The Pre-Cinematic


The Thaumatropic Theater, 2006
Sara Barry

The THAUMATROPE is a toy that was popular in Victorian times. A disk or card with a picture on each side is attached to two pieces of string. When the strings are twirled quickly between the fingers the two pictures appear to combine into a single image due to persistence of vision.

The ZOETROPE is a device that produces an illusion of action from a rapid succession of static pictures. It consists of a cylinder with slits cut vertically in the sides. Beneath the slits, on the inner surface of the cylinder, is a band which has either individual frames from a video/film or images from a set of sequenced drawings or photographs. As the cylinder spins, the user looks through the slits at the pictures on the opposite side of the cylinder’s interior. The scanning of the slits keeps the pictures from simply blurring together, so that the user sees a rapid succession of images producing the illusion of motion, the equivalent of a motion picture. Cylindrical zoetropes have the property of causing the images to appear thinner than their actual sizes when viewed in motion through the slits.

The PRAXINOSCOPE is an animation device, the successor to the zoetrope. It was invented in France in 1877 by Charles-Émile Reynaud. Like the zoetrope, it used a strip of pictures placed around the inner surface of a spinning cylinder. The praxinoscope improved on the zoetrope by replacing its narrow viewing slits with an inner circle of mirrors, placed so that the reflections of the pictures appeared more or less stationary in position as the wheel turned. Someone looking in the mirrors would therefore see a rapid succession of images producing the illusion of motion, with a brighter and less distorted picture than the zoetrope offered.

The PHENAKISTOSCOPE (also spelled phenakistiscope) is an early animation device, the predecessor to the zoetrope. It was invented in 1831 simultaneously by the Belgian Joseph Plateau and the Austrian Simon von Stampfer. One variant of the phenakistoscope was a spinning disc mounted vertically on a handle. Around the center of the disc was drawn a series of pictures corresponding to frames of the animation; around its circumference was a series of radial slits. The user would spin the disc and look through the moving slits at the disc’s reflection in a mirror. The scanning of the slits across the reflected images kept them from simply blurring together, so that the user would see a rapid succession of images with the appearance of a motion picture. Another variant had two discs, one with slits and one with pictures; this was slightly more unwieldy but needed no mirror. Unlike the zoetrope and its successors, the phenakistoscope could only practically be used by one person at a time.

The STEREOSCOPE is a device for viewing stereographic cards, which are cards that contain two separate images that are printed side-by-side to create the illusion of a three-dimensional image. This is an example of stereoscopy. When stereographic cards are viewed without a stereoscopic viewer the user is required to force his eyes either to cross, or to diverge, so that the two images appear to be three. Then as each eye sees a different image, the effect of depth is achieved in the central image of the three. This is the oldest method of stereoscopy, having been discovered in the mid-19th century by Charles Wheatstone. In the late 19th and early 20th century stereo cards, stereo pairs or stereographs were popularly sold. The cards had a pair of photographs, usually taken with a special camera that took the pair of images from slightly separated views simultaneously. Cards were printed with these views (often with explanatory text); when the cards were looked at through the double-lensed viewer, called a stereoscope or a stereopticon (a common misnomer), a three-dimensional image could be seen.

The MAGIC LANTERN is an ancestor of the slide projector. With an oil lamp and a lens, images painted on glass plates could be projected on to a suitable screen. By the 19th century, there was a thriving trade of itinerant projectionists, who would travel across the United Kingdom with their magic lanterns, and a large number of slides, putting on shows in towns and villages. Some of the slides came with special effects, by means of extra sections that could slide or rotate across the main plate. One of the most famous of these, very popular with children, was the Rat-swallower, where a series of rats would be seen leaping into a sleeping man’s mouth. During the Napoleonic wars, a series was produced of a British ship’s encounter with a French navy ship, ending patriotically with the French ship sinking in flames, accompanied by the cheers of the audience.


2 thoughts on “The Pre-Cinematic

  1. I tried the ole’ steroscope out for kicks on Christmas. I took photos of my sister’s Christmas tree and paired them for everyone to look at during the festivities and it just seemd like kitsch to me. I do not know if it was the content or the vehicle, but something about it got to me. Good news though, it was my first attempt and it turned out exactly how it should, so that means it is easy!!!

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