Actuality film

The actuality film is a non-fiction film genre that, like the documentary film, uses footage of real events, places, and things, yet unlike the documentary is not structured into a larger argument, picture of the phenomenon or coherent whole. In practice, actuality films preceded the emergence of the documentary. During the era of early cinema, actualities—usually lasting no more than a minute or two and usually assembled together into a program by an exhibitor—were just as popular and prominent as their fictional counterparts.[1] The line between "fact" and "fiction" was not so sharply drawn in early cinema as it would become after the documentary came to serve as the predominant non-fiction filmmaking form. An actuality film is not like a newspaper article so much as it is like the still photograph that is published along with the article, with the major difference being that it moves. Apart from the traveling actuality genre, actuality is one film genre that remains strongly related to still photography.

Despite the demise of the actuality as a film genre around 1908, one still refers to "actuality footage" as a building block of documentary filmmaking. In such usage, actuality refers to the raw footage that the documentarist edits and manipulates to create the film.


La sortie des usines Lumiere
A still from La sortie des usines Lumière (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, 1895)

The first actuality films date to the time of the very emergence of projected cinema. The Lumière Brothers in France were the principal advocates for this genre and also coined the term — "Actualités" — and used it as a descriptor in the printed catalogues of their films. La sortie des usines Lumière (1895) — the first film exhibited by the Lumières—is by default the earliest actuality film; it might have not been the first one made, but it was definitively the first one shown publicly, on December 28, 1895.[2]

Although the Thomas A. Edison, Inc. in the United States was producing films and exhibiting them via the Kinetoscope going back to 1893, the films themselves were studio-bound creations made in Edison's makeshift movie studio the Black Maria; although Bucking Broncho (1894)[3] was the first Edison subject to be filmed outdoors, it necessitated the construction of a special pen next to the Black Maria. The Edison, and early Biograph, motion picture cameras were bulky, engineering-heavy designs that could not be lifted or carried by a single person and required transport by way of horse cart. The Lumière cameras—from the very start—were small, light and also functioned as projectors. The Paul-Acres camera, registered in Britain in 1895, was likewise a smaller and more readily portable device than the Edison model, and Birt Acres filmed The Derby (1895) on it in May. But this, and Paul's other films, were not projected in public until February 1896.[4]

Edison's first principal film producer W.K.L. Dickson broke away from the company late 1895 in order to act as partner in his own concern, American Mutoscope and Biograph, which by 1897 had a founded a British subsidiary that Dickson headed.[5] Although their cameras were even bulkier than Edison's at first, utilizing 68mm film, Biograph's very first subjects — a series of views of Niagara Falls — were actualities, although studio bound subjects dominate the Biograph's years before 1900. Other pre-1900 concerns such as Selig (Chicago), Lubin (Philadelphia), Vitagraph (New York), Méliès Star-Film, Pathé Frères and Gaumont (France) and Warwick Trading Company (UK) all made actuality films, though in varying degrees in relation to films made in other genres.

Lumière genres

It was the Lumières, however, that set the pace for most of the history of the actuality. Lumière films ran for the duration of the film strip in the camera, which was a uniform 50-second length. Lumière cameramen were trained to shoot in a specific type of framing and to keep an eye out for certain kinds of action. Louis Lumière personally approved every subject released and rejected about 500 films made for the company that did not meet his standards. They were consciously building a document of the world around them in 50-second shots, and Lumière cameramen had the greatest reach worldwide of any motion picture company in the business, filming in Asia, Africa and other hard to get places. They were careful to preserve and properly store their films, and all but 18 of the 1,423 films they made have survived.

When the Lumière films as a whole were submitted to the "Memory of the World" register at UNESCO,[6] they were subdivided into the following categories.

  • military events
  • everyday scenes
  • official events
  • fiction (comic or historical)
  • circus or music-hall entertainment
  • The Lumière family

The first three descriptors nearly encompass the whole of the subject matter represented in actuality films, to which may be added "news events," though these were relatively rare, as it was difficult for any motion picture cameraman to make it, with his equipment, to an actual news event in a timely fashion, leading to the advent of recreations. Nevertheless, both Vitagraph and Biograph released subjects filmed in Galveston after the hurricane of 1900; the aftermath of the San Francisco Earthquake was likewise filmed by at least three companies.

