Eadweard Muybridge: Father of the Motion Picture?

Writers dealing with the motion sequence photography of Eadweard Muybridge have traditionally described him as the 'Father of the Motion Picture', and the title of this talk is taken from one of the first biographies. In popular accounts of the subject, this is still a major theme. In this new illustrated talk, Stephen Herbert examines whether this perspective is valid or relevant. Muybridge's place in Victorian attempts at producing moving images is investigated, together with the historiography of Muybridge in the 20th-Century, when cinema was the dominant visual medium, and onward into the digital age. For each generation, Muybridge's work has a new meaning that relates to our own experiences and the media of our time.

[Based on a talk given at Kingston Museum at the opening of the Muybridge: Revolutions exhibition, 2010. Links and Notes in preparation]

"A native of Kingston upon Thames - Benefactor of this public library - A scientific investigator of Animal Locomotion. With his camera and machine the Zoopraxiscope he produced moving pictures in America in the year 1880: at Paris in 1881: and before the Royal Institution in 1882. From these inventions the modern Cinematograph has been evolved."

Text on the Muybridge commemorative plaque, Kingston Museum Collection. (Currently in store.)


Barnes Museum poster, 1960s. John Barnes in the museum entrace, 1985. Photo: Stephen Herbert

Museum of Cinematography

Skip back 40 years - it's 1971 and I'm walking down Fore Street in St Ives, Cornwall, when I spot the Barnes Museum of Cinematography. As a film technician and amateur filmmaker I'm intrigued. Inside it's a treasure trove of what one National Film Archive director dismissively called "the detritus of the film industry" - and with the relics of the industries of optical media that pre-date film. Zoetropes and lantern slides and mutoscopes and... wonderful things, including a cabinet displaying the open pages of books and artplates by Eadweard Muybridge. People and animals in motion, in strips and blocks across the pages. I'm intrigued. This is a museum of cinema. But these are pictures in books, not films or even lantern slides. So where did Muybridge fit in?

It wasn't too easy to discover more about Eadweard Muybridge. In 1971 there were no books about him - though Dover press ensured that his sequence images were widely available - and of course there was no world wide web. But I dug around and as I discovered more about the Zoöpraxiscope, Muybridge's motion picture projector for images on glass discs, it seemed to me that it was an oddity, a hiccup in the development of cinema proper, which could only be said to have started with flexible film. It was, as one reviewer later stated, a 'magic lantern run mad'. But the biographers who followed didn't see it that way. Gordon Hendricks's book was entitled Eadweard Muybridge, the Father of the Motion Picture - and in America, motion picture at that time meant specifically and only one thing - the movies. Film.

How did Muybridge come to be seen as the Father of Cinema?

Muybridge's motion pictures startle the world.

Twice in the 19th cenbury, the Muybridge/Stanford images caused a major stir in the worlds of art and science. The first time was when the early sequence images were published in 1878. The positions of the horses' legs looked weird - no one had ever seen anything like it before - or weren't aware that they'd seen anything like it. To prove that the individual phases were true, Muybridge animated the strips, first in a zoetrope and then projected onto a screen. The animations caused a further kerfuffle - this time mostly of admiration and wonder. So how do Muybridge's moving images fit into the early history of motion pictures?


From the earliest magic lanterns in the 17th century, projected images moved. But the movement was limited - painted glasses slipping over one another, or being pulled through the lantern aperture. The movement created by a succession of sequential images shown very quickly originated with the phenkistiscope in the early 1830s. Artists imagined the animation phases, and the results were printed onto slotted discs - viewed by reflection or by using a separate slotted disc. Subjects could be political, surreal, comic ... or lifelike representations of people and animals.


Phenakistiscope discs by Michael Angelo Hayes, 1870s. Photos: Stephen Herbert

These extraordinary cardboard discs were painted by Irish artist Michael Angelo Hayes. They're one-offs, and I had access to them for a few hours many years ago. Hayes wasn't the only artist or horse specialist to try animating pictures of horses on discs - but these are the most detailed.

Phenakistiscope disc by Michael Angelo Hayes, 1870s. Photo: Stephen Herbert

Also - this image calls to mind a later Muybridge disc of a man jumping over a bull. But Hayes died in 1878, before Muybridge's animations had been seen.


Phenakistiscopes were suitable for single-person viewing only. The zoetrope - invented in 1833 but not commercialised until 1866 - allowed for a whole family to view the moving images, which were now printed onto strips. There was often also a paper disc in the base of the toy, so ... added value with a second set of animations.

