Cinema History and Bataille de boules de neige

When I was teaching film history, one of the stories I would tell was about the showing of the a film by the French Lumière Brothers called “Arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat” (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat). This 1896 film had a running time of 50 seconds. It shows a train pulled by a steam locomotive entering the train station of the French southern coastal town of La Ciotat, near Marseille. It is like most of their early films and is a single, unedited shot with no intentional camera moves.  The story – which I have since learned is a myth – was that when it was shown it so startled audiences that people jumped from their seats.

The American film “The Great Train Robbery” from Thomas Edison’s studio in 1903 also had a “shocker” shot of a gun fired at the audience. But audiences did not jump up in fear when they saw that gun fire.  Made 7 years after the Lumiere film, audiences had seen more films and were used to more sophisticated “effects.” This film was edited, had wide shots, close-ups, a matte effect, camera pans, multiple locations (in New York and New Jersey) and showed simultaneous action across multiple scenes.

I’m generally not a fan of colorizing black and white films, but recently one of the Lumière Brothers’ films was restored in full color and HD by Joaquim Campa. He used AI-powered software and there were frames interpolated to smooth the film (though the film’s speed remains unchanged). Here is the new version.

I like this “restored” version though film purists will say the original version (seen below) is the only version that should be seen. Considering that the actual “Bataille de boules de neige” (Snowball Fight) occurred in real-life color and that the brothers had no choice but to use black and white film and be silent, I imagine they would have been thrilled to see their film in color and with sound.

Watching these citizens pound each other and a passing cyclist with snowballs is a fun little moment from 1896 that doesn’t seem so different from our own time. Photography and cinema always change reality. Another French filmmaker, Georges Méliès, saw what the brothers had done but he took it beyond reality and created fantasies and special effects such as those in his film  “A Trip to the Moon” which in 1902 had many effects including footage in black and white but also scenes that had been “hand-colorized.”

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Ken Ronkowitz

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

4 thoughts on “Cinema History and Bataille de boules de neige”

  1. My grandfather had a kit of some kind that he used to colorize old photographs and postcards (which were a main form of communicating then). I had hundreds. Many destroyed in a flood. My grandfather was from Marseilles. Synchronicity?

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  2. Also, I agree with you that both should exist. To say that the colorized one should not exist simply makes no sense to me. It does not change the integrity of the black/white version. My experience and focused changed. For some reason, the gradual emergence of the bicycle rider from the background seemed to get more of my attention in the b/w version. In the color version, my attention was drawn more towards the two men in the left foreground. Both were enjoyable. A masterpiece. Thank you for sharing it.

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