Friday, September 9, 2016

The First Film: The Greatest Mystery in Cinema History

Who created the first film? It may not be who you think.

During the late 19th century, several inventors were working furiously on the technology that would produce moving pictures. Some of these figures are well-known including the Lumiere Brothers, Thomas Edison and others not so much. But have you heard of French inventor Louis Le Prince? Chances are you haven’t and this film seeks to rectify that.

Film-maker David Nicholas Wilkinson sets out on a quest to prove Le Prince produced the first ever films in October 1888. What’s odd about Le Prince’s story is that two years later, after he had been working on the technology to project the films he had made, he got on a train from Dijon to Paris and was never seen again. No one knows what happened to him. What adds to this mystery is the fact that Le Prince’s final trip was supposed to be one leg of a much longer journey to New York where he was going to showcase his invention and his films. Was he murdered? Would he have been recognized as the first inventor of motion pictures if he had been able to complete his journey?

Image from The First Film (2016)

A plaque above the Leeds Bridge in Leeds, England reads "Louis Aime Augustine Le Prince came to Leeds in 1866 where he experimented in cinematography. In 1888 he patented a one-lens camera with which he filmed Leeds Bridge fro this British Waterway building. These were probably the world's first successful moving pictures." 

Wilkinson spent 30 years looking for answers to all of these questions. Seven of those years were spent researching and working on this documentary including 14 months of filming. Along with writer and researcher Ifran Shah, Wilkinson sets out on a journey of discovery with lots of surprises and setbacks along the way. Wilkinson has 40 years of experience working in the British Film Industry as a film-maker, distributor, actor and author. He’s originally from Leeds, where it is said that Le Prince filmed the very first motion picture. As a young man, a teacher once told him about Le Prince. He was skeptical at first but then became fascinated with the mystery and made it his passion project to seek out answers.

Most of The First Film (2016) is comprised of on-location shooting in Leeds as well as countless interviews with film historians, critics, curators, researchers, screenwriters and other expert. Wilkinson traveled across the pond to Cleveland, Ohio, Memphis, Tennessee, Washington Heights, NY and Fire Island, NY to do research. We see in-depth discussions with Le Prince’s great-great granddaughter, the leading expert on Le Prince and many others.

There are three surviving clips of Le Prince’s films, all of which pre-date the work of Edison, the Lumiere Brothers and other inventors at the time. This documentary examines the Rhounday Garden Scene. Wilkinson and Shah find the original filming location and the crew recreate this short with Le Prince's camera. As did many other inventors, Le Prince tinkered with the technology over many years. He and his wife Lizzie started a technical school of arts which lead him to many other opportunities. Le Prince worked on Civil War panoramas. These were meant for public consumption and meant to go beyond a single photograph. This might have been the seed that developed the idea for moving pictures. In The First Film, we learn about Le Prince’s progression as an inventor, about his 16 lens and single lens cameras and also about the other 10 inventors who were working on the same technology at the time.

Louis Le Prince

Wilkinson makes the bold claim that Le Prince was the world’s first cameraman, director and producer. Is he right? You'll have to watch the documentary to find out. I’ve always been drawn to stories of underdogs, especially ones whose life and work have been overshadowed by others. In this case, Le Prince’s achievements were forgotten and his mysterious disappearance possibly deprived him of the title of the maker of the first film.

The First Film (2016) is a quirky documentary that shows much passion for its subject and a determination to seek out the truth of an old but very important mystery. It’s a film for anyone who has a love of history, is curious about the early technology of film or loves a good research project. This documentary premieres online September 12th from Guerilla Films.

Many thanks to Erskine PR for the opportunity to view this film.

Watch the trailer here:

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