History of cinema 6 – The First Comedy

Boxing Cats 1894

Professor Welton’s Boxing Cats was created by William K L Dickson and William Heise for the Edison Manufacturing Company in 1894. Their company, Black Maria Studio, in west Orange, New Jersey made the film as independents and had to work through Edison as Edison had total control of film exhibition in the US. 20 seconds long, 27 frames per second, 35mm.

Now you have the answer to when cat videos started.

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History of Cinema 2 – The Mutoscope

The Mutoscope was invented by W. K. L. Dickson and Herman Casler and later patented by Herman Casler on November 21, 1894. It was incredibly popular and spread across the world quickly.

Many different styles and sizes were made. They could be set up anywhere as they were manual machines. You would insert you coins, anywhere form one cent to five cents, and turn the crank. The payment gave you a set amount of time to view the film.

The principal was simple so many different versions of the Mutoscope were made. Occasionally the machine would be altered to fit a client’s needs. The differing versions included a countertop design, more elaborate housings for fancier venues, a row of connected machines to show a longer film (something for another post), and they could alter the size of the spindle to have more or less frames.

It functions very simply. There are cards with individual images, frames in current terms, secured in order on a spindle. A small stop causes the cards to pause long enough for the eye to register the image before moving on.

Anyone with the means of production could make a film and distribute it. A person in Ohio could see a film in New York, go back to their studio and produce the same content for distribution. At this time, content would be very similar to YouTube today.

Below is an example of what was seen in the viewer. This is a complete film which depicts a popular dance at the time. Cakewalk was exhibited in the early 1900s.

Cakewalk 1903
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Silent Movies 2 – Shadows

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

There are three aspects of silent film that I study: acting poses, storytelling, and use of shadows. This post will focus on shadows.


Silent filmmakers were very aware of light and shadow because their cameras needed extreme amounts of each to create good images. As creative as the Lumiere Brothers dived headfirst into fantasy and pushing what film could do. The German expressionists went full tilt light and shadow. Their design esthetic was crafting light and shadow into shapes and characters.


Shadow is integral to the storytelling, the emotional content, and set design. The power they were able to create is amazing to me. I think the best movies use what the expressionists made. It is a specific language of light that shows up in every decade of film, mainly in the Noir period.

Warning Shadows

Strong, cutting shadows could show magic, internal thought, emotion extending from a character. Shadow could focus your attention to a specific spot, add depth or importance to something. It can make light brighter. It can expose intent. It can also be used as artifice and create interesting shapes and patterns.


I try to incorporate this into my art when it’s appropriate. It also influences my sense of design. In my comics work, it plays a more important role.

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An Expression of Terror

Nosferatu 1922

I first saw Nosferatu (1922) in college. The library had hundreds of VHS films that were rare. I took advantage. If I had free time I would sign out a film or two and sit at the line of players with small TVs and headphones. The library didn’t believe in censorship so they had films that were not supposed to be seen available.

Every sci-fi, horror and film magazine had Nosferatu and Metropolis as must sees. I owned a copy of Metropolis, loved it, and craved viewing Nosferatu. The library had it. It was on!

Two movies have scared the shit out of me: The Shining and Nosferatu. I was petrified the first viewing, tense and anxious the next several. I was stunned at the power this film had. It took years of reading about it, analyzing it, to learn why.

Nosferatu, to me, is a kind of filmic touchstone. German expressionism influenced me quite a bit as an artist. German expressionistic film is what I want to be when I grow up. The unrealistic exaggeration of forms that make the sets, the shots and the costumes makes my heart sing. The overwhelming creativity of it all astounds and intrigues me.

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Silent movies speak to me

Lon Chaney and his amazing make-up kit

Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces. I enjoyed the curiosity of silent movies when I was very young. My dad and I watched a lot of black and white movies together. We saw a Harold Lloyd picture and a couple Chaplin pictures. I didn’t see how it would go much past that given the opportunity to see the Keystone Cops.

At some point in high school the public library had a film series. I went to a few. It wasn’t for kids so I was a little out of place amount the old timers revisiting their youth. To their surprise and mine, I was quiet and attentive. At this point in my life I was solidly into art. I was beginning to understand film as an art form and wanted to expand my perception of film.

I’m not sure what films I saw at that time. It was either The Blackbird or The Hunchback of Norte Dame. That was my exposure to Lon Chaney. Having a mind filled with moviemaking and special effects, I was stunned. How could this man do what he was doing? Being in the library, I immediately began finding books on the subject. Stunned again. He did it all with his little box of pain.

Since then I have had a passion for silent films. Only in the last handful of years has the ability to actually see the films come about. It was damned near impossible in the 80s and 90s. Thank you, YouTube.

I just wish I could watch them while I draw.

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