Among the many inventions that existed pre-film and captured audience’s imaginations for their ability to show the illusion of motion, the zoetrope is one that has endured in pop culture. While its counterparts and predecessors like the phenakistoscope aren’t as well-known, the zoetrope has become a treasured device to lovers of early animation. As one of the co-inventors of the stroboscope discs, it was Simon Stampfer in 1833 who suggested an improvement on his own design with images looped in a cylinder shape to create the trick of continued movement. William Horner had much the same idea in 1834, with both coming up with what could be considered the earliest form of the GIF: an image rotating on a constrained time loop to generate movement. As versions of the device were patented and became more accessible, it was the flipbook – which worked off much the same principle – that ended up overtaking the zoetrope in popularity. Regardless, it has endured among the modern moving image: both referentially and practically.
After a short resurgence through its technique being used in marketing campaigns in the late 1980s and early 90s, it was Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli that brought the zoetrope into the real world again. At the Japanese animation house’s museum in Tokyo, a 3D zoetrope was built using iconic characters from their hit film My Neighbour Totoro (1998). It brought the film to life in a practical and three-dimensional way, demonstrating the principles of early animation to museum visitors.
“I think the zoetrope is the clearest explanation of animation,” said Pixar animator Warren Trezevant (The Incredibles, Up) in a Disney interview about the animation technique. “On the disc you get to see every frame of animation before your current frame where you’re looking, and every frame after it: here you have the opportunity to see the tricks the animator used to make things move.”
Viewed by former Pixar head John Lasseter in Japan, it inspired the company to do their own version with characters from the first entirely computer-animated feature film, Toy Story (1995), and its sequels. Several versions of their zoetrope toured the world, appearing in museums and some of Disney’s own theme parks. “It’s a very simple mechanism,” said Oscar-winning director Pete Docter (Up, Monsters Inc). “It’s a very simple idea, but somehow seeing it come to life right in front of you is really fantastic.”
Perhaps strangely, given its legacy among animation houses and children’s toy manufacturers, the zoetrope has also featured prominently in horror cinema. In the remake of House On Haunted Hill (1999) – based on the 1959 film of the same name – Geoffrey Rush’s amusement park mogul Steven H. Price is locked inside a giant zoetrope, which was used to treat patients inside the haunted mansion. He becomes tortured by horrific visions that play inside the chamber-like structure, with those images somewhat mimicking the real look of a zoetrope.
Most well-known, however, is a scene in The Conjuring 2 (2016) written and directed by Australian filmmaker James Wan. During a possession in an English manor, paranormal investigator Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) finds a zoetrope playing on its own in a darkened room – always a foreboding sign. As he leans forward to glimpse the figure of a man marching with an umbrella in hand, the illustrated character disappears as the zoetrope continues to spin before a demon known as The Crooked Man lunges forward from behind the machine. It’s just one of several occasions where significant devices from film history have been used in The Conjuring Universe films, including Annabelle Comes Homes (2019) which involved a scare with a type of rotating magic lantern that mimicked pre-film animation devices and was repackaged by toy companies, proving popular with children in the 70s.
Luckily for our visitors, our Victorian-era optical toys aren't haunted.
– Maria Lewis