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Birth of An Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation

Nicholas Sammond, Author
Animation, page 1 of 9
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Nineteenth Century Animation

Before the 20th Century, early efforts to create a commercial cinema were undertaken by a number of artists, inventors, and photographers, the most well remembered of whom are the Lumiere brothers and Thomas Edison. They explored how a rapid succession of images could create the illusion of motion, make inanimate objects seem alive, or make one thing seem to magically transform into another. These early explorations into apparent motion blurred the line between scientific curiosity and popular entertainment, and animation has played with that fuzzy boundary ever since. 

The zoetrope was a popular 19th-century parlor toy. A wooden or pasteboard cylinder with slits cut into it housed a strip of paper on which a succession of drawings were placed. Viewing the passing drawings through the slits created the illusion of motion.

The phenaekistoscope was another 19th-century exploration into "persistence of vision," a parlor toy which also required a viewer to look through the slits at moving drawings. Rather than a cylinder, though, the phenaekistoscope was a disc mounted on a handle; when the viewer held the spinning disc up to a mirror, they witnessed the apparent motion of the figures in the drawings on the disc.

Emile Reynaud was a teacher of mathematics and science, and a showman, who improved on these parlor toys. His praxinoscope used an array of mirrors to reflect the successive drawings moving on a rotating drum. By eliminating the slits, this invention greatly reduced the flicker effect of the zoetrope or phenaekistoscope. Between 1879 and 1892, Reynaud developed the praxinoscope into an elaborate rear-projection system which he used to project moving drawings painted onto celluloid for performances of what he called his Théatre Optique.

In the 1870s, photographer Eadweard Muybridge developed elaborate systems of multiple linked cameras to capture animal locomotion, including human animals. In effect, Muybridge was practicing de-animation. In lectures he gave about his work, Muybridge reanimated those photographs using the zoopraxiscope, which allowed viewers to see the photos in rapid succession, creating the illusion of restoring motion to animals which had been stopped by the camera in mid-stride.

According to Donald Crafton, most early 20th-century animators didn't find inspiration in these experiments, but in a much simpler 19th-century parlor toy, the flip book. Flip books were successions of drawings bound together in booklets; by leafing through the pages, one could witness the drawings seem to move.
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