This post contains stereotypical and racist characters and caricatures, reproduced here solely for purposes of historical review and discussion. They do not represent the attitudes of The Optilogue team.
First of all, we must dismiss the strongly embedded notion that the Zoetrope is that Victorian (1860s) spinning and slotted cookie tin for kids to play with, which shows a primitive moving cartoon figure. Superficially yes, but as we shall see there is a lot more to it than that. But hang on to that word ‘notion’, as it becomes important when used by our 19th-century essayist William Benjamin Carpenter, whose seminal but too rarely read 1868 article series ‘On the Zoetrope and its Antecedents’ provides the basis for this post. Readers will need considerable imagination to understand the complexities of the movements created for animated Zoetrope pictures, only fully appreciated when viewed in the original analogue device. Videos of the device in use don’t quite have the same effect, though can indicate some of the motion variations. I have the advantage of being able to play with an original example of the expensive toy (at a guinea – one pound and one shilling – it cost the equivalent of about £130 at 2021 prices), as well as many original strips.
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So what is the Weirdness that this post’s title represents? It can be considered appropriate to a number of different aspects of the Zoetrope. First of all, and perhaps most obviously: the unusual and slightly disturbing nature of many of the subjects, perhaps best represented by The Red-legged Ogre and his Dancing Poodle, which is certainly weird. The boy in More Free than Welcome, being scared by a nasty-looking giant hornet about to attack him or sample his pie, is perhaps best described as disturbing.
We might also consider such subjects as King Leopold II of Belgium devouring a succession of black human figures. I wonder how many people watching this sequence at the time understood the political significance of this very bitter satirical image?
Characters eating others was quite a popular subject. In a strip (Fig. 5) by H.G. Clarke of Covent Garden, London, Beauty is gulped down by the Beast, only to immediately and conveniently re-emerge from its ear before being swallowed again, ad infinitum. Or we see characters being fed by a ‘robot’ mechanical arm (Fig. 6). This type of subject was a consequence of the very public consciousness of the burgeoning world of machines, the steam-powered behemoths that made possible the industrial revolution. Other strips featured the naturally cyclic, and therefore eminently suitable, motions of steam hammers, guillotines, and even envelope-making machines – which in the 1860s had just been patented a few years before.
A ‘mental filling-up’
As we know, the basic elements of a conventional motion picture are single fixed photographs, samples of reality, ‘slices’ with many such moments going unrecorded in between. A decade before Eadweard Muybridge began to animate pictures derived from his sequence photographs – confirming how life sampled as fixed slices or steps could produce a smooth movement – and more than twenty years before the first film makers used the principle, this ‘smoothing out’ was well known to those engaged in making animated drawings for the popular vogues of optical ‘toys’. The essential perception effect, how the brain turns individual fixed image ‘steps’ into an apparent step-free continuity when such devices are used, is mentioned by Carpenter:
‘… this apparent continuity can only be explained by attributing it to a mental filling-up of the intervals between the images actually received through the visual sense, converting (so to speak) a series of steps into a smooth incline. This mental action becomes very perceptible, when we study the illusions exhibited by the Zoetrope, with sufficient care to distinguish between the actual impressions which we receive through our sight, and the notions which those impressions suggest.
This instrument differs from its predecessors merely in this – that instead of looking at one revolving disk though slits in another, or looking through slits in a disk at its image reflected in a mirror, we look through slits in the side of a vertical revolving drum at the interior of the opposite side of that drum, which moves, of course, in a direction opposite to that of the side next the eye, and with precisely the same velocity. If, when we cause the drum to revolve with considerable quickness, we look over its edge at the slits on the opposite side, these appear so blended by the motion as to be indistinguishable; but if we look then through any of the slits on the side next to us, a spectrum [set of lines] of the opposite of the underside is seen, with its slits very closely defined and at perfect rest. This is precisely what might be anticipated from what has gone before. And when one of the long strips covered with figures is placed in the lower part of the drum, and is viewed through the slits in its near side, the effect is exactly the same as that produced by looking through the slits near the margin of the disks of the Phenakisticope [sic] or Stroboscope, at the reflected images of the figures which are circularly placed therein.’
