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Wednesday
May162018

William Heise


Direction - Male Acting Performance - Cinematography - Production | Federal Republic of Germany


The German-born American filmmaker William Heise can easily be considered the first professional director of photography. He shot nearly one hundred and fifty short films in the last decade of the 19th century, yet it is surprising how little biographical evidence is currently available in relation to him. He was the key man to help William K.L. Dickson in developing the medium of film, and, after the latter’s departure from Edison's studios in mid-1890s, Heise became the chief cameraman of the company.

Around the same period, he and Dickson were amongst the highest paid individuals at the Edison Manufacturing Company, with the former receiving “about $40 a week”[1] above his regular salary. With that in mind, the 1900 New Jersey census is one of the rare sources that shed more light into his personal history. Identified as a "machinist", Heise has emigrated from Germany into USA in 1869. By the 1890s, he helped Edison to establish the Black Maria Studio in West Orange, the place that was to become his home for the entire decade.

At Black Maria, Heise has proved his ability in framing and lighting the film subject through films such as Carmencita (1894), Souvenir Strip of the Edison Kinetoscope (1894) and the experimental colour film Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1895). In all of these works we find an eye that has an acute sense of contrast. The human body shines against the dark background in a way that is partly reminiscent of Muybridge, however, with Heise, the body gains a certain soulfulness that recharges the power of the film image to connect with its spectator.

This relationship with the human body is most evident in one of his own films, The Kiss (1896). The brief act performed with humour by Broadway stars, May Irwin and John C. Rice, is innocent in its nature. However, the first calls for film censorship could have partly been driven by Heise’s extreme close-up (for the time) that plays effectively with contrast. Traces of light mingle passionately with the shadows they create as if it was them and not the actors that engaged in the erotic act.

William Heise’s career has ended following his decision to leave the industry in the 1900s. This move could be related to his reasonable uncompetitiveness in shooting exterior scenes among his contemporaries, in spite of a few exceptions.

What he needs to be remembered for though are those intimate shots at the Black Maria in which he defined the technique of how to film actors as bodies in motion. Heise was central behind what Wheeler Winston Dixon calls “the most interesting and compelling in Edison’s early film work”: “the fascination with the display of [an] aestheticized body at the expense of other entertainments”[2]. Early film stars such as Annie Oakley or Eugene Sandow owe William Heise their immortality. Because of his eye, they still live in our collective memory; their art, however ordinary, still feels extraordinary in the prism of time. And thankfully, history still allows for William Heise not to be entirely forgotten.


[1] Musser, Charles. Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company; p. 47. Berkeley – Los Angeles – Oxford: University of California Press, 1991.
[2] Dixon, Wheeler Winston. Straight: Construction of Heterosexuality in Cinema; p. 35. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.

Essential Films Canon Winner


Best Film
Best Direction
Best Male Acting Performance
Best Cinematography

Filmography


Direction:
  1. Bucking Broncho (1894)
  2. The Boxing Cats (Prof. Welton's) (1894)
  3. Glenroy Bros., No. 2 (1894)
  4. Hadj Cheriff (1894)
  5. Monkeyshines, No. 2 (1890)
  6. Sioux Ghost Dance (1894)
  7. Duncan Smoking (1891)
  8. Cock Fight, No. 2 (1894)
  9. Men Boxing (1891)
  10. Monkeyshines, No. 1 (1890)

Male Acting Performance:
  1. A Hand Shake (1892)

Cinematography:
  1. Blacksmith Scene (1893)
  2. Souvenir Strip of the Edison Kinetoscope (1894)
  3. Carmencita (1894)
  4. Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894)
  5. The Hornbacker-Murphy Fight (1894)
  6. Caicedo (with Pole) (1894)
  7. Dickson Greeting (1891)
  8. Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (1894)
  9. The Boxing Cats (Prof. Welton's) (1894)
  10. Bucking Broncho (1894)
  11. Hadj Cheriff (1894)
  12. Athlete with Wand (1894)
  13. Glenroy Bros., No. 2 (1894)
  14. Annie Oakley (1894)
  15. Men Boxing (1891)
  16. The Pickaninny Dance, from the 'Passing Show' (1894)
  17. Newark Athlete (1891)
  18. Duncan Smoking (1891)
  19. Horse Shoeing (1893)
  20. Leonard-Cushing Fight (1894)
  21. Cock Fight, No. 2 (1894)
  22. Buffalo Dance (1894)
  23. Fencing (1892)
  24. A Hand Shake (1892)
  25. Sioux Ghost Dance (1894)
  26. Luis Martinetti, Contortionist (1894)
  27. The Cock Fight (1894)
  28. Monkeyshines, No. 2 (1890)
  29. Monkeyshines, No. 1 (1890)

Production:
  1. Dickson Greeting (1891)
  2. Newark Athlete (1891)
  3. Duncan Smoking (1891)
  4. Men Boxing (1891)


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