Segundo de Chomón: Film History Series

Segundo de Chomón, “Hôtel Électrique”, 1908, Running Time 8 Minutes, Producer and Distributor Pathé Frères

Soundtrack Courtesy of Japan’s Euodia Chamber Ensemble

Born in the Aragon city of Teruel in October of 1871, Segundo Victor Aurelio Chomón y Ruiz was a cinematographer, film director and screenwriter. A pioneer in camera and optical techniques, he is regarded as the most significant Spanish silent film director in the international context. Known for his technical quality and creativity, Chomón worked with the most important film companies of the time, including Italia Films and Pathé Frères. 

Segundo de Chomón was the son of Isaac Chomón Gil, a military doctor, and Luisa Ruiz Valero, born in the city of Calamocha located in the Teruel Province. It is believed he undertook engineering studies; however, there are no known records of graduation. Chomón resided in Paris between 1895 and 1897 where he discovered the cinematic works of Auguste and Louis Lumière, French pioneers best known for the films produced through their Cinématographe motion picture system. While in Paris, Chomón met French silent film actress Julienne Alexandrine Mathieu whom he would later marry. In addition to acting in Chomón’s films, Mathieu would collaborate with Chomón on scripts and special effects.

Between 1897 and 1898, Chomón fulfilled his military service in Cuba; upon his return to Paris, he became interested in film production. At Georges Méliès’s recently founded film company Star Films, Chomón worked alongside his wife in the workshop where they hand-colored film, frame by frame. He designed some celluloid templates that facilitated this work and achieved greater precision in color delimitation. With slight changes, this system was later patented by Pathé Frères under the name “Pathécolor”. At the turn of the century, Chomón relocated to Barcelona where, acting as an agent for Pathé Frères, he opened a workshop to publicize and distribute the company’s films. 

In 1901, Segundo de Chomón began making films on an independent basis with distribution through Pathé. His first film was the 1901 silent short “Descente du Mont Serrat”. In the following year, Chomón produced a series of films which were inspired by the stories he found through the book publisher Editorial Calleja. He experimented in this period with double exposures and techniques to create gigantic effects which he used successfully in his 1903 “Gulliver en ie Pais de los Gigantes”. Due to the quality of his films, Chomón received financial support for his filmmaking from Charles Pathé who desired to compete with Georges Méliès’s company, Star Films. 

Now a valuable asset to Pathé, Chomón relocated in 1905 back to Paris, where in addition to directing films, he was given charge of the color stenciling workshop. In 1907, he was selected to co-direct the remake of Pathé’s top director Ferdinand Zecca’s 1903 “Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ”. Chomón’s most productive years were between 1907 and 1912, a period in which he worked with Zecca and such talented directors as Gaston Velle and Émile Cohl. In 1912, Chomón accepted an invitation to make films in Italy. He worked on the special effects for other directors’ films, most notably Giovanni Pastrone’s 1914 epic “Cabiria”. Pastrone recipocally collaborated on Chomón’s last directorial film, the 1916 “La Guerra e il Sogno di Momi”. 

After his move to Italy, Segundo de Chomón’s own films became less frequent. In 1924, he worked in a collaboration with Swiss engineer Ernest Zellinger on a color cinema system for which they won the Gold Medal at the International Exhibition of Photography, Optics and Cinematography in Turin. Instead of directing his own films, Chomón primarily worked in visual effects for the films of others, including Italian actor and director Guido Brignone’s 1925 “Meciste in Hell” and French actor and director Abel Gance’s 1927 “Napoléon”. Both these directors were highly regarded: Guido Brignone was the first Italian director to win at the Venice Film Festival, and Gance’s epic “Napoléon” is widely considered one of the greatest and innovative films of the silent era, if not all time. 

Chomón was a meticulous and perfectionist technician who would spend months to perfect a special effect, even if it would only last a few seconds on screen. In his films, he used a vast repertory of special effect techniques including colorization of film, the use of models, double exposures, overprints, schüfftan effects (covering part of the camera’s view with a mirror to create an image with multiple parts), pyrotechnics, camouflage and crank pitch, the removal of an object while the camera is turned off and then on to cause a disappearance.

Best remembered for his special effect films, Segundo de Chomón died in Paris on the second of May in 1929 at the age of fifty-seven. Over the course of his career, he received credits on one hundred forty-five films from 1901 to 1916.

Notes: The 1908 silent French comedy-fantasy film “Hôtel Électrique” was directed by Segundo de Chomón and produced by Pathé Frères. The film’s cast included just Segundo de Chomón as Betrand and his wife Julienne Mathieu as Laura. This eight-minute film is one of the earliest uses of stop motion animation in history, though it is not the first. Chomón used the technique in his 1906 film “Le Théâtre de Bob”, which animated puppets, and the American director J. Stuart Blackton used stop motion for his 1907 “The Haunted Hotel” produced by the American Vitagraph Company. However, the “Hôtel Électrique” is unique in its early use of pixilation, a technique using live actors as the frame-by-frame subjects.  

From 1907 to 1909, Julienne Mathieu was credited in at least forty-two films, many of them shot by Chomón with her assistance on special effects. She also appeared in films by Ferdinard Zecca, Gaston Velle, Albert Capellani, and Lucien Nonguet. Mathieu ended her film career in 1909. From 1912 to 1925, she is reported to have been living with her family in Turin, Italy. On the first of December in 1943, Julienne Alexandrine Mathieu died at the Ospizio della Carità (Hospice of Charity) in Chieri while the city was under German occupation after the fall of Fascist Italy.

In the Ultrawolves Archive, there is a 2018 article on Segundo de Chomón’s French 1908 colorized short silent film “La Grenouille (The Frog)”. This rather unusual film for the era can be located at:

Second Insert Image: Segundo de Chomón, “Les Roses Magiques (The Magic Roses)”, 1906, Pathé Frères

Third Insert Image: Segundo de Chomón, “La Voyage sur la Planète Jupiter”, 1909, Pathé Frères

Bottom Insert Image: Segundo de Chomón, “Les Oeufs de Paques (Easter Eggs), 1907, Pathé Frères

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