Precursors of film

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Precursors of film are concepts and devices that have much in common with the later art and techniques of cinema.

The Kaiserpanorama, 1880, provided a group stereoscope card viewing experience

Precursors of film are often referred to as precinema, or 'pre-cinema'. Terms like these are disliked by several historians, partly because they seem to devalue the individual qualities of these media by presenting them as a small step in the development of a later invention.[1] For instance: the flip book, zoetrope and phenakistiscope are very tactile devices that allow study and play by manipulating the motion by hand, while the projected image in cinema is intangible.[2] Such devices as the zoetrope were not replaced by cinema: they were still used after the breakthrough of film.[3] Furthermore, many early media examples are also part of a tradition that not only shaped cinema, but also home video, video games, computer-generated imagery, virtual reality and much more.[4] The study of early media devices is also part of a wider and less teleological approach called media archaeology.

Many of the devices that can be interpreted as precursors of film are also referred to as "philosophical toys", or "optical toys".


In the early days of film the word "photoplay" was quite commonly used for motion pictures. This illustrates how a movie can be thought of as a photographed play. Much of the production for a live-action movie is similar tot that of a theatre play, with very similar contributions by actors, a theatre director/film director, producers, a set designer, lighting designer, costume designer, composer, etc. Much terminology later used in film theory and film criticism was already applied for theatre, such as mise en scene.

Many other forms of theatre have an equivalent in movies. For instance: puppetry can be regarded as a precursor of stop motion film with animated puppets (while puppets performed in front of a camera seems to feature more commonly in TV shows than in movies).

Many early films, like the ones produced for Edison, basically consisted of popular vaudeville acts performing in front of a camera instead of an audience. The famous movie pioneer Georges Méliès was a theatre owner and illusionist who treated film as a means to create spectacles that were even more impressive than stage shows, with lavish stage designs that did not have to be changed while an audience was watching and magic tricks based on special effects that were impossible to perform live.

A few years after the introduction of cinema, movies started to deviate more and more from live theatre experiences when filmmakers became creative with the unique possibilities that the medium provided: editing, close-ups, camera movements and special effects.

Shadow play[edit]

Shadow play figures, circa 1780.

The earliest projection of images was most likely done in primitive shadowgraphy dating back to prehistory. It evolved into more refined forms of shadow puppetry, mostly with flat jointed cut-out figures which are held between a source of light and a translucent screen. The shapes of the puppets sometimes include translucent color or other types of detailing. Plato seemed to hint at shadow puppetry in his Allegory of the Cave (circa 380 BCE) but no other signs of shadow play in ancient Greece are known and Plato's idea was clearly a hypothetical allegory. Shadow puppetry was possibly developed in India around 200 BCE, but also has a long history in Indonesia (records relating to Wayang since 840 CE), Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, China (records since around 1000 CE) and Nepal. It later spread to the Ottoman empire and seems not to have reached Europe before the 17th century. It became very popular in France at the end of the 18th century. Around the time cinema was developed several theaters in Montmartre showed elaborate "Ombres Chinoises" shows that were very successful. The famous Le Chat noir produced 45 different shows between 1885 and 1896.

Camera obscura[edit]

Projection of images can occur naturally when rays of light pass through a small hole and produce an inverted image on a surface in a dark area behind the hole. This phenomenon is known as camera obscura or pinhole image. Its oldest known recorded description is found in Chinese Mohist writings dated to circa 400 BCE.[5] However, people have probably witnessed and made use of occurrences of the phenomenon since prehistoric times. It has been suggested that distortions in the shapes of animals in many paleolithic cave paintings were possibly based on distortions seen in pinhole images formed through tiny holes in tents or in screens of animal hide.[6] Some ancient sightings of gods and spirits, especially in temple worship, are thought to possibly have been conjured up by means of camera obscura or proto magic lantern projections.[5][7][8] In Arab and European science the camera obscura was used in darkened rooms since circa 1000 CE to study light and especially sun eclipses.

