The Mechanical Butcher

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(5/10) The first science fiction film in history was made by movie pioneer Louis Lumière in 1895, and depicts a futuristic machine turning a live pork into sausages and ham at lightning speed. 

The Mechanical Butcher (La Charcuterie Mecanique). 1895, France. Directed, filmed and produced by Louis Lumière for Lumière. 

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Auguste and Louis Lumière.

What better way to start off a blog about the history of science fiction film than with a clip by the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, generally credited with giving birth to the art of cinema by hosting the first public screening of moving pictures? Except for the fact that Auguste had nothing to do with this short film, The Mechanical Butcher, or La Charcuterie Mecanique. And the fact that the Lumière brothers weren’t the first to host a public screening of moving pictures. Nonetheless, The Mechanical Butcher, a 44 second clip (or a one-reel film in those days) from 1895 is generally accepted as the first science fiction film ever made.

In this very short movie we are treated to a large wooden box with two hinged lids on top, and with a large text on the side reading: “La Charcuterie Mecanique”. Behind the box, presumably attached to it, is something that could either be a wheel or a circular saw. One man enters the frame with a pig, one of the lids is lifted and the hog is thrown in. Another man starts turning the wheel/saw, and from the other lid a third man starts taking out pork products, such as a cured ham and sausages. The machine, we are led to believe, is creating instant fast food from a (just previously) living pig.

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A scene from the first science fiction film, La charcuterie mécanique (1895).

A modern viewer might be hard pressed to call this science fiction, and indeed: there was not even such a term in 1895. The director Louis Lumière himself classified it as a “humorous subject”. But still, it bears all the hallmarks of sci-fi. It depicts a technology that did not exist at the time of the film’s creation, indeed it still doesn’t exist. Despite this, the technology itself looks familiar enough, and the film might even be considered a satire on Ford’s conveyor belt principle, and as we know much of science fiction in both film and literature has been used as a commentary on current phenomena, by presenting an exaggerated image of current affairs. And the circular saw/wheel also leads us to understand that the box isn’t a magic box, but that there is clearly some sort of mechanical process going on – which is further cemented by the film’s title. Indeed, many later films we might lazily refer to as science fiction because they deal with space travel don’t really cut the muster, as many of them portray the means of travel through some supernatural explanation, magic or within a dream frame, making them fantasy rather than sci-fi.

The Lumière brothers would have very little to do with science fiction in the future, in fact they would have very little to do with the actual development of cinema as an art form altogether. In this sense, it is rather ironic that these two engineers are so widely hailed today as the creators of the movies. While few pioneers have had such impact on the very early development of films, their importance for the medium is often overstated.

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Thomas Edison.

In school textbooks and such it is often stated in rather sweeping terms that Thomas Edison created the first film camera, while Auguste and Louis Lumière held the first public film screening, but neither of these are true. Thomas Edison, the great inventor and businessman, best known perhaps for creating the electric light bulb, and waging patent wars with Nikola Tesla, was like a sponge. He was a shrewd businessman who often took credit for other people’s work, and blatantly stole ideas from others by imagining minor changes in their designs and filing caveats for these ideas. But he would also travel the world to see new inventions and gather all the latest scientific ideas, read all he could about new technologies and suck them all up. He had the uncanny ability to then put these ideas together and see possibilities in their future that few others saw, and he then put his best people to work on how these possibilities would be made reality.

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Eadweard Muybridge (right) and an athlete.

The question of who invented the first movie camera depends on what you mean by movie camera. The basic idea was clear enough to anyone who understood how a still camera worked: if you could device of a camera that took multiple pictures a second, and then had a way to show these pictures in a rapid succession, like a flipbook or a zoetrope, one would have moving pictures. In fact photographer, artist, performer, murderer and  madman Eadweard Muybridge devised of such a camera system in 1872, shot a horse galloping, showed the pictures in a zoetrope, and later projected them with what he called a zoopraxiscope.

