Early animation didn’t start with the Victorians – it’s even older

magic lantern early animation
Share this Article:

As 100 years of Disney animation comes to a close, we’re looking back at the origins of the medium – and they’re older than you might expect…

Disney celebrates 100 years of its animated output this year. The studio has been at the forefront of animated entertainment since they created a steamboat whistling mouse, a quirky looking rabbit, and one of the first full-length animated features. Now, pretty much everything is owned by the media conglomerate, and they have a brand-new film, Wish, to honour the legacy they crafted a century ago.

Whilst I could spend an entire article talking about the history of Disney, I have instead decided to go back even further to explore how animated films came into existence. Because it wasn’t even the Victorians who got it all started…

Often in this column, I speak about how the Victorians weren’t afraid of cinema. In fact, they were somewhat disappointed in the grey-scale and soundless living pictures of the 1890s. At this point, they had already experienced vivid colour and even 3D imagery with several different inventions. And for this week’s column, I am going to explore the ancestors of animation.

So, let’s go back further than the 20th century, when Disney captivated us with a mouse and a princess. Let’s go back further than the 19th century. Heck, I want to go all the way to the 17th century, and start our journey with the magic lantern. Or, to use its delightful Latin name, lanterna magica.

As with most inventions in cinema, the magic lantern had many different people working on different apparatus that, when finally put together, created this projection tool. Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens was considered one of the possible inventors after he published work on a primitive projection system using sunlight and lenses with some sketches in 1659. His work was inspired by his own father, who had obtained a camera obscura which paved the way for the magical lantern to be created. Working with multiple people on the creation of the device, Huygens helped develop the physical invention.

It worked by using a concave mirror to direct a light source, often a candle, through a lens or sheet of glass that bore an image. The device would then project the image bigger on a wall. Huygens’ early magic lantern was dubbed “the lantern of fear” by Pierre Petit because Huygens often used striking, demonic images. Over time, the magic lantern plates were used more educationally, as it was easier to use for anatomical illustrations than chalkboards.

Throughout the 18th century, magic lanterns became a requisite for showmen and storytelling, and were so popular that Carpenter and Westley would mass produce slides and send them all over the world. Of course, the magic lantern wasn’t built to produce effective movement, and to replicate life it would require quick skill from the projectionist. Eventually mechanisms were put in place to replicate animation, such as slipping slides (where discs moved over one another), and lever slides were used to create illusions such as a sleeping man or mild waves. One such inventor, Edme-Gilles Guyot, even used smoke to conjure up a ghost through the projector. Though their popularity waned thanks to the invention of cinema, there were still notable uses of the magic lantern invention up until the 1950s.

This brings me to one of my favourite ever inventions – the phenakistiscope. More of a crude children’s toy than anything else, I simply adore it’s colourful displays. Created simultaneously by Belgian physicist Josep Plateau and Austrian professor Simo Stampfer, the phenakistiscope is a disc where several images in different configurations are painted onto it alongside some rectangular slits. Holding the disc up to a mirror, the viewer would spin the disc, look through the apertures and see the images moving. The illusion is akin to that of a gif – a continuous loop as if, say, a couple were waltzing for infinity. It is a charming invention that was popularised during the early 19th century.

A phenakistiscope thought to have been made in 1833 (Credit: Library of Congress/Creative Commons)

However, it was displaced almost immediately with another invention that far more people have heard of – the zoetrope. Similar to the phenakistiscope, the zoetrope has painted images designed in different configurations of movement. Placed inside a cylinder that has slits a viewer can look through, once spun, the images look as if they are moving like animation.

Unlike the phenakistiscope, the zoetrope can be viewed by multiple people at once. Early rotating images such as this can be traced back over 5000 years ago, but it was Stampfer who first conceived of a cylindrical device in 1833, and William Horner who thought up his own version in 1834. It would take a further three decades of animation for the zoetrope to be invented by William Ensign Lincoln, who sent his designs to board game manufacturers Milton Bradley and Co, who sold the zoetrope as a children’s toy.

Finally, Emile Reynaud in 1888 patented the first ever moving picture system called Theatre Optique. Reynaud developed the technology by using hundreds of images of figures in successive animation attached to a carboard strip. Fed through several cylindrical spools, the images would pass through a magical lantern and a series of mirrors before being projected again onto a big screen, thus creating a moving and animated image.

Reynaud directed a fifteen-minute-long movie called Pauvre Pierrot, though only four minutes survive now. It follows the story of a Harlequin who wishes to serenade his beloved, only to be constantly interrupted. Shown first in the 1890s at the Grevin Museum in Paris, it predates Lumiere’s first ever commercial screening of the cinematograph on the 28th of December in 1895. It’s not just the first animated movie, it’s arguably the first commercially screened movie ever made. Though the animation is crude, it is delightful to watch because it bears the roots of the movies that we love today. It is a technical marvel, produced at a time when cinema was first blossoming.

While you are enjoying Disney’s latest output, and scores of animated movies that have come out over the last hundred years, remember to thank these inventions for making us first believe in magic.

Share this Article:

More like this