University of Exeter Press

Charles Urban

Pioneering the Non-Fiction Film in Britain and America, 1897 - 1925

    • 256 Pages

    Charles Urban was a renowned figure in his time, and he has remained a name in film history chiefly for his development of Kinemacolor, the world’s first successful natural colour moving picture system. He was also a pioneer in the filming of war, science, travel, actuality and news, a fervent advocate of the value of film as an educative force, and a controversial but important innovator of film propaganda in wartime.

    The book uses Urban’s story as a means of showing how the non-fiction film developed in the period 1897-1925, and the dilemmas that it faced within a cinema culture in which the entertainment fiction film was dominant. Urban’s solutions – some successful, some less so – illustrate the groundwork that led to the development of documentary film. The book considers the roles of film as informer, educator and generator of propaganda, and the social and aesthetic function of colour in the years when cinema was still working out what it was capable of and how best to reach audiences.

    Luke McKernan also curates a web resource on Charles Urban at

    Based on original research from Charles Urban’s own papers, this is the first biography of this influential film maker and innovator. A historical study of the development of the non-fiction film in Britain and America in the early years of cinema. Winner of the Kraszna-Krausz Moving Image Book Award 2014. 24 b&w illus. First time in paperback.

    Reviews of the hardback edition:

    ‘Luke McKernan’s fascinating new book…’
    ‘Luke McKernan has written a scholarly, important book on a little-known pioneer in the early documentary movement. It deserves to be widely read.’(History Today, January 2014)

    'It has taken Urban’s champion the better part of a century to arrive. The wait would seem to have been worth it. . . . McKernan shows himself to be a diligent and impartial scholar. . . . [Urban’s ] accomplishments and his philosophy have found an excellent channel in McKernan.' (Eric J. Iannelli, Times Literary Supplement, November 8, 2013)

    ‘This is a fine and much needed book, and deserves to have a wide readership. It tells the story of Charles Urban, an important pioneer of both non-fiction and colour films, and also has much to say about the silent cinema and documentary film in general.'
    ‘McKernan steers us through with a sure hand, writing concisely and engagingly'
    ‘Exeter have done their usual quality job, so this is built to last. Undoubtedly, the volume deserves to be on the shelves of every cinémathèque and research library in the world.’ (Stephen Bottomore, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 34.2, 2014)

    List of Illustrations
    1. ‘That Slick Salesman in the Silk Hat’
    2. We Put the World Before You
    3. The Eighth Wonder of the World
    4. The Motion Picture Object Lesson for America
    5. The Living Book of Knowledge
    Select Bibliography

    Luke McKernan is a film historian and Lead Curator of Moving Image at the British Library. He has written widely on early film for a number of academic journals and also curates a web resource on Charles Urban at



      • 256 Pages