Unlike the spinning disc versions …
‘The Zoetrope has the double advantage of enabling a large number of spectators to witness its curious effects at the same time; and of serving for the ready exhibition of any number of different designs, which are printed on long strips of stiff paper (the length of each being adjusted to that of the internal circumference of the drum), so that one can be easily substituted for another.’
Carpenter explains that the figures can be either stationary (or moving ‘on the spot’) or alternatively, progress or regress left or right. He calls this ‘progression/regression translation’:
‘Now, if these designs are examined, it will be found that the movements which they represent all depend upon two conditions – the movements of translation, in which the figures appear to pass onwards or backwards round the interior of the drum, being all due to the numerical relation between the figures and the slits; while the changes in the positions of the figures, which may or may not be combined with a movement of translation, depend upon the relations between the parts of those figures as we follow them from one end of the strip to the other, these relations being so adjusted in the drawing as to produce the effect whether of continuous or of interrupted or reverse movement, as the subject may require.’
Or to put it another way, a figure that’s depicted as standing still will simply need the same number of slits as figures; a figure that’s depicted side-on walking or running (or flying) will need more than thirteen, or less than thirteen, figures, to appear to ‘translate’ (progress, or regress) to the left or right.
‘Thus if we compare the “Wild Irishman” (No. 13) with “Paddy at Donnybrook” (No. 10), we shall see that in the former, which shows no movement of translation [‘Paddy’ jigs ‘on the spot’], the number of figures is thirteen, which is the same as those of the slits; and that the apparent movements of the limbs depend entirely upon the changes in their relative positions in the consecutive figures; whilst in the latter, the number of figures being only twelve, the figures have an apparent motion around the drum, in a direction opposite to that of their real motion (as in the case already explained), the positions of the limbs in the consecutive figures being so adjusted as to correspond with the successive attitudes of a man running and flourishing his shilleghlah.’
Perhaps this really needs a Zoetrope viewing to make the meaning clear (there is also the question of whether the drum in spun forwards or backwards, but we’ll leave that for now).
‘So, again, if we compare “Football” (No. 9) with “Nobody’s Little Game” (No. 12), we see that in the former, which represents a man lying on his back and making a ball revolve on his uplifted feet, there is no movement in translation, because the numbers alike of the figure and the ball are equal to that of the slits, while the effect of revolution is given to the ball by differences in the position of the green band which crosses it …’
This latter point is a very interesting. Without the coloured band around the ball, it would appear to be just a disc. The potential for sphericity is well shown in No. 62, Perpetual Motion, more obvious of course for those of us able to see the scene actually in movement. So the band serves two functions: to show the balls revolving, and also to give them spherical dimensions. The Zoetrope (and its predecessor the Phenakistiscope) were the first moving image devices to be able to show such dimensional movement. A simple ‘lever’ type glass lantern slide could show a circular object, intended to represent a ball, moving in a limited way, but there was no way to show it spinning obliquely or turning, and consequently it was perceived as a disc – apart from the context, for instance someone kicking it, suggesting that it was a ball (but without the naturalistic revolving, and spherical effect that the coloured bands of the Zoetrope version could bring).
‘[…] and the appropriate motion is given to the legs of the figure [in Football] by the variation of their position in the successive presentations of it; […] on the other hand the “Nobodies” are represented as kicking the ball from one to the other, the balls at the same time rising and falling in the air, moving on their axes, and having a movement of translation in the opposite direction to their actual movement, their number being twelve, as in the preceding case.’
The name ‘Nobodies’ brings to my mind the ‘Nowhere Man’ in the classic animated feature film Yellow Submarine (1968) made exactly a century later, though here necessarily without the multi-talented Nowhere Man’s eloquence.
Another effect introduces the principle of variable speed being represented by a moving component of the figures, in this case the kicking legs: starting fast, and then slowing as the ball has been kicked. Similarly, the ball starts its journey very quickly immediately after the kick and gradually decelerates, as in life:
‘The suddenness of the jerk of the ball upwards, contrasted by the uniformity of the onward progress and descent, is admirably represented, and the movements of the limbs by which this jerk is apparently produced, depend upon relations between their positions in the consecutive figures, which need to be carefully devised to produce the very unevenness that shall suggest the effect.’
