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W.K.L. Dickson and the Establishment of the 1.33:1 Frame
Prologue to Projection and Wide Film (1895-1930)
Early Wide Film Experiments

The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Rick Mitchell Film Editor/ Film Director/ Film Historian. Work published posthumously Date: 15.03.2014
Exactly who invented motion pictures has long been such a subject of controversy and debate that the various international organizations who might have been expected to throw a major celebration of its centenary discreetly passed on doing so. One development from those years has not been disputed, the basic standard of the medium: a strip of film 35mm wide with 64 perforations .18 in. apart every foot along both edges with a .999 in. imaging area between them. This was the format finally established by William Kennedy Laurie Dickson in his motion picture experiments for Thomas Alva Edison in Fall-Winter, 1891-92 and initially was an unofficial standard because beginning in 1893 the Edison company produced a library of films in that format which were generally used by later experimenters in refining the medium.

(Despite subsequent acrimony between them, Edison always credited Dickson for his work in developing motion pictures, but because of Edison’s fame and status, to this day he is still solely credited with their invention by writers taking a casual or simplistic approach to early film history. Pioneering historian Terry Ramsaye, who first focused attention on Dickson, still jumped through verbal hoops to laud Edison even though he could find no evidence of any specific contribution “The Wizard” had made to Dickson’s endeavors.)

It is one particular aspect of Dickson’s work that would be the basis of the subsequent events and developments dealt with in this book: the shape of the frame of the photographed image. Dickson’s original assignment had been to develop a visual equivalent of Edison’s cylinder phonograph, tiny pictures viewed through a magnifying eyepiece. Recording and viewing pictures of that size would stretch the limits of both photographic and viewing optics and would require the best light gathering properties of the lens. Dickson took 1/2 inch diameter circular images, recording what the lens reflected without any masking in these initial experiments. One reason for the circular image was to avoid having the horizon not line up with the edge of a rectangular frame. The size of the frame varied during these experiments in an attempt to achieve acceptable results and running time, working in 1/4 inch increments.

Although surviving Edison Company records show Dickson worked on this device off and on for two years before being authorized to deal with it exclusively, it ultimately proved impractical and he began experimenting with the recently introduced celluloid film. Eastman’s roll film was available in 70mm and 90mm widths, wider than necessary for adequate results in the proposed peepshow device, so Dickson slit a 70mm roll in half, thus establishing what would become the 35mm standard. His work also followed the pattern of others working on a method to record and reproduce motion, notably Etienne Jacques Marey in France: strips of photographic emulsion coated paper and later film pulled continuously over rollers while a synchronized shutter either allowed exposure or viewing of the images. This approach was probably founded on the fact that previous presentations of moving images were done by viewing the continuously moving subjects through a series of mirrors or shutters revolving in the opposite direction which briefly flashed one image to the eyes in such a way as to stimulate the persistence of vision phenomenon. His initial camera ran the film horizontally and Dickson soon made an important discovery: it needed an intermittent movement with the film stopped in its progression for a moment to allow for proper photographic exposure and this was best accomplished by sprocketed wheels engaging perforations in the negative stock. He first used a row of perforations along the bottom, but in late August, 1891 he added an additional row of perforations along the other side and changed the movement from horizontal to vertical.

He had continued to use the circular image, but at this time he also he settled on a rectangle with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 in the center of the film. No explanation of why he chose this ratio has been uncovered to date. There was no aesthetic precedence for recording images in motion, of course, but by 1888 still photography had generally adopted the rectangular frame commonly used in painting, a frame that could be oriented vertically to accommodate tall subjects like single human beings, or horizontally for scenics or a group of people, with the actual height or width dependent on the subject or desired composition. The terms “portrait” and “landscape” are still being colloquially used in the art and still photography worlds to describe these frame orientations. Surviving illustrations of early attempts at static depictions of motion show both orientations being used, with a seeming preference for the “portrait” since most subjects appear to have been on the tall side. Just as still cameras had been designed to allow the recording of a rectangular frame within the circular image thrown by the lens, Dickson could have given his camera either a wider or taller aperture. However, he was an experienced still photographer with a strong sense of proportion and composition and possibly felt the basically square frame was the best compromise for framing all types of compositions. It should be noted that surviving examples of the work being done by others at this time, including Friese-Greene and Max Skladowsky, reveal that they also used either a circular or square frame.

This shape was fine for the Kinetoscope, the peepshow device Dickson ultimately devised, and most of the tall or wide subjects recorded in the “Black Maria”, the studio he had built at Edison’s West Orange, NJ plant. The camera, called the Kinetograph, was a large, unwieldy electrically driven affair with no provision for panning or tilting, thus any action it photographed, which included exotic female dancers and lariat twirling cowboys, had to be kept within the boundaries of its static frame. Although what is generally considered the first film shot there, Edison employee Fred Ott sneezing, was a waist up composition, equivalent to what would be termed a medium close shot in later years, most of the subjects photographed in the “Black Maria” were full figure.

Edison, or his business advisors, had been astute enough to realize that the success of the phonograph depended on providing customers with a continuous supply of subjects. This approach was also applied to the Kinetoscope, and beginning in 1893 an expanding library of 50 ft. subjects was shot and made available to the licensees who set up Kinetoscope parlors around the world. Thus these films became the foundation of both efforts to combine the Kinetoscope with the “Magic Lantern” to achieve projection of the images on a screen, contributing to the establishment of the 1.33:1 squarish frame as the standard.

And yet, even back in the early “Black Maria” days, a desire arose for a wider frame, basically to accommodate a specific subject. However, this desire would also lead to what is generally considered the first successful projection of a motion picture onto a screen.

• Go to Introduction to Projection and Wide Film (1895-1930)
• Go to Projection and Wide Film (1895-1930)
More in 70mm reading:

Introduction to Projection and Wide Film (1895-1930)

Projection and Wide Film (1895-1930)

Who is Rick Mitchell?

Rick Mitchell - A Rememberance

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Updated 04-05-22