These days, most of us own a mobile phone capable of recording movies. The quality of smart phone cameras is so good there is even an International Mobile Phone Film Festival where entrants create and shoot an entire movie using only their phones. But capturing film hasn't always been so easy or convenient.

After the first successful photograph was created in 1826 and photography rose to great popularity by the 1860s, the inevitable question was asked: if this could happen with a single image, why not try to capture movement too?

The process began with chronophotography, which captured a series of shots of an animal or a person in motion. English-American Eadward Muybridge lead the field with his creation of The Horse in Motion in 1878.

Museum Notebook
Museum Notebook

To make this, he set up 24 cameras along a race track, each 27 inches (68.5cm) apart and set with trip wires that were triggered by the horse's legs as it ran past. Each camera captured a photograph of a different pose of the horse's gait, and when they were viewed through a zoetrope the horse appeared to gallop.


Meanwhile, in Paris Etienne-Jules Marey had developed a camera that could take 12 photographs a second. In 1890 in America, Thomas Edison and William Dickson revealed their kinetograph, capable of recording moving film followed two years later by their kinetoscope, which could project the captured film onto a screen.

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And in France in 1895 the Lumiere Brothers introduced their cinematographe and enthralled crowds.

The films were less than a minute long, in black and white, and silent, but the public flocked to "the cinema" and film became one of the most popular and enduring forms of visual entertainment.

A still from the Farley home movie Putting Power up the Parapara.
A still from the Farley home movie Putting Power up the Parapara.

Despite the popularity, it is estimated 80-90 per cent of these early films have not survived because of deterioration, damage, and destruction.

As with photography, the public were very soon interested in getting their hands on their own equipment to create their own moving memories.

This depended on the availability and affordability of cameras, and especially film. From 1898, 17.5mm hobbyist film was available, followed by 9.5mm format in 1920, but the big breakthrough came with Kodak Eastman's 16mm safety film in 1923.

This differed greatly from the nitrate film used by professionals, which required very specific handling and storage to prevent combustion. Kodak then released what would become the "standard" 8mm film in 1932.


Kodachrome colour film was released in the mid-1930s, and the High-End Super 8 film developed in 1965 came with a magnetic audio track that captured sound along with the image.

The advent of the Beta VCR and the VHS in the mid-1970s revolutionised home movies, as videocasettes were very cheap and could be erased and overwritten. By this time most home movie enthusiasts had their own projectors, but portable VCRs and camcorders simplified the process further.

The museum has received a number of moving films, although storing and maintaining moving film is still a very specialised area so the physical films are housed at Ngā Tāonga Sound & Vision in Wellington.

A series of stills from The Horse in Motion, captured by Muybridge in 1878.
A series of stills from The Horse in Motion, captured by Muybridge in 1878.

Among these films are four short home movies, filmed by James Farley in the 1950s. These silent colour films offer a glimpse into Whanganui and rural life in the mid-20th century, covering farm activities, celebrations and other items of interest including putting power poles up Parapara Rd and clearing a large slip, among other events.

• Sandi Black is the archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.