Stephen Herbert

From Zoöpraxiscope to Rotoscope: commercial animation informed by the camera, 1880-1920

The production of animated motion pictures derived wholly or in part from scenes traced from live-action photographic ‘footage’, a technique traditionally known as Rotoscoping, is usually dated to around 1915, when the Fleischer Brothers started using the process, which they soon patented. Yet similar techniques were in fact introduced prior to the introduction of celluloid film and cinematography, first by Eadweard Muybridge from 1879. It is well known that Muybridge – with the help of commercial artists – animated images based on his photographic sequences, projecting them with his Zoöpraxiscope machine to large and varied audiences in many countries, from 1879 to 1893. The exact nature of these animations has often been misrepresented, and only in the past decade have we been able to properly examine all known examples of the rare and in many cases unique glass motion discs, and begin to understand the complexities of their production, presentation, and reception.

Almost immediately after the introduction of photographic motion picture films in 1894-96, such techniques were also used to give a lifelike quality to animated film ‘cartoons’ shown in the home. This paper will outline the development of such Rotoscoping methods and their commercial exploitation in the thirty-five years prior to their use in cinema-distributed films by Max and Dave Fleischer.

The first part of this illustrated paper outlines the technical and aesthetic facts concerning these artefacts, examines their reception, and goes on to propose the possibility that in 1892-94 Muybridge intended to make his Zoöpraxiscope discs widely available to showmen for popular entertainment, only to be trumped by the public showings of animated photographs by his contemporaries Ottomar Anschütz, Thomas Edison, and the many post-1894 cinematographic machines that projected motion pictures. The complexities of Muybridge’s disc sequences included those that incorporated both images informed by his photographic sequences, and additional material that was entirely imaginary. Animated in 2010 for the first time in more than a century, and now viewable as moving images rather than static artefacts, these hybrid Zoöpraxiscope scenes connect with us today as precursors of the combined CGI, ‘motion capture’, and conventional live action footage used in modern motion picture production, and are in marked contrast to the effect of modern animations of Muybridge’s published sequence photographs.

The second part of this paper takes up the story shortly after the first motion  picture film presentations in 1894-96, when manufacturers in Germany started producing toy and domestic cinematograph film projectors, which presented images derived from photographic motion picture films, but traced by hand using a method that was essentially the same as that later patented and exploited by the Fleischers. Some of these short motion sequences, printed in full colour by chromolithography, comprised sections traced from cinematograph films by major early producers, including the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès. These widespread examples of motion capture manipulated into colourful cartoon form for purposes of domestic entertainment have been almost entirely forgotten, but form a fascinating chapter in the history of ‘cartoon’ animated images derived from photographic origins.


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