Early cinema is full of legends, but none as enduring as the legend of the Lumière Brothers’ Arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat). The fifteen-second reel of a locomotive so startled audiences, allegedly, they scrambled from their seats. German film scholar Martin Loiperdinger calls the anecdote “cinema’s founding myth,” a story repeated over and over, for over 100 years, though there’s no evidence it actually happened. One film history text even titled a chapter “Beginning with Terror” to underline the seminal importance of the event.
If we think about it, the incident, however apocryphal, does mark an origin. Consider how many films afterward featured trains as a central scene of the action, from The Great Train Robbery to Strangers on a Train to Snowpiercer. There are magical trains and train heists in space. Trains are everywhere in the movies. If we think about it some more, isn’t cinema itself something like a train? Even films that play with time still move inexorably from beginning to end, following some sort of discernible through-line from one end to the other.
But, say we were to entertain an alternate film history, a Philip K. Dick-like version in which, rather than trains, the founding myth of cinema involved snowballs….
In 1896, the year after the supposed public shock of Arrival of a Train, the Lumières shot Bataille de boules de neige, “Snowball Fight,” which you can see in its original black and white, above (with added, faux-vaudeville music). A group of solid citizens pummels each other with snowballs, then a cyclist, unawares, rides into the fray, gets pelted, and hurries off for dear life. It’s a madcap verité gem. “The film was shot in Lyon, France using one of the duo’s all-in-one cinématographe creations,” notes Petapixel, “which was part camera, part projector, and part developer.” There were no reports of panics in the theater.
At the top of the post, you can experience the short in full color and HD, thanks to Joaquim Campa, “who used the AI-powered software DeOldify to upscale the footage to 1080p, interpolate additional frames for a smoother result, and colorize the old footage.” Despite appearances, it seems the film’s speed remains unchanged. Campa’s startlingly immediate version arrives in the midst of a debate over the trendy colorization of old films and photos. Rather than bringing us closer to history, the British Library’s Luke McKernan told Wired, digital processing “increases the gap between now and then.”
Colorized, cleaned-up, and upscaled images show us the past as it never actually existed, historians claim. But isn’t that what film and photography have always done? As media of technical invention and reinvention, they inevitably shape and alter the scenes they capture, both during and after shooting. When Georges Méliès saw the Lumière’s films, he was not interested in their realism but in their potential for creating fantasies. He went off to make his special-effects masterpiece, A Trip to the Moon, which screened in both black-and-white and garishly hand-colored prints in 1902.
“Sure, it can be argued that adding color, interpolating frames, and removing scratches is creating information that was never there and could ‘obscure the past instead of highlighting it,’” writes Petapixel. “But how many people (who aren’t film buffs) will have ever heard of ‘Bataille de boules de neige’ before today? And how many might discover a passion for filmmaking or history as a result?” Personally, I’d like to see more films that look like “Snowball Fight.”