George Albert Smith the Brighton Film Pioneer You Never Knew Existed
Without George Albert Smith, cinema may never have become the powerhouse form of media it is today. He lived a very eclectic life and unfortunately, due to other large inventions at the time, his pioneering work has often been overlooked. His inventions and innovative attitude he brought into the world of film changed its landscape forever. For this week’s piece on Brighton’s most influential, and forgotten, people we are here to uncover his brilliant work and story.
When first released this film pleasantly shocked and surprised viewers. Santa Claus disappears up the chimney…but where did he go?
George Albert Smith started his Brighton life in the 1870’s when he moved with his mother following his father’s death. His mother ran a boarding house on Grand Parade and Smith seemingly had a pretty normal upbringing. He rose to local fame in the early 1880’s when his performances as a stage hypnotist captured the imaginations of Brighton. He joined the, now olden sounding, Society for Physical Research after proving his act was genuine. Upon becoming a member of the society he was appointed private secretary for the Honorary Secretary Edmund Gurney. Together, they produced a variety of “hypnotic experiments” which in their time made Gurney are very impressive British public figure…no-one had quite worked out the deceptive nature of their work.
George Albert Smith is the person to thank for St Ann’s Well Gardens. He acquired the lease in 1892 and cultivated the woodland into a very popular pleasure garden. A publication at the time described the gardens as a “delightful retreat…presided over by the genial Mr G. Albert Smith, is now open…In the hot weather the refreshing foliage of the wooded retreat is simply perfect, while one can enjoy a cup of Pekoe in the shade.”
One of the earliest films to cut to a close-up and then cut back again to the same shot as before.
According to a reputable source there was “lawn tennis, ‘ferns, flowers, grapes and cucumbers for sale in the glass houses’, a gypsy fortune-teller, a monkey house, lantern exhibitions given by Smith of ‘dissolving views’ and the occasional ‘thrilling parachute descent’ provided it with a distinctive character.”
St Ann’s Well became the location for George Albert Smith to create his ground-breaking and ultimately world changing camera. A man named Robert Paul was the master of British film around the time Smith began to look at the medium. Smith saw Paul’s work in 1896 in Leicester Square, London.
He was incredibly inspired and purchased his first camera somewhere between the summer of ’96 and the spring of ’97. Smith quickly took to film and displayed a very natural, inquisitive eye for film. He was one of the first to use close-ups and “objective and subjective point-of-view shots”. Smith was a pioneer in continuity editing, meaning (according to Wikipedia) “the process, in film and video creation, of combining more-or-less related shots, or different components cut from a single shot, into a sequence so as to direct the viewer’s attention to a pre-existing consistency of story across both time and physical location.” In layman’s terms, making sure the narrative makes sense despite the shots being cut and edited.
In 1897, George Albert Smith made a whopping 37 films. Furthermore, on IMDb Smith has over 236 credits to his name mostly as a director. He was an experimental pioneer and the films we have viewed show how ahead of the time he was. In 1897 he turned a section of St Ann’s Well Garden into a print house and two years later built a glasshouse film studio. He worked closely alongside Brighton contemporaries sharing his knowledge and in return received engineering help, chemicals for processing and actors very willing to participate. His wife, Laura Eugenia Bayley, acted in a huge amount of his films, as did local comedian, Tom Green.
In 1905, George Albert Smith gave up his lease on St Ann’s Well Garden. He moved to Southwick and built what was known as the ‘Laboratory Lodge’. It was in this building that Smith created Kinemacolour. Kinemacolour’s process involved two colour filters used to take the negatives and the same corresponding colours when projecting the positives. The camera ran at twice the speed of a normal cinematographic camera taking thirty-two shots instead sixteen. The mechanism is fitted with a rotating colour filter as well as an ordinary shutter. As the film passed through an aluminium wheel, the camera expelled either red-dyed gelatine or green-dyed gelatine which would, in turn, create a coloured moving image.
Despite being invented by George Albert Smith, the process was commercialised by Charles Urban through his company ‘Urban Trading Co’. Urban named the system Kinemacolour and the process achieved great success from 1909 through to 1918. In 1914, William Friese Green, the inventor of Biocolour, was sued by George Albert Smith for copying Kinemacolour’s patent. The legal process slowed the development of both processes and ultimately became the demise of Smith.
One of the first uses in the history of film-making of continuity editing and reversal.
It took nearly 30 years for George Albert Smith’s efforts and success to be recognised. He was re-discovered by the wider film community in the 1940s and was hailed the “the father of the British Film Industry.” In 1955, just four years before his death he was made a Fellow of the British Film Academy. According to ‘victorian-cinema.net’ the last remaining piece of George Albert Smith’s legacy is on the south side of the Brighton to Hove railway line. There is a one-storey shed from which many films were made and faintly painted on the side is the word ‘KINEMACOLOUR’.
George Albert Smith brought new techniques of filming and a new colour process to the world of film. By the laws of probability, another person may have invented the colour process but for Kinemacolour to be created in Brighton all those years ago is a legacy we are lucky to have. There is a permanent exhibition for Smith at Hove Museum should you want to find out more!