It started, of course, with a bet. Before the Edison Trust and movie stars, there was Occident. Occident was a prize horse owned by railroad baron, former California governor, and wealthy horselover Leland Stanford, and Stanford wanted to settle an argument. When Stanford argued with some of his colleagues about whether a horse in full gallop took all four hooves off the ground, he didn’t mess around. Stories of a $25,000 bet are probably apocryphal, but Stanford was still willing to spend thousands of dollars — a positively enormous sum in the 1870s — to prove himself right. He turned to a well-known photographer Eadward Muybridge, probably the most respected name in the still-new field then working west of the Mississippi. Muybridge was born Edward Muggeridge; he had worked, earlier in his career, under the name "Helios", taking landscape photographs and scenes of California life as well as doing survey work for the railroads. Several years later, the great experiment was complete. Muybridge’s photographs were taken using wet slides, which are terribly slow compared to modern film but were the fastest then available; the pictures of the horse were little more than faint blurs, but they proved the point. A galloping horse did, in fact, leave the ground entirely. In 1882, The Horse in Motion as Shown by Instantaneous Photography, by J.D.B. Stillman, was published. Stillman was a friend of Stanford’s; the book minimized Muybridge’s contribution, and he was deeply offended. Muybridge was not actually a good person for someone — even someone of Stanford’s wealth and power — to irritate; his work on the problem of the gallop had been interrupted by his trial for shooting his wife’s lover in cold blood. Muybridge had been acquited on grounds of justifiable homicide, but had taken some time off to visit Central America. (A head injury in 1860 had apparently left Muybridge vulnerable to flights of rage.) But Stillman’s snub — the title page of The Horse in Motion doesn’t even mention Muybridge — did not lead to bloodshed; instead, Muybridge moved back east, where a two-year stretch of work with an improved timer of his own devising led eventually to Animals in Motion and fame as the father of high-speed photography.
And perhaps Muybridge was the father of the motion picture, as well; since the days of magic lanterns, showmen had been seeking to display pictures in motion, pictures giving the semblance of life. Some of Muybridge’s work for Animals in Motion resembled primitive animation. Pictures which change more than twenty times a second begin to blur together into a single moving image thanks to visual persistance; this principle was the basis for the zoetrope and had been understood since 1834. Muybridge had created a device, the zoöpraxiscope, to project his earliest pictures taken for Stanford. A hundred steps remained, everything from the sprocket hole to the standard rate at which to crank films, but it was the combination of photography with minute slices of time that led to the birth of the motion picture.
Splayed out on a table, the work of early animators like Walt Disney or Winsor McKay (whose Gertie the Dinosaur was widely viewed as the first great piece of animation) or George Herriman would resemble not the wonderful newspaper comic strips they drew for a living but a series of Muybridge’s studies. Projected at 24 frames per second (with the light flashed 48 times per second to avoid flicker), they were a new form of art altoghether. Walt Disney’s animators used rotoscopes to sketch out the action, creating traced versions of filmed live actors to ensure lifelike motion; the rotoscope had been invented by Max Fleischer, best known for his Betty Boop cartoons. And it didn’t stop with cartoonists; special effects genius Willis O’Brien minutely moved figurines to create King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, and the dinosaur-laden Lost World. O’Brien’s protegé, Ray Harryhausen would go on to create such tiny masterpieces as the clockwork owl in Clash of the Titans and those dreamlike, clattering skeleton warriors.
And the work in Muybridge’s field didn’t end with him, either; a French physiologist named Etienne-Jules Marey was inspried by seeing Muybridges work and significantly refined the technique, creating the first clear high-speed images of animals in motion (Muybridge’s figures were almost silhouettes.) And work continued, driven on by the needs of the Hollywood and the War Department. Harold Edgerton, a professor of engineering at MIT, had revolutionized the field by synchronizing camera shutters with strobe lights and done work on high-powered flash photograph during World War II. After the war, his photographic hobby resulted in at least one major Pop art image, the bursting drop of milk. But all the best of Edgerton’s work — sports photography, hummingbirds in flight, a woman skipping rope, a bullet piercing an apple — remains strikingly composed and a fascinating glimpse of something that would vanish in the blink of an eye. A twenty-fourth of a second is like eternity; a galloping horse was glacial; Edgerton’s well-named Rapatronic camera could record the first milliseconds of a nuclear explosion, which is really just gas expanding quickly. Call it a motion study.