TL;DR: book news, see below.
True confession: in 2019, I fell in love with some flipbooks. It was at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, where so many good things happen, and the flipbooks in question were animated and projected on the big screen. I saw them many hundreds of times their real size, but perhaps that reflected their significance.
Here’s what I wrote for Criterion on the plane home:
“My favorite restoration of the festival didn’t involve film at all, but some miniature ephemera, which were perhaps imperfect as moving images, but seductively tactile, and fragile, as artifacts. Festival president and film restorer Robert Byrne and French scholar Thierry Lecointe have been studying a collection of paper-and-card flip books from the late 1890s, produced by a man named Léon Beaulieu. Containing just a few brief seconds from a film, these are the unforeseen missing link between early cinema and modern GIFs. It seems that Parisian Beaulieu had a checkered life, finding himself frequently in trouble with the law, and these flip books may well be bootlegs of sorts, reproducing scenes from early films from the Gaumont and Edison companies, and some by Georges Méliès. Some of the films captured here in a few brief images are lost in any other form, and the process of identifying them all involved meticulous study of background décor and objects.”
The digitised, animated flipbooks I was watching were one outcome of an international film-history detective story. I 2013 Paris-based film scholar Thierry Lecointe began investigating a flipbook attributed to one Léon Beaulieu that might, just possibly, have been made from a few frames of a long-thought-lost Georges Méliès film…
I don’t want to spoil the whole narrative, but soon Lecointe discovered several more flipbooks that led him to several more lost films. Flipbook collector Pascal Fouché joined the investigation, as did Rob Byrne, who you’ll know from his many silent film restorations and of course the San Francisco Silent Film Festival: he digitised and animated the flipbooks. And that’s why so many of us were watching these media-history marvels in California last year.
I saw the flipbooks on screen again in Pordenone that year, and maybe you did too. I next saw them on my computer screen at the very beginning of this year. It was been an honour for me to be ever-so-slightly involved in this project.
There’s a gorgeously illustrated book, telling the full story of Lecointe and Byrne’s sleuthing, in both French and English, forthcoming from John Libbey and I assisted with the English text. What an international detective story it is – if you have an interest in early cinema I hope you pick up a copy.
- Discovering Lost Films of Georges Méliès in fin-de-siècle Flip Books (1896–1901), edited by Thierry Lecointe, Pascal Fouché, Robert Byrne and Pamela Hutchinson, is out officially in December – order a copy here from John Libbey/Indiana University Press.
- Explore the flipbooks here.
- There will be a launch event at the Cinématheque Française on 6 November, with Lecointe, Byrne and Fouché as well as Méliès expert Jacques Malthête.
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