How the Victorian-era zoetrope still inspires animation artists today

Animation has a long and rich history that is replete with many innovative methods of portraying the illusion of movement. Long before the advent of cinema, optical toys and handmade devices were used to entertain people in the 19th century. These inventions did not project images onto a screen. Instead, they allowed one person to see the show one at a time. The zoetrope is one such animation device, and its fascinating visual effects are still used today.

What is a zoetrope?


A zoetrope at Leeds Industrial Museum, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Long before Mickey Mouse, the early pioneers of animation found creative ways to make static images appear as if they were moving. One approach was a zoetrope. A zeotrope is an early form of 19th century animation technology. A variant of phenakisticope (an animated disc), the zoetrope consists of a cylinder with lines cut vertically along the sides. The inner surface of the cylinder shows a row of sequential images. To see the animation in motion, the viewer must look through the slits while rotating the zoetrope by hand. The images rotate quickly and create the illusion of movement.

Who invented the zoetrope?

Zoetrope band

Zoetrope Band, “Dancers,” c. 1860, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The first zoetrope was invented in 1834 by a mathematician named Guillaume Horner. He called him the Daedalum, with reference to the greek myth of Daedalus. Horner’s rotating drum had viewing slits between images, instead of above, as later variations of the zoetrope would have done. Horner planned to publish his creation, but it “ran into a certain obstacle, probably in the sketching of the figures.”

In 1865, William Ensign Lincoln invented his own version of Horner’s device, but with easily replaceable image strips. He named his version “zoetrope”, deriving from the Greek words “zoe” (“life” in English) and “tropos” (meaning “to turn”). Lincoln authorized his invention to Milton Bradley and Co. who first advertised the zoetrope as a children’s toy on December 15, 1866.

Zootropes were followed by other animation devices, in particular leaf books, the praxinoscope, and the zoopraxiscope. The basic principles behind these early inventions led to the creation of motion pictures.

Contemporary Zoetropist Artists

Despite the fact that modern technology now allows animators to digitally create elaborate movements, some artists still prefer portable analog devices like the zoetrope.

Eric Dyer

After years of digital work, professional animator Eric Dyer decided to go back to basics and bring his animations into the physical world. He invented his own form of zoetrope by removing the drum and using the fast shutter speed of a camera instead of the slits. This allowed him to make experimental films from rotating 3D sculptures which he called “kinetropes”.

His first works were in paper. But since then, Dyer has moved on to creating 3D printed kinetropes and large-scale spinners with photos printed on steel and aluminum.

Veerle coppoolse

Zoetrope by Veerle Coppoolse

dutch artist Veerle coppoolse handcrafted a zoetrope constructed entirely from delicate paper. Title Zoetropic metamorphosis, it explores the life cycle of a butterfly. Incredibly detailed analog animation shows a paper caterpillar crawling through a cocoon before transforming into a butterfly.

“The process of creating this work is for me a process of personal and artistic growth, just like the process of growth that the zoetrope brings to life,” Coppoolse wrote on Instagram. “Each development flows from the one it precedes. It makes me realize that in this process of creation, as in any process of life, each phase needs its time and space to develop naturally and come out of its cocoon.

After launching a crowdfunding campaign, Coppoolse then turned this paper version into a much larger cocoon-shaped machine that spins guests around the paper items.

Kevin holmes

Kevin holmes is the brain behind 4-Mation, a 3D zoetropic machine. Each “strip” featured 3D printed designs that were hand painted. Holmes uses animation software to map the element’s movements, letting him know exactly where each piece should be placed on the carousel. When the carousel spins at the right speed and the elements are illuminated with a strobe light, the animations come to life. So far, Holmes has done a lot of fun nature inspired animations, including Fish eating fish and Jumping frogs.

Akinori Goto

japanese artist Akinori Goto works with a range of media to explore how modern technology can be fused with ancient animation techniques. He designed a 3D printed zoetrope, titled toki-, which, when lit from the side, reveals several walking figures in motion. The piece was presented at the Spiral Independent Creators Festival 2016, where it won both the Second Grand Prix and the Audience Award. Since then, Goto has created many other zootropes using the same technique, including one who captures the bewitching movements of ballet dancers.

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About Monty S. Maynard

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