Sunday 12 November 2017

Peter Tammer's Personal History of the Documentary (1) - The 1896 Melbourne Cup film

On Tuesday 7th November,  the 2017 Melbourne Cup was televised on HSV 7.
Like so many fellow Australians I was glued to the TV screen for about an hour.

Comic Court
I have been connected to the annual event of “our” Melbourne Cup since Comic Court won in 1950 when I was a mere child. I had asked my Mum and Dad to place a bet on Comic Court for me, but they failed to do so and of course… he won.

From Wiki:
Comic Court (1945–1973) was a most versatile post-war Australian bred Thoroughbred racehorse who set race records at distances of 6 furlongs (1,200 metres) and 2 miles (3,200 metres). He won the 1950 Melbourne Cup carrying 9 stone 5 pounds (59 kg) and set an Australasian record of 3 minutes 19½ seconds.[4]

1950!  That means I was only seven years old at the time. How come I knew so much about horses and such in 1950 when I was only 7 years of age?

Well, for one thing, my family were a bunch of gamblers, so how could I not be involved in gambling at 7 years of age?

But why did I select “Comic Court” and ask them to place a two-shilling bet on him for me? The answer is very simple: I was reading a lot of comics at the time and it was nothing more or less than “association’” by name which led me to predict this most astonishing win!

I don’t know how much the odds of his win would have amounted to but I recall they gave me 2 shillings for my prodigious feat of betting on the winner at age seven. I can’t be sure of this because it all happened 67 years ago and a lot of Melbourne Cups have come and gone between then and now.

Let’s move on a few years. Some time later, I’m not sure how many years have slipped under the bridge, the Melbourne Film Festival showed a copy of a film of the Melbourne Cup in 1896. I recall it was stated as a gift from the French Government to the National Library. I guess this very short film was created by someone who was licensed or contracted to film the event for the Lumière Brothers, using one of their new-fangled magical movie cameras which had only been invented in France a few years before.

Marius Sestier
From Wiki:
When Les Frères Lumière’s representative to Australia, Marius Sestier, arrived in Sydney in mid September 1896 one of his tasks was to not only show films but to make films. With his Australian concessionaire, Henry Walter Barnett, the pair made Australia’s first film “Passengers Leaving SS Brighton at Manly” in Sydney.

Another film they made was from the Melbourne Cup Carnival Series shot in Melbourne in 1896 and was added to the titles already held. The Melbourne Cup film was readily identified as the weighing-in for the Cup, in which the jockeys ride their horses to the weighing room on the Flemington racecourse and are weighed for correct weight before the race.

When I saw this film at the Melbourne Film Festival I was really quite astonished. There were many reasons for my reaction. It was so fresh, so primitive, and so “uncomplicated”.

Another reason I recall it so well is because there was a gentleman (I guess that’s what he was) who kept staring at the camera for quite a large portion of the film. Actually now that I look at the film again I see there were a number of people gawking at the camera. You can see it on YouTube.

Another reason I was fascinated was that they managed to capture only about ten seconds of the finish of the race which follows an earlier shot from the previous material of people on the lawn with horses passing through frame, including a number of chaps looking at the camera, this shot runs about 1 minute and twelve seconds. The final shot of the race finish was taken from a separate angle.

By far the most powerful reason for my surprise and joy was that this was an unadorned “documentary”... a film which was doing nothing more than capturing a reality, capturing a significant moment in time, a visual document of an important event… unadorned, no frills, just a slice of life. And even as far back as the first few days and months in the history of cinema there was always someone gawking at the camera.

Well, of course! Why should a gentleman, or these gentlemen, not be gawking at the camera? After all they probably had never seen one like this before, with an operator winding a lever like a coffee grinder, making a huge racket, and with someone standing by shouting at the many racegoers, telling them to look away and watch the bloody race. They probably wondered what the hell was going on and were just trying to make some sense of it, and in the heat of  moment they just forgot about the running of the famous horse race.

Geoff Gardner suggests that this film is the first bit of “acting” on an Australian screen:

“Can I put into your thoughts that the Melbourne Cup film is also the first Oz example of fiction or at least staging. This is because at one point a bloke rushes in from the side of the frame and starts waving his hat. This is immediately taken up by a part of the crowd. I don’t think it was spontaneous.”

I agree with Geoff on this matter. In another account I read somewhere it was Sestier’s offsider, Henry Walter Barnett, who rushed into frame to admonish the distracted crowd.

As you can see, all the elements of observational cinema are there in this first wonderful example of cinematic history. Melbourne was fortunate to be chosen as the site for filming one of the earliest actualities in the history of cinema.

Now we come to the part which really engages me… and it has done so since my very earliest interest in films and filming, also cameras, both still and movie. It all comes down to a simple choice: that choice is between filming something that exists in its own right, as distinct from creating an event to be filmed.

The Cinematograph

Auguste and Louis Lumière
From Wiki:
The Lumières held their first private screening of projected motion pictures in 1895. This first screening on 22 March 1895 took place in Paris, at the "Society for the Development of the National Industry", in front of an audience of 200 people – among which Léon Gaumont, then director of the Comptoir de la photographie. The main focus of this conference by Louis Lumière were the recent developments in the photograph industry, mainly the research on polychromy (colour photography). It was much to Lumière's surprise that the moving black-and-white images retained more attention than the coloured stills photographs.[7]

The brothers stated that "the cinema is an invention without any future" and declined to sell their camera to other filmmakers such as Georges Méliès. This made many film makers upset. Consequently, their role in the history of film was exceedingly brief. In parallel with their cinema work they experimented with colour photography.

The Lumière Brothers invite Georges Méliès to a private event!

