Pre-cinema animations

Retinal Persistence

Retinal persistence is usually used to explain the working of cinematographic animation, but the beginning of the scientific studies on this phenomenon is former than Lumiere's invention: the retinal persistence was shown and theorized for the first time by the Belgian scientist J. Plateau (1801-1883).

Like modern movies do, ancient scientific toys (thaumatrope, phenakistoscope, etc.) used the retinal persistence to deceive observers' minds into thinking a set of static pictures are animated. All those devices use the same trick: making see in a rapid succession a set of pictures, each one showing one phase of the motion, so that human mind cannot distinguish each one of the pictures and has the impression of a continuous movement.

Reproduction of an ancient thaumatrope. The swift swinging of the round card makes apparently mixing the two pictures on the two sides of the disc.



The phenakistoscope was a device invented in 1832 by the Belgian Joseph Plateau. The phenakistoscope used a spinning disc attached to a handle. The drawings on the disc showed the phases of the animation. The user's eye could see the animation reflected on a mirror looking through the radial slits on the disc.  The Phenakistoscope is regarded as the first optical device to give the illusion of the true moving picture.




the zootrope was described for the first time in 1834 by G. Horner, an English mathematician. The commercial success, as a toy good both for children and for their parents, came very later (after 1860). A zootrope is made by a rotating drum with a set of slots on the upper edge. A painted strip of paper is set in the inner surface  of the drum so that you can observe the pictures through the slots. As only a little of light can pass through the slots, the animation comes out a little hazy.

A zootrope made in Germany (end of XIX cent.). To get the best result the drum must be dark on the external side and white in the inner side.



The praxinoscope was invented in 1877 by a French ingenious artist and inventor: Emile Reynaud.  The animation in the praxinoscope is no more foggy as in the zootrope but sharp and clear. As the zootrope, the praxinoscope is constituted by a rotating drum, but in the inner side there is another polygonal drum covered with little mirrors which reflect the pictures of the painted strip of paper. The animation appears perfect and clear and the praxinoscope quickly substituted the zootrope in commercial success.












The combination of toys showing animations with the so popular magic lantern shows was almost inevitable. In 1888 E. Reynaud (once again) created the Théàtre Optique, a complex apparatus utilized in public shows in Paris from 1892 to 1900.  Differently from previous devices, the Optical Theatre utilized long strips of paper with hundreds of pictures (displayed by Reynaud himself), anticipating the birth of modern cartoons (Emile Cohl in 1906). In the Museo del Cinema in Turin is projected one of the few surviving Reynaud's animations.  The show is short, but wonderful.


Emile  Reynaud and his Théatre Optique.