With both of these devices, extraordinarily complex animations of short duration could be produced. Some discs had several different rates of movement represented by different figures in the same scene.


A variation on the zoetrope was invented and marketed in 1877 by French artist-lanternist Emile Reynaud, using simple and charming lithographed strips produced from his own artwork.

So there was a thriving animation industry long before celluloid film was invented.

Photographs in motion

Many experimenters next took sequences of photographs, with the subject posed in varous positions that they imagined represented phases of motion. Individual poses could be exposed for several seconds or even minutes if required.

Bioscop, Kinematoscope, Stereotrope

On discs, in zoetropes, on picture belts and in flipcard cabinets, photographs were made to move. In the case of machines as subjects - the movement of a stationary steam engine, for example - the results could appear very lifelike - especially as they were often in 3-D, since stereoscopic photography was very common by that time. Attempts to photograph people simulating motion were less successful, and animals were impossible until Muybridge.

Muybridge and the zoetrope

As soon as Eadweard Muybridge had a suitable set of photographs of trotting and galloping horses, he tried animating them in a zoetrope. In fact, he later claimed to have made a double zoetrope, in which he placed stereo photos of a galloping horse, and watched as the dimensional lifelike animal galloped in the drum. Several companies produced and sold simple silhouette versions of basic zoetrope strips based on Muybridge's horse photos. Living pictures captured from life were starting to appear - but in tabletop toys, not on the screen.

Uchatius, Brown, Duboscq

However, developments with the magic lantern had not stood still. Here's a suggestion by a Mr Naylor, from the1840s, for a projector using animated picture sequences on a glass disc - it didn't come to anything.


Sketch showing Uchatius and a domestic moving image show. Diagram: Uchatius projector.

In the 1850s Prussian army officer Baron Uchatius made two different projectors for showing animated pictures - they were basically projecting phenakistiscopes. He toured with one of these. But he was limited to drawings - as was the French image projection specialist Duboscq, who devised and sold a different projecting phenakistiscope in the 1860s, the images being popular subjects from the earlier paper discs.

O.B. Brown's Phoenocinopticon

In America experimenter Obadiah Brown made a projection device with intermittent motion, eliminating image distortion, but the Phoenocinopticon failed to take off. Nevertheless, with Uchatius and Duboscq, fully animated cartoons had finally hit the screen.

Moving photos on the screen

In 1870 in America, Henry Heyl posed a dancing couple in the key positions of a waltz, and devised a projector to show the resulting photographs.

The machine apparently had a very basic stop-start movement operated by a lever, so there was no image distortion, but the sequence would have been jerky and of course, only approximated the appearance of real live motion. It was a cheat - but a successful one, and audiences appreciated the results. [musser p.47]

The Zoöpraxiscope

During 1879, Muybidge was working on a projector for his sequence images. The machine - initially referred to in-house at the zoographyscope, then publicly as the zoogyroscope and later the Zoöpraxiscope - used glass discs and a powerful limelight lantern.

A section of a Zoopraxiscope disc. With this example, as with many others, Muybridge combined seqiences - of a bull running, and an athlete's somersault. The result, long before the film animation industry or CGI animation, was a sequence informed by the camera, but which became an entirely imaginary scene. Kingston Museum and Heritage Service.

From 1880 until 1891, Muybridge lectured with his Zoöpraxiscope, projecting his silhouette movies interspersed with many lantern slide images of his own work and historical art images showing animal movement. With his lively commentary and the fast pace of the changing pictures, we can think of the combined effect of his lecture in today's terms as a sort of tv documentary or sophisticated PowerPoint presentation, shown on a big screen - the animals were often projected life size.

Coloured zoopraxiscope disc, 1893 (detail). Kingston Museum and Heritage Service

In 1892 Muybridge started production of a new set of projection discs, bearing drawn outlines reproduced by photography onto the glass, then coloured by hand. They were produced for the 1893 Columbian Exposition - the World's Fair in Chicago. Muybridge had erected a special building, the Zoopraxographical Hall, where he gave lectures - though there were many engaging and popular attractions on the Midway, and he must have struggled to get audiences. But the Hall was the first building erected specially to show a form of motion picture, so has often been called the first cinema.

