Théâtre Optique

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The first public performance in 1892. The image was back projected onto the screen.

The Théâtre Optique was a moving picture show presented by Charles-Émile Reynaud in 1892, based on the praxinoscope that allows to offer a show from the projection of mobile cartoons lasting between six and fifteen minutes. This is he combination of a magic lantern which projected images in the background of the scene, and another one which projected the figures painted by mirrors and lenses in plates in a band of perforated film. This is one of the precedents of the cinematographer although the images had to be drawn by hand on the film and it was the first presentation of projected moving images to an audience, predating Auguste and Louis Lumière's first public performance by three years.


In 1876, Reynaud, a French inventor, had created the Praxinoscope, an improvement of the Zoetrope. The Praxinoscope replaced the narrow viewing slits of the Zoetrope with an inner circle of 12 mirrors (equal to the number of images), allowing a clearer and less distorted view of the moving image. Several people could watch the performance at the same time. After Reynaud licensed his invention in 1877, it sold well in a number of the large Paris department stores.

In 1878, Reynaud produced the Praxinoscope Theatre. This improved version included a glass viewing screen which allowed the moving image to be superimposed over a changeable background. He continued to improve the design and in 1880 created the first projection version.

In 1888, he improved the projection version, which was a similar projectors design which would be used for cinema projection a few years later. Glass plates, individually painted by Reynaud himself, were mounted in leather bands. Each of the bands were connected by a metal strip with a hole, which allowed it to locate on a pin on the rotating drum and align the image with the projecting lantern. Reynaud presented the patent of its Théâtre Optique the December 1, 1888 and it differentiates of the optical toys (Phenocytoscope, Zoetrope, Praxinoscope or Zoopraxiscope) because it was designed to obtain the illusion of movement with a great variety of animation scenes, which go on for a long time, and it was not limited to a continuous repetition of the same images.[1]

On October 28, 1892 he gave his first public performance of a moving picture show at the Musée Grévin in Paris. The show, billed as Pantomimes Lumineuses, included three cartoons, Pauvre Pierrot, Un bon bock, and Le Clown et ses chiens. Reynaud acted as the projectionist and the show was accompanied by a piano player. Although the films shown by the Lumière Brothers in 1895 eclipsed it, the show stayed at the Musée Grévin until 1900 and over 500,000 people had seen it.

Reynaud ended up ruined and forgotten. One of the reasons for his short fame was that the size of his film tapes were too big to make copies. In 1913 Reynaud throw himself to the Seine with his last copy of a Théâtre Optique, although a few days later he would be visited by a French inventor and producer Léon Gaumont, to buy the invention and donate it to the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers.

Pantomimes Lumineuses[2][edit]

Poster advertising Reynard's first Théâtre Optique show

The first show that included moving images was performed at the Grévin museum in Paris in 1892, a few years before the Lumière brothers made their first projection. Reynaud's works can be considered animations and their Pantomimes Lumineuses the first animated films. More than 12,800 representations, which attended more than half a million people, were made until it closed in 1900.

Autour d'una Cabine (1894)

The performances could last one minute and a half or five minutes the longest, and they could be longer depending on the operator's movements with the coils.

The Grévin Museum signed a contract to represent the Pantomimes to Charles-Émile Reynaud, who linked it to represent the show in two shifts with the frequency demanded by the public, from 15h to 18h and from 20h to 23h and forced to modify it to least once a year.


Pauvre Pierrot (1892)

The first programme included three shows. The first one was Pauvre Pierrot! with Gaston Paulin on the piano and a series of scores were created for the projections, so we can that these were the first soundtracks. The film had a length of 36 meters and there were 500 images in total, which in the public saw the dispute of the protagonist, Pierrot, with Arlequine by the love of Colombine, but this one ignored Pierrot and in the end he got the love of Arlequine. The story was so successful in its premiere in 1892 that it was a work projected until February 1892.[3]

The second performance was Le Clown et ses chiens, of 22 meters and 300 images, where the protagonist, a clown, did a circus numbers with their dogs.

Finally, the third was Un bon bock, which had 50 meters length and 700 images, showed a rude man who entered a bar and watched his beer disappearing in front of him.

Later, Charles-Émile Reynaud created other shows like: Autour d'une cabine, which had 45 meters and 636 images, and it explained the story of a bather women molested by a shameless man in front of her husband; another well-known work is A rêve au coin du feu, which had 29 meters and 400 images, where the use of a flashback was used for the first time as a narrative element to explain the past of the protagonist when his house was devoured by the flames.


Charles-Émile Reynaud used the combination of two magic lanterns to make his shows. The first one projected to the bottom of the scene and the second one that projected the painted images, by means of mirrors and diverse lenses, in the plates of the band of fabric pierced in two coils that moved manually.

Reynaud used a strip of cloth, with the sides of the tape reinforced with metallic bands and flexible, about 70 mm with lacquer rubber plates protected with gelatin, making the whole process a very tedious and complicated work. The bands had a central perforation between each of the drawings in order to be able to drive the film through the drag. Although the mechanism was actuated by a cylinder of the mirror through a pegs.

The ribbon of the film was the flexible strip which was made of plates and placed inside the first coil, then the film was advancing in front of the magic lantern, guided by the central perforations in the ribbon until reaching the cylinder of 36 Rotating mirrors. The film was received by a second coil which the operator had to rotate simultaneously and passed about 15 images per second, depending on the speed of the operator. The PHI phenomenon prolonged the image display. The light that came to the mirrors was led, through other mirrors, to the rear of the projection screen.

The figures of his representations were painted by hand on a photosensitive support with transparent inks with aniline, a technique that was already used for magic lantern shows. All the outline of the characters and their support was painted with black ink so that the light did not pass between the glass.

On the other hand, the decoration and the landscape behind the figures was designed and painted on another glass plate and projected with the other magic lantern.


  1. ^ La Cinémathèque, Française. "Cinémathèque française et Museo Nazionale del Cinema". 
  2. ^ Schwartz, Vanessa R. (1998). Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris. 
  3. ^ Duran Castells, Jaume (2009). Narrativa audiovisual i cinema d'animació per ordinador. ISBN 9788469293140. 
  4. ^ Laurent Mannoni i, Donata Pesenti Campagnoni (2009). Lanterne magique et film peint : 400 ans de Cinéma. Paris: La Martinière/La Cinématèque française.