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The Black Maria: America's first film studio

Thomas Alva Edison’s contribution to the world of cinema is a curious one, especially because of controversial projects such as his infamous 1903 short Electrocuting an Elephant which featured the horrific footage of a baby elephant being murdered. While Edison’s films were naturally crude and were restrained by the technology available at the time, he developed several instruments such as the Kinetoscope and Kinetograph in collaboration with William Kennedy Dickson who did most of the work.

One of the most interesting developments under Edison was the formation of America’s first motion picture studio. Titled ‘The Black Maria’, Edison decided to build a cinematographic theatre on his own laboratory grounds in New Jersey. When he started out with this project, Edison’s primary objective was to make strips of film for his newly engineered cameras and even featured screenings of the films made in the studio.

At the time, the entire construction cost as much as $19,500 (after adjusting for inflation in 2022) and became the site of the Kinetograph’s demonstrations after the studio was built. One of the first film’s screened at the Black Maria was a short film depicting three people pretending to be blacksmiths which was followed by a series of shorts directed by Dickson, a Scottish inventor who had a pioneering impact on the cinematic medium.

Dickson’s team was an extremely talented one and employed several techniques, including the use of perforated film to create the illusion of movement. A version of that same technique was actually used by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane when Welles cut holes into matte drawings to achieve very similar effects. Dickson even submitted the famous first film for copyright registration – the 1894 short Fred Ott’s Sneeze.

During its existence, Dickson went on to direct other iconic shorts such as the The Boxing Cats and even made an experimental film with sound which is now cited as the earliest known example of cinema with live-recorded sound. It is clear that Dickson was the ultimate revelation of the Black Maria days, a tireless inventor who contributed immensely to film history but wasn’t afforded enough credit when he passed away.

Edison was more concerned about the business competition, market trends and the hardware associated with cinema as opposed to the actual content of the films. When his ventures in the film industry stopped providing the returns he was looking for, Edison moved on to other avenues but he did so only after he made sure that he received most of the credit for all the innovations that took place at the time.

After building a fancy new movie studio in New York City, Edison proceeded to demolish the Black Maria in 1903 but a reproduction of the building is now supervised by the country’s National Park Service. The Black Maria is an important chapter in the development of the cinematic art-form mostly due to the pioneering leaps that Dickson took in the pursuit of a higher form of artistic expression.

Watch Dickson’s experimental sound film below.