Film History Essentials: L’Homme Machine (1885)

(English: Man a Machine)

What it’s about:

A series of figures comprised of dots and lines, vaguely resembling a stick-figure representation of a person, appear one-by-one across the screen, filling the frame from right to left. Each is configured slightly differently from the one before it as the stick figure “walks” by swinging its “arm” and raising and lowering its “leg.”

Why it’s essential:

I have chosen to translate the title as you see above based on the unconfirmed assumption that its creator, Étienne-Jules Marey, intentionally named it after La Mettrie’s seminal 1747 work of materialist philosophy. It’s certainly appropriate, given this image of a human figure represented by the fewest possible number of lines in order to demonstrate the purely mechanical aspects of the body in motion. Marey’s work should be reminiscent of (but is also clearly distinct from) the motion photography of Eadweard Muybridge.

The two were not only contemporaries, but communicated with each other, and even met in 1881 to discuss their work and methods. Actually, the connection between them runs even deeper than that. It was Marey’s drawings of horses in motion that first inspired Leland Stanford to attempt to depict the same process through photography. And, in turn, Muybridge’s photographs for Stanford ignited Marey’s pursuit of photography.

But although Muybridge’s efforts to captures bodies in motion began as an experiment to test a specific hypothesis, his most famous later work wasn’t notable for its scientific rigor so much as for its relationship with art and artists. This is where Muybridge’s and Marey’s work clearly diverges. Muybridge entered the field of motion photography after several years of already working as a photographer, and those were the main sensibilities he retained. Marey entered it as a scientist driven by the questions of an entire field of study.

Probably the most obvious difference lies in what they each produced. We’ve already seen several examples of Muybridge’s sequences of photographs shot by a series of a few dozen cameras triggered one after the other. Marey designed a single apparatus that could take several images in a sequence and record them all on the same plate. He called this device the “chronophotographic gun.” Marey’s invention was inspired by the much larger “Janssen revolver” that Janssen used to capture the transit of Venus across the sun in 1874, and Janssen’s design was, in turn, inspired by (and named after) the Colt revolver. So the “gun” label was entirely appropriate. Plus . . . Well, just look at it:

Where the Janssen revolver was enormous, larger even than a cannon, Marey’s chronophotographic gun was easily portable and usable by a single operator. In fact, he used it extensively to photograph birds during excursions to Naples, where the oddity of a man who seemed to be hunting birds but never fired at them earned him a nickname among the locals: “the idiot of Posillipo” (after the neighborhood he frequented).

Now, with as much of an innovator as Marey was, my jaw still dropped when (after having watched the animation several times) I first saw how L’Homme Machine was made. Like Sallie Gardner at a Gallop, it was produced from a series of reference images. Take a look at this example of the type of image used:

Primitive though it may be, this is likely the earliest attempt at motion capture animation, pre-dating the patenting of the processes that would later become commonplace, and their introduction to movie audiences, by decades. I’m kind of in awe of it.

Why you should see it:

Although produced for science, not for art, L’Homme Machine anticipates the work of many well-known avant-garde artists to come. It’s genuinely amazing the way he has reduced his figure to the bare essentials while still managing to convey exactly what it is at a glance. A collection of 2 dots and 5 lines advances across the screen, and the brain immediately says, “Ah, of course, a person walking.”

~ by Jared on January 8, 2023.

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