moving targets

PerplexedJenLuc Over at the Ptak Science Books blog — maintained by John Ptak, whose insatiable passion for cataloging historical scientific oddities makes the blog an absolutely fascinating read — you can read all about how authors struggled to depict human motion in pre-motion picture era. When you've spent decades around rare old manuscripts, like Ptak, you can't help but stumble on a few hidden gems: in this case, a book by Fabian von Auerswald, whose Ringer kunst: funf und Achtzig Stücke, published in 1539 in Wittenberg, is one of the earliest books printed on the art of wrestling.

Then there's Pierre Beauchamp's Orchesography, published in 1700 to instruct people on the movements of the dance. (The full title was a bit of a mouthful: Orchesography; or, The art of dancing by characters and demonstrative figures. Wherein the whole art is explain'd; with compleat tables of all steps us'd in dancing, and rules for the motions of the arms, &c. Whereby any person (who understands dancing) may of himself learn all manner of dances. Being an exact and just translation from the French of Monsieur Feuillet. By John Weaver, dancing master. The 18th century wasn't known for its brevity.)

The tome translated dance movements into a sort of "spatial geography," according to Ptak, encoding the movements of feet and arms into something that looks a lot like musical notation. It was neither easy to read, nor easy to use, since a dancer always had to hold the book up in such a way that it always pointed towards the "upper end" of the ballroom. That way s/he could view the steps as they would look from above.  Ptak thinks the real value of the book was not to dance instruction in the 1700s, but as a historical record: "As it turns out the work … may have been more important as a piece of dance archaeology because it was so terribly detailed; it may not have been an exemplar of teaching people how to dance, but it certainly was an iconic publication in recording the intricacies of dances that may otherwise have been lost to time."6a00d83542d51e69e20133ec7bfd80970b

The study of motion really took off with the invention of photography. It didn't take long for some folks to figure out that taking a series of photographs in rapid succession could reveal the mechanics of motion (and that playing those still images in quick succession would give the illusion of movement.) Among the pioneers in this area was 19th century French physician and physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey.

Marey started out studying blood circulation, blood pressure, heart beats and respiration, and was adept at inventing his own instruments to measure and record these processes. It wasn't long before he turned his attention to how the muscles worked, and from there, to the study of body movement. And his knack for invention led to the development of an early version of the chronograph: specifically, a chronographic gun capable of taking 12 consecutive frames per second of a subject (like birds) in motion. It was basically a slow motion camera. Per Ptak:

One iteration of Marey's apparatus was basically a long series of ganged cameras recording a motion for a simple task at a given time frame and presented on a continuous strip of photographic paper, sort of like a motion picture with the camera speed set at three frames per second.

The resulting images were phenomenal and showed people for the first time the exactness of all manners of simple motions–motions that no longer looked so "simple" once all of its aspects could be studied from captured photographic evidence.  Even the act of hopping over a small stool or bending to pick up a bucket of water were enormously revealing in a way like Robert Hooke's Micrographia displayed the great detail and complexity of the seemingly simple fly.  Perhaps the most famous of Marey's series of images was that of a galloping horse, which also for the first time revealed what exactly the horse's legs were doing and proving that almost every painter in the history of art represented the galloping horse incorrectly. But Marey … photographically reveal[s] hundreds of actions that led to a revolutionary understanding of the body-in-motion.


As one might expect, Marey influenced, and was heavily influenced in turn by, British photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who helped pioneer a process in which a series of
pictures would be taken of a subject in motion and then shown in sequence.
Legend has it that Muybridge was asked to settle a bet
for the Governor of California, who insisted that when a horse gallops, at a
particular point all four feet are off the ground simultaneously. (Most likely the good governor had heard of Marey's thesis.) Aside from
one brief distraction -– Muybridge was tried and acquitted for killing his
wife’s lover, in the O.J. Simpson trial of the 19th century; it was deemed justifiable homicide, I guess -– he
devoted himself to the task, and succeeded in photographing a horse galloping,
using 24 cameras, each triggered by the breaking of a trip wire on the course.
The images proved the governor right, and fortuitously took public attention
away from Muybridge’s scandalous crime.


