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William K.L. Dickson

Direction - Male Acting Performance - Cinematography - Production | French Republic

Born in France of Anglo-Scottish descent, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson can easily be considered the most important individual in the history of motion pictures. His pivotal role in the development of the craft can be exemplified by just a few achievements: he made the first camera to record moving images that went into industrial production, he decided that the film strip should be 35mm wide, he invented the predecessor to both cinema projection and television and he made the first attempt at introducing sound in film more than thirty years before the first talkie. Paul Spehr summarised Dickson’s remarkable input to the development of cinema in a few succinct words: “He was an inventor, designer of studios, film producer, founder of production companies, journalist, historian, author and adventurer. His story is a perspective on cinema as it became a transforming force and international phenomenon”[1].

Most of the literature on Dickson celebrates his input to the medium in terms of technological impact and achievements. However, one important aspect is often overlooked, namely his directorial vision. Once film-making has lost its novelty and became a mere consumer product, he was quick to understand that film should be both commercial and meaningful. From the early Dickson Greeting (1891) to Souvenir Strip of the Edison Kinetoscope (1894) and literary adaptations such as King John (1899), Dickson proved that action can sit at the core of the film image only if it is integrated into a context that is real. The celebrities of the time appeared in front of the camera with the demeanour that the public expected from them. He understood that the role of a documentary film maker is to capture exactly that through choosing the right setting, light, and most importantly the right subject matter.

The key to his directorial vision is that the director is conscious that their subjective choice of the mechanism of reproduction is somewhat distorting reality, but at the same time that choice leads to an acceptance of the film image as real on the behalf of the spectator. In his own words, “instead of dry and misleading accounts, tinged with the exaggerations of the chroniclers’ minds, our archives will be enriched by the vitalized pictures of great national scenes, instinct with all the glowing personalities which characterized them”[2]. Given the actual method he employed for his productions, in a documentary film it is precisely the act of intentional staging that reproduces the witnessing act in such a way that the spectator will most easily accept it as real.

Through this approach Dickson understood that the act of watching requires an emotional connection, thus defining the very essence of cinema as we know it today – entertainment for the mind. By investing in projects that respected the public’s cognitive abilities, he has allowed cinema to compete with the established art forms. In retrospect, that vision has paved the rise of film as the most important and most popular of all arts.

Dickson was also central to establishing the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, the studio that was to create in the United States the nucleus for artistic cinematic output. Griffith, Pickford, Gish, Sennet – all of them made their artistic debut with Biograph, but most importantly they all contributed to some of the most important works of the silent cinema. The man that made it happen was “slight in stature but commanding, a quality derived largely from his dark, penetrating eyes and thick-set mop of bushy hair”[3], a man that “possessed what today would be termed style[3]. Even if modern audiences may not be eager to watch his work, his name and contributions should never be forgotten by the history of cinema.

[1] Spehr, Paul. The Man Who Made Movies: W.K.L. Dickson; p. 1. New Barnet: John Libbey Publishing, 2008.
[2] Dickson, W.K.L.; Dickson, Antonia. History of the Kinetograph, Kinetoscope and Kinetophonograph (facsimile edition); pp. 51-52. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2000.
[3] Freeland, David. Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure; p. 50. New York – London: New York University Press, 2009.

Essential Films Canon Winner

Best Film
Best Direction
Best Male Acting Performance


  1. Dickson Greeting (1891)
  2. Blacksmith Scene (1893)
  3. Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (1894)
  4. Carmencita (1894)
  5. Souvenir Strip of the Edison Kinetoscope (1894)
  6. Newark Athlete (1891)
  7. Monkeyshines, No. 2 (1890)
  8. Fencing (1892)
  9. Duncan Smoking (1891)
  10. Horse Shoeing (1893)
  11. Athlete with Wand (1894)
  12. Men Boxing (1891)
  13. Monkeyshines, No. 1 (1890)
  14. The Cock Fight (1894)

Male Acting Performance:
  1. A Hand Shake (1892)
  2. Dickson Greeting (1891)
  3. Horse Shoeing (1893)

  1. Men Boxing (1891)
  2. Newark Athlete (1891)
  3. Duncan Smoking (1891)
  4. Monkeyshines, No. 2 (1890)
  5. Monkeyshines, No. 1 (1890)

  1. Dickson Greeting (1891)
  2. Carmencita (1894)
  3. A Hand Shake (1892)
  4. Souvenir Strip of the Edison Kinetoscope (1894)
  5. Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (1894)
  6. Newark Athlete (1891)
  7. Monkeyshines, No. 2 (1890)
  8. Duncan Smoking (1891)
  9. Fencing (1892)
  10. Men Boxing (1891)
  11. Monkeyshines, No. 1 (1890)
  12. Horse Shoeing (1893)
  13. Athlete with Wand (1894)
  14. The Cock Fight (1894)

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