Very occasionally the camera obscura was thought of as an instrument for live projections of performances to entertain an audience inside a darkened room. Purportedly Arnaldus de Villa Nova did so at the end of the 13th century.[9][10] In 1589 Giambattista della Porta imagined how the camera obscura could be used to project hunting scenes, battles, games or anything desired. Real or artificial forests, rivers, mountains as well as animals could be used for scenes on an outside stage and projected into a dark room with spectators.[11]

The use of a lens in the opening of a wall or closed window shutter of a darkened room to project clearer images has been dated back to 1550.[12]

In 1572, the oldest known suggestion for the camera to become mobile was described as a lightweight wooden hut to be carried around on two wooden poles.[13] More practical solutions followed in the 17th century in the shape of tents and eventually as portable wooden boxes with a viewing pane and a mirror to get an upright image. The camera obscura became increasingly popular as a drawing and painting aid for artists.

Magic lantern and other image projectors[edit]

The "trotting horse lamp" [走馬燈] has been known in China since before 1000 CE. It is a lantern which on the inside has cut-out silhouettes attached to a shaft with a paper vane impeller on top, rotated by heated air rising from a lamp. The silhouettes are projected on the thin paper sides of the lantern and appear to chase each other. Some versions showed more motion with the heads, feet or hands of figures connected with fine iron wire to an extra inner layer and triggered by a transversely connected iron wire.[14] The lamp would typically show images of horses and horse-riders.

Several scholars and inventors, like Giovanni Fontana (circa 1420), Leonardo da Vinci (circa 1515) and Cornelis Drebbel (1608) possibly had early image projectors before the invention of the Magic Lantern. Athanasius Kircher's 1645 first edition of Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae included a description of his forerunner to the magic lantern: the "Steganographic Mirror". This was a primitive projection system with a focusing lens and text or pictures painted on a concave mirror reflecting sunlight, mostly intended for long distance communication.[15] Kircher also suggested projecting shadow puppets and living flies from the surface of the mirror.[16] The book was widely distributed and may have offered some inspiration for Christiaan Huygens' invention of the magic lantern in 1659.

Moving images were possibly projected with the magic lantern since its invention; Christiaan Huygens' 1659 sketches for slides show a skeleton taking his skull off his neck and placing it back. Techniques to add motion to the painted glass slides were described since circa 1700. These usually involved parts (for instance limbs) painted on one or more extra pieces of glass moved by hand or small mechanisms across a stationary slide which showed the rest of the picture.[17]

In 1770 Edmé-Gilles Guyot detailed how to project a magic lantern image on smoke to create a transparent, shimmering image of a hovering ghost. This technique was used in the phantasmagoria shows that became very popular in several parts of Europe between 1790 and the 1830s. Other techniques were developed to produce convincing ghost experiences. The lantern was handheld to move the projection across the screen (which was usually an almost invisible transparent screen behind which the lanternist operated hidden in the dark). A ghost could seem to approach the audience or grow larger by moving the lantern towards the screen, sometimes with the lantern on a trolley on rails, just like a tracking shot in films. Multiple lanterns not only could make ghosts move independently, but were also occasionally used for superimposition in the composition of complicated scenes. By experimenting with superimposition dissolving views were invented and became a separate popular magic lantern show, especially in England in the 1830s and 1840s.[18] Dissolving views typically showed a landscape changing from a winter version to a spring or summer variation by slowly diminishing the light from one version while introducing the aligned projection of the other slide. Another use of dissolving views, projected with a triple lantern, showed a sleeping figure while images of dreams were superimposed above its head and dissolved from one scene to another.[19] This is similar to the use of a dissolve in film.