George Méliès
Somewhere in the mists of my memory there is a letter inviting Méliès to attend an “event which we believe will astonish even you”. This wording came about because Georges Méliès was a famous theatrical person, an illusionist, and the owner of Théâtre Robert-Houdin. He clearly had a reputation as a showman.

The story has been told and retold that Méliès immediately offered to purchase the Lumiere’s “cinematograph”, but his offer was rejected because the Lumières had a particular view about the “purpose” of their invention: it was intended to be for scientific observation rather than mere “entertainment”.

From Wiki:
On the evening of 28 December 1895, Méliès attended a special private demonstration of the Lumière brothers' cinematograph, given for owners of Parisian houses of spectacle.[5][a] Méliès immediately offered the Lumières 10,000 for one of their machines; the Lumières refused, anxious to keep a close control on their invention and to emphasize the scientific nature of the device.

Many of their early filmed events were “actualities” such as the arrival of a train at the station, the felling of a factory wall at their own factory, and some employees departing the factory after a day’s work.


and one of the earliest “home movies” ever made:

The programme also included a short comic film which was a set-up event (i.e., fictional/narrative)

Le Jardinier (l'Arroseur Arrosé) ("The Gardener", or "The Sprinkler Sprinkled")

This division of the “interests” or “purposes” they imagined for the new invention not only existed at the time of its first airings, but it also set up a sort of conflict which followed from that time till today.  One way we can discuss it is under the heading “What is a Documentary?” Another is this: “Are all films which contain observations of reality Documentaries?”

Another question I will deal with in a later paper is this: why do we use such an omnibus term as “documentary” to cover a huge range of different sorts of films, different genres and styles and subject matter?

Some people have a preference for documentaries over fictional films, but the general public soon decided in favour of those events which were “entertainments”: stories, dramas, re-enactments of historical events, and magical events.

Fortunately, Georges Méliès was not deterred by the Lumiere Brothers’ rejection of his offer to purchase the “cinematograph”.

The story I heard in the late sixties was that he just went home to his studio/workshop and decided to build one for himself, having already worked out what it might entail. I’m sure it was not that simple… I imagine he did a fair bit of research into what was required to copy what the Lumière Brothers had already created.

Then followed a period in the early history of cinema, all over the world, where individuals and companies created the earliest films, including some which were made in Australia, such as the 1896 Melbourne Cup, The Kelly Gang, etc.

Many films were created specifically to cover notable events which we have come to call “news events”, some of these became “newsreels” while others remained as entire films of an event. In these sorts of events, the “staging” was pre-arranged, the role of the team making the film was to select the best vantage points from which the event could be filmed or “recorded”. Often the film would require multiple cameras to cover the event, so co-ordination of the team, understanding what they had to get, was incredibly different from a simple few shots taken at the Melbourne Cup 1986 by a single cameraman and his offsider. These films of “important “or “significant” events return us to an earlier meaning of of words such as “document” or “documentation”.

The work of  Méliès was decidedly for public amusement, his films were made to entertain and to amaze. However they also included a mixture of documentary type subjects as well as his famous fantasies.

The India Rubber Head
My own special favourite of his early films is the The India Rubber Head

From Wiki:
This effect was used again in The Man with the Rubber Head, in which Méliès plays a scientist who expands his own head to enormous proportions. This new experiment, along with the others that he had perfected over the years, would be used in his most well-known and beloved film later that year.

In creating such a film Méliès had invented the process of superimposition without any sign of transparency, in other words both heads were “solid” not ghostly. He had previously made films where he specifically wanted the double exposure to be of a “dreamlike” or “ghostly nature, but he did not want that effect for The Indiarubber Head. Later on this “solid” superimposition technique came to be called “matte” work, and was most often achieved using “optical printers”... however in this very early attempt he may have merely used a technique of re-exposing the film after its first “pass” through the camera, a second exposure run before developing the negative. This technique was only successful in The Indiarubber Head film because of the black area in the doorway behind the expanding head, otherwise the head would have been transparent and architectural features would have been seen through it.

This little gem of a film was beautifully orchestrated, including a shot “tracking” in towards the head to make it enlarge, as well as a “pull back” to make the head shrink back to normal size. And to achieve this he must have used a focus-pulling technique to keep the details of the head in focus throughout the various movements, enlarging or shrinking.

Another beautiful piece of “orchestration” is in the handling of the “head” as he takes it from the container and elegantly places it upon the table. This occurs about 37 seconds from the start of the film. His "acting" is flamboyant, graceful and very quick in order to avoid any transparency during the move. I think he also employed a jump-cup between the extraction of the head and its placement upon the table. The result is very slick, a really well constructed bit of cinema magic.

The recipe for his delightful concoction contained all the following ingredients:-

The entertainment factor.
The magical trick.
The performance of the mad scientist (Méliès himself) with his bellows and his own disembodied head on the table.
A hiatus:  an extra person (a wife or maid?) who becomes a witness to the event, provoking the next move in the development of the “story”.
And finally, the pay-off at the end… the over-enlarged head explodes.

This recipe has served cinema well for more than 120 years so far!


I will compare notes of the creation of two wonderful films made in the period between 1910 and 1920:-
“Nanook of the North”  and Frank Hurley’s filming of the remarkable  Shackleton Expedition”

Peter Tammer

Editor's Note: My friend Peter Tammer has been making movies for five decades. At the 1982 Melbourne Film Festival one of my greatest MFF pleasures was to present him with an award for Australian documentary film-making. His career is detailed on Bill Mousoulis's Innersense website and for more information you can go to this site which lists his films and writings

Peter Tammer checking sound recording while filming
Mallacoota Stampede (1979)

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