The Lumières never shared their camera system—with its 35mm film and round perforations—with anyone. But Pathé did begin to market its smaller, lighter camera to cinematographers around 1903, and even some cameramen employed by Edison and Biograph began to use them in defiance to the patent cameras owned by the companies that employed them. Biograph relented in 1903, discontinuing use of 68mm and adopting the increasingly universal 35mm format at this time.[7] The significance of this was that it then became easier for film makers to shoot actuality films across the board, though the heyday of the genre was soon to pass.

Traveling actualities

A special kind of actuality film is the traveling actuality, in which a camera is placed on a kind of conveyance—such as a bus, or rail car—so that the scene can change by virtue of the movement of the vehicle which is transporting the camera. These films were the first in which camera movement is involved, and a very early entry is James H. White's' Panoramic View of the Champs Elysees (1900), which appears to have been shot from a horse-drawn carriage. British Biograph's Panorama of Ealing from a Moving Tram (1901) is remarkable for its slow pace, high angle and the widescreen aspect of the 68mm film, whereas Danish film maker Thomas S. Hermanson's Sporvognene i Århus (1904) is remarkable for its speed and odd angles. Some extreme—almost avant-garde—examples come from Biograph; Frederick S. Armitage and A. E. Weed's Down the Hudson (1903), shot largely in single frames, and several films by G.W. Billy Bitzer, Interior N.Y. Subway, 14th St. to 42nd St (1905), which was shot from the front of a New York City Subway car shortly after the system first opened. The most remarkable traveling actuality of all is the Miles Brothers' Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire (1906), which was shot on a San Francisco streetcar and literally dropped off for processing on the day before the earthquake and fire destroyed San Francisco. At nearly eight minutes' length, Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire is also one of the longest actuality films.

Related genres

Certain types of early films lumped into the actuality genre are merely related forms and do not entirely belong to the designation. While sporting events—particularly boat and yacht races—figure into the actuality genre, fight films constitute a genre unto themselves. The first fight films, such as Edison's The Hornbacker-Murphy Fight (1894) actually precede the advent of actualities altogether and, as the genre evolved through 1916, consisted of a mixture of actual, recreated and staged bouts. The fixed camera position common in early cinema was a good match for taking in even many rounds of boxing, and interest in such subjects was further supported by the fact that boxing itself was illegal in most places, and the films provided access to such entertainment where live boxing matches were prohibited by law.[8]

Recreations of various kinds typify early kinds of news coverage; as the camera could not be brought to so many events of public significance or interest, the events were brought before the cameras, with actors and/or models of various kinds employed. This was especially common during the Spanish–American War;[9] although cameras were dispatched to the front in Cuba, the footage sent back was often disappointing, so it was more effective to find a setting in New Jersey and to restage the battle scenes with actors.[10] These films were often promoted to exhibitors and the public alike as the real thing, but "recreations" are inherently oxymoronic in relation to "actualities."


In 1904, American born English filmmaker Charles Urban made Everyday London, a 12-minute travelogue designed to provide views of England to Australians. This is a full-fledged documentary; although rather roughly assembled, it consists of a great many short shots and is clearly shaped in the manner of a documentary. In 1905, the Lumières ended their production of actualities, and within the next couple of years, major producers such as Edison and Biograph began to abandon the actuality genre; by 1907, American Biograph was no longer making them, and new start up companies such as Kalem never produced them at all, concentrating instead on fiction films with actors. When Gaston Méliès arrived in the United States to found the American division of Star Film, he started out making actualities, but swiftly moved into making Westerns.[11] This left production of actualities to smaller producers such as Mitchell and Kenyon in the UK, a company that made no other kinds of films, although Pathé soldiered on among the majors.

In mid-1908, French Pathé introduced the first newsreel.[12] The newsreel was a format in which actualities could be combined, and it provided a context for the views that was timely. Also that year, Charles Urban founded the Kinora Company, the first company established for the exclusive purpose of distributing documentaries and other kinds of non-fiction films. Although it is not altogether impossible to find actuality films made after 1910, the shift towards documentaries and newsreels rendered the genre irrelevant both commercially and artistically.


