Film History Essentials: Skeleton of Horse (1881)

What it’s about:

The full skeleton of a horse appears against a dark backdrop. It moves forward at a gallop, passing through a sequence of poses that will be familiar to anyone who has seen Muybridge’s earlier photographs of the horse Sallie Gardner. Suddenly, the skeleton appears to leap over a white post that abruptly appears in the frame and comes to a landing on the other side.

Why it’s essential:

I have not been able to find a lot of well-sourced information about either the circumstances or the purpose of this piece of photographic wizardry. According to the Library of Congress, we know that Muybridge took these in California in 1878-79 (though he didn’t copyright them until 1881), so he was presumably still working with Leland Stanford. Their relationship broke down a few years later, after Stanford commissioned a book based on Muybridge’s photographs without giving him sufficient credit.

It seems likely that these photographs were taken to more clearly show the motion of the horse’s movements as Muybridge’s studies continued. And, of course, these are actual photographs. Although Muybridge did publicly show his photographs of Sallie Gardner in motion, the simulated motion of Sallie Gardner at a Gallop that he exhibited did not use the photographs themselves, but rather silhouettes of his images reproduced by hand, presumably so that it would be easier either to discern or to focus on the important details of the motion while watching the display (and possibly so it would be easier to produce further copies for display). Skeleton of Horse was a step forward, not only because it gave a detailed look at the skeleton as it passed through the ranges of motion, but because that motion is being simulated by the photographs themselves! This was possible at such a high level of quality because the skeleton could be posed, and so the more-developed processes of photography requiring longer capture times could be used.

You also might see the result referred to as the earliest known example of stop-motion animation. Certainly it seems like a breakthrough, whether Muybridge deserves the credit or not, to make the leap from simulating motion with a sequence of animated drawings, to capturing motion through a sequence of photographs of actual motion, to conceiving of creating the illusion of motion through a series of photographs of an otherwise inanimate object being manipulated by the photographer.

Why you should see it:

There’s no denying that Skeleton of Horse lacks the breathtaking sense of actual speed that we get from Sallie Gardner at a Gallop, but there’s still something quite fascinating about seeing those same movements reproduced using the skeleton. Watch closely for the slight variations from one image to the next that are such a defining characteristic of this technique, particularly the movements of the bones in the tail and slight opening and closing of the jaw. And, of course, the jump is a totally new element. I like that they only bothered to insert the obstacle at the precise moment that the skeleton is above it, but not before or after. It almost feels like an afterthought: “Oh, I guess we’ll have it jumping over something, sure.”

~ by Jared on January 5, 2023.

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