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Acres, Birt (1854-1918)

Pioneer, Cinematographer

Main image of Acres, Birt (1854-1918)

Despite increased critical attention in recent years, Birt Acres remains a comparatively neglected figure among the pioneers of British film. As a creative film-maker his contribution was negligible, but as an inventor and innovator, and simply as someone who was especially active at the start of things, his importance is certain.

Birt Acres was born to English parents in Richmond, Virginia, USA on 23 July 1854, and took up the profession of photographer in London. He became the manager of a dry plate works in Barnet, and experimented for himself with chronophotographic time-lapse studies of clouds. In December 1894, he was approached by the engineer and instrument-maker Robert Paul, who had begun to produce replicas of Edison Kinetoscopes and needed someone with photographic expertise to collaborate on the production of a camera. Together they developed a ciné camera and by February 1895 made their first film experiment, showing their mutual friend Henry Short walking outside Clovelly Cottage, Acres' home in Barnet, wearing cricket whites. This untitled test film, never exhibited commercially, was the first true British film production. Acres operated the camera for this and all the succeeding Acres-Paul productions up to June 1895, made for exhibition in Paul's peep show Kinetoscopes. They included Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, Rough Sea at Dover, The Arrest of a Pickpocket, The Carpenter's Shop, Boxing Kangaroo, and the film of the 1895 Derby (the last film the pair made together). Quite incompatible as personalities, Acres and Paul split acrimoniously that July, and continued to attack each other through the photographic press as each made their separate way toward projected film and the emergence of a British cinema business.

Acres travelled to Germany in June 1895, sponsored by the German chocolate company Stollwerck, and filmed several scenes, including the opening of the Kiel Canal. On his return, he turned his attention towards film projection, evidently achieving success by the end of the year, for he gave the first public performance of projected film in Britain at Lyonsdown Photographic Club on 10 January 1896. He followed this up with a projected programme before the Royal Photographic Society on 14 January, indicating Acres' preference for a high-minded, photographic approach. He was temperamentally unsuited for the commercial exploitation of motion pictures, but nevertheless began commercial film shows on 21 March with his Kineoptikon projector at Piccadilly Mansions, London. Acres would go on to enjoy modest success with sales of his Kineoptikon projector, though nothing to match that of the sales enjoyed by the financially savvy Paul, with his Theatrograph and Animatograph projectors.

Acres continued to take the elevated route, presenting a film performance at Marlborough House on 21 July 1896 by royal request, where he was assisted by Cecil Hepworth. But his position within the burgeoning British film business diminished. He turned to the production of celluloid film through his Northern Photographic Works, and in 1898 launched an ingenious miniature camera/projector, the Birtac, which employed 17.5mm film, hoping vainly to capitalise on a potential home movie market.

Acres was involved in two intriguing controversies about what should or should not be filmed. On 27 June 1896, he filmed the visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales to the Cardiff Exhibition. Acres obtained his film by tearing a hole in the exhibition walls, reportedly by permission, though not from the royal party. His film included a brief scene where the Prince of Wales was seen to scratch his head, the sight of which caused Acres to be rebuked in some sections of the press, though the royal couple were happy enough to invite Acres to show the film at Marlborough House. More significantly, Acres was one of those who filmed the launch of H.M.S. Albion on 21 June 1898, when a gantry collapsed, drowning many spectators. Paul was filming in a boat nearby, and Acres launched a furious attack upon him in the press, accusing Paul of gross insensitivity in choosing to exhibit his films, while Acres had suppressed his. (Paul's launch had saved a number of those in the water.)

Acres swiftly slid from the scene, and ceased film production soon after 1900. He continued in film processing and celluloid manufacture, but was unlucky in business and was twice made bankrupt. He died in Whitechapel, London on 27 December 1918. In Acres and Paul, there were the two sides of the coin offered by the invention of cinema: high-minded science versus hard-nosed commerce. While Acres hid behind science as an excuse for his business failures, Paul was able to reconcile the two disciplines and establish a leading position in moving pictures in Britain. Acres could boast some important 'firsts' in his film career, but he never built upon the head start that he gave himself as one of Britain's film pioneers.

Barnes, John, The Beginnings of the Cinema in England 1894-1901, vols. 1-5 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996-1998)
Brown, Richard, 'Birt Acres', in Stephen Herbert and Luke McKernan (eds.), Who's Who of Victorian Cinema: A Worldwide Survey (London: BFI Publishing, 1996)
Lange-Fuchs, Hauke, Birt Acres: Der erste Schleswig-Holsteinische FilmPionier (Kiel: Walter G. Muhlau, 1987)
Lange-Fuchs, Hauke, Der Kaiser, der Kanal und die Kinematographie (Schleswig: Landesarchiv Schleswig-Holstein, 1997)

Luke McKernan, Directors in British and Irish Cinema

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Band Marching Down a Street (1896)Band Marching Down a Street (1896)

Actuality footage of a military marching band

Thumbnail image of Derby, The (1895)Derby, The (1895)

Actuality record of the climax of the 1895 Epsom Derby

Thumbnail image of Opening of the Kiel Canal (1895)Opening of the Kiel Canal (1895)

One of the first British actuality films, shot in June 1895

Thumbnail image of Practising for the Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race (1897)Practising for the Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race (1897)

Actuality footage of a Victorian Boat Race crew

Thumbnail image of Rough Sea at Dover (1895)Rough Sea at Dover (1895)

One of the oldest British films, a study of water in motion

Thumbnail image of Tom Merry, Lightning Cartoonist, Sketching Kaiser Wilhelm II (1895)Tom Merry, Lightning Cartoonist, Sketching Kaiser Wilhelm II (1895)

Actuality footage of the famous cartoonist Tom Merry at work

Thumbnail image of Yarmouth Fishing Boats Leaving Harbour (1896)Yarmouth Fishing Boats Leaving Harbour (1896)

Three shots of fishing boats filmed in summer 1896

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