Near the start of “No,” Emerald (Keke Palmer), who along with her brother, Otis Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya), runs an animal control service for Hollywood shoots, delivers a pitch on set. (If you saw the teaseryou’ve heard the abbreviated version.)
She cites a milestone in the development of cinema: a famous series of 19th-century sequential photographs depicting a horse in motion. Emerald suggests that the crew members she speaks to will know the name of the man who captured these images, photographer Eadweard Muybridge. But they won’t be able to name the jockey who rides the horse. This pioneering actor and stuntman, known as Emerald, was his great-great-great-grandfather.
This last part is a bit of an invention of writer-director, Jordan Peele. His argument is that the identity of the rider on the black horse is probably unknown, and that since the beginning of movies, the camera – with its power to see – has also left certain people and stories unseen.
Muybridge is the guiding spirit of “No,” in which the siblings, along with an electronics store employee (Brandon Perea) and a cinematographer (Michael Wincott), attempt to snap a photo. of an elusive extraterrestrial presence. They attempt to capture an impossible shot, with a subject that, like Muybridge’s horses, is too quick to pin down. And since the UFO jams all the electricity in its path, they have to innovate with analog technology, as Muybridge did. (Muybridge was also a columnist of the American West.)
But the actual development of Muybridge’s experiments – and whether the rider’s identity is truly unknown – is complicated.
In a preface to his book “Animals in Motion”, Muybridge recalled that his experiments in motion photography began in 1872, when he sought to answer the question whether at any point in the stride of a horse, all four feet leave the ground simultaneously. On his own, he was able to capture figures four feet in the air with more or less ordinary photographic equipment at a racetrack in Sacramento. But the effort ignited his desire to do something more cinematic, as one would now think: images photographed in quick succession at set time intervals, to better understand animal movement in general.
In the late 1870s, in Palo Alto, California, on the farm of former state governor (and future senator and university founder) Leland Stanford, Muybridge conducted further experiments, developing a system in which carefully arranged cameras were connected to wires that a horse travels along a track could trip over. (In the years that followed, Muybridge would stand trial for the murder of his wife’s lover and be acquitted on the grounds that it was justifiable homicide – but let’s leave that for a future Peele film.)
According to Muybridge’s recollections, the series of photographs known as “The Horse in Motion” was first published in 1878. The following year he would begin to stage presentations featuring his sequential photographs – or, technically, artistic reproductions thereof – in motion, using a device he called the zoopraxiscope, a precursor to the film projector. And as for “The Horse in Motion”, some (yet not all) stills held at the Library of Congress indicate the names of the runners.
But these photographs are not the images shown in “No”. Muybridge’s works in the film, along with the nameless horseman, are from “Plate number 626part of a later series of studies in locomotion that Muybridge began at the University of Pennsylvania in 1884 and published in 1887.
He then had access to a new process, dry plate photography, which was more sensitive to light and detail. At Penn he undertook what he described as a “more systematic and comprehensive investigation”, photographing a wide variety of animals and men and women of all shapes and sizes, often naked. The point was to see the body in motion, after all.
There were even “horses with naked riders, male and female”, as the narrator notes in “Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer” (1975), one of Thom Andersen’s early documentaries (“Los Angeles Plays Itself”) which is an essential viewing for anyone who wants to learn more about the scope of Muybridge’s ambitions and see his photographs come to life. (The movie is streaming on Mubi.)
The rider featured in “No” happens to be dressed, and a published version of these images indicates that the photographs were intended to illustrate a gallop. The caption states that the horse was a thoroughbred mare named Annie. It also shows various times and measurements related to his stride.
But the rider’s name is not mentioned. According to Andersen’s film, this is typical: while Muybridge’s catalog “lists the names of all horses, mules and dogs”, says the voiceover, Muybridge “generally identifies his human models only by number”.
So while the “No” footage isn’t, strictly speaking, the horseback ride that gave birth to cinema, the trailblazing actor, animal trainer, and stuntman depicted in them is likely unknown. He rubs shoulders with the many other male athletes, women mimicking housework, and children in Muybridge’s oeuvre: an anonymous cast of characters from early film history.