Film’s forgotten ancestors

A look at the devices that preceded the Lumières’ invention

The magic lantern, invented in 1654, was a popular precursor to the cinema.
The magic lantern, invented in 1654, was a popular precursor to the cinema.ALBERTO ORTEGA / COLECCIÓN JOSEP M. QUERALTÓ

France is celebrating. It’s January 30, 1853 and Emperor Napoleon III has just married Eugénie de Montijo. A procession of soldiers squeezes along the tree-lined street to allow the royal couple to pass. With the Arc de Triomphe visible in the background, there are soldiers playing the flute and a gendarme on horseback; another two carry the French Tricolour: Vive l’empereur!

This entire spectacle fits inside a box of just a few cubic centimeters. That’s the size of the diorama that reveals a cardboard representation of the royal nuptials to anyone who puts their eye to the glass.

First, though, they will need to head to the Cinema Academy in Madrid where this and other examples of cinema’s predecessors star in a free exhibition titled Illusión y movimiento: los orígenes del cinematógrafo (or, Illusion and movement: the origins of cinema). From the Kinora to the praxinoscope, from the camera obscura to the magic lantern, this small show explores the greater- and lesser-known branches of cinema’s family tree. “It all began as a toy,” explains the Catalan cinema expert and collector Josep María Queraltó, who is the owner of all the contraptions on show.

Queraltó goes up to each of the devices and explains the workings behind the complicated name. Inside a megalethoscope you see how a photo of Venice changes from day to night every few seconds and a multiple stereoscopic viewfinder, you discover, is nothing less than an example of “3D ahead of its time,” as he puts it.

In fact Queraltó has only brought 15 pieces from his enormous personal collection of pre-cinema devices to the Cinema Academy. It is 22 years since he stopped some bulldozers about to pull down a movie theater and carried away the projectors that started his collection. Since then he has stored away 20,000 items. “The most recent one is a projector that arrived for me the other day that is for 22-centimeter-wide films,” he says. “If you have any cinema-related objects that you are going to throw away, bring them to me!”

“It’s an exhibition that above all provokes envy and an inferiority complex,” smiles Cinema Academy president and keen collector Enrique González Macho. It’s also one that, according to exhibition curator Luis Alonso, treads on terrain disputed by collectors and film historians. “Some studies would say these contraptions don’t strictly have anything to do with cinema technology,” he says. “But they do reflect its original idea.”

Each visitor picks their own side. Queraltó has already chosen his and now dreams about turning his collection into a museum devoted to cinema and audiovisual technology “that explains how cinema was arrived at.” It would be a fantastic story — like the ones hidden behind the glass of a diorama.

Illusión y movimiento: los orígenes del cinematógrafo. Until May 15 at Academia de cine, C/ Zurbano 3, Madrid. www.academiadecine.com

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS