Classic Movie History Project: The Muybridge Experiment (1880)

If you follow my blog closely you’ll note that in trying to cover the depth and breadth of the cinematic experience I often gone very early into the origins of film. Most recently I posted on a very early film I first saw on Movies Silently. When trying to select a topic for the Classic Film History Blogathon the easiest way for me to narrow down potential topics was to go very early and very specific.

This brings me to the Muybridge Experiment. They were the most significant photographic experiment prior to the advent of motion pictures (1880), as we knew them for more than a century. It is also further evidence that nothing comes from nothing and these things can always be traced, and it is my firm belief that knowing these things is highly important. While these rapid-fire stills have been shown in a simulation of motion, they were taken as stills in 24 triggered cameras solely to prove whether or not all four of a horse’s hooves leave the ground at full gallop (they do):



Mast & Kawin in A Short History of the Movies underscore many things worth noting about the experiment itself:

In fact they were not motion-picture photographs but serial photographs; Muybridge himself called them “serial pictures.” But they were major advances over a series of drawings and posed stills. Continuous motion had been divided into distinct frames, but it had not yet been photographed by a single camera.

The intent was not to create a pre-cursor to the motion picture, but it was quickly realized that that is just what happened.

After having projected the images he proceeded to advance the photographic science and arts:

In 1880, Muybridge first projected moving images on a screen when he gave a presentation at the California School of Fine Arts; this was the earliest known motion picture exhibition. He later met with Thomas Edison, who had recently invented the phonograph. Edison went on to invent the kinetoscope, the precursor of the movie camera.

The relationship between Muybridge and Stanford became turbulent in 1882. Stanford commissioned the book The Horse in Motion: as Shown by Instantaneous Photography, written by his friend and horseman J. D. B. Stillman; it was published by Osgood and Company.The book claimed to feature instantaneous photography, but showed 100 illustrations based on Muybridge’s photographs taken of Stanford’s mare Sallie. Muybridge was not credited in the book except noted as a Stanford employee and in a technical appendix based on an account he had written. As a result, the Britain’s Royal Society of Arts, which earlier had offered to finance further photographic studies by Muybridge of animal movement, withdrew the funding. His suit against Stanford to gain credit was dismissed out of court.
Muybridge soon gained support for two years of studies under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania. The university published his current and previous work as an extensive portfolio of 781 collotype plates, under the title Animal Locomotion: An Electro-photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements, 1872–1885. The collotype plates measured 19 by 24 inches, each were contained in 36 by 36-inch frames; the total number of images were approximately 20,000. The published plates included 514 of men and women in motion, 27 plates of abnormal male and female movement, 16 of children, 5 plates of adult male hand movement, and 219 with animal subjects.

Muybridge’s experiments lead to Marey’s advances in France in 1882 where the images where shot through a Chronotograph process, all in one camera. Then in 1884 George Eastman began experimenting with celluloid and paper-roll film. None of these things occurred without Muybridge’s experiment though.

It’s also interesting to note that while silent films were shot at variable frame rates sound synchronization required a standard; that compromised rate ended up being the same number Muybridge shot trying to prove a simple point.


  1. Movies Silently · June 27, 2015

    Thanks so much for all your research on the fascinating tale of the Muybridge experiment. It’s funny how something as big as the movies could start with such a small dispute about horses and their hooves.

    • bernardovillela · June 27, 2015

      You’re welcome, and thanks for reading! It was the least I could do to add something about such a significant in film history to the blogathon.

  2. shwyny · June 29, 2015

    Wow this is so fascinating! Everyone knows the story starting from Lumiere brothers but these rudimentary experiments are really the foundation of filmmaking. What amazes me is that seem to be more fascinated by the subject (the horse movements,) rather than the techniques employed(they just made a film!). Of course, it must be evident to them once they made it! Thanks for sharing this!

  3. I absolutely enjoyed reading your post. It was very informative and very well written. The real early days of cinema is fascinating. Thank you for sharing with us.

    I would also like to invite you to check out my upcoming blogathon in August, and would love for you to participate. The link is below with more information.

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