Between the 1840s and 1870s several abstract magic lantern effects were developed. This included the chromatrope which projected dazzling colorful geometrical patterns by rotating two painted glass discs in opposite directions.[20]

Occasionally small jointed shadow puppets had been used in phantasmagoria shows.[18] Magic lantern slides with jointed figures set in motion by levers, thin rods, or cams and worm wheels were also produced commercially and patented in 1891. A popular version of these "Fantoccini slides" had a somersaulting monkey with arms attached to mechanism that made it tumble with dangling feet. Named after the Italian word for animated puppets, like marionettes or jumping jacks.[21]


Several possible examples of very early sequential images can be found in paleolithic cave paintings, on a 5,200-year old pottery bowl found in Iran and in an Egyptian mural approximately 4000 years old (found in the tomb of Khnumhotep at the Beni Hassan cemetery). However, it is very unlikely that these could be viewed in motion.

In January 1833 Joseph Plateau introduced the principle of stroboscopic animation with a device that became known as the phenakistiscope. It was followed by other stroboscopic optical toys like the zoetrope (1866) the flip book (1868) and the praxinoscope (1877).

Projected types of phenakisticopes had been around since the 1850s (like the one of Franz von Uchatius), but the first successful screened animations were debuted in 1888 with the Théâtre Optique by Émile Reynaud.

Early moving photographic images[edit]

Photography was introduced in 1839. Before the 1850s photographic sequences were very rare and most instances were accidentally created or not intended to record movements or the passage of time. The long exposure times that were needed in early photography would prohibit recording instantaneous sequences for several decades.

In 1849 Joseph Plateau discussed the possibilities of combining his fantascope (a.k.a. phénakisticope) with the stereoscope as suggested to him by its inventor Charles Wheatstone. In 1852 Duboscq patents such a "Stéréoscope-fantascope, stéréofantscope ou Bïoscope". Of three planned variations only one was actually produced but without much success. Only one extant disc is known, with photographic images of a machine in motion, which is in the Plateau collection of Ghent University.

In 1861 Samuel Goodale patented a hand-turned stereoscope device which rapidly moves stereo images past a viewer;[22] and in the same year Coleman Sellers II patented his kinematoscope with a series of stereoscopic pictures on glass plates, linked together in a chain, and mounted in a box.

A gif animation of an 1870s chronophotograph sequence by Eadweard Muybridge

The first real sequence photographed in real-time, rather than consisting of a series of posed photographs, was created in the US in 1878 by British photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Soon after he released cabinet cards of several series as The Horse in Motion, people would put the pictures in zoetropes to see them in motion. Muybridge had an artist trace the contours of his pictures onto glass discs for animated projection with his zoopraxiscope. He started giving lectures with the machine in 1880. Muybridge created only one zoopraxiscope disc with photographic images. For this series of the skeleton of a horse, every position of the horse's legs were was posed (as in the stop motion technique).

The French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey invented a chronophotography gun in 1882, which was capable of taking 12 consecutive frames a second, recording all the frames on the same picture. He used the chronophotographic gun for studying animals and human locomotion.

As a result of the work of Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey, researchers in the late 19th century began to realize that motion picture capture and display was a distinct practical possibility.

An early projector for chronophotographic images was built by Ottomar Anschütz in 1887. His Electrotachyscope used 24 images on a rotating glass disk.[23] In 1894 his invention projected moving images[24] in Berlin.

Other developments[edit]

Optics developed during the scientific revolution with a theory of lenses.

In 1740 and 1748, David Hume published Treatise of Human Nature and An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, arguing for the associations and causes of ideas with visual images, forerunners to the language of film.

Phonographic recording of sound was invented in the 19th century.

Photographic film was created in the 19th century. The crucial invention of celluloid was made in 1855 by Alexander Parkes, a substance he initially called Parkesine. This was marketed from 1869 by John and Isaiah Hyatt.


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  2. ^ Mary Ann Doane Movement and scale in Apparaturen bewegter Bilder (2006)
  3. ^ Huhtamo, Erkki; Parikka, Jussi (2011-06-12). Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications. ISBN 9780520262744.
  4. ^ Tom Gunning Introduction in Laurent Mannoni's The Great Art of Light and Shadow (p. XX) (2000)
  5. ^ a b Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilization in China, vol. IV, part 1: Physics and Physical Technology (PDF).
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