‘Nope’ and the Story Behind Muybridge’s Moving Pictures

Animation: Universal Pictures

“Did you know that the very first assembly of photographs to create a motion picture was a two-second clip of a Black man on a horse?” The question, posed by Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer) early in Jordan Peele’s Nope, sets up a fiction by rooting it in fact: The clip in question, shown in the film’s opening credits (and in its trailer), is acknowledged by most historians as the first primitive example of the “motion picture”; the fiction is the identity of the jockey, sadly lost to time, but proclaimed in Nope to be Emerald’s great-great-great-grandfather, founder of “Heywood Hollywood Horses.”

What we do know for certain about the personnel involved in that embryonic, GIF-like movie is who devised and shot it. Edward Muybridge was a photographer and inventor whose experiments in motion-sequence still photography and image projection earned him the title “the Father of Motion Pictures.” He was also, in a plot twist perhaps only a filmmaker with Peele’s CV could appreciate, a stone-cold murderer.

The son of a coal merchant, Muybridge — who was born Edward James Muggeridge and would modify his name multiple times over the course of his life, adding and rearranging letters seemingly at random (he is also frequently identified as Eadweard Muybridge) — hailed from England and traveled to America at age 20 in search of fortune. He came to his eventual career late in life, after stints as a successful bookseller, an unsuccessful inventor, and a less successful venture capitalist.

While visiting Paris in an attempt to sell a patent for a printing process, he fell in with the brothers Berthaud, who ran a photography studio called Maison Hélios. The Berthauds eagerly taught Muybridge the tricks of the young trade, from cameras to lenses to developing. When he returned, to San Francisco, Muybridge set up shop as a photographer and did one of the few things more pretentious than changing his name from Edward to Eadweard: He rechristened himself Hélios.

As Hélios, he was a wandering artisan, first renowned for his landscape photographs. The primitive film stock and equipment of the era prevented most photographers from capturing images of the land without blowing out the sky, but using the mechanical mind he’d developed as an inventor, Muybridge created the “sky shade,” a diffusing screen that made the clouds and sky visible while preserving the details of the land and sea.

This combination of artistic skill and technical ingenuity brought Muybridge to the attention of Leland Stanford. The wealthy former governor of California had become obsessed with horses — and not just owning and riding them, though he had plenty of opportunities for both on his 8,000-acre horse farm, the Palo Alto Stock Farm (on what would become the Stanford University campus). Instead, Stanford was singularly fixated on how horses ran, believing that when the animal reached a full gallop, all of its hooves were off the ground, making it, essentially, an airborne creature.

However, the movements of a galloping horse’s legs are too fast to be registered by the naked eye, and that was where Muybridge came in; perhaps, Stanford reasoned, a still camera could capture this phenomenon. But cameras and film stock were still barely faster than the human eye. “I therefore plainly told Mr. Stanford that such a thing had never been heard of,” Muybridge later wrote in the San Francisco Examiner, “that photography had not yet arrived at such wonderful perfection as would enable it to depict a trotting horse.” Stanford asked Muybridge to give it a shot anyway (and, presumably, offered him a nice chunk of change). After some effort, Muybridge devised a possible solution, reasoning that a spring-activated, high-speed shutter system might capture just enough of the light and the subject to prevent the blurring that, until then, plagued photos of objects in motion.

His first photos, taken in May of 1872 of Stanford’s prize trotter Occidental, were promising but unsatisfactory; the “shadowy and indistinct” images seemed to prove Stanford’s thesis but were not good enough for verification and distribution. So Muybridge kept working, determining that part of the problem was timing; he had to make his handmade shutter, which he’d reduced to 1/500th of a second, coincide with the split second in which the horse’s hooves were in the air. So he began orchestrating series of multiple cameras and shutters, creating extensive photosets capturing barely distinct movements of humans and animals.

These experiments would prove key to the realization of Stanford and Muybridge’s project, which finally occurred on June 11, 1878. Muybridge used what he later described as “a machine constructed on the principle of a music box … containing a cylinder with a row of 12 pins on it, arranged in a spiral.” He turned the cylinder in sync with the approaching house, snapping the shutters of 12 cameras in a row, each capturing the tiniest shift in the horse’s movement. Four days later, they invited the press to witness the process, complete with film developing on-site; the Sacramento Daily Union described it as “second only, among the marvels of the age, to the wonderful discoveries of the telephone and phonograph.”

(And yes, it’s worth noting that the motion picture came about not as a new form of entertainment or enlightenment, but because some rich guy wanted to prove a point.)

A year and a half later, Stanford summoned a coterie of his rich and powerful friends to his mansion on San Francisco’s Nob Hill for another momentous event. They gathered in his parlor and watched as Muybridge fired up what he called his “zoopraxiscope,” a modified magic lantern–style projector. He turned a wheel of images within it, projecting, onto a screen, a two-second clip of a horse in motion. It was, it can be argued, the first exhibition of a “motion” picture.

“Muybridge was well known to everyone in the room,” Edward Ball writes in The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures. “They had heard about the horse pictures, about Muybridge’s trick of capturing time. But like everyone else in California, the well-heeled spectators in the parlor knew there was more to the thin photographer than his work. They knew about the crime.”

In 1871, Muybridge had married Flora Downs, 21 years his junior. His frequent travels left his young wife feeling abandoned; she began seeing a young newspaperman named Harry Larkyns. In October 1874, Muybridge found out about the affair, and the enraged photographer took his Smith & Wesson No. 2 revolver to a cottage at the Yellow Jacket Mine, where Larkyns was employed. Several people were inside, enjoying a late-night card game, when Muybridge knocked on the door and asked for Larkyns; when he came to the door, Muybridge shot Larkyns in the chest, killing him. According to witnesses, Muybridge then apologized to the others in the cottage for the disturbance.

The shooting and its subsequent trial created something of a media sensation, in a country and a time where such a thing barely existed. Stanford paid for Muybridge’s lawyer, who helped him plead insanity in his thirst for “instant vengeance,” and pleaded with the jury of the photographer’s peers (i.e., “mostly old and gray men,” per The Atlantic) to “let him go forth again among the wild and grand beauties of nature, in the pursuit of his loved profession, where he may perhaps pick up again a few of the broken threads of his life and attain such comparative peace as may be attained by one so cruelly stricken through the very excess of his love.” And they did, acquitting Muybridge on all charges.

This speed bump on the road to immortality helps explain the six-year gap between Muybridge’s tentative first shoot for Stanford and the later, successful one, which resulted in that primitive series of images that open Nope. Muybridge’s achievement initially seems a minor plot point, the kind of obscure, slightly sinister cultural footnote that Peele loves to use as seasoning for his stories. But it’s not difficult to read Nope as both a sci-fi thriller and a Hollywood satire, in which supposedly superior digital technology ultimately proves insufficient to meet the Haywoods’ need to immortalize this alien life force. And thus, when Emerald Haywood makes her final, desperate attempt to capture an impossible event on film, she can only do so by becoming Edward Muybridge: She returns the form to its origin, to a series of images snapped in succession. It’s a poignant reminder that the technology is secondary — and, perhaps, our desire to create moving pictures is intrinsic.

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