But in fact, he used multiple cameras and his “films” were actually painted animations based on his photos, since the zoopraxiscope would distort the actual photos – so the pictures had to be painted in their reverse distortion to look like the originals. In the 1880’s he spent two years at the University of Pennsylvania where he created over 100 000 pictures of human bodies in motion, often against a background of grids, to help scientist measure accurately human motion. These photo series, which had a strange, clinical feel, had a big impact on both later film pioneers and artist, like Degas, Bacon and Warhol, and echoes of these beautiful, yet bizarre photos can be seen in many later science fiction movies which depict sterile, dystopian environments against which frail human bodies are pitted.

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One of Muybridge’s studies of motion made at the University of Pennsylvania, which with a peculiar regularity featured nude women.

In other pictures taken at the University of Pennsylvania, he set up a semi-circle of cameras all rigged to take pictures simultaneously, catching a split-second of movement from multiple angles. This was the exact same technique used 125 years later by the Wachowski brothers to create much fussed about “bullet time photography” shots for The Matrix (1999).

Albert Londe and Etienne Jules-Marey created cameras that could take twelve pictures in rapid succession, and Jules-Marey was the first to capture them on a thin celluloid film, at a time when pictures were still primarily captured on glass plates. The result was long strips of film with twelve images exposed side by side, creating a sort of panorama of movement. Today he is perhaps best remembered for his iconic pictures taken of athletes at the 1900 Olympics in Paris. However, Jules-Marey’s pictures were stills, even if his so-called chronophotographic gun came to inspire the creators of the movie camera.

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One of Etienne Jules-Marey’s pictures published in Scientific American in 1914.

In 1887 British inventor William Friese-Greene invented a way to capture images on oiled paper strips, and shortly thereafter George Eastman and Thomas Henry Blair came up with the first commercial celluloid film strips, independently of each other. In 1890 Friese-Greene came up with the idea of perforating the film strip, so that it could be moved forward by sprockets in the camera. He then built and patented said camera, and claimed it was able to take up to 10 pictures in a second. His invention was heavily publicised in the world of photography, but in actual fact, the camera never quite lived up to its reputation. Some film fragments shot with the camera has survived, and it plays out more like a sequence of rapid still photos than like a film. However, the basic principle of the camera, with its perforated film and sprockets inspired Thomas Edison, who promptly sent the drawings of it to his employee William K. Dickson, with the order to create an improved version and patent it, thus creating what was probably the first actual functioning movie camera. It was also Dickson who produced the kinetoscope, the peep-hole projector, which was the first way to actually view films, in 1891.

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William Friese-Greene

As an aside, it can be noted that Friese-Greene died dramatically in 1921 at a seminar called together to discuss the crisis in British film. He had just delivered a short speech pleading the warring factions to reconcile, when he collapsed and died on the spot. Perhaps stricken with guilt over having more or less forgotten the now poverty-stricken and lonely Friese-Greene for so many years, the film community came together to organise a bombastic funeral, and he was honoured with a plaque calling him “the father of kinematography”. For decades Friese-Greene was hailed as “the forgotten inventor of the moving pictures”, as both scholars and the public were misled by his own admissions about the functionality about his failed camera. During his life he claimed to have filmed “the first moving pictures” before both Lumière and Dickson, and the Brits were naturally thrilled to have a countryman as the pioneer in the field. It was also claimed that Friese-Greene had developed a projector with which he had screened his his early films, which depicted people and traffic in the streets of London, five years before the cinematograph. Later research has found no basis for this claim, and the general advancements in the field in 1900 were at such a stage, that is inconceivable that he  would have been able to create such a projector on hsi own at that time. In 1951 there was made a highly romanticised film about him called The Magic Box, which Martin Scorsese has named as a big influence.

