Writings : Remarks on the work of Dr Comandon

Remarks on the work of Dr Comandon

In 1908, cinema was a completely new, strange tool for the scientific community; for others, however, this technique was already bound for brilliant financial results… It was therefore necessary either to make profitable films (later the ‘popularization’ film, the best-known examples of which were the German UFA before 1938 and Walt Disney in the United States after 1945), or to find a patron…

Cinema’s poor reputation among so-called ‘serious’ people stemmed from its fairground associations - the fact that it was entertainment for slaves, and a few aesthetes… Dr Doyen’s surgical films were presented at fairs; at the fairground in Chartres in 1911, aged 9, I saw an armadillo for a penny and as a bonus saw a Caesarean section, a film included alongside a newsreel on ‘tragic gangsters’ (Bonnot’s death).

Even where a film resulted in a scientific paper, the importance of cinema, which turned viewing and understanding habits on their head, was not recognized. Besides, the cost of equipment, not to mention the cost of the film itself and circulation, seemed out of proportion to the isolated research findings.

This attitude was still current in 1925, and when I presented a film to the Academy of Sciences on “the intra-protoplasmic contractions of stickleback eggs”, in light of Professor Wintrebert’s research, one of the members of this learned gathering stood up and left, saying: “Cinema is not serious…”.

We should therefore be grateful to Charles Pathé for having dared in 1908 to trust in Dr Comandon’s initiative. Note also that Gaumont, in 1910, keen not to lag behind Pathé, had to come to the aid of a biologist and film-maker, Miss Chevroton, by then Mme François Frank. She was then able to make her first films, in particular “The Sea Urchin’s Egg”, which was later screened as a newsreel.

It was clear, however, that these films, most of which had a strictly scientific subject matter, could not be generally distributed, and that those which were in a form fit for use in school education had only a very limited market. Therefore in 1926, Nathan, which had taken over from Pathé, managed to part company with Dr Comandon.

Although some press articles at different times have echoes of Dr Comandon’s achievements, this attention is really only fleeting; moreover, the stress is put on aestheticism and the surprising effects of fast motion (which only a few initiated people knew of), rather than on the scientific subjects themselves… In Le Matin of 27 October 1909 we read: “…in a darkroom installed in the Académie’s Salle des Pas-Perdus, experts marvelled at the strange views unfolding before them on screen from this animated microscope. Sleeping sickness trypanosoma large as eels, flowing between red blood cells. Spirochaetes, sinuous bacilli, weave nimbly in and out, skirting or attacking the blood cells of a chicken with spirillosis. In human blood, cinematography showed the Brownian movement of the fatty cells which are carried in the circulatory stream and are essential food for the body…”.

And in Le Temps of 9 November 1922, Vuillermoz poeticises: “…As soon as a light ray crosses a pulmonary cell, an artery, capillary vessels or a piece of mucous membrane, life teems with harmony, with melodious lines, extraordinarily beautiful shapes and movements. Here is a foreign, incredible, landscape, a sub-lunary horizon; a wide river crosses the plain, rolling out tumultuous streams and sweeping along flotsam and jetsam glistening like precious stones. Tributaries come along and swell the torrent. Little islands break its flow. Small waves roll, skirt bays, graze riverbanks, seep in to narrow channels, fluently, vigorously. It’s a seemingly inexhaustible and sumptuous stream of carbuncles. What is this fairy-tale river, carrying along pearls and rubies; what is this enchanted stream, released by a magician’s wand. Quite simply blood trickling through an artery, blood cells rushing to do their beneficent job…”.

The very fact that large-circulation newspapers and magazines got hold of the findings only heightened the mistrust of most scientists, who saw in it another proof of the exotic interest aroused by cinema.

Dr Comandon certainly experienced difficulties. He was the real pioneer of microcinematography, although anticipated by Marey who, in 1893, took cinematic photographs of infusoria under the microscope. In order to take pictures at a rate of 16 per second under the ultramicroscope, which absorbed an enormous amount of light, and with the film of the time, which was not very sensitive, he used a powerful arc lamp as a light source (130 years earlier Marat, in 1779, used sunlight to project shots under the microscope). This very insensitive negative orthochromatic film gave severe contrasts which were very advantageous for his recordings; only after 1925 did panchromatic techniques introduce shades of grey.

In 1935, 16mm film started to develop, and at this time, with 17.5mm as its only regular format, France had a considerable advantage over all the other reduced formats in so far as equipment and the films created were concerned. Despite the mighty campaigns of Anglo-Saxon sellers, the 17.5mm format held strong and increased in France. It finally disappeared only after the war and the 1939-1945 occupation. Such issues of substandard format did not affect Dr Comandon at all; for microscopy he needed the greatest field with the greatest detail and therefore clung to the 35mm. If he could have filmed in 70mm, he probably would have! It was only after 1945 that 16mm film, along with reversible film, became common practice. Nonetheless, it was treated as the poor relative until camera and film manufacturers realised the enormous market open to them, a market subsequently increased by 8mm film.

It was usual, for reasons of economy, light, ease of handling and depth of field, for reduced formats to be used by scientific film-makers. It was nonsensical, however, to force the researcher to film in 16mm or in 8mm formats, proof of complete ignorance of cinematographic techniques.

Dr Comandon, a pioneer also of film radioscopy, was too far ahead of his time, or perhaps technical progress was insufficiently developed, for his experiments to be of consequence. Even Janker and Porcher’s brilliant later successes did not allow radiocinematography to develop; we had to wait for the brilliance amplifier in 1955 in order to achieve plentiful, effective and consistent results, safe for both the patient and the operator, especially since ultra-sensitive films began to be used. But the amplifier’s field has a diameter of only 20cm, which is small compared to the surface of the radioscopy screen. This is, nevertheless, the solution adopted today for radiology film collections designed for both consultation and education; these had been one of Doctors Lomon and Comandon’s aims.

We can appreciate the relentless work which Dr Comandon must have put in to produce some 50km of 35mm films dealing with the most varied scientific subjects. Just think of all the practical complexities of the time, even just making his way every day from his house, near the Luxembourg Gardens, to the Hôpital Saint-Louis for his thesis research, and then from there to Vincennes for his filming… It is a shame that the funds which his talent and his persistence deserved could not be more generous. But we must admire the fact that Dr Comandon, despite all these difficulties, was able to pursue his work without becoming dispirited, gradually solving the technical problems which hampered his research, research halted too often by financial difficulties. These difficulties had to be resolved without any state funding.

The evidence of the first part of his work has disappeared. The films from the Pathé-Doin list, stored, disregarded, in damp conditions for many years, have been destroyed; storing them raised problems of organisation, staffing and maintenance which are still to be resolved…

In conclusion, it is unfortunate that a lack of funds and qualified staff means that there is no French school of scientific cinematography, while large sums are wasted by people who know little about either science or cinematography. We must therefore rely on the personal efforts of independent film-makers, efforts which can only be sporadic and often mediocre in quality… Although modern techniques open the door to everyone, film-making does require training.

We can wonder therefore whether it might not have been preferable to remain at the stage where officials considered cinema a worthless scientific instrument, rather than see incompetent management encourage mediocrity of the most dangerous sort, even in research films.


Jean Painlevé, "The Work of Doctor Comandon" in Jean Comandon. Brussels : Hayez, 1967.