1. The Humble Beginnings of Animation (1650-1900)

Animation as a form of entertainment found its origins in the later portion of the 1650s. The development of early primitive projection techniques culminated in the sideshow attraction that became the so-called “Magic Lantern”. This Magic Lantern as it was called nearly 400 years ago was perhaps the source of all modern animation, and all animation can be traced back to it. The magic lantern was typically a small device used by showmen to entertain bystanders, and it displayed various semi-translucent slides which could be switched for another. These slides, however, were not yet fully animated yet, however, by the end of the 17th century, these Magic Lanterns would become commonplace within households. Within America, the most prominent magic lantern artist at the time was illustrator Joseph Boggs Beagle, who personally illustrated over 2000 images for the devices.

The magic Lantern worked by projecting multiple slightly differing images in a sequence and the means of projection upon a light source that was arguably as strong as modern projection technology. This animation technology, though at the time merely a sideshow or fad, would not go away, but continue to evolve, with the majority of the basic techniques from this era being refined and improved upon from this modern era. The man most widely attributed with the invention of the Magic Lantern in the 1650s was Dutch scientist and inventor Christiaen Huygens, who also invented the pendulum clock.

An early Magic Lantern proto-animation.

The next stage in the evolution of animation would come in the form of the Phantasmagoria, which was a show put together in 18th century France by the Belgian Etienne Gaspard Robertson. The show which he put together on his French tours was inspired by the recent sense of macabre which the French had acquired following the Revolution. In capitalizing upon this newly developed taste for the macabre, during the Halloween season, the show was based upon the animation of ghostly images, spectres and macabre scenes all the while telling gruesome tales. This technology, considered advanced for its time would project the hazy image of a ghost or specter in order to perplex and frighten the viewer.

The effects that Etienne achieved with his show were unprecedented for the time, and he can be cited as one of the first innovators in the field of projection and animation. The magic lanterns would project numerous half-man half demons which would appear to go directly towards the audience only to suddenly vanish behind a wall. Etienne’s show would go on to become a huge success throughout France and Europe, with Etienne becoming one of the most prolific showmen in all of Europe. The gimmick he used was made possible through the usage of 6 different magic lanterns, an innovation on his part to the art, as well as six assistants behind the screen, and the images were rear-projected. In order for Robertson to achieve the effect of an image becoming larger or smaller to the audience, the stage performer had to utilize projectors with self-focusing lenses in order to achieve the desired effect.

Etienne Robertson called the projector which he used, which was an improvement over all previous primitive models, the fantascope. This particular magic lantern was the first to feature an Argand oil lamp with a tubular wick, which is a significant improvement over previous limited illumination technologies previously utilized in other magic lantern shows, which were mainly just simple candles and oil-burning lamps allowing for a much more powerful burn and light projection.

These shows by Etienne may seem like a trivial contribution in the long scheme of the history of animation, however, it was because of this progress and innovativeness and the spectacle that the show created that Magic lantern shows imitating Etienne would spread. Imitators of Etienne would continue to show up across Europe and spread worldwide. After Etienne’s tours in the United States and the European continent, the imitators popularized the craft through until the early 1800s. In fact, in the 1850s the American Joseph Boggs Beale, the man who would become the leading American producer of Magic lanterns would see one of Etienne’s Phantasmagorias in Philadelphia and become inspired by it.

The main benefit of the Etienne shows to the world of visual media was the fact that the fantascope by Etienne when used at his shows or any other venues was able to provide a larger image projection, and thus could project an animated show to many more people than previously. It was also around this point that the very first flipbook was invented in 1862 by John Barnes Linnet, who called it the kineograph. The flipbook is simply a group of flexible notecard upon which sequential images can be placed and flipped quickly to produce an animation or illusion of movement. These ideas and advances in animation and projection technology would further influence the likes of Beale and also H.W. Goodwin, who in 1879 crafted the first nitrate celluloid film strips to be used in the which is a chemical combination of gun cotton and gum camphor.

The late 1800s was a phenomenal period for the animator, and the developments of the very first on film animation in the sense that most people are now familiar with. In 1892 the work of Emil Reynard (1844-1918) in the field was revolutionary, as he took pre-existing concepts of the illusion of motion for his Praxoscope which premiered at his Theatre Optique. The praxoscope was essentially the first device to show animations on a primitive reel. He was able to through this device to project 80 consecutive frames without changing reels, allowing him to present 10-15 minute films. The praxoscope was the very first modern film projector, which was popularized to the point of driving Reynard out of business. Near the end of his life he was stated to have thrown his equipment into a river in a fit of rage.

The advent of recordable moving images and visual media was also pushed along through the work of brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, who through their works were able to piece together some of the first true public film screenings in 1895 at the Paris Hotel Scribe. The Lumiere brothers were some of the most innovative people in the world at the time of film and animation, able to capture the spectacle of reality and essentially creating the first recorded films. The earliest film that was recorded by them was the Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895-6), to which the reactions of many of the audience members was to flee from what they perceived as the seemingly real threat of a moving train coming towards them. The Lumiere brothers in this sense had managed in a manner very similar to their predecessor Etienne Robertson to capture spectacle and present it towards a large audience. They had managed to prove that the moving image, whether portraying recorded film or a recorded fantastical animation could have the same power to captivate or cause dread in the hearts and minds of audience members. The very first true animation in the traditional hand-drawn sense came in the form of Emile Cohl’s 1908 Fantasmagorie short film, all of which typically consisted of small stick figure drawings encountering various morphing objects. The entirety of this project along with his future projects were shot and animated frame by frame by Emile Cohl, with the majority of these being done on chalkboards.

These works as well as the development of the motion picture on the other side of the spectrum proved fascinated viewers who saw these productions in theaters for their ability to portray something so frighteningly realistic or fantastical were captivated by the illusionary spectacle that animation, in a similar manner to film, creates. The work of Emile Cohl and the Lumière brothers as well as their Magic Lantern using predecessors laid the foundations for opened the door for and allowed for what was once merely considered an interesting sideshow to become something more to the people. The developments in the previous centuries would lay the framework for the craft, however, these were merely the beginnings of something new which would change the how people were entertained or expressed themselves through stories.


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