Carpenter mentions that this is the same principle that he explained earlier in his article, with the hammers depicted with the ‘Stroboscopic Disc’ by Simon Stampfer (a form of Phenakistiscope) that uses realistic acceleration in its motion of the hammers moving up and down. This quite sophisticated effect would have needed some experimentation on the part of the animators concerned, almost all of whom remain unknown to us. It would be some 40 years before film animators took up such techniques for drawing animated cartoons.
An important ‘preview’
As an aside, it might be mentioned that spectators in the Zoetrope days had an advantage when it came to examining and understanding such techniques, because they could usually look closely at the static strip before it was placed in the drum, examining the phases of a particular subject and then experiencing the effect in motion. By contrast, later audiences watching film cartoons saw only the screened result, so were not wise as to how the increasingly complex techniques of animated images were actually drawn. Not until the option for watching a sequence frame-by-frame – to some extent when home video was introduced, but only effectively with the introduction of digital home screen methods – were spectators able to watch a sequence being broken down into the individual frames, and admire the timing and intricate complexity of the animators’ analytical skills.
‘The same combinations are presented in “The Red-legged Ogre and his Dancing Poodle” (No. 24), with the addition of a stationary hoop through which the dog seems to jump in one direction, whilst the ogre walks beneath the hoops on the contrary direction’ .
That ball again, and the essential ‘mental combination’
‘The mental filling-up, which performs an important part in the illusion, is particularly obvious in the perfect continuity apparent in the motion of the rolling ball, as regards both its outward translation and its revolution on its axis; for both these effects being due to the reception of a succession of glimpses of the object in different positions, the apparent evenness of the motion can be produced by nothing else than a mental combination of the separate impressions into a notion of the object in continuous and uniform movement.’
Perhaps the most important aspect of this seminal opus by Carpenter is his insistence of the fact that our perception of motion provided by such devices is largely a mental rather than an optical effect. Earlier in the essay series he explains the ‘persistence of vision’ theory – essentially dismissing it as being irrelevant. He promotes the idea that the apparent movement and changing shape of figures that we perceive is a ‘notion’. This is one of the first attempts, if not the first, to revise the old ‘persistence’ theory that nevertheless continued to be rolled out for a century and more after his essay was published.
‘This effect is also extremely remarkable in the wonderfully regular movements exhibited by the “Fish and Fowl” (No. 11), the continuous tumbling of the porpoise, and the heavy undulating action of the wings of the gull, being represented with marvelous truth to Nature, by variations of the position of the consecutive figures that are skillfully devised to suggest the appropriate action in each case.’
‘The help thus given by the mind becomes particularly obvious when we examine “Such a Getting Up of Stairs” (No. 16) in which a monkey seems to ascend by successive steps a ladder placed against the head of a stationary figure, and then to jump from its top to the ground; for one would be almost ready to swear that he can distinguish the motion of the legs of the monkey, as he climbs every rung of the ladder; and yet a comparison of the consecutive figures proves that such cannot be the case, the intervals between the actual positions being such a stop leave considerable gaps to be mentally supplied.’
The monkey does seem to scurry up the steps in a fairly convincing manner when animated in a Zoetrope (I just tried it), even though the silhouette technique obscures which leg is which.
‘The same is true of the “Indian Juggler”, keeping up three balls whilst himself standing on a large ball, which he keeps in revolution between his feet, as shown in Fig. 6.’
‘The large share which the mind may take, become peculiarly evident when we compare the mental conception given by “Base Ball” (No. 6) with the visual materials which suggest it. We here see the upper halves of a figure, seated as it were in a gallery which cuts off its lower halves; by an apparent movement of its arm one ball seems to be thrown from its hand after another; and the balls appear to run down an inclined plane towards the spectator. Now, while the appearances of the dropping of the balls, their descent, and their revolution, are produced by the means already explained, the notion of their approach towards the spectator as they fall is entirely due to the suggestion conveyed by a consecutive increase in the actual size of the figures of the balls as they approach the bottom, corresponding with the suggestion of approach of the object that is given by the increase in the size of its image in the Phantasmagoria.’ 
A ‘learned’ illusion ?
