Thomas Edison National Historical Park | BLACK MARIA MOVIE STUDIO

Reproduction of the Black Maria movie studio at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Reproduction of the Black Maria movie studio at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

RANGER TALK

While you can always look at the exterior of the Black Maria, the interior can only be viewed during a daily Ranger talk that lasts about fifteen minutes. A schedule is posted at the Laboratory Complex Visitor Center but not on the National Park Service’s website. You could call the Visitor Center for a schedule, but the talk isn’t something you’d base a visit around. Just show up at the park, and if you can catch the talk fine, if not, you aren’t missing a whole lot. You don’t actually get to walk inside the building, and there isn’t much to see other than a replica of a motion picture camera and a small set. If interested, meet at the Black Maria at tour time.

BLACK MARIA HISTORY

The Black Maria is the name of an indoor movie stage that Thomas Edison’s chief motion picture assistant, William Dickson, built on the property of the West Orange laboratory complex. What stands today is a reproduction, for the original building from 1893 was torn down in 1903, a few years after Edison moved his movie production business to New York. In 1948, the Laboratory Complex was converted into a museum. The reproduction of the Black Maria was added in 1954, and this is the building that still stands today.

Edison did not invent moving pictures. He came onto the scene in 1888, eight years after Eadweard Muybridge invented the Zoopraxiscope, a type of “magic lantern” in which a short series of consecutive photographs spun around while light was projected through them, giving the images the illusion of motion. In fact, it was a meeting with Muybridge to discuss the syncing of sound to film using the phonograph that got Edison interested in motion pictures.

In October 1888, Edison filed a preliminary patent for what he called the Kinetograph, a motion picture camera. He also began working on the Kinetoscope, a self-contained motion picture viewing cabinet (it was Dickson who really did the work). Patrons could press their eyes to a viewing scope and watch a short film. The Kinetoscope was first demonstrated in 1891 to guests visiting Edison’s home in Llewellyn Park, though it wasn’t ready for commercial sale until April 1894 (the finished versions of both inventions were not patented until 1897). With a moving picture camera and viewing device in hand, Edison now needed films to show. This is where the Black Maria came into play.

Kinetoscope on display at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Kinetoscope on display at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

The Black Maria was developed as an indoor stage where sunlight, when available, could be controlled. Light bulbs at the time were not sufficient enough to light an indoor scene for moving pictures, but shooting outdoors left filmmaking subject to rain and other detrimental natural elements. Furthermore, cameras were very heavy, and having to constantly move them around when shooting outdoors was very time consuming. It would be much more convenient to have an indoor stage where the camera could be set up once and left in place.

To take advantage of sunlight while still being inside, the Black Maria was outfitted with a sloped roof that had a retractable cover. In addition, it could be rotated throughout the day to match the angle of the sun. Fifty-foot films were shot, which after editing produced about fifteen seconds of footage that was used in the Kinetoscopes. In the ten years that the Black Maria was in use, somewhere between 200 and 300 films were shot.


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Last updated on December 11, 2022
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