Sunday, September 23, 2012

Equine Gait Analysis: The Ghost of Muybridge's Racehorse Gallops Again

A vaguely-familiar and yet ghostly horse and rider gallop through the streets of Palo Alto, California in this trailer for next week's Palo Alto International Film Festival. Why this particular horse and rider? Because Stephen Jobs wasn't the first genius to live in Silicon Valley. The first one made his mark with horses' hooves.

Legend has it that it all started on a bet.

The year was 1878. A wealthy industrialist named Leland Stanford believed that there is a point in a horse's gallop when all four hooves leave the ground.

His opponents called him mad. Artists and sculptors argued that time does not stop and even if it did, how could something as heavy as a horse defy gravity?

They believed that one foot had to stay in touch with the planet at all points in the horse's stride. Horses didn't fly.

But how could you prove it? Or disprove it?

A funny thing happened on the way to proving what happens to horses' hooves when they gallop. From the pudding of that proof that resulted, the motion picture industry was born.

Equine gait analysis was born in Palo
Alto, California in 1878.
To prove he was right, Stanford imported English photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who had been experimenting with making the mechanism we now know as the camera shutter.

Back at that time, every photo required a long exposure, which is why you often see blurred photos. Cameras had no shutters. The photographer merely removed the lens cap and replaced it when enough light had entered to expose the sensitive plate. If you were posing for a portrait you had better hold your breath.

And galloping horses? Trotting horses? Their legs were just a blur in old photos, and even the word's finest painters had it all wrong when they depicted horse limbs at different gaits.

Muybridge set out to use science to prove that Stanford was correct. He set up twelve cameras connected to trip wires that crossed the horse's trajectory. Muybridge was anything but an overnight success with this method: he and Stanford struggled with experiments for five years until they mastered the method of stopping motion.

But they still had to be able to stop it in just the right phase of the stride in order to prove their point.

On the day of reckoning, horse racing fans and the curious press assembled at Stanford's Palo Alto Stock Farm in Palo Alto, California to see what Muybridge's results would be.

The series that made history that day was captured of a trotter hitched to a two-wheeled cart; the suspension phase of the trot was clearly illustrated.

All four of the horse’s hooves were off the ground at the same time. Victory was Stanford's.

Watch a horse gallop. Is it any wonder it took thousands of years for someone (and science) to figure  it out? This is a still from the video of Occident.
It was a trotter that day but the galloping racehorse is the image most closely identified with Muybridge.

It sounds obvious to us today, but it was not obvious back then. Muybridge's flying hooves were the first recorded movement in visual history.

Studying Muybridge is something that film history students do. Equine gait analysis students do it, too. Animation students still use his frames as blank canvases for their own horses. The galloping horse and its flying hooves have become an icon.

And this week, their ghost gallops through Palo Alto again.

Note: the special trailer for the film festival was made with the assistance of French animators who would like viewers to know that there was no post-production involved.

To learn more:
June 15, 1878: Muybridge Horses Around With Motion Pictures (Wired Magazine)
Muybridge animal locomotion  collection at the University of Pennsylvania

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