Films arrive

But by now, the writing was on the wall. At that same fair actual photographs in motion taken by Ottomar Anschutz were shown in peephsow machines - the individual transparencies were mounted on a disc - and flexible rolls of paper and then celluloid film had been used by several experimenters for five years or so. Edison's first filmstrip peepshow machine - capable of showing movies up to a minute long - only just failed to make it to the Fair, and was launched the following year. Film screenings started in 1895, and soon spread throughout the world.

Muybridge's projections were routinely stated to have 'put the photographs into motion' - newspaper reviewers conflating the detailed images of the lantern slides with the silhouette animations of the Zoöpraxiscope. A reader of such a review would have in mind a false impression of the ubiquitous animated Muybridge photographs that we see today - the Animal Locomotion sequences digitaly manipulated into motion. But if Muybridge's projected motion pictures had their limitations, the reports of their success must have triggered many experimental movie experiments. We know that Edison's motion picture work was in part spurred by Muybridge's Animal Locomotion plates and the potential of a machine that could improve on the Zoöpraxiscope. Others were influenced by Muybridge too.

Muybridge's estimate of his influence on cinema

How did Muybridge himself see his Zoöpraxiscope, in relation to the first filmshows? In the late 1890s, he wrote:

"It is the first apparatus ever used, or constructed, for synthetically demonstrating movements analytically photographed from life, and in its resulting effects is the prototype of all the various instruments which, under a variety of names, are used for a similar purpose at the present day."

This is an extraordinarily accurate description. The Zoöpraxiscope demonstrated MOVEMENTS photographed from life, but not the actual photographs. In its RESULTING EFFECTS - moving images on the screen - it was the protoype of the cinematograph, but not in its technical method. He made no claim to being the first to project motion sequences from a disc, but was proud that his were the first adapted from real life motion.

The importance of the Zoöpraxiscope lies partly in the fact that it created wide interest in the projection of 'living pictures' - rather than being an immediate technical precursor of cinematography. When synthesised into motion, the best of Muybridge's sequences - painted pictures closely informed by photographic live-action series - retain a brief but thrilling essence of true animal vitality.

The animation industry - rotoscoping

One aspect of Muybridge's work that predates similar techniques to those used in filmmaking is rotoscoping, or "motion capture" as the most recent version is known. In producing painted silhouettes and coloured drawings of his sequence photographs, Muybridge captured the essence of life motion and translated it into the media of drawing and painting - in movement.

35mm film loop, Ernst Plank toy company Germany, c.1900. Traced from life and printed by chromolithography. Stephen Herbert Collection

With the development of celluloid, the film industry used this technique - shown here is a rotoscoped film based on a Serpentine Dance, and sold for use on toy projectors from the late 1890s - just three or four years after the production of Muybridge's last similar-looking discs. The films were in short-ish loops, so the motion repeated.

St James Infirmary Blues, from Betty Boop's Snow White (1933)

It took the mainstream film industry some time to latch on, but in 1916 the Fleischer Brothers - later famous for Betty Boop and Popeye films - patented the technique and used it to create Koko the Clown, Dave Fleischer being filmed as Koko, and then turned into drawings. The technique was used for this sequence of a spook dancing to St James Infirmary Blues - rotoscoped from footage of a real dancer.

Scayrecrow (2008)

Later, with the help of a Xerox machine, Muybridge's silhouette technique was used by animator Ralph Bakshi in the 1970s for crowd scenes in his 1970s features, and such rotoscoping is used here, in the recent short film Scayrecrow, by Ashley Thorpe.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

And dinosaur animator Ray Harryhausen developed the stop-motion animation technique first used by Muybridge to bring to life a horse skeleton, to animate miniature skeletons in various Hollywood fantasy movies.

Animal Locomotion, plate 527.

This isn't a sequence of a woman spanking a child. In each horizontal strip of images the hand is frozen; for each sequence the cameras were set up in a semicircle and the shutters operated simultaneously. Each sequence gives a dimensional view of a frozen moment, and is the ancestor of the 'timeslice' or 'bullet time' technique used in Hollywood films such as The Matrix.

Muybridge as 'movie director'

But it isn't only the technology and techniques of Muybridge's work that seem to hint at cinema. Marta Braun has written extensively about the manipulations of the Animal Locomotion plates, how so many of them not only rearrange sequences for aesthetic effect, but also seem to be mini-narratives - photo dramas that tell stories, rather than sequences of scientific analysis. And my friend Luke McKernan of the British Library wrote something to the effect that these sequences 'will themselves into motion' - we hardly need the apparatus of cinema or digital animation to imagine them in movement.

