Étienne-Jules Marey

"Seeing the invisible and pushing the boundaries of our senses"

By The Cinémathèque française

Étienne-Jules Marey à sa table de travailThe Cinémathèque française

Marey the Multi-talented Researcher

Étienne-Jules Marey was born in Beaune, France in 1830. He was a doctor, physiologist, biologist, biomechanist, and professor at the Collège de France, as well as being the first filmmaker in French cinema history. He was also a leading figure in 19th-century science who was behind a number of discoveries in the fields of medicine, human and animal locomotion, aviation, physical education, physiology, biomechanics, cinema, and more…

Le cardiographe et le sphygmographe de MareyThe Cinémathèque française

Seeing the Invisible and Pushing the Boundaries of Our Senses

During his lifetime, Marey doggedly pursued just one goal: to record all movement, whether it be humans, animals, fluids, moving objects, microscopic creatures… To do this, he first developed the "graphic method" that involved transcribing movement as marks on paper.

Le sphygmographe deuxième version - La méthode graphiqueThe Cinémathèque française

First Device

In 1859, Marey submitted a doctoral thesis in medicine and designed his first device. His "sphygmograph" invention, inspired by a German system, recorded a person's pulse, leading to new scientific theories about blood circulation. The "movement-exploring" machines he then built (including a cardiograph, a pneumograph, a myograph, and a polygraph) paved the way for major developments in the fields of medicine and physiology.

La trajectoire de l'aile de l'insecte - dessin au fusain by Étienne-Jules MareyThe Cinémathèque française

Men and Beasts

Marey progressed quickly in his studies of human walking, avian flight, and equine movement, making a wealth of important discoveries along the way. In the early 1860s, he applied his graphic method to insects, whose movements are especially complex and difficult to understand.

Aéroplane (fin des années 1870)The Cinémathèque française

Aviation Pioneer

To study avian flight, Marey developed a whole range of devices that could record the slightest movement of birds, as well as their breathing and muscular effort. His research provided solid foundations for early aviation theoreticians; in 1879, an airplane designed by French engineer Victor Tatin was the first to leave the ground, if only by a few meters.

Le Cheval au galop - E. Muybridge by Eadweard MuybridgeThe Cinémathèque française

Muybridge and the Galloping Horse

In 1873, Marey established that galloping horses have all 4 hooves off the ground for a split second and that, at another moment, they also put all their weight onto one front leg. This observation inspired the American Leland Stanford and his English photographer Eadweard Muybridge to resume their previously abandoned attempts to take snapshots of moving horses.

La caméra chronophotographe à disque de verre (1887) by Étienne-Jules MareyThe Cinémathèque française

The Photographic Gun and the Chronophotographic Camera

Muybridge's famous galloping horse photos taken in 1878 persuaded Marey to turn his hand to photography too. In 1882, he developed the photographic gun, which could take 12 shots per second. He then designed a much more powerful camera with a glass plate and took beautifully clear and precise shots of walking men and how they moved; their "outlines." The "chronophotographic" method was born.

Course vive - Chronophotographie sur plaque de verre by Étienne-Jules MareyThe Cinémathèque française

Scientific and Artistic Shots

Marey's chronophotographs represented something of a revolution in scientific imaging and the history of esthetic forms. They were forerunners of modern art, abstraction, futurism, and 20th-century kinetic art. Artist Marcel Duchamp admitted to being largely inspired by Marey's chronophotographs when creating his work "Nude Descending a Staircase" (1912), which shook up the modern art scene.

Nu descendant un escalier - Marcel Duchamp, 1912 (conservé au Philadelphia Museum of Art), Marcel Duchamp, From the collection of: The Cinémathèque française
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Les "clichés géométriques" de Marey by Étienne-Jules MareyThe Cinémathèque française

From Marey to James Cameron

For some shots, Marey dressed his subject in a black suit with bright lines and dots on their joints. The camera only captured the bright trajectory of these moving points. The "geometric shots" he obtained enabled him to create some magnificent outline drawings. This method was the forerunner of modern motion and performance capture techniques as made famous by James Cameron's film, "Avatar."

