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Did you know that one of the first pioneers of cinema was a woman?

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

Her name was Alice Guy. She was a visionary artist, a pioneer of early cinema who helped shape the art form as we know it today. Born in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Mandé in 1873, Guy has left an incredible legacy for filmmakers. Unfortunately, her name remained largely unrecognized for years and most of her films were lost.

Here are a few reasons why she should be recognized and remembered.

Scripting the Silver Screen

In an era where motion pictures were still in its infancy, primarily used to capture moving objects like a speeding train, a horse running or a passing parade, Guy saw an opportunity to use the medium differently. She was inspired to tell "little stories that [she] would make up", thereby revolutionizing the film industry.

It was 1896 – just a year after Les frères Lumière invented the Cinématographe –, when Guy made history with her film "La Fée aux Choux" (The Cabbage Fairy). The one-minute short tells the story of a fairy who creates babies out of cabbages and is widely recognized as one of the earliest examples of narrative filmmaking. However, the original version of the film is lost. The versions available today are from 1900 and 1902.

The Palette of Illusions: Alice's strides in early visual effects

Lately, people seem to say that movies back in the days were better, without the overuse of visual effects. Well… contrary to popular belief, visual effects have been part of the magic of cinema since its genesis, and Alice Guy was a pioneering force behind this.

For example, she was among the first filmmakers to add hand-tinted color to her films, a groundbreaking technique for its time. Additionally, she experimented with double exposure, most notably in " The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ" (1906), which could be considered the first-ever super-production, with over 300 extras and 25 sets, and a running time of 33 minutes. In the film, she used this technique in many occasions to create supernatural events, such as the ascension scene.

Visual effect example of Alice Guy

In addition to that, she was the first to use Close-up shots, which later became a hallmark of modern cinema, and also explored synchronized sound through the Gaumont Chronophone, showing an innovative grasp of technology, introducing sound effects and music into her films as early as 1902.

A prolific filmmaker!

Throughout her career, which spanned from 1894 to 1922, she is estimated to have directed, produced, or supervised approximately 600 silent films and 150 synchronized sound films. These films encompassed a broad spectrum of genres, including comedies, dramas, historical epics, adventure, westerns and even tackled some political and more delicate subjects, such as race and genre.

One example is "Les résultats du féminisme". Released in 1906, the film challenges traditional gender roles and highlights the absurdity of societal expectations surrounding gender, with a message that still resonates over a century later. According to Woman film pioneers project, Guy also made numerous action films with female characters as heroes, where she’d cast and train women to do their own stunts.

Other example of her rebellious spirit is “A fool and his Money”, considered to be probably the first film to have an all-African-American cast. The film is now preserved at the National Center for Film and Video Preservation at the American Film Institute due to its historical and aesthetic significance.

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