These trading cards were distributed by the Liebig Extract of Meat Company around 1910. Each picture illustrates the shooting of a scene from a well-known trick film, and on the reverse is an explanation of how the special effect was achieved. For instance, in Accident d’Automobile, a man’s legs are severed by a speeding car, and magically reattached by the driver who, most conveniently, turns out to be a surgeon. The outdoor setting and the apparently unbroken take give the impression of an actuality, filmed outside the artifice of a studio, but the impossible action indicates that an illusion has taken place. As revealed by the card (and, at length, in Frederick Talbot’s Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked), the injury, and its instant healing, was achieved using two actors, one a double amputee, and alternating between them using a stop-action substitution and some dummy legs. The film, then, is designed to efface the traces of illusionism (e.g. it is not “theatrical”, and the substitution cut aims to conceal the join where the actors have switched places), while the existence of these “behind-the-scenes” explanations gives the viewer the chance to reflect upon the film with fresh knowledge, and the skills to decode the fabrication.
How many times have we heard reports of audiences fleeing in terror from screenings of the Lumière Bros’ Arrival of a Train? This, one of the foundational myths of film history, may have been spread to promote the Lumiere shows, or may have been invented by urban sophisticates to make fun of rural rubes (an interpretation lampooned in R.W. Paul’s The Countryman and the Cinematograph (1901)), but whether or not it actually happened, the idea has lodged in the public consciousness ever since: we like to think of early film spectators as credulous dupes, awed into submission by a medium they were ill-equipped to understand or explain. Perhaps this is because, conversely, it lets us characterise the modern spectator as a connoisseur, armed with technical information, able to see through every trick. I like to use these trading cards as a reminder of the simple fact that the production and consumption of special effects has always been built around a constructive interplay between filmmaker and spectator, a continual back-and-forth between ineffable mystery and prosaic solution.