The effect of an apparent increase in size of the balls being perceived as the effect of an object approaching the spectator, rather than an object actually getting larger, is not necessarily immediately determined by a particular observer – at least, according to Carpenter’s investigation in the 1860s. For some it had to be learned by the brain after initial viewing, but once perceived, the illusion being created of a change in distance rather than actual object size cannot be ‘unlearned’ and becomes an automatic response. Carpenter comments:
‘And it is not a little curious that, whilst this notion does not always spontaneously occur to those who look at the picture for the first time, it seems uniformly to recur when it has been suggested; the observer even coming to wonder that it did not strike him in the first instance.’
It does indeed seem ‘not a little curious’, since one might expect that the perception would always, from the first glimpse, be the same as the perception of real balls approaching the spectator.
Philosophical toys and ‘psychological inquiry’
‘Thus we see that the interest which this class of “philosophical toys” has for the scientific investigator, is not limited to the determination of the cause of the optical deception that constitutes their most obvious feature, but extends into the higher and less familiar region of psychological inquiry. The distinction between what we actually see and our notion of what we see is so commonly lost sight of, that the want of it is one of the most fertile sources of human error; hence the importance of recognising it cannot be too strongly insisted upon.’
This scientific inquiry was also evident in another of Carpenter’s articles at that time, concerning the very different subject of animalculae. He addressed the puzzle that had been discussed by many naturalists previously, that some of these tiny creatures had what appeared to be a revolving spoked wheel at one end. Clearly the possibility of a free-spinning wheel on a bearing attached to a living creature was to say the least unlikely, despite just such an indelible impression being noted by experienced microscopists. Carpenter explained that this was an optical illusion. The ring of fronds that might be called spokes waved together slightly forwards before darting back to almost their original position. This gave a ‘wheel illusion’ that was related to the effects created by the Phenakistiscope moving picture device, and its successor the Zoetrope.
The train arrives
The effects described above are not exhaustive. For example, there is the subject of the locomotive and train, approaching the spectator while the Lumière brothers were still in short trousers. The potential problem, with such a short sequence potential as a Zoetrope loop, is what to do when the friendly engine gets as close as possible, without creating a discontinuous jump back to the start. The difficulty is resolved simply by having the train on a looped track.
Loops within loops
Once again an ambitious artist gets to grips with animating subjects that are approaching and receding, by changing their sizes relative to the observer and to each other, in A Skating Circle. A similar solution to the train track loop is employed here, and choosing to put the characters on skates avoids the extra difficulty of providing lifelike walking movements to the men’s legs.
No end in sight
This is one of the uncommon examples of a situation where the animator had to use imagination to address the issue of non-circularity in the subject being depicted. After the second chick has hatched (from the same egg as the first), the egg – with no regard to real-life accuracy – magically seals up again, allowing the next chick to then break out.
There is also the too rarely examined subject of the animated ‘bases’ that were provided with early examples of the Zoetrope by the London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company and H.G. Clarke. These were simply paper discs that could be placed on the floor of the drum. They featured animated designs which, in some cases, were an extension of the images appearing on a corresponding strip.
In one example, a figure climbing a ladder, the character’s climb continues from the centre of the disc/drum to the top of the surrounding strip. This motion over two planes brought to mind my experience of Imax’s 1990 ‘Magic Carpet’ system, where the scene and action continued down from the usual front screen, and beneath the seats of the audience, where it was visible through a transparent floor grid. Though neither experience is especially spectacular, the Magic Carpet involved considerable extra installation and arrangement, whereas the Zoetrope effect required no development of the viewing device for an ingenious added feature. The provision of ‘base discs’ for the Zoetrope lasted for only a very few years, and has been almost forgotten.
A second start in drawn animation
In the 20th century, film and digital animators would use extended techniques to take their dramatis personae into narrative adventures in worlds unlimited by the temporally-challenged circularity of the Zoetrope. They would also move away from merely trying to copy lifelike movement, developing morphing and ‘squash and drag’ to give plastic caricature shape and flexibility to their characters. Although Walt Disney and other animators and cartoon directors would sometimes mention and demonstrate early optical devices, I think it’s unlikely that many of filmland’s talented cartoon artists were ever fully aware of the complexities tackled by their 19th-century forbears – Felix the Cat appeared 50 years after the 1860s Zoetrope (later toy versions for children featured generally much more limited effects), and the first Phenakistiscope discs had been made more than a century before the feature Snow White (1938) – so I doubt that many of the Zoetrope’s animators of the 1860s lived to see the extent of such filmic developments.
