From Still to Moving Image

animated phenakistoscope

Kineographs, phenakistoscopes, mutoscopes, zoetropes, zoopraxiscopes, thaumatropes, even flip books – quite a mouthful. What all these devices have in common is that they take a series of still images and create the illusion of motion. They are all precursors to modern cinematic processes.

phenakistiscope and disk

In 1824 Peter Mark Roget (who later compiled his famous Thesaurus of English Words) presented a paper to the Royal Society of Medicine in London. The paper described a phenomenon common to human perception that is sometimes called “the persistence of vision.” The essence of this phenomenon is that images seem to remain in our vision for a very short time after they are actually removed from our sight. Building on this phenomenon Roget invented the phenakistoscope, an optical mechanism that contained sequential images on a circular disk. Each image differed slightly from the one next to it. There were small slits cut into the disc between each image. The viewer would hold the device up facing a mirror, spin the disk and look at the mirror through the slits in the disk. Voila! A moving picture, or at least the illusion of motion.

zoetrope and drawings

A year after the invention of the phenakistoscope William George Homer made an optical device, the zoetrope, based on the same principles. Employing a cylinder with slits in the side and images drawn onto strips of paper that fit on the inside of the drum, the zoetrope could be used by more than one person at a time and did not need a mirror to make the animation visible.

A contemporary artist who has expanded on the ideas embodied in these early technologies is Bill Brand with his appropriately named “Masstransiscope,” a subway turned into an animation machine. He reverses the roles between machine and viewer, having the drawn images stay still while the viewer moves. Watch this short video clip to see how he did it.

You may not be familiar with phenakistoscopes and zoetropes – and most certainly not massstransiscopes – but I’m sure you’ve used a flip book, another optical apparatus for making moving pictures.

animated flip book by Wendy Marvel and Mark Arnon Rosen

Contemporary artists Wendy Marvel and Mark Arnon Rosen have taken the idea of the flip book beyond the simple toy you might find in a 99cent store. Many of their flip books are mechanized, using motors and timers to move pictures across multiple devices. You really do need to watch this video to see what they’ve done.

For more information about Wendy Marvel and Mark Arnon Rosen click here.

Dick Balzer has amassed a huge collection of the early optical devices discussed in this post. Read about him and see his collection…

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