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Upside Down: or, The Human Flies (1899)


Main image of Upside Down: or, The Human Flies (1899)
35mm, black and white, silent, 75 feet
Production CompanyPaul's Animatograph Works

Cast: W.R.Booth (Magician?)

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A conjuror touches a hat with his wand and makes it rise to the ceiling. He then asks some people to stand, and himself disappears. An instant later, the people are standing upside down on the ceiling.

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One of the first films made by conjuror-turned-special effects pioneer W.R. Booth, Upside Down, or The Human Flies (1899) exploits a very simple illusion: that of filming with the camera turned upside-down so that the actors appear to be performing on the ceiling.

Booth enhanced the effect by having the actors perform against a drawing-room backdrop, which was inverted for the film's second half along with the camera. The end result is that the room appears fixed throughout the film while the actors migrate from the bottom to the top of the frame. How they get down remains a moot point, as the conjuror (reputedly played by Booth himself) never reappears.

Although the concept is simple, the effectiveness of the final result is such that nearly seventy years later Stanley Kubrick used the same technique in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to create the impression of an interplanetary stewardess walking up the wall and onto the ceiling, ostensibly by means of Velcro shoes. Although Kubrick's effect was more elaborate, with the set and camera physically rotating in perfect synchronization while the actress remained on the same spot, the principle behind it was essentially identical.

Michael Brooke

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'R.W. Paul: The Collected Films 1895-1908', with music by Stephen Horne and optional commentary by Ian Christie. It is also featured in full in 'How They Laughed', Paul Merton's interactive guide to early British silent comedy. Note that this material is not limited to users in registered UK libraries and educational establishments: it can be accessed by anyone, anywhere.

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Video Clips
Complete film (0:47)
Booth, W.R. (1869-1938)
Paul, R.W. (1869-1943)
Paul's Animatograph Works: Trick Films