How many can you see?
Here’s another perplexing effect created by the Zoetrope. I’d like you to see a simple demonstration of an effect that’s more than a little counter-intuitive. Suppose we’re viewing a strip with 13 pictures. How many moving characters will we be able to see at any one time? Well, half of them are on the section of strip that has the pictures facing away from us, so … maybe six-and-a-half? Or somewhat fewer – maybe six?
Well, courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, we can find out without having to buy or make a Zoetrope.
Count the moving figures. I’d say there are 10. So how does that happen? And no, you can’t stop the video to count the number of skipping figures that appear at any one time, because that doesn’t work.
‘Scientific habit of thought’
William Carpenter concludes his article with an appeal to encourage in-depth scientific thinking, even when the subject is something as ‘trivial’ as a Zoetrope toy:
‘Believing, as the writer does, that the best corrective of this deficiency is to be found in the early cultivation of a scientific habit of thought, it has been his aim to utilize the general interest excited by the introduction of the Zoetrope, not merely for the purpose of informing his readers as to the history of its invention and the principles of its action, but also to show them what valuable lessons may be drawn from the intelligent study of phenomena which are viewed, in the first instance, as subjects of amusement only. For this study, carefully pursued step by step through various developments of a very simple and intelligible principle, is of itself a valuable exercise in scientific thought; whilst a higher meaning than could have been anticipated in the first instance, is found in that final comparison between apparent, and the real, which shows how large a share in the production of the moving images with the eye of the mind, is due to the interpretation which our previous experience leads us to put on the impressions actually received through our visual sense. How much this is the case, even in the commonest matters, is known only to the few who have made a special study of the subject.’
I couldn’t agree more.
Finally, Zoetrope development occasionally takes the subject into what might be considered new areas of weirdness. My old friend George Hall of Tucson, Arizona, invented a variation which he called L’Affirmatrope:
For much more about these rather wonderful and sometimes weird optical entertainments, do please visit my dedicated website The Wheel of Life.
Stephen Herbert, February 2022
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Many thanks to Martin Gilbert and Lester Smith for kindly providing most of the Zoetrope pictures for this post.
Next time: Moving Pictures and the Early Cameras. William Friese-Greene: Close-Up, Part 1.
Comments will appear below, after the notes.
- William Benjamin Carpenter, ‘On the Zoetrope and its Antecedents’ in The Student and Intellectual Observer of Science, Literature and Art, 2 vols. (London: Groombridge & Sons, 1868-69). All other uncredited quotations in this post are from this same article. [return to text]
- For more on King Leopold II of Belgium see my website. [return to text]
- For more on the ‘rules of Zoetropical motion’ see my website again. [return to text]
- From 1969 I was a cinema projectionist for a few years, and able to examine, on the rewind bench, sequences of cartoon films ‘frame by frame’ before watching the moving result on the screen. I took advantage of this opportunity, learning some of the tricks of the ‘Grand Old Men’ who worked for Disney from the 1930s, and the more experimental animations that followed, mostly post-WW2 and through the 1960s. At the National Film Theatre in 1970-72 I ran pencil tests for Richard Williams when he was animating his never-ending production The Thief and the Cobbler, examining the individual frames and then seeing the screened results; just pencil outlines with the minimum of background details, and no distracting colour, allowing the movement and shape-changing to come to the fore. This was an invaluable experience for me – as I was able to tell Williams almost 40 years later – as it was one of the lessons that enabled me to give some instruction and tips to animation students when for a decade I supervised, with tutor and veteran animator Jack Daniel, their rostrum work. [return to text]
- ‘ … for the number of hoops being thirteen is equal to that of the slits, so as to produce a stationary spectrum, the number of poodles being fourteen, their spectrum has a movement of onwards translation, and the number of ogres being twelve, their spectrum has a movement of backward translation.’ Carpenter then refers to an earlier experiment in which he used a disc with three sets of slots, showing the speed and travel-direction differences when viewed through such a variant: ‘These diversities exactly corresponding with that already described in the spectrum of the wheel with three sets of slits, which the image was looked at though the intervening series’ (Student and Intellectual Observer, Vol. 1 p. 444). Zoetropes with three rows of slots were later used by the chronophotographers Etienne-Jules Marey and Ottomar Anschütz. [return to text]
