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Étienne-Jules Marey

innovator in "stop-motion" photography

Etienne-Jules Marey

Étienne-Jules Marey was born in Beaune, France, on March 5, 1830. In 1849 he went to Paris, where he trained in medicine and physiology. He qualified as a doctor in 1859, set up in a small Parisian laboratory in 1864, and became a Professor of Natural History at the College de France in 1867.

Marey spent the early years of his career designing a building a variety of mechanical instruments to measure and record various biological processes -- .the circulation and hydraulics of blood and breath, the elasticity, strength, and tone of muscle, the behavior of the heart, etc. His first machine, called the "sphygmograph," counted human pulse beats and recorded them on a revolving smoked glass disc. He then narrowed his focus to the mechanics of movement, which in turn led to his laying the groundwork for the modern "motion-picture" camera.

In 1869, Marey constructed a special machine to demonstrate the flight of an insect and the figure-eight shape produced by its wings during flight. It featured an artificial insect, with a body formed by a drum containing compressed air, that could move up, down, and diagonally.

Marey's device for recording an insect in flight
Marey's device for recording an insect in flight

Marey next developed the "air pantographe," a device used to study a live bird in flight. The device consisted of a large rotating arm on which he could a live, instrumented bird. The bird was fitted with a small corset and carried a small piece of wood on its back, which in turn was attached to the actual "pantographe." The pantographe itself consisted of two rubber capsules mounted on a universal joint. One capsule was connected to a rod touching the bird's wing joints, which in turn transmitted movements to the second capsule, which transmitted them pneumatically to a recording instrument.

Marey's air pantographe
Marey's air pantographe

Using these two, and other instruments, Marey measured the movements of limbs in humans and animals, and created elaborate graphs that showed the response to electrical shock, the motions of feet and hooves, and the cyclic action of wings. In 1873, he published his first major work on the subject, Animal Mechanism: A Treatise on Terrestrial and Aerial Locomotion.

Marey's machines produced a wealth of information about how animals fly, but even more progress would be made after Marey developed ways to actually photograph flight.

In 1882, Marey perfected the "fusil photographique" ("photographic gun"), which was capable of taking twelve exposures per second. The images, each about the size of a postage stamp, were arranged around the edge of a revolving circular photographic plate. Equipped with a sight and clock mechanism, he was able to use the device to photograph live birds in free flight.

the fusil photographique
the fusil photographique

bird in flight as seen by the photographic gun
bird in flight as seen by the photographic gun

Dissatisfied with the final quality of the images produced by the photographic gun, Marey invented a "chronophotographic" fixed plate camera equipped with a timed shutter that was able to combine on a single plate several successive images of a single movement. In order to allow shooting in different positions, he placed the camera inside a large wooden cabin that ran on rails.

Marey's mobile camera
Marey's mobile camera

In 1888 Marey replaced the glass plate with a long strip of sensitized paper that was moved intermittently in the camera by an electromagnet. He gave the world's first demonstration of a "film on paper" before the Academy of Sciences on October 29, 1888. In 1890 he replaced the paper strip with transparent celluloid film. A pressure plate was used to stop the film movement, which allowed him to develop techniques for slowing down rapid movements and speeding up slow movements, as well as to show movements in reverse. All of his subsequent cameras followed the principle of intermittent movement of sensitive film behind an objective lens, with the film's static movements corresponding with the opening of the shutter. He presented his first photographic results of studying birds in flight to the Academy of Sciences on July 16, 1900. He published The Flight of Birds that same year.

a bird in flight as filmed by Marey
a bird in flight as filmed by Marey

In addition to his groundbreaking work in the field of animal motion, Marey also used his cameras to study the motion of smoke. In 1901, with financial support from the United States, he built a machine capable of producing 58 separate smoke trails. A chronographic camera was placed in front of a box closed by a transparent glass sheet. The smoke trails passed in front of a black velvet background, and were illuminated by a magnesium flash while instantaneous images were taken of the smoke trails. An obstacle could be placed in the middle of the trails, allowing the viewer to observe how different shapes affected the air flow.

Marey's smoke machine
Marey's smoke machine

Marey photograph of smoke trails
Marey photograph of smoke trails

Étienne-Jules Marey died on May 15, 1904.

WEB SOURCES
Engines of Our Ingenuity www.uh.edu/engines/epi1917.htm
Who's Who of Victorian Cinema www.victorian-cinema.net/marey.htm

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The Robinson Library >> Technology >> Photography >> Cinematography

This page was last updated on 05/11/2017.