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This content is taken from the The British Film Institute (BFI)'s online course, The Living Picture Craze: An Introduction to Victorian Film. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 9 secondsFilm, right from the very beginning, is a highly commercial business. It's not a kind of artistic endeavour, the way we might think about film today. Nobody thinks too much about the content, as long as it's interesting and appealing. As we progress a bit from the very early film shows in 1896, the filmmakers begin to think a little bit more about the film - what works with an audience, what doesn't work with an audience - and they begin to make more of those films and not so many of the other type of films. Things that are very popular are often copied, which seems alien to us, because we think copying is a bad thing.

Skip to 0 minutes and 54 secondsIt's like plagiarism; we're not to do it, but they thought of it as the obvious thing to do. If you like films of ladies bicycling around the place, then by all means do another one. If there's a little scene of two babies squabbling over high tea, we'll make another one of those, because that works. They go for things that haven't been seen before, or pictures that have a particularly strong appeal; things that are picturesque, for example. Victorians loved their picturesque scenery. They also loved movement, and this is the thing that people love about film, is that sensation you get. You can take a train ride. You can go on the train by sitting in your theatre seat.

Skip to 1 minute and 43 secondsYou can be right in the front of the train, looking at the world go by. This is a fabulous new thing. You can see great, sweeping panoramas. You can see foreign cities that you would never be able to go to. What the Victorians loved to see was the world as it was changing around them, so film was used as a way of capturing both the everyday world around them and the way in which people move, the way in which people appeared on screen itself. But it was also used to capture events taking place many thousands of miles away, so film was very much an all-purpose medium.

Skip to 2 minutes and 36 secondsIt could make audiences laugh, it could make them cry; it was used perhaps to shock them. It was also used to educate them. Just as now we use cameraphones to record the world around us as we experience it, that was what Victorian filmmakers did. They took their films out into the world and recorded the world that they found out there. We can very much draw a parallel between some of the early comedy film shorts and the way in which memes go viral on Twitter, in that they might have a fairly short shelf life, but for a few days, they are what everybody sees.

Skip to 3 minutes and 13 secondsI have children who love watching short clips on YouTube, and they have a complete fascination with watching short clips. In some ways, that's how we can think of the fascination with these early Victorian film shorts. We've almost gone past a world where we were expecting to sit down for two hours in the cinema or for a set half an hour, to watch a particular soap opera, perhaps, so we're much more attuned to a world where we can have two or three-minute clips that we find entertaining or absurd or shocking or funny.

Skip to 4 minutes and 2 secondsThat's how Victorian filmmakers used those first cameras, to create those short films of 30 seconds or a couple of minutes, where they just captured a slice of the world around them, and that was fascinating in and of itself.

Welcome to Week 2

Welcome back to The Living Picture Craze. This week we turn to the incredible wealth of non-fiction films made in the period. Otherwise known as ‘actualities’ (events as they appeared in real life before the screen), these covered public and sporting events, wars, ethnographic, topographic and industrial subjects.

In this video, Bryony Dixon and Professor John Plunkett look at how the Victorians used film to capture the world around them, and give us a flavour of some of the varied subjects which appealed to audiences.

As Bryony highlights, right from the beginning, film was a highly commercial business; it was a key driver to who or what was filmed. Do keep this in mind as you progress through the course this week.

In Week 2 we will explore:

  • what first impressed cinema-goers and why
  • phantom rides and the joy of travelling without moving
  • why news films were so important to the Victorians
  • the remarkable discovery of Mitchell and Kenyon and its impact on our understanding of local films
  • how filmmakers recorded the Boer War
  • why the development of sport was so intertwined with developments in film

What are you most looking forward to learning about? Please share your thoughts below.

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This video is from the free online course:

The Living Picture Craze: An Introduction to Victorian Film

The British Film Institute (BFI)

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