Film History Essentials: Roundhay Garden Scene (1888)

What it’s about:

Four people move about a garden (yard) in Roundhay, Leeds. The nearby house occupies the left side of the frame. The young man, beginning by the house steps and facing the camera, purposefully marches in a wide semi-circle that takes him to the opposite side of the frame, facing away from the camera. The young woman, just to his right, turns slowly and begins to step away from the camera. The older woman, standing a bit further back, begins an exaggerated march in place, almost as though she is miming walking. The older man, behind the older woman and facing away from her and the camera, strides a few steps forward, then turns (still striding) and begins to walk back towards the group.

Why it’s essential:

This is it! The birth of cinema!

Well, no, not really. That has already happened, but also it won’t happen for several more years. As I’ve said, I can’t tell you precisely where cinema begins. But this is the most important landmark yet. Louis Le Prince’s Roundhay Garden Scene, shot at his father-in-law’s house on October 14, 1888, is the oldest surviving piece of film (that we know of currently). Everything that we’ve seen before this was a series of individual drawings or photographs that (depending on the work) may or may not have originally been intended to be viewed or projected in motion. This was recorded on an actual strip of film using a single-lens camera that represented a significant step forward from Le Prince’s earlier 16-lens design.

Louis Daguerre had taken the first photographic image of a person in 1838. Now, 50 years later, his son’s friend, a boy who grew up visiting his studio, had captured the first filmed moving picture of a person. It’s almost too poetic. To watch this is to witness the work of a man who is on the precipice of revolutionizing everything, and doing it years before the big names credited with the invention of cinema. Instead, Le Prince is largely forgotten where others became household names instead, as the result of a mystery that remains unsolved to this day.

Le Prince spent the next few years working on a method to successfully project his films for an audience, and in 1890 he planned to travel to New York in order to premier his work before the public for the first time. He was about to make history. Before leaving for the United States, he returned to France to visit his brother, then boarded a train to Paris on September 16. He was never seen again, disappearing without a trace. No sign of what had happened to him was ever found, and he was declared dead 7 years later. His achievements, many of which were never seen outside of his immediate circle of friends and family, remained largely unknown for decades. It’s a startlingly abrupt and unsatisfying ending to a story that was clearly far from over.

Why you should see it:

Le Prince’s story is haunting, but what’s most fascinating about the Roundhay Garden Scene is that it isn’t just the first movie (y’know, sort of), it’s the first home movie. The subjects are Le Prince’s son, his mother-in-law (who died 10 days after this was filmed), his father-in-law, and a friend of the family. It feels spontaneous in a way that we haven’t seen before now, but also extremely self-conscious in a way that we won’t see for some time yet.

These people are absolutely performing, but in a way that suggests that Le Prince said, “Okay, just do something! Move around! Whatever!” and started filming. Each person has a totally different reaction to that prompt. The result is momentous for reasons that have nothing to do with the people being filmed or what they’re doing. But it’s a 135-year old record of family and friends spending time together, and perhaps also being good sports in humoring Le Prince’s experiment, and that’s kind of beautiful in itself, isn’t it?

~ by Jared on January 11, 2023.

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