Once upon a time in Liege was a man called Etienne-Gaspard Robert. Call him Robertson. He was a priest, but also a scientist and an artist. Everything you need to be the perfect filmmaker: science and art.
1797, one century before the Lumiere brothers invented their extraordinary machine, we were in the middle of three revolutions: the revolution of Liege, the revolution of Brabant and the French one. Did Robertson join Paris because his city had just become French? Who knows? Be that as it may, our « phantasmagore » chose the city of love to cause a sensation.
Phantasmawhat? If you look at its etymology, « phantasmagoria » means « the art of making the deceased speak in public ». At the end of the XVIIIth century, the phantasmagores applied themselves to bringing people back to life (easier said than done!). So could Robertson revive your beloved ones as well as famous people, from William Tell to Virgil, not to mention Voltaire or Marat. You’d be really impressed! Imagine that! Thanks to this prodigious invention named phantascope you could bring back to life the one you loved or your idol.
But how did this ancestor of the cinematograph work? The phantasmagores used to use every kind of tricks to impress the passers-by: electricity, magnetism, galvanism, incense, special ingredients reminding you of the person you want to revive, etc. But in spite of all these devices supposed to make the show spectacular and supernatural, there was no magic in that. Yes, don’t be afraid to say it: phantasmagores were fakers! The phantascope was an image projector, which allowed you to do cross dissolves and tracking in and out. It used the revolutionary principle of back projection. Using a source of light, mirrors and several lenses, one could screen some images. Two plates slipped into the machine allowed the phantasmagore to create an animation. The first plate was representing the fixed body of the person and with the help of the second plate and strings one could make an arm or a tongue move. « Ladies and gentlemen! Come and see that! William Tell can now stick out his tongue! » And there was no sorcery in that. But you, the credulous spectator, wouldn’t know that because the whole machine was hidden under a black blanket…
Bit by bit, drama gave way to science. 1832, Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau, a Brussels physicist and mathematician, a professor at the university of Gand, invented the phenakistoscope (I think it was a matter of who would find the most bizarre name for his or her invention!). Maybe the lively atmosphere in the capital just after Belgium took its independence stimulated this great mind.
The phenakistoscope was an animation device based on the principle of the persistence of vision. This ancestor of the zoetrope consisted of a disc, cut through by a dozen of radial slits, in between which were drawn a series of scenes showing the phases of the animation. When the disc would spin, the animation would begin. For the spectator to only see one scene at a time, he or she was supposed to look through the moving slits at the disc’s reflection in a mirror. Cyclic motion was born. From then on, one could watch the same boxer punch the same opponent over and over again. It might seem simplistic for us today, but it was genius then! Inasmuch as the invention of cinema was based on Plateau’s research.
Fifty years later, one got down to business, what we all consider as the official birth of cinema. On the 1st of March 1896, in the King ‘s Gallery in Brussels, took place the first public screening by the Lumiere cinematograph in Belgium. Were notably screened: the famous Arroseur Arrosé, Le Repas de Bébé and L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de La Ciotat (don’t worry you won’t get run over!). The French audience had known those films for a few months only since the first screening by the Lumiere brothers took place in Paris at the end of December 1895.
And that was the beginning of many extraordinary film adventures! To be continued…