In a commercial sense, the actuality is of no more worth than its value as stock footage to use in documentaries. Some documentaries have been fashioned from early actualities and passed off as historic without further comment, such as a compilation entitled The San Francisco Earthquake which is rendered in a way that makes the original source material impossible to divine.[13] However, actuality films are an inherent part of the development of early motion pictures and the genre deserves study in its own right; the UNESCO Lumière project, BFI's Mitchell and Kenyon collection and certain films in the Library of Congress paper print collection remain the only studies in the genre conducted in a systematic way. The sheer numbers of such films are part of the problem; early actuality films exist in the thousands, and many remain unidentified.

Although actuality films may have disappeared from movie theaters, actuality footage, especially from video, has had considerable impact in the digital era. One late 20th century actuality video seen thousands of times on television in the months leading up to the LA consumer riots of 1993 was the police beating of Rodney King, filmed by an amateur through the front window of their residence. The advent of YouTube has led to some resurgence of interest in actuality styled film and video apart from "home movies," and the web has seen the advent of home-based webcams pointed out the window, and other things resulting from the easy availability of access to digital video. Whereas early film makers would shoot film after film and never have to proffer a single release form, the legal implications in the digital era are different; there is now a thin line between actuality filming and unwanted surveillance.

Artist and filmmaker James Nares was inspired by actuality films from the 1890s to create his 61-minute, non-fiction film Street in 2011. Out of 16 hours of footage captured on Manhattan streets with an ultra-highspeed camera, Nares selected and edited together just 2 minutes and 40 seconds of real-time film, slowed to roughly a twentieth of its original speed. "Framed as a montage of events rather than as a linear narrative, Street pulls our attention toward individuals among the masses that crowd the city’s sidewalks."[14]

Noted filmmakers

See also


  1. ^ American Memory, "The Actuality Film" [1]
  2. ^ "Bienvenue sur Adobe GoLive 4". Archived from the original on 2014-05-12. Retrieved 2014-05-12.
  3. ^ "Bucking broncho / Thomas A. Edison, Inc. ; producer, W.K.L. Dickson". Retrieved 2014-05-12.
  4. ^ "Pioneers: Robert Paul" at [2]
  5. ^ Gordon Hendricks, "Origins of the American Film," New York: Arno Press, New York Times 1972
  6. ^ Mary Chin (15 March 2011). "UNESCO Memory of the World Register - Lumiere Films" (PDF). Retrieved 2014-07-06.
  7. ^ "Guide to Motion Picture Catalogs - The Edison Papers". Retrieved 2014-05-12.
  8. ^ Dan Strieble - Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema. University of California Press, 2008; ISBN 0-520-25075-3
  9. ^ "The Spanish–American War in Motion Pictures". Retrieved 2014-05-12.
  10. ^ "Edison Film and Sound: History: The Shift to Projectors and the Vitascope (1895–1896)". Retrieved 2014-05-12.
  11. ^ "The Star Film Ranch: Texas' First Picture Show: Frank Thompson: 9781556224812: Books". Retrieved 2014-05-12.
  12. ^ British Pathé, "History of British Pathé" [3]
  13. ^ American Memory, "San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, April 18, 1906"
  14. ^ "Joslyn Art Museum Omaha Nebraska | Art Museum, Art Classes Omaha Nebraska | Entertainment Omaha". 2014-09-21. Retrieved 2015-03-07.

External resources

1896 in film

The following is an overview of the events of 1896 in film, including a list of films released and notable births.

1913 in Australia

The following lists events that happened during 1913 in Australia.

A Sea Cave Near Lisbon

A Sea Cave Near Lisbon is an 1896 British short silent actuality film, directed by Henry Short, featuring a view looking out to sea through the Boca do Inferno (Hell's Mouth) cave near Lisbon, with waves breaking in. The film was popular with audiences and received positive reviews.

A Switchback Railway

A Switchback Railway is an 1898 British short black-and-white silent actuality film, directed by Robert W. Paul, featuring patrons riding on a switchback railway at a fairground. "This dynamically composed actuality," according to Micahael Brooke of BFI Screenonline, "was clearly a success, so much so that James Williamson and the Riley Brothers released their own switchback railway films only a few months later." It is included on the BFI DVD R.W. Paul: The Collected Films 1895-1908. It is arguable that the filmmaker, R.W. Paul, missed a trick by not placing the camera inside one of the moving cars to simulate the ride from the passenger's perspective, although he might have had difficulty keeping the camera steady. Nonetheless, the film was clearly a success, so much so that James Williamson and the Riley Brothers released their own switchback railway films only a few months later.