It's quite likely that most of the experimenters and animators of the 20th century had no idea that their particular procedures had already been explored by Eadweard Muybridge in the 1870s and 80s. So Muybridge's technical techniques were not in that sense influential, but in retrospect we can see that they were an extraordinary vision of key aspects of the motion picture media of later times - including the digital media of our time, now.

How was it then, that Muybridge came to be seen as the 'Father of the Motion Picture'?

In the 1890s, the borough librarian at Kingston was Benjamin Carter, and the two men became friends. Muybridge donated his lecture material to Kingston - the basis of this new exhibition - and Carter always supported his view of Muybridge as being the key originator of the moving image on the screen. With the opening of a cinema in Kingston in 1910, he arranged a small display of some of the material that you have seen today. There were many contenders to the designation 'Father of Cinema', and for years Carter defended the position claimed for Muybridge.

A Temple for Muybridge

In 1918, the film director Maurice Tourneur called attention to what he called the 40th anniversary of moving pictures - so dating the beginning to 1878 - the year of Muybridge's first sequence photography. I quote: "Tourneur, who suggested that something be done to commemorate the services of Edward Muybridge, the inventor, now made the definite proposal that a popular fund be collected for the erection of a Temple of the Screen in honor of Muybridge ... in which the notable pictures and scenarios of each year, together with other material evidences of the development of moving pictures, may be kept. Mr Tourneur suggests that the temple be built at the University of Pennsylvania, which is credited with financing Muybridge's experiments." Torneur suggested that the 17,000 picture theatres in America at that time and their 15,000,000 daily patrons would pay an extra cent to fund this.

It didn't happen, and soon Muybridge was seen in an entirely different light. In 1926 American journalist and one-time film producer Terry Ramsaye, in his book A Milion and One Nights, tore into Muybridge quite viciously, taking every opportuity to denigrate both the man and his achievements. With the Larkyns killing, and the claims of others to have been responsible for aspects of Muybridge's work - both prominent in Ramsaye's account - the book had a lasting effect on how some photo historians and a wider public thought of Muybridge.

In some circles, Ramsaye's estimate persisted for a long time. In the 1980s I had given several talks to the Historical Group of the Royal Photographic Society, and was asked to give another. I suggested Muybridge as the subject. The smile on the face of the programme secretary froze solid and then quickly faded. "We don't do Mr Muybridge," I was told. "Horrible man." I wasn't asked again.

Flowers in the '40s

With the 1931 unveiling of the Kingston plaque, his achievements started to be recognised positively again. There is evidence too of a continuing sentimental attachment.

Exhibition poster, 1946. Kingston Museum and Heritage Service

This is a poster for a 1946 exhibition in Prague - 50 Years of Cinematography - which would date the start as 1896, but has to jump back to include Muybridge. Following correspondence with Kingston Museum at the time of the exhibition, Professor Brichta, a Czech historian of the origins of motion pictures, brought a small group from Prague to Kingston, to see the Muybridge artefacts. They laid flowers at the centenary plaque.

Father / Grandfather of the movies - why did we need one?

Why did we need to seek a Father of the Cinema? Today's generation must find that whole quest rather odd. I think the answer is in the passion that cinema aroused for three or four decades. French director Abel Gance once said, without exaggeration or irony, "We should be prepared to give our lives for cinema". Keen film viewers became cineastes, ravenously seeking out films by their favourites, 'eating up' this new art of the 20th century. And they wanted to know where this blazing, flickering, brain stiring and emotion-churning art had come from. At a time when all inventions were credited to single individuals - almost all being white males - they, we, looked back, seeking a father of the medium. Was it Willie Friese-Greene and his magic box? Was it the tragic lost pioneer Louis Leprince, or famous inventor Thomas Edison, or should the paternal parentage be shared by the brothers Lumiere?

For some, Eadweard Muybridge fitted the bill.

But that cinematic passion seemed to evaporate some time in the 1970s, coincident with the soul-numbing rise of semiotic film analysis. No longer would students of the moving image burn with that fiery attitude. "Who's rioting these days?" avante-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage reminisced years later. "Who has enough passion to give a shit what happens in the arts?" But perhaps it's healthy that today's generation of moving image enthusiasts is mostly looking forwards rather than backwards, though a glance over our shoulder at what previous generations of artists have achieved is surely worthwhile.

