The Brighton School (1895-1907) & Pioneers of British Film

The Brighton School
Out of the great number of films made in Britain between the years 1895 and 1907, the most prolific and influential were the group of filmmakers known as “The Brighton School.” Though it is noted there were four major filmmakers working in this seaside resort area of Britain, only George Albert Smith and James Williamson seemed to have made significant and influential developments in the new medium. (The other two, of whose work these is little record, were Alfred Darling and Esme Collings.) Both Smith and Williamson were still photographers as well as manufacturers of photographic equipment. Their shift to “moving stills” was a natural one, but apart from merely making films, they developed, designed, built and eventually sold machines for the practice and perfection of cinematography.
What now appears, in retrospect, to be the more interesting aspect of the “Brighton School” was their capacity to make a wide range of films without, at least in the beginning, any outside influence. G.A. Smith, for example, bought a huge house with a “fair amount of land” in the village of Hove, a suburb of Brighton, where he built a film studio. Williamson, whose business was already based in Hove, also built a studio, and both of them became so involved in the perfection of the motion picture that they designed and built their studios so as to accommodate the meager light source in England, and Smith went as far as to say that film should be made only in the Spring and Summer months.
In the beginning, they used their own families and a few friends as “actors,” though later they did employ local professionals. For the most part their films could be classified as dramas, comedies and “actualities” (real events and actions). With the completion of their studios, they were able to develop further the dramas and comedies, painting and structuring quite detailed sets and backdrops which were combined with “real” objects. Here began the film melodrama. They also began to “edit” and color tint their films, as well as to explore “trick” photography to enhance their narratives. Seldom did they make films longer than 75 feet (about a minute) until after 1900 when they were able to extend them to 2-4 minutes. Nevertheless, into this short time they were able to compress a wide variety of strikingly expressive dramas, comedies and actualities, making use of multiple scenes and shots. Though Smith and Williamson had their own distinct “styles,” they did exchange material, notes, equipment and even their films, all of which conributed to the elaboration of their work.
As for the exhibition of their early films, much of this occurred within private showings, and later through the existence of private clubs, most of which were “photographic societies” of which they were members. The “photographic societies” evolved into “cinematographic societies” (which still exist in Britain, and have a strong influence today on independent filmmaking). The filmmakers also sold their films, as well as the equipment which they manufactured, to private individuals, film societies and eventually to the London-based trading companies. (The Warwick Trading Company was the one most involved with the distribution of the works of the “Brighton filmmakers.”) Still, in the end, both Smith and Williamson, with their scientific bent, made more from their machines and inventions (particularly in the case of Williamson), and in the later years (1906/7) their actual filmmaking increasingly gave way to their scientific pursuits.

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