Le Vol du héron by Étienne-Jules MareyThe Cinémathèque française

Celluloid Film

In the summer of 1889, Marey shot his first films on celluloid, the new transparent film roll made in the United States by George Eastman for Kodak. Marey's camera had a "press frame" that periodically halted the film roll at the lens focus when the shutter was open. Today's cinematographic film cameras still use this principle.

La Station physiologique - vue d'ensembleThe Cinémathèque française

The Physiological Station

In 1882, Marey was given a research laboratory called the "Physiological Station". It was located in the Bois de Boulogne and subsidized by the State and the City of Paris. The laboratory had a circular track for subjects being chronophotographed and a hangar with a black background that made the subjects stand out during shooting. The camera itself was installed in a small wooden hut. It could easily be moved forwards and backwards along rails to vary the frame and depth of field, as for a tracking shot.

Prise de vues à NaplesThe Cinémathèque française

A Menagerie Worthy of Noah's Ark

Here in Paris, and in another studio set up at his Naples villa, Marey shot around 800 films on celluloid from 1889, with help from his very capable assistant Georges Demenÿ. The 2 researchers put together a veritable film encyclopedia: a vast scientific and artistic project that used chronophotography to explore the "different types of locomotion in animals" including mammals, birds, fish, microscopic organisms, mollusks, insects, reptiles, and more.

La course de l'hommeThe Cinémathèque française

Useful Work for Science and the Arts

Marey and Demenÿ's subsidy from the War Office was justified by their chronophotographic work on economy of force in movement and load distribution as soldiers march. There was a need to know how rope pullers, woodcutters, blacksmiths, house painters, and others moved so they could be helped in their work. These studies also interested artists. In 1893, Marey and Demenÿ published "Études de physiologie artistique" (Studies in Artistic Physiology), which was aimed at painters, engravers, and sculptors, as well as at scientists. Here, Marey played a key role in bringing physiology and art together.

PhonoscopeThe Cinémathèque française


In 1894, Marey published his masterbook, "Le Movement" (Movement), which summarized all his research. In the book, he announced that his assistant Georges Demenÿ had invented chronophotographic projection with his new "phonoscope," which was then marketed in 1895 by Léon Gaumont.

La Chute du chat by Étienne-Jules MareyThe Cinémathèque française

"Falling Cat"

Some of Marey's films caused a sensation in their day. One example was "Falling Cat" (1894), through which Marey was able to confirm the popular belief that cats always land on their feet. Indeed, cats can do this due to the inertia of their own mass.

Étude aérodynamique - Machine à fumée avec obstacle by Étienne-Jules MareyThe Cinémathèque française

Final research

In 1899, Marey built a wind tunnel for research into aerodynamics and took snapshots of smoke snaking around various geometric obstacles. This winding white smoke was positioned in front of a black background and observed hitting or wrapping itself around prisms, circles, corners, etc. In doing this, Marey was almost returning to his roots—in a deeper way—beautifully bringing over 50 years of research into graphics and his enigmatic black and white world to a close. The scientist died in 1904.

Etienne-Jules MareyThe Cinémathèque française

Secret Marey

In 1963, la Cinémathèque française organized the first exhibition of Marey's work. "Nothing is more secret, nothing is more lyrical, nothing is more explosive, nothing is more current than the silence of its blacks and the lightness of its whites," writes Henri Langlois, founder of la Cinémathèque française.

Le cinématographe lumière by Louis LumièreThe Cinémathèque française


Because of their beauty and mystery, Marey's images still captivate scientists and the wider public today. The many studies, drawings, graphics, photographs, and movies left to us by Marey are magnificent works of art and creations of equal scientific and esthetic value. His research also paved the way for Edison's "Kinetoscope" (1894), Lumière's "Cinematograph" (1895), the movie industry, and cinemas. And by 1895, the Lumière brothers were already paying tribute to Marey's pioneering work.

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