Muybridge continued to conduct
comprehensive photographic studies of men and women in movement. It just so happens that the Corcoran in Washington DC opened an exhibit today showcasing Muybridge's pioneering photographs. Blake Gopnik reviews the exhibit in The Washington Post, and had this to say about Muybridge's influence not just on photography, but on 20th century art in general:

Muybridge's stop-action images of greyhounds and elephants, of mothers and blacksmiths, of athletes and the disabled, are fascinating things: They chop continuous experience into component parts, almost as Monet and Seurat tried to do with vision and color. They spread time and motion across a single picture's surface, undermining notions of stasis and stability — of the single, truthful view — that had ruled in art for centuries. The destabilizing strangeness of their look, rather than the quantity and authority of their information, is what turned out to matter most in them. It's what the cubists and futurists and other modernist radicals spotted in Muybridge in the decades following his death. It's what we still appreciate the most in his images, a century later.

In 1878, Scientific American published some of
these photographs and suggested that readers might like to cut out the pictures
and place them in an optical toy called a “zoetrope” to recreate the illusion
of movement. This was essentially a small drum with an open top, supported by a
central axis around which it spun. Sequences of hand-drawn images on strips of
paper were placed around the inner wall of the drum, and slots were cut at
equal distances along the sides, all around the drum’s outer surface – just
above where the pictures were positioned. People could view the
images in motion as the drum was spun. The faster the rate of spin, the more
fluid the progression of images.Zoetrope

invented his own version of this device, the zoopraxiscope, which projected images from
rotating glass disks in rapid succession. The images were painted directly onto
the glass. It caught
the attention of famed American inventor Thomas Edison – the so-called “Wizard
of Menlo Park “ — who had a knack for taking the fledgling ideas of others and
turning them into profitable inventions. He would eventually patent one of the
earliest motion picture cameras, the kinetograph, and used his invention to
make short films. These were viewed with a companion projector, which he called
a kinetoscope.

Around the same
time, George Eastman introduced celluloid film: a
strip of transparent plastic material (celluloid) with one side coated with
several different chemical layers held together by gelatin. Edison cut the new film cut into long strips and his assistant, William Dickson, developed
a sprocket system for a camera that would move the film past the lens when
turned by a crank. This was the kinetograph. Every time a picture was taken,
the cylinder rotated slightly, taking another picture. The crude film was then
processed and run through a viewer in slow motion (the kinetoscope).

The first “film” Edison made was of
a worker in his Newark, New Jersey, laboratory named Fred Ott, who acted out a
sneeze on February 2, 1893. The sound of the sneeze was recorded on a
phonograph, to be played back with the film, and the experiment proved a
smashing success. Soon Edison and his cronies were producing short movies in a studio
in West Orange, dubbed “Black Maria” because of its resemblance to a
patrol wagon. A hole in the
ceiling allowed the sun to shine through and illuminate the stage. The
building was constructed on a set of tracks to enable Edison’s team to
move it
around and follow the course of the sun throughout the day. These short
films – most lasting just a few seconds – were shown on kinetoscopes
placed in
arcades around the country.

Eventually, the team produced a 15-minute
thriller, “The
Great Train Robbery,” and went on to develop more than 2000 other short
films. And thus was launched a multi-billion dollar industry. Motion picture technology continues to advance at an impressive clip — 3D is currently all the rage, but innovation won't stop there, particularly as we learn more about the brain, perception and human cognition. It all started, though, with a few curious souls asking "What really happens when a horse gallops?" And doggedly figuring out how to experimentally answer that question. There may be those who doubt that the yawning cultural gap between science and Hollywood can be bridged, but in truth, the two share the technological roots. The first step is remembering that common ground.

Scroll to Top