- ‘There is no doubt that a prolonged gaze at a luminous object does produce an impression upon the retina, which persists for some time afterwards, manifesting itself in the spectrum of the object which is seen when the eyes are closed, or are directed elsewhere. But the persistence of a mode of organic action which has been kept up in a certain part of the retina for an appreciable time, is very different from the persistence of an impression caused by an image of which duration may not have been more than one millionth of a second; and the writer is disposed to regard this last as rather a mental than a retinal phenomenon. At any rate, it is better to use language which expresses the fact independently of theory.’ [return to text]
- The original Phantasmagoria was a magic lantern slide projector on wheels, which could be moved away from and towards the screen, using rear projection (so the projector was hidden from the audience). The effect was that figures would appear to grow or shrink, as though they were moving towards or away from the audience. [return to text]
- Snow White is an interesting example of the use of two different techniques – the lifelike animation of the main characters Snow White and the Prince, ‘Rotoscoped’ by tracing from live-action film footage – and mixing the results with the imagined, more elastic and much less naturalistic movement of the Dwarfs. [return to text]
Comment from Stephen Bottomore:
‘Fascinating. An instant classic article for media archaeologists!
So many parallels between what you discuss for pre-cinema with later developments in cinema as such. Circular narratives, moving across the field of view, depth effects including looming in train films, complex multi-object motion. And hand coloured too.’
Thanks Stephen, I’ve always felt that these devices had much to offer film historians and theorists, but few have gone down that path, even though such seminal articles as the one by William Carpenter have been cited for decades, and are now very easily accessible online (The Internet Archive).
From Deac Rossell:
1. Another odd manifestation of the zoetrope was its Giant Zoetrope form. Two of these are known. One was exhibited in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in 1857, with a diameter of 18 feet. Thirty spectators could sit at individual places, each shrouded from stray light by black cloths. The second was exhibited at the Crystal Palace in London during the Christmas holidays from 28 December 1867 to 23 January 1868. The giant drum was installed on the stage of the Crystal Palace concert hall, turned by a Hugon gas engine and apparently the audience viewed it from the hall seating. Clearly both were attempts to turn the zoetrope into a commercial entertainment for the public, but few details are known and the names of the promoters of these two giant machines remain obscure.
2. Ottomar Anschutz invented the zoetrope with three slots that allowed a strip to be seen moving forward, moving in reverse, or moving in place, and Etienne-Jules Marey bought one of these zoetropes from Anschutz to use in his own experiments. The invoice from Anschutz to Marey for the purchase of the zoetrope, dated 21 March1889 was in my exhibition in Dusseldorf and Frankfurt a. M.
See “The Anschutz Zoetropes”, in The New Magic Lantern Journal, Vol. 8, No. 3, (December 1998), pp. 2-3.
From Peter Domankiewicz:
Lots of fascinating thoughts in there. Thanks for pointing us/me at those Carpenter pieces – although they are mentioned in Hopwood’s ‘Living Pictures’, I never looked them out before. He’s got a lot of astute insights (and some complicated mathematical bits), especially identifying why the whole Persistence of Vision concept was misleading. Also, I was struck once again by how one artist might think “I could have a couple dancing or somebody juggling,” whilst another one thinks “I could have thousands of eyes coming at you or a dog jumping through a hoop onto a giant head with tiny legs and a tail.” Can’t help wondering what they were smoking in their pipes.
It’s always surprised me that the stranger subjects have not, so far as I know, been the focus of any historical or academic writing, suggesting their sources of inspiration. I’ve dealt with some political themes – and some puns, and subjects based on new inventions etc., with both Zoetropes and Phenakistiscopes – on my website The Wheel of Life, but yes – those surreal eyes? That bizarre Red-legged Ogre and his Dancing Poodle?
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