A Trip Down Market Street

A Trip Down Market Street is a 13-minute actuality film recorded by placing a movie camera on the front of a cable car as it traveled down San Francisco’s Market Street. The film shows many details of daily life in a major early 20th century American city, including the transportation, fashions and architecture of the era. The film begins at 8th Street and continues eastward to the cable car turntable, at The Embarcadero, in front of the Ferry Building. Landmarks passed in the latter part of the first half include the Call Building (then San Francisco's tallest) and the Palace Hotel (both on the right; Lotta's Fountain is on the left between the two but is in the shade). The film was produced by the four Miles brothers: Harry, Herbert, Earle and Joe. It is notable for capturing San Francisco four days before the city's devastating earthquake and fire, which started on the morning of Thursday, April 18, 1906.The Miles brothers had been producing films in New York including films shot in San Francisco. In September 1905 they shot the fight between Oscar "Battling" Nelson and Jimmy Britt in Colma, California, just south of San Francisco city limits. The Miles brothers established a studio at 1139 Market Street in San Francisco in early 1906. They shot a railroad descent down Mount Tamalpais as well as the Market Street film. On April 17, Harry and Joe Miles boarded a train for New York, taking the two films with them, but they heard about the earthquake and sent the films to New York while they boarded another train headed back to San Francisco. The Turk Street house of Earle Miles survived the earthquake and subsequent catastrophic fire but the studio did not. The Miles brothers based their business out of Earle's home, and shot more film of post-earthquake scenes; some of this footage, including that of a second trip down a now devastated Market Street, reemerged in 2016. It is likely that the Market Street film survives today because it was sent away before the fire.Several 35mm prints exist with slight changes in footage. Copies are held at the Library of Congress and the Prelinger Archives. A digital version is viewable online at Internet Archive, YouTube and Wikimedia Commons. In 2010, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

Arrival of a Train at Vincennes Station

Arrival of a Train at Vincennes Station (French: Arrivée d'un train (Gare de Vincennes)) is a 1896 French silent actuality film directed by Georges Méliès. It was released by Méliès's company Star Film and is numbered 7 in its catalogues. The film is currently presumed lost.

Blackfriars Bridge (film)

Blackfriars Bridge (AKA: Traffic on Blackfriars Bridge) is an 1896 British short black-and-white silent actuality film, directed by Robert W. Paul, featuring top-hatted pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages passing over Blackfriars Bridge, London. The film was, according to Michael Brooke of BFI Screenonline, "taken from the southern end looking northwards over the Thames by R.W. Paul in July 1896," and, "screened as part of his Alhambra Theatre programme shortly afterwards, certainly no later than 31 August"

Comic Costume Race

Comic Costume Race is an 1896 British short black-and-white silent actuality film, directed by Robert W. Paul, featuring comic costume scramble at the Music Hall Sports on 14 July 1896 at Herne Hill, London. The music hall sports day was an annual charity event consisting of other events such as egg and spoon races and three-legged races. The film is the best surviving pictorial record of the Music Hall Sports. It is not known who the race participants are.The film was, according to Michael Brooke of BFI Screenonline, "presented at Windsor Castle on 23 November 1896," which, "enabled Paul to add a royal seal of approval to his advertisements." It is included on the BFI DVD R.W. Paul: The Collected Films 1895-1908.Another film of the costume race at the Music Hall Sports was produced in 1898. In 1899, Cecil Hepworth produced a film on a similar race, entitled Comic Costume Race for Cyclists. This film depicted a group of cyclists racing to a pile of clothing, containing costumes such as those of a policeman and a clown, before remounting and racing to the finishing line.

Early Fashions on Brighton Pier

Early Fashions on Brighton Pier is a 19th-century British silent actuality film, generally considered to be shot by Scottish film pioneer James Williamson. Previously, the film had been credited to George Albert Smith. The more recent attribution to Williamson is based mainly on the identification of two of Williamson's sons in the pier crowd. It is categorised in the Screen Archive South East as On the West Pier.

