The surviving 3-second snippet of Dickson Greeting (1891) shows a slim, neatly dressed young man with a mustache. He’s in the midst of bowing politely to the camera, about to pass a straw hat from one hand to the other. We barely have time to register his image before the clip ends. But brief as it is, we still get a hint of this young man’s self-assurance.
The young man is William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson (he often shortened it to “W.K.L. Dickson”), and he wasn’t merely the subject of a very early, quasi-experimental film. He’s one of the most significant pioneers of the cinema. Let me be even more clear: he’s one of cinema’s giants, an enthusiastic innovator who helped shape the movies as we still know them today. And we know this not so much from his own recorded words, which became obscure over the years, but because research in recent decades revealed just what an important figure he was.
This is a version of an article I wrote for Classic Movie Hub a few years back. I hope you find it as interesting as I did while researching it!And if you’re interested, I also published a piece on Roundhay Garden Scene (1888) back in the early days of Silent-ology.
We’ve all seen clips of scratchy, very early films showing women dancing or blacksmiths at work, films that are more like experimental documentaries than anything else. But have you ever wondered: what were the top 10 earliest films ever made?
It’s not an easy list to make, anymore than it’s easy to decide which of the many Victorian inventors receives the most credit for the cinema (Marey? Edison? Muybridge? Friese-Greene??). First we have to determine what counts as “film.” After all, before the use of light-sensitive paper and celluloid several photographers had invented cameras capable of taking multiple photos in quick succession. These could capture, say, an animal’s precise movements one quick shot at a time. (Eadweard Muybridge pioneered this method.) But it’s often agreed that the earliest true films were the ones shot on light-sensitive strips of material much the way they are today (or were, until digital started taking over).
It’s also tough to determine an exact chronology for the earliest films since every studio would’ve had a period of experimentation, and presumably many of those experiments didn’t survive. So the following list should be considered a little less Gospel than guideline on what we know exists. In cases where a “series” of brief films were shot by the same studio in the same vague time frame, I’ll be counting them as a single entry.
So let’s start with the very oldest surviving film in the entire world: