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Paul's Animatograph Works: Trick Films

Remarkable special-effects fantasies from the turn of the 20th century

Main image of Paul's Animatograph Works: Trick Films

Between 1899 and 1906, and especially in 1901, Paul's Animatograph Works made a number of 'trick films'. These were short, usually comic films that made extensive use of special effects, some of which were startlingly sophisticated given the limitations of the technology of the time. They certainly compare very well with the better-known work of the Frenchman Georges Méliès, and Paul may even have pioneered some of the effects that Méliès would make his own.

Most of these films were collaborations between R.W. Paul and W.R. (Walter) Booth. Booth was a stage magician and illusionist who quickly grasped the potential of the new medium, and Paul's background as an inventor and his enthusiasm for using the latest technology to experiment with film form made them ideal partners. They may well have first met at London's Egyptian Hall, where Booth was a member of the magic company, and Paul had exhibited some of his earliest films in 1896.

The earliest surviving Paul/Booth film seems to be 1899's Upside Down, or The Human Flies, which reverses both the set and the camera halfway through in order to create the impression that its characters are walking on the ceiling. Though extremely simple, the technique is very effective, and not that different from the principles underlying Stanley Kubrick's special effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey nearly 70 years later (though Kubrick was able to get the camera and set rotating in sync to allow his characters to walk up the walls as though weightless). Another early work was A Railway Collision (1900), which delivers exactly what it promises. Although the blatant use of models would hardly fool anyone today, it apparently impressed and alarmed audiences of the time.

But 1901 was the year when Paul and Booth's trick films reached the height of their ambition, and many of them stand up remarkably well even today. Blending jump-cuts, stop-motion animation and even basic matte superimposition, often in the same sequence, the best of them clearly needed a high level of advance planning. A good example is Undressing Extraordinary (1901), which is designed to create the impression of a single shot, but which required dozens of stops and starts for costume changes. The performer (who appears in several of the trick films and who may well be Booth himself) has to calibrate his position meticulously from take to take so that his movements appear fluid while his clothes constantly change around his body. Similar jump-cut techniques can be seen in The Waif and the Wizard (1901), which also had an inventive scene transition incorporating a spinning umbrella. An Over-Incubated Baby (1901) also relies on a jump-cut for its central joke to work: this occurs between the point that a genuine baby is put into Professor Bakem's incubator and a wizened dwarf emerging.

At the same time, Booth and Paul experimented with superimposition, where one image was printed alongside another on the same strip of film. Cheese Mites (1901) fuses two images together, but deliberately plays with the relative scales so that a restaurant diner sees a family of tiny people apparently emerging from a piece of cheese. A more closely integrated version of the same technique can be seen in The Countryman and the Cinematograph (1901), in which a yokel is bemused by his first encounter with the cinema, reacting in perfect time with to the images.

The films mentioned so far generally showcase single techniques, but Booth and Paul also carried out far more complex projects. The Haunted Curiosity Shop (1901) is one such: although apparently shot from a single camera position, it disguises multiple shots by means of jump-cuts, superimposition and other forms of optical trickery. Artistic Creation (1901) is simpler but equally effective, as it shows an artist's painting of a woman coming to life, albeit in stages. Even more ambitious was The Magic Sword (1901), which marks one of the high points of Paul's career and which can certainly rival anything by Méliès for sheer ambition. A full-blown fantasy epic told in multiple scenes, it showcased the full arsenal of Paul and Booth's camera trickery. Giant ogres pluck damsels from battlements, witches take off on broomsticks, and instant transformations are effected via explosions to hide the joins.

Paul and Booth continued to collaborate for the next five years, though seemingly without the same level of intensity and experimentation. Surviving films such as The Extraordinary Waiter (1902) and Extraordinary Cab Accident (1903), though technically impressive, represent no advance on their earlier achievements. However, Is Spiritualism A Fraud? (1906) is an intriguing attempt at integrating Booth's trick effects into a story about an attempted illusion: the floating heads and skulls produced by a seance are quickly exposed as an attempt at conning the gullible public, from which point the film becomes a conventional chase comedy in the manner of many of Paul's other films of the period.

However 1906 also saw the creation of Paul and Booth's masterpiece, the oddly-titled and even more eccentrically-plotted The '?' Motorist. In it, a speeding motorist is so keen to avoid capture by a policeman that he drives to and round the rings of Saturn before returning to earth. After this, Booth moved to the Charles Urban Trading Company, for which he would develop even more elaborate fantasies over the next five years.

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of '?' Motorist, The (1906)'?' Motorist, The (1906)

Comedy about a motorist going to extreme lengths to evade the law

Thumbnail image of Artistic Creation (1901)Artistic Creation (1901)

Trick film in which an artist's creations come to life

Thumbnail image of Cheese Mites  or, Lilliputians in a London Restaurant (1901)Cheese Mites or, Lilliputians in a London Restaurant (1901)

Trick film featuring people the size of cheese mites

Thumbnail image of Countryman and the Cinematograph, The (1901)Countryman and the Cinematograph, The (1901)

One of the first examples of a film-within-a-film

Thumbnail image of Extraordinary Cab Accident (1903)Extraordinary Cab Accident (1903)

Primitive special effects film: jump cuts make someone appear to be run over

Thumbnail image of Extraordinary Waiter, The (1902)Extraordinary Waiter, The (1902)

Trick film about an indestructible waiter

Thumbnail image of Haunted Curiosity Shop, The (1901)Haunted Curiosity Shop, The (1901)

A shop owner is haunted by sinister apparitions

Thumbnail image of Is Spiritualism a Fraud? (1906)Is Spiritualism a Fraud? (1906)

Comedy-thriller about the exposure of a fake medium

Thumbnail image of Lively Quarter Day, A (1906)Lively Quarter Day, A (1906)

House-moving chaos is resolved with a touch of magic

Thumbnail image of Magic Sword - A Mediaeval Mystery, The (1901)Magic Sword - A Mediaeval Mystery, The (1901)

A knight battles various monstrosities to win a damsel's love

Thumbnail image of Over-Incubated Baby, An (1901)Over-Incubated Baby, An (1901)

Macabre comedy about a growth experiment gone horribly wrong

Thumbnail image of Railway Collision, A (1900)Railway Collision, A (1900)

A train crash shown via pioneering special-effects miniatures

Thumbnail image of Undressing Extraordinary (1901)Undressing Extraordinary (1901)

Comedy short about difficulties encountered when undressing for bed

Thumbnail image of Upside Down: or, The Human Flies (1899)Upside Down: or, The Human Flies (1899)

Comic trick film in which actors appear to walk on the ceiling

Thumbnail image of Waif and the Wizard, The (1901)Waif and the Wizard, The (1901)

Comic short about a wizard using his powers for good

Related Collections

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Booth, W.R. (1869-1938)Booth, W.R. (1869-1938)

Director, Animator

Thumbnail image of Paul, R.W. (1869-1943)Paul, R.W. (1869-1943)

Director, Producer