Zoetropes are just cool, straight up. If there’s a classier way to say it, I’m sorry but it escapes me in the moment. Generally speaking, I’m an extremely verbose person who has made words their fulltime business since they were 16 but there are just some things that you look at and recognise as one singular word rather than dozens. In this case, zoetrope = cool. In part, it’s because of everything it manages to encapsulate.
Invented in the 1830s, the zoetrope was one of those early moving image devices like the phénakistiscope, praxinoscope or other things with ‘scope’ in the title that were trying to recreate the magic of movement as we perceive it with the human eye. It was an early example of practical animation techniques and the zoetrope was a crucial step that led us to modern moviemaking, even though it was largely forgotten outside of curators and film academics. That is, until the historical merged with the pop cultural thanks to the legendary director Hayao Miyazaki who helped reintroduce the zoetrope into public consciousness.
Using characters from his own creation My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki had a custom zoetrope built in his Ghibli Museum that allowed people to understand the practical mechanics as seemingly stationary beings came to life once movement was introduced. All of this is just layers of meaning about why the Cuphead zoetrope here at ACMI is so important to me. Not only does it pay homage to early modes of movie making from the 1830s with the physical mechanism of the zoetrope itself, but Cuphead’s character design winks at the rubber hose animation style of the 1930s a full century later, the kind that made the Fleischer Brothers and Walt Disney icons.
The third and additional layer of significance is that Cuphead as an entertainment property is an example of how our inspirations can evolve and entertain in a new medium, like videogames, and that can act as a time portal for a whole new generation who get to learn about that origin story. All of those things are why the Cuphead zoetrope matters to me, as they’re the same reasons ACMI matters to me: because of how it manages to weave history and technology and art and pop seamlessly together. It can also be, undeniably, just cool.
– Maria Lewis, Assistant Film Curator