The long take: Slow Technology and Fast Action – British Film Institute | Episode Movies

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In this house, any new film that drops a well-chosen early cinema reference gets a round of applause. Jordan Peele’s new supernatural thriller takes it a few decades further by name-checking a timeless piece of pre-cinema, a crucial milestone on the road to moving pictures. In Nope, Keke Palmer plays Emerald, an animal breeder who showcases her skills to film shop clients by claiming to be the descendant of one of Eadweard Muybridge’s unnamed subjects. The animals he photographed with his battery of short-exposure cameras were named, but the people were identified only by numbers. Emerald highlights the inequality that means the white man behind the camera is better known than the black man in front, and then offers a revisionist look at black film history. “From the moment images could move, we had skin in it.” Brava.

Muybridge used slow technology to capture fast-paced action: not for him the flexible spools of celluloid film that could keep up with the movement in front of a camera. That wasn’t invented yet. He used heavy glass plates and froze a body in motion like a butterfly in a glass case. Each frame in one of his action sequences is created from an exposure of less than 100ths of a second. And each sequence represents an action that lasts only a few seconds. So the trick is that whether we’re seeing them animated through digitization or projected by Muybridge’s own zoopraxiscope, our brains aren’t just processing images, it’s creating them and filling in the blanks.

For more than a century, scholars, filmmakers and artists have been filling the gaps between Muybridge’s images – creating new works inspired by his images or asking questions about his bizarre work, his extraordinary life story. The optical illusion devices that inspired his own machine were not known as “philosophical toys” for nothing.

And why avoid mentioning anything of his confusing biography? This Surrey-born Victorian gentleman ventured into California, transformed his original name into a new creation with hints of Old English, and became a self-taught landscape photographer, making extravagant efforts to capture stunning images: chopping down trees to enhance the view, or posing on a precarious ledge to add a tiny figure to a stereograph. Between this phase of his career and the next, most famous one, he killed the man who was sleeping with his wife – and literally got away with the murder. Muybridge seemed to be a man capable of almost anything, even stopping time.

Unveiling of Muybridge (2021)

A new documentary, Exposing Muybridge (Marc Shaffer, 2021), pays tribute to the man’s technological ingenuity and melodramatic life, but also poses exactly the kind of questions Emerald raises about his compelling images. About the poses and actions that Muybridge had his models perform naked: athletic prowess for the men, but tea parties and domestic chores for the women. And then the occasional, confusing bout of bathing slapstick. On why the famous background grid was introduced when Muybridge came to photograph a black man – a grid used in racist ethnographic studies.

Muybridge’s ethical resilience, which first emerged in felling trees to sell Yosemite Valley postcards, had more serious implications for the human subjects he photographed. What the documentary particularly dwells on is how much of Muybridge’s monumental 1887 collection Animal Locomotion: an Electro-Photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements was anything but scientific. Whimsical, intimate, comical: the bodies are sometimes shown in action, sometimes still, occasionally complemented by lines of ink, sometimes arranged in symmetrical patterns that look pleasing on the page.

Muybridge invented a new way of looking at the world and a new way of understanding movement. The documentary concludes with a collection of works inspired by Muybridge, from paintings by Francis Bacon to the introduction of “Bullet Time” in The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999). We could contribute more direct connections, including Thom Andersen’s 1975 essay film Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer, with its dry Dean Stockwell narration and groundbreaking animation; George Snow’s hypnotic Muybridge Revisited (1986, available for viewing BFI Player); Rebecca Solnit’s 2003 book River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. And now, no.

Muybridge’s work lies at the core DNS of cinema, as Peele makes clear. In 2020, Muybridge’s hometown of Kingston upon Thames had a year of celebrations planned to commemorate the 190th anniversary of his birth. Of course, the pandemic has disrupted events, but on YouTube you can enjoy a short dance piece by BalletBoyz in tribute to Muybridge, who made a virtue out of the challenge. Shot on zoom and edited with split screen, overlay and mirroring, Motion reinvents Muybridge’s grid and his models’ movements in a medium he might never have dreamed of – but is another of his distant descendants.

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