And we're more sophisticated now in our understanding of the way inventions and the media appear and evolve. There was, of course, no father of the cinema. No individual was responsible for motion pictures, however we define that term.

The biographers

An important exhibition in America in 1972 resulted in the first book about the photographer and zoopraxographer, Eadweard Muybridge The Stanford Years - no attempt at a populist title - an exhibition tie-in but much more than that. Anita Ventura Mozley's work and that of her contributors was an excellent piece of research. Another book appeared that year put together by a keen English photographer, Kevin McDonnell. It was entitled Eadweard Muybridge - the man who invented the moving picture. I think you'll agree, that even this present skimpy survey shows that moving pictures were around before Muybridge.

The proper biographies followed in 1975 and '76: Muybridge, Man in Motion by Robert Bartlett Haas, and the one from which the title of this paper is taken, Eadweard Muybridge - Father of the Motion Picture, by Gordon Hendricks. Both are important works, each taking two decades to produce, but neither deals in any great detail with the Zoöpraxiscope and its discs. I tried to add to that particular story with the Muybridge Bequest book in 2004, and was delighted that our understanding of Muybridge's lecture media has taken a big step forward with the work of Peta Cook, Alexandra Reynolds and their collaborators with the Revolutions exhibition in 2010.

First Muybridge websites and the digital revolution

So - on to the digital revolution. A 1998 website by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts features animated Animal Locomotion plates, in a section entitled 'Eadweard Muybridge "Grandfather of the Motion Picture"'.

But Muybridge on the web goes back further: in 1995 I arranged the photographs - some tiny speckly GIFs - for a set of Muybridge web pages put together by Kingston University and Kingston Museum. If it qualifies as a website, then it was one of the first two or three such sites about Muybridge. The web has come a long way since then, and in 2010 a major Muybridge web portal was launched by those same two institutions.

But in recent years, those 1970s biographies and early websites have seemed to chart the end of the period when Muybridge was presented as the Father of the Motion Picture, or the Grandfather of Cinema, or the technical Inventor of the Movies. And that's good, because it's not only a sentimental irrelevance, it's too tight a pidgeonhole; Muybridge's other work needs to be appreciated and further evaluated, too.

Detail from Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas

That more recent evaluation was given a boost in 2003 with the new biography by Rebecca Solnit, which placed Muybridge in the context of his times, and continued with 2010s exhibitions in The USA and at the Tate Britain, and in Kingston. But ironically, Rebecca Solint's later book Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas - includes a section entitled 'Cinema City', with a map claiming Muybridge as the 'inventor of movies'. So the simplistic labelling continues; the legend refuses to die.

Muybridge's importance in photography and chronophotography

There are more interesting things to do than try to label Muybridge: exploring his landscape and travel photography which are not well represented in print; delving into the misty details of his early life; making new efforts to understand the real science evident in so many of his motion sequence works - an extraordinary scientific achievement in chronophotography and motion analysis that is always overshadowed by considerations of the artistic and aesthetic aspects of his photography, and in many cases thoroughly misrepresented.

808 digital video camera and frame grabs, 2010

We all have digital potential now. With my miniature video camcorder, the size of a car-key fob, I can record motion at 30 frames per second and analyse it frame by frame on my computer. I don't need a team or a wagon to help carry it around as it weighs just 15 grammes. And it cost me 9.99p including postage and a free USB lead, the price of a pizza and coffee, so no need for a wealthy patron. There are new opportunities to enjoy Muybridge's work as material comes online, and for artists huge potential to create works using or inspired by his photography. There are sophisticated projects such as those that appeared in the Stanley Picker Gallery in 2010-2011, and snappy online stuff too: Check out You Tube some time, there are hundreds of related videos, from simple animations of the original photographs to new creative work, and mad Muybridge mashups. And there seems to be plenty of activity in the established arts of painting and sculpture, too.

Cinema changes

The movies continue to change. In 2010, I saw Toy Story 3 in 3-D at my local cinema. There was no perforated celluloid film running through the Odeon's projector. And no cameras were used to take the scenes. But it's still cinema, so the technical medium has become irrelevant. After the age of celluloid film, then, and with the definition of movies now encompassing digital images and web animations, can that same definition be extended backwards to whirling glass discs? Should we still, after all, embrace Muybridge as the originator of Cinema, or Father of the Motion Picture? - or is he Grandfather of the GIF as one recent book reviewer would have it? It doesn't matter. Just enjoy his work.