The actuality film is a non-fiction film genre that, like the documentary film, uses footage of real events, places, and things, yet unlike the documentary is not structured into a larger argument, picture of the phenomenon or coherent whole. In practice, actuality films preceded the emergence of the documentary. During the era of early cinema, actualities—usually lasting no more than a minute or two and usually assembled together into a program by an exhibitor—were just as popular and prominent as their fictional counterparts. The line between "fact" and "fiction" was not so sharply drawn in early cinema as it would become after the documentary came to serve as the predominant non-fiction filmmaking form. An actuality film is not like a newspaper article so much as it is like the still photograph that is published along with the article, with the major difference being that it moves. Apart from the traveling actuality genre, actuality is one film genre that remains strongly related to still photography.
Despite the demise of the actuality as a film genre around 1908, one still refers to "actuality footage" as a building block of documentary filmmaking. In such usage, actuality refers to the raw footage that the documentarist edits and manipulates to create the film.
The first actuality films date to the time of the very emergence of projected cinema. The Lumière Brothers in France were the principal advocates for this genre and also coined the term — "Actualités" — and used it as a descriptor in the printed catalogues of their films. La sortie des usines Lumière (1895) — the first film exhibited by the Lumières—is by default the earliest actuality film; it might have not been the first one made, but it was definitively the first one shown publicly, on December 28, 1895.
Although the Thomas A. Edison, Inc. in the United States was producing films and exhibiting them via the Kinetoscope going back to 1893, the films themselves were studio-bound creations made in Edison's makeshift movie studio the Black Maria; although Bucking Broncho (1894) was the first Edison subject to be filmed outdoors, it necessitated the construction of a special pen next to the Black Maria. The Edison, and early Biograph, motion picture cameras were bulky, engineering-heavy designs that could not be lifted or carried by a single person and required transport by way of horse cart. The Lumière cameras—from the very start—were small, light and also functioned as projectors. The Paul-Acres camera, registered in Britain in 1895, was likewise a smaller and more readily portable device than the Edison model, and Birt Acres filmed The Derby (1895) on it in May. But this, and Paul's other films, were not projected in public until February 1896.
Edison's first principal film producer W. K. L. Dickson broke away from the company late 1895 in order to act as partner in his own concern, American Mutoscope and Biograph, which by 1897 had a founded a British subsidiary that Dickson headed. Although their cameras were even bulkier than Edison's at first, utilizing 68mm film, Biograph's very first subjects — a series of views of Niagara Falls — were actualities, although studio bound subjects dominate the Biograph's years before 1900. Other pre-1900 concerns such as Selig (Chicago), Lubin (Philadelphia), Vitagraph (New York), Méliès Star-Film, Pathé Frères and Gaumont (France) and Warwick Trading Company (UK) all made actuality films, though in varying degrees in relation to films made in other genres.
It was the Lumières, however, that set the pace for most of the history of the actuality. Lumière films ran for the duration of the film strip in the camera, which was a uniform 50-second length. Lumière cameramen were trained to shoot in a specific type of framing and to keep an eye out for certain kinds of action. Louis Lumière personally approved every subject released and rejected about 500 films made for the company that did not meet his standards. They were consciously building a document of the world around them in 50-second shots, and Lumière cameramen had the greatest reach worldwide of any motion picture company in the business, filming in Asia, Africa and other hard to get places. They were careful to preserve and properly store their films, and all but 18 of the 1,423 films they made have survived.
When the Lumière films as a whole were submitted to the "Memory of the World" register at UNESCO, they were subdivided into the following categories.
The first three descriptors nearly encompass the whole of the subject matter represented in actuality films, to which may be added "news events," though these were relatively rare, as it was difficult for any motion picture cameraman to make it, with his equipment, to an actual news event in a timely fashion, leading to the advent of recreations. Nevertheless, both Vitagraph and Biograph released subjects filmed in Galveston after the hurricane of 1900; the aftermath of the San Francisco Earthquake was likewise filmed by at least three companies.
The Lumières never shared their camera system—with its 35mm film and round perforations—with anyone. But Pathé did begin to market its smaller, lighter camera to cinematographers around 1903, and even some cameramen employed by Edison and Biograph began to use them in defiance to the patent cameras owned by the companies that employed them. Biograph relented in 1903, discontinuing use of 68mm and adopting the increasingly universal 35mm format at this time. The significance of this was that it then became easier for film makers to shoot actuality films across the board, though the heyday of the genre was soon to pass.
