Louis Le Prince, who shot the world's first film in Leeds

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Media caption,

Louis Le Prince's Roundhay Garden Scene and Leeds Bridge

Who made the first film? The Lumiere brothers and Thomas Edison are usually credited with pioneering the moving image. However a new documentary argues that the first film was actually shot in Leeds in 1888 - but that its maker disappeared before he could claim his place in cinema history.

When film producer and distributor David Wilkinson visits Hollywood or New York or Cannes, he tells his movie business contacts that he comes from the city "where film was invented".

His puzzled acquaintances figure that he does not have an American accent, so cannot come from the birthplace of Thomas Edison, and is clearly not from France, the land of the Lumieres.

He then informs them he is, in fact, from Leeds, England.

During his 33 years in the film business, Wilkinson says only a few people have known what he was talking about, and why Leeds can claim to be the birthplace of film.

The claim dates back more than 125 years, to 14 October 1888, when a family gathered in the garden in the Leeds suburb of Roundhay.

Among the group was Louis Le Prince, who had with him a curious mahogany box. He asked the others in attendance - his son, parents-in-law and a friend - to stand in front of the box and walk in a circle.

Image source, Le Prince
Image caption,
Louis Le Prince shot snippets of film, but disappeared before he was able to project them

The groundbreaking camera

The box was Le Prince's camera, and we can still watch the very short, silent film it captured. The film was made several years before Edison and the Lumieres came onto the scene.

Now, fed up with getting disbelieving looks when telling people Leeds was the birthplace of film, Wilkinson has made a documentary titled The First Film, which sets out the case for Le Prince as the father of the moving image.

"There is a very strong argument for that, absolutely," says Toni Booth, associate curator at the National Media Museum in Bradford, where Le Prince's historic camera and footage are kept.

"If you look at the mechanism that camera is using, it's a very similar mechanism to all the subsequent moving image cameras that came after that," she says.

"It is a single roll of film moving from one spool to another through a shutter and taking sequential images, which then were designed to be projected to reproduce that movement.

"As a piece of moving image recording live action - yes I would say he was the first one to do that," she adds.

Image source, National Media Museum
Image caption,
Le Prince first made a 16-lens camera (left) before moving on to the single-lens camera (right)

The race to invent

Le Prince was born in Metz, north-east France. He studied chemistry and physics at university, then worked as a photographer and painter before being offered a job at John Whitley's engineering firm in Leeds.

Three years after moving to the city, he married Elizabeth Whitley, his boss's daughter. At the same time, photography was beginning to take hold, and Le Prince started experimenting with the idea of moving photographs.

By the 1880s, he was one of many inventors trying to master the technology for what would become film.

Others included William Friese Greene and Wordsworth Donisthorpe in Britain, Eadweard Muybridge in the US, Etienne-Jules Marey in France, and the Skladanowsky brothers in Germany.

"You will find people making cases for particular individuals," Toni Booth says. "There is still some debate, and I think it comes down to definition. The definition of film and the definition of cinema."

What is the difference, for example, between a series of still photographs taken in quick succession and a bona fide film?

In 1878, Eadweard Muybridge arranged 12 cameras in a row to photograph a racehorse in motion. He later copied the photos on a rotating disc and invented a device to make it look to a viewer as if the horse was moving.

"He's getting a feeling of movement, but he's not really capturing the movement like film cameras do," David Wilkinson says.

Image source, Geurilla Films
Image caption,
David Wilkinson, pictured with a replica of Le Prince's camera, said he was 'obsessed' with the story

Le Prince's first camera had 16 lenses, which took what Wilkinson also dismisses as "sequential photographs". Wilkinson defines film as being shot from a single point of view - as with Le Prince's next invention, the single-lens camera.

As well as the Roundhay Garden Scene, Le Prince used the single-lens camera to film short sequence of people and carriages on Leeds Bridge, and his son Adolphe playing the accordion.

He successfully captured the action, but Le Prince's invention was of little use if no-one could watch the films afterwards.

He experimented with projection techniques and was due to hold his first public screening in New York in 1890.

But he never got there. While visiting his brother Albert in France with two friends, the Wilsons, Le Prince was said to have boarded a train from Dijon to Paris in September 1890. He was never seen again.

The mysterious ending

There are many theories for his disappearance. His widow Lizzie believed Edison had him killed to get his rival out of the way.

Others think Le Prince committed suicide because he was on the verge of bankruptcy, or disappeared and started a new life, or that his brother Albert killed him in a row over their mother's will.

Some have even suggested his family ordered him to move away because they discovered he was gay.

"If he hadn't disappeared then it [his film] would have been shown in New York," David Wilkinson says.

"I am absolutely convinced that he would have raised money from a very distinguished audience so then he could start manufacturing on quite a big scale.

"He would have done what Edison and then the Lumieres did, but before them. He would have been known," Wilkinson adds.

But as it was, the Lumieres and Edison succeeded in playing films for a paying public and Le Prince was written out of history.

"He technically succeeded but he didn't commercially, publicly succeed," Toni Booth says.

"Had things been different, he may be considered alongside Edison and Lumiere, indeed even above them. It's distinctly possible - but we'll just never know."

What happened to Louis Le Prince?

Laurie Snyder, Le Prince's great-great-granddaughter

My family has several theories. Some believe that Edison had something to do with it, others believe that he engineered his own disappearance.

My personal theory is pretty mundane. Since Louis took a later train, the Wilsons, who were to meet him in Paris, went ahead and left for England when Louis didn't disembark when they expected him to.

According to Lizzie's memoirs, the train Louis took would have arrived in Paris at about 23:00. Being so late, he probably hailed a hansom cab to take him to his workshop.

I think the driver, taking advantage of the hour and the darkness, took him to a remote location near the Seine, hit him over the head and threw him in the Seine. There were two articles from this time that suggest that thieves were targeting lone travellers and Le Prince was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I simply can't believe that a man who loved his family as much as he did, as evidenced by his letters, would either commit suicide or disappear on his own.

The idea that his brother murdered him is ludicrous. He came from a very close, loving family, as evidenced from Lizzie's memoirs. Edison, although he was certainly ruthless, probably had better things to do than to order a hit on a competitor.

Finally, the theory that his family ordered his disappearance due his being a homosexual is crazy since the family spent a lot of time and money trying to find him.

Laurie Snyder is donating the family's Louis Le Prince archive to the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society in July.

The First Film will have its premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on Tuesday. It will have screenings in Leeds on 1 July and Bradford on 2 July before going on general release on 3 July.

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