Edison Contributions to the Film Industry - Black Maria Film Festival



Chris Pendleton, President & CEO
Lisa Sbuttoni, PR/Marketing Director

Photos: Thomas Edison was a pioneer in the film industry; “The Sneeze” the first copyrighted motion picture filmed at the Edison Black Maria Picture Studio

A Sketch of Thomas Edison and the Development of the Motion PictureBy John Columbus, Director, Thomas Edison Black Maria Film Festival

Fort Myers, FL (March 2, 2012) That the legendary Thomas Edison played a key role in the development of the motion picture, a medium which revolutionized the way we perceive and represent the world around us, goes without saying. His vision helped liberate the creative spirit by crystallizing and applying a teamwork approach to research and development at his West Orange, NJ laboratory, a strategy which resulted in the medium as we know it today.

In October 1888, at his laboratory Edison announced his plan to invent “an instrument which does for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion.”

Edisons’ first motion picture apparatus, developed with the assistance of his employee William K.L. Dickson, featured a series of small photographs mounted on a cylinder, not unlike that of his phonograph. The images were viewed through a microscope attached to the rotation cylinder. This original device evolved into an apparatus that employed celluloid strip film. The 35 mm film itself was obtained and co-developed through collaboration with George Eastman of the Eastman Kodak Company. After more work, patent applications were made in 1891 for a motion picture camera, called a Kinetograph, and Edison started making motion pictures which were exhibited in his “peep hole” or “Kinetoscope” parlors.

In the winter of 1892, Edison’s team constructed the “Black Maria,” in West Orange where today stands a full scale replica of what was the world’s first motion picture studio. The Black Maria gained its name from its resemblance to the police paddy wagons of the period. Among the subjects filmed in the studio where “The Sneeze,” the copyrighted motion picture, which was also noted for the first close up, and a boxing match between James Corbett and Peter Courtney. The beautiful, somewhat risqué, “Serpentine Dance” starring Annabelle Whitford was produced in the Black Maria. Contrary to some impressions, Edison’s team also went out into the field and made documentary chronicles of real life as it presented itself as in “New Brooklyn to New York via the Brooklyn Bridge” (1899.

The world’s first commercial demonstration of Edison’s kinetoscope took place on April 14, 1894 at the Holland Bros. arcade on Broadway in New York City, not far from where Macy’s stands today. By the fall of 1894, Kinetoscope parlors, also known as “Nickelodeons,” had opened in cities throughout the US and Europe, including San Francisco, Atlantic City and London.

Meanwhile, Edison failed to patent his “peep hole” machine in Europe which allowed two Frenchmen, Lois and Auguste Lumiere to manufacture in 1895 a more portable camera and project – the Cinematographe – based on Edison’s machine. The Lumieres’ device projected films onto a screen, a development which expanded the audience for motion pictures. Among the Lumiere’s more noted early films were “Workers Leaving a Factory” and “Arrival of a Train,” which caused some audiences to fear being run over by the locomotive. In response to the Lumieres, the ever resourceful Edison obtained the rights to a projector invented by C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat in 1896. And in November 1897, Edison introduced his own projector, the projectoscope, or projecting Kinescope, an innovation which helped revive the lagging kinestoscope business.

By 1900 the Edison Manufacturing Co. became a major producer of motion picture equipment and films. To supply the growing demand, the company sent projection crews around the world to capture unusual sights and events. These films were little more than travelogues of exotic locations, although company directors, particularly Edwin S. Porter, began to produce films with more complicated plots and narratives. In December 1903, the company released Porter’s popular hit, “The Great Train Robbery,” which had location shots filmed near Edison’s laboratory in New Jersey. Many subsequent films were produced at Edison’s studios in Manhattan (1901-1907) and the Bronx (after 1907). Around the same time other movie studios emerged and began competing with Edison. Partly in order to escape Edison’s grip, eventually these studios moved many of their operations to Los Angeles, e.g. Hollywood. Soon thereafter they came to dominate the industry.

As time went on Edison became less directly involved in the commercial side of the business, although his team continued to experiment on film technology under his tutelage. Edison led an unsuccessful effort to develop a color film process, and he conducted research on a working, if somewhat unwieldy system, to synchronize photograph recordings with motion pictures in order to produce sound films.

Edison also designed equipment which allowed consumers to exhibit films in their homes. In 1912, he introduced his “Home Producing Kinetoscope.” This device projected Edison Co. films and, as some would argue, freed the amateur film enthusiast who had no access to commercial theater exhibit. In a later revised context, this strategy was revived by the independent film movement to which this day remains the inspiration for the Black Maria Film Festival.

Edison & Ford Winter Estates and Edison State College will host the 31st Thomas Edison Black Maria Film Festival, March 30 and 31 at 7:30. For ticket information call 239-334-7419.

The Edison Ford is open daily from 9:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. The Edison Ford is the winner of the 2009 National Stewardship Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is an official project of “Save America’s Treasures” at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a Florida Historic Landmark and a National Register Historic Site. For additional information call 239-334-7419 or visit the web site at www.edisonfordwinterestates.org.

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