In 1893 a ‘device’ had been sparking wild speculation amongst inventors, engineers and thinkers about the future of theatre and storytelling. It was Thomas Edison’s ‘Kinetoscope’, a device which allowed a single viewer to see a moving image through a tiny peep hole in the top.
In the United States, Edison’s device was locked down with patents and impressive lawyers, but elsewhere in the world he had failed to protect it. So, true to the spirit of the time, an electrical engineer in England was making a name for himself producing replicas of the machine based on pirated designs. His name was Robert Paul.
What goes around comes around. Edison himself was no angel, he had ‘borrowed’ the design of the Kinetoscope from a French inventor called Louis Le Prince. who had spent years working on it whilst studying in Leeds England. On September 16th 1890, Le Prince was taking his device from France to New York where he would unveil his incredible invention to the world. His brother waved goodbye to him as the train departed the station, and that was the last anyone ever saw of him. Le Prince and his device vanished into thin air. Years later, Edison would take Le Prince’s family to court in a battle over the patents. The case would last more than a decade, but it would be Edison who was recognised as the inventor of motion picture by American courts.
Five years after the mysterious disappearance of Le Prince, and two years before Edison would start his decade long court battle, Raoul Sanson – another French inventor – was on a trip to England. He was part of a small but growing group of motion picture enthusiasts, and he’d heard about Robert Paul’s replica Kinetoscopes, and he was was on the hunt for one. When their paths finally crossed, Sanson discovered that Robert Paul was not only building replica Kinetoscopes, he was working on a way to project the images onto a screen, a revolutionary idea that bad been on the tip of Sanson’s tongue.
Without hesitation, Raoul Sanson made an order. Many people had looked through the peephole to see a tiny but magical moving image, very few had imagined projecting the image onto a wall. Over a tankard of ale in a London public house, Raoul Sanson and Robert Paul must have spoken at great length about where the world of the ‘motion picture’ was headed, comparing notes on their ideas for a visual future. Paul was inspired by the Science Fiction of the day – HG Wells. He imagined audiences surrounded by projected images to create a ‘moving picture journey through time and space.’ Decades before the advent of the film industry, Paul filed a patent for his idea. It used all manner of tricks, constructions and image projections so that an audience would ‘feel a physical sensation’ of moving through time and space – the earliest ever Virtual Reality visionary? Robert Paul went on to invent Britain’s first commercial motion picture projector, but his vision for a ‘moving picture journey through time’ would never come to fruition.
The meeting must have been inspiring to Raoul Sanson. He returned to France in possession of his very own ‘knock-off knock-off’ Kinetoscope and he immediately began working on his own method to project the images onto a screen. Less than a year later, he had achieved just that. He demoed his ‘Phototachygraphe’ machine to journalists all across France. “A new portable ‘Cinématographe’ for amateur photographing and projecting strips of perforated 35mm film without Edison! 400 francs!” cried Clement and Gilmer in their catalogue of ‘Animated Photography’ devices. ‘The cinematography is perfect!’ drooled another.
It was 1897. The grammar of combining two shots together into anything resembling ‘a sequence’ wasn’t even thing yet. The film industry was decades away. Actors, directors and writers lauded the moving image as nothing more than a cheap trick. It would be another twenty years before Charlie Chaplin received his first film contract. The ‘motion picture’ was barely on anyone’s radar, only a few bourgeoisie thinkers had paid it any attention. And yet in France, Sanson was imagining an incredible, immersive, simulated future. Getting motion pictures projected onto a screen was just the first step to his real vision. Motion picture cameras were barely even working, and he was already thinking about combining them together. ‘If it’s possible to project onto a single screen, does it not follow that it’s possible to project onto multiple screens?’ In three years time, the world’s best inventors, investors, thinkers and doers would descend into Paris for the magnificent ‘Exposition Universal’ at the turn of the century. It was destined to mark the beginning of a century of technological progress. Sanson had made a name for himself with his ‘Photoachygraphe’ device, and so with his growing profile he convinced some investors to back his idea. The Cinéorama was born.
Perhaps inspired by Robert Paul’s idea of ‘a journey through time and space,’ Sanson was creating a cinematic world which the audience stepped into rather than something they would simply observe. The audience were to be housed in a large reproduction hot air balloon basket. Underneath the basket was a custom built projection room, housing ten synchronized projectors arranged into a circle. Each projected onto a huge screen, the final result being a dazzling 360 degree moving image wrapped entirely around the amazed audience.
If nothing else, it was ambitious. A London Kinetoscope parlour had only recently opened to an incredulous audience happy to pay 25 pence to see a tiny image flicker into motion for few seconds. To put things into perspective, even at the Exposition Universal where the device would be on display, Sanson was competing for attention with Russian Dolls, the first ever Ferris Wheel, and the escalator.
Sanson’s vision was to recreate a hot air balloon ride into central paris for two hundred punters at a time, and to achieve his vision he built a custom designed ten camera 360 rig. Somehow he synchronised the cameras together, attached them to an actual hot air balloon, which took off from Tuileries Gardens in central Paris. Surely even Sanson was surprised when the balloon landed safely with ten well developed film reels inside. It was now a case of loading up the ten projectors, synchronizing the reels together, and projecting all ten onto the unfathomably large screens. Easy.
At 1 franc entry, this was a big ticket event, and so it was prominently placed at the heart of the Exposition. Millions of people arrived in Paris, and the buzz really started to build. The investors were heavily exposed, and they wanted their money back, so the marketing built expectations to be as lofty as Sanson’s next century ambitions. Huge spotlights lit up the purpose built Cineorama theatre and punctuated an exceptional advertising campaign. Thousands of people wanted to see this miraculous device. But whilst the marketeers had brought in the crowds, there was a problem brewing in the projection room.
To operate the machine, the projection operator was housed in a cramped wooden box alongside ten huge and inefficient projection lamps. Within seconds of firing the machine up, the temperature in the projection room would soar into something even the Scandinavians would be fearful of. With huge pressure to succeed weighing down on everyone, the projection operator heroically managed three days of projections to rapturous applause, but on day four he passed out entirely. The reels of film flickered out of sync, leaving audiences bemused. One by one the projectors failed, projecting nothing but white light onto the screens. Sensing a problem, the police arrived to discover a delirious operator inside a wooden box so hot it would burn to the touch. With two hundred people cramped inside a faux wooden basket directly above, the police sensed a disaster was imminent. The attraction was immediately closed down.
The story does not end well for Sanson. ‘Exposition Universal’ was a financial disaster for most of the investors involved. The turn of the century had people excited, alongside the Russian Dolls and Ferris Wheels, there were huge paintings, huge areas dedicated to ‘electricity’ and entire buildings had been built from scratch. The ambition of the expo had run away with itself, and the Cineorama was the icing on the cake. Millions would visit, but the cost per visitor was 600 francs more per than the admission price. For Sanson’s Cineroama company it was a complete disaster. A year later the company was totally bankrupt. Sanson quit the film industry and joined the cork business, falling into cultural and historical oblivion.
But today, as we walk idly through our cities with a device in our pocket a million times more powerful than Sanson’s wooden death trap, we ought to tip our hats to his vision. Whilst his company might have died, the idea of immersive cinema had been born, and over the next century it would appear again and again. The earliest innovators in the world of motion picture imagined a world in which the audience would be surrounded by the image. A world which the audience would step into. Their dreams and visions were decades ahead of what was technically possible, and yet today, with a pair of plastic lenses and a smartphone, we can bring audiences safely inside a cinematic creation. What would the earliest motion picture pioneers like Sanson and Paul think if they could see such an experience?