Girls Taking Time Checks

Girls Taking Time Checks is a 1904 silent actuality film photographed by G. W. Bitzer for the Biograph Company in conjunction with Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company. It was released by the Biograph Company.

Leisurely Pedestrians, Open Topped Buses and Hansom Cabs with Trotting Horses

Leisurely Pedestrians, Open Topped Buses and Hansom Cabs with Trotting Horses is a 1889 British short silent actuality film, shot by inventor and film pioneer William Friese-Greene on celluloid film using his 'machine' camera. The 20 feet of film, which was shot in autumn 1889 at Apsley Gate, Hyde Park, London, was claimed to be the first motion picture, although Louis Le Prince successfully shot on glass plate before 18 August 1887, and on paper negative in October 1888. It may nonetheless be the first moving picture film on celluloid and the first shot in London. It was never publicly screened, although several photographic journalists saw it during his lifetime - including Thomas Bedding, J Hay Taylor and Theodore Brown. It is now considered a lost film with no known surviving prints and only one possible still image extant.

Lion, London Zoological Gardens

Lion, London Zoological Gardens (French: Lions, Jardin zoologique, Londres) is a 1896 French short black-and-white silent actuality film, produced by Auguste and Louis Lumière and directed by Alexandre Promio, featuring a male lion reaching through the bars of its enclosure at London Zoological Gardens to get at the meat thrown by its keeper. The film was part of a series, including Tigers and Pelicans, which were one of the earliest examples of animal life on film.

London's Trafalgar Square

London's Trafalgar Square is an 1890 British short silent actuality film, shot by inventors and film pioneers Wordsworth Donisthorpe and William Carr Crofts at approximately 10 frames per second with an oval or circular frame on celuloid film using their 'kinesigraph' camera, showing traffic at Trafalgar Square in London. The surviving ten frames of film are the earliest known motion picture of the city.

Pelicans, London Zoological Gardens

Pelicans, London Zoological Gardens (French: Pélicans, Jardin zoologique, Londres) is a 1896 French short black-and-white silent actuality film, produced by Auguste and Louis Lumière and directed by Alexandre Promio, featuring pelicans following their keeper around their enclosure at London Zoological Gardens. The film was part of a series, including Lion and Pelicans, which were one of the earliest examples of animal life on film.

Pelicans at the Zoo

Pelicans at the Zoo is an 1898 British short black-and-white silent actuality film, produced by British Mutoscope & Biograph Company, featuring pelicans being released for feeding into their enclosure at London Zoological Gardens. The film was part of a series, with Elephants at the Zoo, which were one of the earliest examples of animal life on film.

Roundhay Garden Scene

Roundhay Garden Scene is an 1888 short silent actuality film recorded by French inventor Louis Le Prince. Filmed at Oakwood Grange in Roundhay, Leeds, in the north of England, the footage is believed to be the oldest surviving film in existence.

The Twins' Tea Party

The Twins' Tea Party is an 1896 British short silent actuality film, produced and directed by Robert W. Paul, featuring twin girls squabbling over a piece of cake at a tea party. One girl slaps the other a few times, arguing over the cake. Then, when the other girl cries, the first girl feels sorry and makes up, hugging and kissing her. The film, "was one of the very first 'facials'," which according to Michael Brooke of BFI Screenonline was, "a popular genre in early British cinema that exploited what to 1896 audiences was the astonishing novelty of being able to see moving images of recognisable people in medium close-up as they reacted to a particular situation." John Barnes, author of The Beginnings of the Cinema in England, adds that, "this charming one-shot film of two infant girls reluctantly sharing tea was one of the most popular items exhibited in R.W. Paul's programmes at the Alhambra Theatre in 1896."The film was remade in 1898, and distributed under the title Tea: The Twins' Tea Party. This version was promoted as "an improved edition of the favourite 'Twins' Tea Party.'"

Tigers, London Zoological Gardens

Tigers, London Zoological Gardens (French: Tigres, Jardin zoologique, Londres) is a 1896 French short black-and-white silent actuality film, produced by Auguste and Louis Lumière and directed by Alexandre Promio, featuring two tigers reaching through the bars of its enclosure at London Zoological Gardens to get at the meat offered on a stick by their keeper. The film was part of a series, including Lion and Pelicans, which were one of the earliest examples of animal life on film.

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