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Falling Cat (1894)

 -  Short  -  1894 (France)
5.9
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A cat falls down and lands on its feet.

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A cat falls down and lands on its feet.

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scientific | 1890s | cat | See All (3) »

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1894 (France)  »

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Падение кошки  »

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The Science of Chronophotography
12 November 2013 | by See all my reviews

"Chronophotography" is a term Étienne-Jules Marey coined to describe his scientific instantaneous serial photography of motion on glass plates and paper and celluloid roll film, as well as his camera and projection inventions. Some continue to make a distinction between chronophotography as pre-cinema history and cinematography, but it's a thin arbitrary distinction, which is readily apparent when viewing a film such as this one, the so-called "Falling Cat", which was photographed on celluloid—just as were the films of the Edison Company or of the Lumière brothers. Marey's film is shorter and not perforated, but the main difference is that he wasn't interested in commercializing his inventions and films. Nevertheless, authors like Marta Braun and Virgilio Tosi have argued for Marey as the central figure in the invention of cinema. At least, in examining the history of chronophotography and the archeology and invention of movies, for me, has added to the common narrative of film beginning with entrepreneurs seeking commercial exploitation, a coincident narrative of film being invented out of the necessities of scientific research.

Marey was a physiologist, an academic, president of various prestigious institutions and an accomplished experimental researcher whose interest in engineering furthered his research. He contributed to many fields: he made medical and motion graphing devices and methods, advanced aviation, pioneered the study of labor productivity, and demonstrated how a cholera epidemic in France was spread by contaminated water supply. He turned to photography as a means to study motion after seeing the sequential photographs of horses in motion by Eadweard Muybridge (see "Sallie Gardner at a Gallop" (1880)). Marey, however, decided to go the single-camera route (as opposed to the multiple cameras Muybridge used) of a fixed point-of-view, as Jules Janssen had done earlier with his photographic revolver used to record the "Passage de Vénus" in 1874. Similarly, Marey initially used a photographic rifle to photograph images on rotating glass plates, as well as a single-plate box camera. The mechanic Otto Lund helped make these cameras. The chemist Eugène Chevreul provided specifications for the "black hanger"—a dark shed or "set" for the experiments. On 15 October 1888, Marey announced, then showed on 29 October, to the Académie des Sciences that he was filming on paper film rolls. Coincidently, that announcement was one day after another Frenchman, Louis Le Prince, had taken his paper film experiments in Leeds (see "Accordion Player" and "Roundhay Garden Scene"), which were far more secretive due to Le Prince's commercial aspirations. In the summer of 1889, Marey started using newly-available celluloid film.

Over his career, Marey photographed images on thousands of glass plates and made nearly 800 films (Abel). Most of them were made at the Station Physiologique near Paris, with government funding and with assistants, who included, over the years, Georges Demeny, Lucien Bull and Pierre Noguès. He authored over 350 scientific books and papers (source: Deac Rossell, "Breaking the Black Box"). Human locomotion and gymnastics, the gait of horses and, especially, the flight of birds were favorite subjects. The most popular today, however, involves a cat—which seems natural given the abundance of cat videos available on YouTube and elsewhere. Braun lists 13 cat films made by Marey. Four of them involve a cat walking or trotting, but the rest are all a cat being dropped. Two of these series were presented by Marey in a published paper. This "Falling Cat", perhaps, even accomplished a feat more impressive than demonstrating a talent for playing the piano. By using its weight to twist mid-air to land on its feet, the feline did nothing less than contradict Isaac Newton's First Law of Motion and the mathematical law of conservation of angular momentum. Among other animals put to this task, the rabbit was the only other to succeed in confounding the science of the day.

Marey seems to have been more concerned with inventing the means for the analysis of motion than in its synthesis—being content with viewing his films in a zoetrope—and demonstrating them, such as at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. He even used sculptures based on his photographs in the zoetrope for a three-dimensional effect. In synthesizing motion, Marey was concerned with confirming the analysis of what couldn't otherwise be seen instead of mirroring reality back. As Braun put it, "Marey sought not to represent nature but to discover the laws that governed it." It was only after the Lumière brothers' Cinematographé that he would bother to complete his own reversible camera/projector in 1896. Unlike Marey, however, Demeny became interested in and pursued the commercial possibilities of these inventions (see "Je vous aime" (1891)).

Despite his disinterest in the commercial and spectatorial possibilities of movies, Marey was friends with, or at least met, some of those who were: including, in addition to Demeny, Muybridge, Edison, the Lumières and Ottomar Anshütz—all of whom were surely influenced by his work. This interconnectedness and coincident developments in scientific chronophotography and commercial movie development is why I don't consider there to be a single person, a date, or particular film that can be pointed to as the origin of movies. Additionally, despite, and unlike Muybridge, his disinterest in the artistic composition of his images (although he and Demeny did publish an artist's handbook), he had an impact on art similar to Muybridge. Marey's single-plate chronophotographs where images often partially superimposed over each other have especially been cited as an influence to artists from realists like Thomas Eakins, who took up chronophotography to provide models for painting, to Impressionists like Edgar Degas and Georges Seurat and the Surrealist Max Ernst. He especially inspired Futurist and abstract paintings such as František Kupka's "Les cavaliers", Giacomo Balla's "Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash" and Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase".

(Main Sources: "Encyclopedia of Early Cinema" edited by Richard Abel. "Picturing Time" by Marta Braun. "The Great Art of Light and Shadow" by Laurent Mannoni. "Cinema Before Cinema" by Virgilio Tosi.)


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