Panorama from the Top of a Moving Train (1898)
This early experiment from Georges Méliès contradicts some of the preconceptions we have about his work: that it was always shot from a stationary camera on a sound stage, that it always involves fantasy or magic, or that he was always in front of the camera, for example. It’s certainly true that these descriptions are true for most of his later movies, but not because he lacked imagination or had never thought of trying anything else.
We see the top of a train, as the title suggests. The camera faces forward, so as the train moves we get more of a tracking shot than what is today called a “pan” (short for “panorama”), but the we do see dynamic movement and some of the streets of Paris as seen from the train tracks. The most exciting moments come as the train passes underneath bridges – even for a modern audience there is a moment of wondering if the lower bridges might hit the camera. Smoke billows back from the chimney into the camera lens, obscuring our vision at times. The film ends just as the train begins a turn that allows a view of river, possibly the Seine.
This isn’t an especially skillful example of an actuality film. Méliès’s decision to point the camera forward on the train robs us of a clear view of most of the scenery, and the beginning and end points appear random, rather than chosen to make the most interesting picture. Most of the appeal had to be the simple fact of movement captured on film, plus the drama of wondering what will happen if the bridge is too low. Still, by moving the camera itself, rather than taking an image of a train in motion from a stationary position, Méliès has already in 1898 shown that the audience need not be treated only to shots of a proscenium with actors making entrances and exits. I don’t believe that Méliès invented the “panorama,” however, nor was he the first to put a camera on a train. This was done quite early on by cinematographers working for the Lumière brothers and many other filmmakers copied the style when audiences responded well.
Director: Georges Méliès
Camera: Georges Méliès
Run Time: 1 Min
You can watch it for free: here.