The Lumière brothers, however, are credited with inventing the cinematograph, a movie camera that also functioned as a projector, bettering Edison’s kinetoscope by making films a public and social event, rather than a private experience. But the Lumières didn’t work in a vacuum either. Different projectors for moving images had been around for decades, and even projectors for celluloid film existed prior to their famed “first” public screening in Paris of December 1895. Kazimierz Prószyński made a so-called pleograph in 1894, and several months before the Lumières’ public screening brothers Max and Emil Skladanowksy held their own screening in Berlin with what they called a Bioscop. In the US Woodville Latham and Eugene Lauste developed what they called the Panopticon, and held a public screening in May 1895.

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Max Skaldonowki next to his Bioscop in 1932.

While we often think of the history of film beginning with that legendary screening in 1895, IMDb lists around 150 films made before the end of 1984. Many of them would hardly be called films in the modern sense of the word, but there are quite a few films with even a rudimentary plot that were made after the introduction of the Easton or Blair celluloid film rolls.

So why have the Lumières been so deified in the annals of film history? Well, partly it is because they really were important innovators in the field of motion pictures, and they were the first Frenchmen to actually build a modern movie camera with which they made their first films as early as 1892, two years after William K. Dickson at the Edison Company shot his first film clip Monkeyshines. They also did hold one of the very first private screenings of films, as early as March 1895. But they were also men with means and a voice. Auguste and Louis inherited their family’s factory, where they produced photographic plates, and by the 1880’s the business was blooming. They were adept engineers and chemists, shrewd businessmen and clever marketers. When in March of 1895 they held their first private film screening, it was actually not meant to be the big attraction, but rather a side-show at a conference they had called for 200 Parisians, the crème de la crème of the photography world, engineers and businessmen. The purpose of the conference was to show off their latest developments in colour photography, and they were rather surprised that their moving pictures instead became the talk of the town.

Over the years the Lumières amassed a library of over 1 000 films, either filmed by Louis or by a number of contractors and freelancers. The Lumières covered both important events and mundane day-to-day life in Paris and the world, and when film became more common, travelogues from all corners of the world. They are credited with creating the first French film clip, the first French story film, the first science fiction film, and a number of other firsts. But despite all this, the Lumières were not great cinema artists.

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An ad for the Lumière movie show, feauring their first story film, The Sprinkler Sprinkled (1985).

The Lumières were not that interested in the story-telling capabilities of film. That they achieved a number of firsts probably had mostly to do with the fact that they were the first to have actual functioning cameras. Le Charcuterie Mecanique doesn’t involve any advanced cinematic techniques, and could just as easily have been a street performance. Whatever the case, the films was still widely imitated by other filmmakers. They were, however, very adept documentarians, and first and foremost they turned the moving pictures into a mass medium, and made a good deal of money by touring the world with their movie screenings. But in 1905 the brothers decided to opt out of the movie business, instead focusing on developing colour photography, a work that had been sort of interrupted by their sudden movie fame. There seems to be a consensus that they saw movies strictly as a novelty, a fad, and therefore had no real interest in furthering the medium. But it’s also possible that their decision to leave movies behind was influenced by the giant leaps forward that cinematography made in the early 20th century. As fictional films gained popularity, movies were getting ever more elaborate and costly. Movie studios started popping up all over the world, people were imagining travels among the stars and the planets, retelling the life of Christ in hour-long presentations, creating huge costume dramas and fairy-tale magic on the screen. To be able to compete at any level in this ever-evolving game, the Lumières would have had to significantly step up their game, as they were competing with growing giants like Edison, Pathé and Gaumont. It is quite possible that the Louis and Auguste simply decided it was time to shit or get off the pot, so to speak, and settled on the latter.

Evaluating a 40 second clip from any artistic viewpoints is naturally tricky, but at least it is clear that there is some level of preparation and thought put into the film. The direction is rather sloppy, with actors spending a considerable amount of time with their backs to the camera. It also seems to be a rather rushed procedure, probably due to the fact that the whole scene had to be done in under 50 seconds, which was about the length of a film reel. To a modern viewer it is interesting mainly as a historic milestone.

Janne Wass

The Mechanical Butcher (La Charcuterie Mecanique). 1895, France. Directed, filmed and produced by Louis Lumière for Lumière. 

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