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Paul's Animatograph Works: Longer Actualities

Pioneering multi-part non-fiction films anticipating the modern documentary

Main image of Paul's Animatograph Works: Longer Actualities

Much of R.W. Paul's film output consisted of short one-off actualities (people walking across Blackfriars Bridge, the end of the Derby, a comic costume race in Herne Hill), which were intended to be shown in isolation. However, as early as 1896, the second year of his filmmaking career, Paul was already starting to experiment with longer forms. In the summer of that year he gave his associate Henry Short his latest camera, an unprecedentedly lightweight and portable contraption, and asked him to take it with him on a trip to southern Europe. Short brought back fourteen short actuality sequences, which Paul would exhibit as a single programme under the title A Tour of Spain and Portugal. Although most of these films no longer survive, it is clear from Paul's catalogue and contemporary accounts that they were intended to add up to a longer work, even though there was no linking device between the sequences other than their collective title.

The following year, Short made a similar ten-shot study of Egypt, but the most ambitious production to come out of Paul's studio in 1897 was his multi-shot record of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. Though he was far from the only filmmaker to shoot the event, he had the largest number of cameramen working for him, and generally managed to secure the best vantage points. These films marked an advance on Short's in that they sought to document a single event from numerous angles, even if there was no attempt at editing them together (Paul would experiment with creative editing the following year, with Come Along, Do!).

In 1900, Paul embarked on his most ambitious project to date, and while only a fragment of one of the films survives, there is enough material evidence to give a good account of its scope. Army Life consisted of 33 films that collectively sought to give an all-round account of life in the British Army. Particular emphasis placed on the training of new recruits, suggesting that one of the film's primary intentions was to act as a recruiting tool. This may well have been requested by the army representatives as a condition of their co-operation. The same year, Paul produced some of the earliest footage of the Boer War, including genuine scoops in the form of footage of the capture of Boer general Piet Cronje and the victorious Scots Guards entering the town of Bloemfontein.

In the early years of the 20th century, longer actuality records containing multiple shots became increasingly common, and two of Paul's survive in, if not complete prints, at least versions substantial enough to give a good impression of what he was trying to achieve. His record of the Aberdeen University Quarter-Centenary Celebrations (1906) was the longest film he ever made: over half an hour survives, and contemporary accounts suggest that it could have been as long as 50 minutes, and it was openly billed as the longest film to be shown in Britain up to then. Sadly, quantity does not equal quality, and most of the film consists of a number of very dull shots of processions and assorted dignitaries entering and exiting buildings, presumably to attend functions that were not captured on film or even identified by means of titles. However, it is nonetheless historically valuable for its footage of King Edward VII, as well as the events themselves.

Whaling Afloat and Ashore (1908), Paul's last surviving film, was a far more sophisticated creation that sought to illustrate every detail of the whaling process, from hunting and catching the whale in the first place, to stripping the carcass bare with the intention of making commercial use of all of its by-products. The only known copy is sadly incomplete, but enough remains to give a good account of the scope of Paul's ambition: although it would be another twenty years before the creation of the British documentary movement, these films and many others that have not survived show that R.W. Paul was one of its most important precursors.

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Aberdeen University Quarter Centenary Celebrations (1906)Aberdeen University Quarter Centenary Celebrations (1906)

A procession through Aberdeen headed by Edward VII and Queen Alexandra

Thumbnail image of Army Life - Mounted Infantry (1900)Army Life - Mounted Infantry (1900)

The surviving fragment of an epic documentary about training soldiers

Thumbnail image of Cronje's Surrender to Lord Roberts (1900)Cronje's Surrender to Lord Roberts (1900)

Boer General Piet Cronje is escorted by the victorious British forces

Thumbnail image of Entry of the Scots Guards into Bloemfontein (1900)Entry of the Scots Guards into Bloemfontein (1900)

Rare news footage of a key British victory in the Boer War

Thumbnail image of Sea Cave Near Lisbon, A (1896)Sea Cave Near Lisbon, A (1896)

A view looking out to sea, with breaking waves

Thumbnail image of Whaling Afloat and Ashore (1908)Whaling Afloat and Ashore (1908)

R.W. Paul's last surviving film documents the entire whaling process

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Related People and Organisations

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

Director, Producer