, and by its short-lived international branches, primarily those in England, The Netherlands, France, and Germany. Shot on large format 68mm stock, these films—which all run approximately thirty seconds to one minute in length—contain depictions of theatrical entertainment, fictionalized comedic and dramatic scenes, and non-fiction views of daily rural and urban life, notable people and events, and industry, transportation, and nature.
In this post, I briefly introduce a few of the digitized films from Eye that will be used in the Narratives project. I also use this space to highlight the historical importance of the Biograph films—in terms of both the material specificity of the 68mm format and the company’s early cinematic exhibition practices—and how that importance can be reactivated today through novel digital interfaces and embodied spectatorial engagement.
The Biograph Films
Approximately seventy of the two hundred films in Eye’s Mutoscope & Biograph Collection will be used in the Narratives project. Among these seventy titles are numerous films shot around Europe (and to a lesser extent in the United States). Many of the titles are from The Netherlands; there are also a handful of films made in Italy, England, and France as well as two that were shot in Switzerland. While it is important to remember that filmmaking categories such as “non-fiction,” “documentary,” and “narrative fiction,” for example, were not fully established at the time that these films were made, the majority of the Biograph films included in this project can broadly be described as non-fiction records of various people, places, and real-life activities (however staged their production might actually have been). For example, there are films depicting: Pope Leo XIII in the Vatican; a multicycle race in Boston, Massachusetts; French military exercises; a procession of Capuchin monks; scenic views of the Venice canals; and Hiram Maxim demonstrating his invention—the rapid-fire machine gun—for the camera.
What follows are four personal favorites among the seventy Biograph films included in the Narratives project:
Prinsengracht (Nederlandsche Biograaf- en Mutoscope Maatschappij, 1899)
Prinsengracht is one of many “phantom ride” films in the Mutoscope & Biograph Collection in which the camera is placed at the front or back of a moving vehicle, creating an immersive experience for the viewer whose point of view is aligned with that of the camera. Here, the camera is placed on the front of a boat moving up Amsterdam’s eponymous canal, giving the spectator a glimpse of the urban space, and its quotidian pedestrian and water activities, at the turn of the twentieth century.
Les Parisiennes (American Mutoscope Company, 1887)
One of two hand-colored films in Eye’s Mutoscope & Biograph Collection, Les Parisiennes is a registration of a theatrical can-can number, and embodies early cinema’s interest in movement, motion, and dance. Like many of the films in this collection, behind-the-scenes credits and other contextual information, like the name of the Biograph camera operator, for example, remain unknown to us today. 1
Hondenkarren [Dog Pulls Cart in Front of Mill] (Nederlandsche Biograaf- en Mutoscope Maatschappij, British Mutoscope and Biograph Syndicate [?], 1898 [?])
Until roughly the end of 1898, the Biograph camera weighed approximately 260-300 pounds.2 Such a heavy machine thus had to ideally be placed in the best possible “vantage point” 3 for the unfolding action. In Hondenkarrren, which depicts dog carts crossing a makeshift bridge in the Dutch countryside, the camera is placed at a distance, almost level with the scene, likely in order to effectively capture the horizontal action and the surrounding area.
The Price of a Kiss (American Mutoscope Company, 1899)
Filmed at Biograph’s open-air studio in New York—notice the breeze blowing in the confined set—The Price of a Kiss consists of a short comic film the likes of which were very popular among early film audiences. It therefore exemplifies the more explicitly staged, comedic narratives or scenes orchestrated and captured by the company and its actors.
“The Show of Shows in the Movie Field”
As the crisp digitized moving images above illustrate, 68mm, which is unperforated (i.e., no sprocket holes) and has an image area of more than seven times that of the standard 35mm full-frame image, 4 offers incredibly clear and sharp visual detail. This large format film was also exposed at the rate of 30-40 frames per second, approximately double the speed used by other producers at the time, resulting in steadier images with reduced flicker. 5 As a result of its superior visual product, which was reportedly particularly spectacular on a large screen, the Biograph company quickly occupied, in the words of film historian Paul C. Spehr, “the front rank, becoming the show of shows in the movie field.” 6 By 1901, however, the large format film, which was more expensive for exhibitors, was no longer viewed as a unique visual draw and 35mm was rapidly becoming the industry standard. In the following years, the different Biograph branches outside of the United States either shut down or tried to adapt to the realities of the maturing industry, and the use of 68mm was discontinued beginning in 1903. 7
Upon entering the film archive in 1959, these 68mm Biograph films were thus rare technological artifacts, and constituted what archivist Mark van den Tempel called “a preservation challenge of the first rank,” 8 due to their large size and lack of sprocket holes and the loss of original specialized projection equipment and technical knowledge. During the first major restoration of these archival materials—an analog project carried out by Eye in the 1990s 9—the 68mm films were copied to 35mm, which reduced the size of the image and resulted in a loss of visual sharpness while simultaneously allowing these films to finally be projectable on a standard format. 10
Thanks to advances in film restoration practices in the digital era, however, Eye was able to return to the original 68mm materials and, in 2019-2020, the archive scanned approximately seventy titles from the collection at 8K resolution. 11 This digital restoration project produced high definition versions of the selected films, reconstituting for contemporary viewers the original large image size, visual sharpness, and clarity that defined the Biograph films approximately 120 years ago.
