Phenakistiscope

Joseph Plateau

The phenakistiscope [fen-uh-kiss-tuh-skohp] was the first widespread animation device that created a fluent illusion of motion. The phenakistiscope is regarded as one of the first forms of moving media entertainment that paved the way for the future motion picture and film industry. It is sometimes compared to GIF animation since both show a short continuous loop.

A phenakisticope usually comes in the form of a spinning cardboard disc attached vertically to a handle. Arrayed radially around the disc’s center are a series of pictures showing sequential phases of the animation. Small rectangular apertures are spaced evenly around the rim of the disc. The user would spin the disc and look through the moving slits at the images reflected in a mirror. The scanning of the slits across the reflected images keeps them from simply blurring together, so that the user can see a rapid succession of images that appear to be a single moving picture.

When there is the same number of images as slots, the images will animate in a fixed position, but will not drift across the disc. Fewer images than slots, and the images will drift in the opposite direction to that of the spinning disc. More images than slots, and the images will drift in the same direction as the spinning disc. Unlike the zoetrope and other successors, the phénakisticope could only practically be used by one person at a time.

The origin of the term was explained in the French daily morning newspaper ‘Le Figaro’ to be from the Greek ‘phenakisticos’ (‘to deceive’ or ‘to cheat’) and ‘ops’ (‘eye’ or ‘face’). Inventor Joseph Plateau did not give a name for the device when he first wrote about it in 1833, but used ‘phénakisticope’ later that year in another article to refer to the published versions he was not involved with. By then, he had an authorized set published first as ‘Phantasmascope’ and later as ‘Fantascope.’

The phenakisticope was invented through scientific research into optical illusions and published as such, but soon the device was marketed very successfully as an entertaining novelty toy. After the novelty wore off it became mostly regarded as a toy for children, but it still proved to be a useful demonstration tool for some scientists. The famous English pioneer of photographic motion studies Eadweard Muybridge built a phenakisticope projector for which he had his photographs rendered as contors on glass discs. For one disc he chose a photographic representation: the sequence of a running horse skeleton, which was probably to detailed to be painted on glass. This disc was most likely the very first time a stop motion technique was successfully applied. Muybridge first called his apparatus ‘Zoogyroscope,’ but soon settled on the name ‘Zoöpraxiscope.’

Several vinyl music releases have phenakistiscope-like animations on the labels or on the vinyl itself. In 1956 Red Raven Movie Records started a series of 78 RPM 8″ singles with animations to be viewed with a device with small mirrors to be placed in the center of the disc, similar to a praxinoscope (the successor to the zoetrope). Since 2010 audio-visual duo ‘Sculpture’ has released several picture discs with very elaborate animations to be viewed under a stroboscope flashing exactly 25 times per second or filmed with a video camera shooting progressively at a very high shutter speed with a framerate of 25fps.

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