Zoetrope animation explained: definition, history and ideas.
Zoetrope animation is one of the most popular pre-film animation techniques. Originally developed in the 1830s, it became a popular Victorian toy. It is still used today - adapted and updated to make 3D versions by the likes of Pixar. Find out more about how this simple but effective technology works.
What is a zoetrope and how does it work?
A zoetrope is a cylinder with vertical slits down the sides. The inside of the cylinder displays a band with a set of sequenced images. When the cylinder spins, the user can see the pictures inside as they look through the slits, which prevent the images from blurring together. Combined with the rapid succession of images, the illusion of motion in a continuous loop is created.
History of zoetrope animation.
- In 1833, the phenakisticope was invented by Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau and Austrian inventor Simon Stampfer. This disc is considered the first widespread device used for animation. In a pamphlet that July, Stampfer noted the technique could be adapted to use cylinders and looped strips of paper.
- Taking note, William Horner, a British mathematician, created the first type of zoetrope in 1834. He named it the daedalum in a nod to the Greek myth of Daedalus. The viewing slits in Horner’s revolving drum were between the pictures, unlike later variations, which had them above.
- In 1867, William Lincoln patented the name zoetrope, which was a combination of Greek words zoe (life) and tropos (turning), to translate as ‘wheel of life’.
- Board game company Milton Bradley began selling the cylinders in the US, with London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company selling versions in the UK. They became a popular Victorian parlour toy. Children loved spinning their zoetropes and gazed in delight at the primitive animated images of moving horses and other animals.
- Soon after, a giant zoetrope, 50-feet in circumference and powered by a gas engine, was on display in the concert hall of Crystal Palace, London.
- Other animation devices, including flip books and the praxinoscope, followed. The basic principles of zoetropes and similar inventions eventually led to the creation of motion pictures in the late-1880s.
- Perhaps as a reaction to digital technology, zoetropes underwent a revival in the late-20 th century and were increasingly used and updated. Animator Eric Dyer invented his own version, removing the drum and using the fast shutter speed of a camera instead of slits. He made experimental films from 3D sculptures, called ‘cinetropes’.
- Building on the zoetrope revival, large and elaborate versions were made, as well as an ever-increasing number of 3D versions. Pixar Animation Studios created a 3D zoetrope featuring characters from Toy Story 2 (1999). The Toy Story Zoetrope has been shown in museums and galleries around the world.
- With its looped image sequences, GIF animation on the Internet could be considered the contemporary successor to zoetrope.
Examples of zoetrope animation.
- In 2012, animation studio Sehsucht, Berlin created a CGI 3D zoetrope carousel to represent the American Dream.
- In 2008, UK visual effects company Artem Limited built a 10-metre-wide, 10-metric ton zoetrope for Sony. The BRAVIA-drome featured 64 images of the Brazilian footballer Kaká and was named the largest zoetrope in the world by Guinness World Records.
- American horror film House on Haunted Hill (1999) featured a human-sized zoetrope chamber, dubbed ‘the Saturation Chamber’.
- Tokyo’s Ghibli Museum houses a 3D zoetrope featuring characters from the Japanese animation studio’s 1988 animated film My Neighbour Totoro.
- Inspired by Ghibli, Pixar’s Toy Story Zoetrope led to a further two 3D zoetropes. One is install at The Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California, the other at Disneyland Paris.
- In 2012 the horror film The Woman in Black features a zoetrope spun by actor Daniel Radcliffe, which is peered through by the titular character.
- From 2007 to 2014, BBC Two used a zoetrope to create the effect of flying cars zooming around a futuristic cityscape for an ident, shown before TV programmes and on the BBC iPlayer.
- A haunted zoetrope toy features in the supernatural horror The Conjuring 2 (2016).
- Clothing company The Gap built a human-sized zoetrope to promote its ‘Meet Me in the Gap’ campaign. The giant multi-coloured wheel featured people dancing on the spot which, combined with the spinning cylinder and shot in 360 degrees, created an immersive experience of movement and colour.
- American performance art collective the Blue Man Group used a quick-spinning carousel to create a zoetrope effect at their shows in Las Vegas and Florida.
- UK supermarket Sainsbury’s celebrated its 150 th anniversary in 2019 with a giant zoetrope cake in a TV advert.
- New York advertising agency Johannes Leonardo created an advert for Volkswagen in 2021. The Wheel featured eight complex zoetropes that each told a part of the story of transport evolution. Each was made using various disciplines, including sculpture, hand drawing, cel animation, photography and 3D stop motion.