As such, these seventy digitized non-standard films from the Mutoscope & Biograph Collection are ideal for the purposes of the collaborative Narratives project, which aims, using large-scale immersive digital interfaces, to make the “long tail” of the audiovisual archive more accessible to various publics. Once the “show of shows” in the domain of early theatrical exhibition, the selected Biograph films can be reactivated and revitalized thanks to digital technologies and large-scale novel interfaces that will allow contemporary spectators to experience and engage with these dazzling high-resolution large-format images in immersive ways.
“A Rather Contingent Affair”
Not only are the high resolution digitized 68mm films ideal material for computational experimentation and various visualization frameworks. The Biograph company’s original exhibition practices for its 68mm films also reflect the exciting potential of diverse user-driven participatory engagement.
In addition to providing each exhibition venue with a special 68mm projection apparatus and projectionist, the Biograph company delivered a set curated program of films to screen. 12 Not only did these curated programs often generate various narrative, thematic, or symbolic links between the selected films, but the company also often re-exhibited titles in brand new curated programs and alongside different titles over time, based on the topicality of their content. 13 For example, film archivist Nico de Klerk has described how a film depicting U.S. President William McKinley at home was first shown in October 1896, when he was still a presidential candidate; it was retitled and brought back in Spring 1898 after he had been elected “on the occasion of, and subsequently amid [films] relating to, the Spanish-American War, a reminder perhaps of McKinley’s campaign promise to liberate Cuba from Spanish misgovernment.” 14 Thus, as a result of Biograph’s theatrical programming practices, the original exhibition of these 68mm films be understood as “a rather contingent affair.” 15
The Biograph company’s practice of recombining films, or “reframing” 16 as de Klerk called it, activated a flexibility, fluidity, and multivocality that is also key to contemporary user-driven and experiential digital museological practices. “[W]ith each change of position,” de Klerk has argued, a given Biograph film may have “functioned slightly differently” 17 as the unique “juxtaposition of films create[d] its own dynamics and affect[ed] interpretation and appreciation.” 18 This practice of reframing can also be revitalized by contemporary users, who could explore different ways to remix the films (in whole or in parts) and even experiment with creating musical accompaniment for them, which, much like historical silent film accompaniment, was also a contingent affair that affected interpretation and appreciation. Ultimately, through the Narratives project, these digitized films will be incorporated into scalable public-facing interfaces that will not only allow diverse users to explore and engage with silent films that historically have been juxtaposed and recombined; it will also make space for as-yet unimagined affective, aesthetic, and narrative connections and reframings.
Anthony, Barry. “Biograph Fiction.” Griffithiana 66-70 (1999/2000): 116-145.
Bottomore, Stephen. “‘Every Phase of Present-Day Life’: Biograph’s Non-Fiction Production.” Griffithiana 66-70 (1999/2000): 146-211.
Brown, Richard. “The Biograph Group as a Multinational Company.” Griffithiana 66-70 (1999/2000): 66-77.
de Klerk, Nico. “‘Pictures to be Shewn’: Programming the American Biograph.” In Visual Delights: Essays on the Popular and Projected Image in the 19th Century. Eds. Simon Popple and Vanessa Toulmin. England: Flicks Books, 2000. 204- 223.
— — —. “Programme of Programmes: The Palace Theatre of Varieties.” Griffithiana 66-70 (1999/2000): 241-7.
— — —. Showing and Telling: Film Heritage Institutes and Their Performance of Public Accountability. Wilmington, DE: Vernon Press, 2017.
Eye Filmmuseum, “68mm: Mutoscope and Biograph.” https://www.eyefilm.nl/en/collection/collections/film/film-files/68mm-mutoscope-and-biograph (accessed June 29, 2022).
— — —. “The Making of The Brilliant Biograph: Earliest Moving Images of Europe (1897-1902).” August 24, 2020. https://youtu.be/S0s9-YrYs0E.
McKernan, Luke. “The Wonders of the Biograph – Introduction.” Le Giornate del Cinema Muto Catalogue (Pordenone: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, 2000). http://www.cinetecadelfriuli.org/gcm/ed_precedenti/edizione2000/biograph2000.html. (Accessed June 29, 2022).
Reizi, Paulina. “Reviving the Nineteenth Century 68mm Films with the Latest Digital Technologies.” Museum Computer Network (2021). https://publications.mcn.edu/2020-scholars/reviving-films/.
Rossell, Deac. “The Biograph Large Format Technology.” Griffithiana 66-70 (1999/2000): 78- 115.
Saccone, Kate. “The Public (Re)Making of an Archival Film Collection: Eye Filmmuseum’s Mutoscope & Biograph Collection and Contemporary Silent Film Curating.” M.A.Thesis, University of Amsterdam, 2021.
Spehr, Paul C. “Filmmaking at the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company 1900-1906.” The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress vol. 37, no. 3/4 (Summer/Fall 1980): 413-421.
— — —. “Politics, Steam and Scopes: Marketing the Biograph.” In Networks of Entertainment: Early Film Distribution, 1895-1915. Ed. Frank Kessler. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007. 147-156.
— — —. “Throwing Pictures on a Screen: the Work of W.K.L. Dickson, FilmMaker.” Griffithiana 66-70 (1999/2000): 11-65.
van den Tempel, Mark. “Making Them Move Again: Preserving Mutoscope and Biograph.” Griffithiana 66-70 (1999/2000): 224-230.