A special kind of actuality film is the traveling actuality, in which a camera is placed on a kind of conveyance—such as a bus, or rail car—so that the scene can change by virtue of the movement of the vehicle which is transporting the camera. These films were the first in which camera movement is involved, and a very early entry is James H. White's' Panoramic View of the Champs Elysees (1900), which appears to have been shot from a horse-drawn carriage. British Biograph's Panorama of Ealing from a Moving Tram (1901) is remarkable for its slow pace, high angle and the widescreen aspect of the 68mm film, whereas Danish film maker Thomas S. Hermanson's Sporvognene i Århus (1904) is remarkable for its speed and odd angles. Some extreme—almost avant-garde—examples come from Biograph; Frederick S. Armitage and A. E. Weed's Down the Hudson (1903), shot largely in single frames, and several films by G. W. Billy Bitzer, Interior N.Y. Subway, 14th St. to 42nd St (1905), which was shot from the front of a New York City Subway car shortly after the system first opened. The most remarkable traveling actuality of all is the Miles Brothers' Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire (1906), which was shot on a San Francisco streetcar and literally dropped off for processing on the day before the earthquake and fire destroyed San Francisco. At nearly eight minutes' length, Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire is also one of the longest actuality films.
Certain types of early films lumped into the actuality genre are merely related forms and do not entirely belong to the designation. While sporting events—particularly boat and yacht races—figure into the actuality genre, fight films constitute a genre unto themselves. The first fight films, such as Edison's The Hornbacker-Murphy Fight (1894) actually precede the advent of actualities altogether and, as the genre evolved through 1916, consisted of a mixture of actual, recreated and staged bouts. The fixed camera position common in early cinema was a good match for taking in even many rounds of boxing, and interest in such subjects was further supported by the fact that boxing itself was illegal in most places, and the films provided access to such entertainment where live boxing matches were prohibited by law.
Recreations of various kinds typify early kinds of news coverage; as the camera could not be brought to so many events of public significance or interest, the events were brought before the cameras, with actors and/or models of various kinds employed. This was especially common during the Spanish–American War; although cameras were dispatched to the front in Cuba, the footage sent back was often disappointing, so it was more effective to find a setting in New Jersey and to restage the battle scenes with actors. These films were often promoted to exhibitors and the public alike as the real thing, but "recreations" are inherently oxymoronic in relation to "actualities."
In 1904, American born English filmmaker Charles Urban made Everyday London, a 12-minute travelogue designed to provide views of England to Australians. This is a full-fledged documentary; although rather roughly assembled, it consists of a great many short shots and is clearly shaped in the manner of a documentary. In 1905, the Lumières ended their production of actualities, and within the next couple of years, major producers such as Edison and Biograph began to abandon the actuality genre; by 1907, American Biograph was no longer making them, and new start up companies such as Kalem never produced them at all, concentrating instead on fiction films with actors. When Gaston Méliès arrived in the United States to found the American division of Star Film, he started out making actualities, but swiftly moved into making Westerns. This left production of actualities to smaller producers such as Mitchell and Kenyon in the UK, a company that made no other kinds of films, although Pathé soldiered on among the majors.
In mid-1908, French Pathé introduced the first newsreel. The newsreel was a format in which actualities could be combined, and it provided a context for the views that was timely. Also that year, Charles Urban founded the Kinora Company, the first company established for the exclusive purpose of distributing documentaries and other kinds of non-fiction films. Although it is not altogether impossible to find actuality films made after 1910, the shift towards documentaries and newsreels rendered the genre irrelevant both commercially and artistically.
In a commercial sense, the actuality is of no more worth than its value as stock footage to use in documentaries. Some documentaries have been fashioned from early actualities and passed off as historic without further comment, such as a compilation entitled The San Francisco Earthquake which is rendered in a way that makes the original source material impossible to divine. However, actuality films are an inherent part of the development of early motion pictures and the genre deserves study in its own right; the UNESCO Lumière project, BFI's Mitchell and Kenyon collection and certain films in the Library of Congress paper print collection remain the only studies in the genre conducted in a systematic way. The sheer numbers of such films are part of the problem; early actuality films exist in the thousands, and many remain unidentified.
Although actuality films may have disappeared from movie theaters, actuality footage, especially from video, has had considerable impact in the digital era. One late 20th century actuality video seen thousands of times on television in the months leading up to the 1992 Los Angeles riots was the police beating of Rodney King, filmed by an amateur through the front window of their residence. The advent of YouTube has led to some resurgence of interest in actuality styled film and video apart from "home movies", and the web has seen the advent of home-based webcams pointed out the window, and other things resulting from the easy availability of access to digital video. Whereas early film makers would shoot film after film and never have to proffer a single release form, the legal implications in the digital era are different; there is now a thin line between actuality filming and unwanted surveillance.
Artist and filmmaker James Nares was inspired by actuality films from the 1890s to create his 61-minute, non-fiction film Street in 2011. Out of 16 hours of footage captured on Manhattan streets with an ultra-highspeed camera, Nares selected and edited together just 2 minutes and 40 seconds of real-time film, slowed to roughly a twentieth of its original speed. "Framed as a montage of events rather than as a linear narrative, Street pulls our attention toward individuals among the masses that crowd the city’s sidewalks."