Running time: 104 mins.
Release Date: TBD
“Eadweard”, written and directed by Vancouver’s Kyle Rideout, is a locally shot and produced biopic exploring the life of Eadweard Muybridge, one of the pioneers of film making in the late 1800’s. It’s surprising that Muybridge isn’t better known to the general public, and as such this film is a welcome addition to the annals of cinema history. As Martin Scorcese did with Georges Méliès in “Hugo”, “Muybridge” shines a spotlight on a figure that doesn’t have the household name recognition of a Thomas Edison, but was equally influential to the development of modern film techniques. From the use of the word “action” to inform actors to begin a performance, to much of the terminology still used today to describe the mechanics of film (plates, takes, etc.), Muybridge’s influence is seen everywhere in contemporary film.
Students of animation, and visual effects, are intimately familiar with Muybridge, as his still motion photographic studies have served as the cornerstone of animation, and motion research, for well over a century. Most every visual effect you’ve seen on the big, and small screen, owes it’s lineage, either directly or indirectly, to Muybridge; from the early efforts of Walt Disney, to the Bullet-time slow-motion in The “Matrix” films, and modern-day spectacle of “The Avengers”. His photographic studies of how people and animals move has been the bible of animation and special effects artists for generations, so it’s a treat to see the genesis of what previously only existed as a series of black and white still photos in old books come to life on the big screen.
Rideout and his team have done a phenomenal job of capturing the meticulous detail, precision, and passion behind Muybridge’s efforts to catalog objects in motion. Along with Michael Ecklunds exquisite portrayal of the obsessive artist, the filmmakers have added a personal dimension to Muybridge’s life that feels authentic and honest. The only small detail that marred otherwise impeccable production design, was the choice to seat Muybridge on a chair between the subjects and the camera for most of the film, presumably for dramatic purposes, as he directed their actions. Each time we cut back to look at Muybridge, it appeared that he was blocking the lenses of his precisely calibrated camera array, which was an odd misstep for an otherwise flawless re-creation. Other than that, the attention to detail here was excellent, depicting how Muybridge dealt with animals and performers, long before film production was a known commodity, to the challenges of working with the chemical and technological film processes of the period.
Shot almost entirely around Vancouver, British Columbia, Rideout and Cinematographer Tony Mirza capture the essence of the Eastern United States in the late 1800’s, with production values that appear to far exceed what the actual budget must have been. Lenses and film stock lend a soft, ethereal glow to the rich, saturated color palette, which give it a colorized, sepia-tone feeling, wholly appropriate to the period, but not distracting to watch. Costuming and period details appear spot-on, and never once detract from an immersive feeling of turn-of-the-century Americana, which is no small feat for an independently produced film of this budget.
Acting is superb throughout, with a standout performance by Michael Ecklund as Muybridge, channeling the angst of a tortured perfectionist with great aplomb. Ecklund perfectly captures the spirit of the obsessive Muybridge, fixated on his mission to document and capture life as a series of still images, often to his own detriment. The film does an ample job of shining a light on Muybridge’s personal life, with a feisty performance by Sara Canning as Muybridge’s wife Flora.
Although the film is structured as a traditional biopic, at its core this is a detached, specific account of Muybridge’s work during the time of his now famous motion studies at the University of Pennsylvania, which may limit the film’s broader appeal. To more fully appreciate Muybridge’s life, it would have been interesting to see context of his work outside of this period, as well as how his peers viewed him, and where he fit into the academic and social milieu of the time. We get a nice little wink in that direction when he is introduced to a man named “Tom” at a party, who then gives his full name as, “Tom…Thomas Edison”, but we see little more of other relevant historical characters throughout. Additionally, there are scenes depicting the reaction of the University and its backers to his work, allusions to Muybridge’s development of motion picture projection systems, and a brief mention of his quirky standing as the last American acquitted of murder by justifiable homicide. These are all fleeting citations in the overall narrative, and as a result, the conclusion felt truncated, with a lot of information compressed into the end title codas. However, those are relatively minor quibbles for a film that deftly brings to life one of the lesser known, but most influential figures of modern cinema.