Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Émile Reynaud's Théâtre Optique

The creation of cinema was not a straightforward process. It was full of fits and starts, variety and invention that only eventually culminated in the great invention of the Lumière Brothers. One of those early trailblazers was Émile Reynaud, who invented the optical toy known as the "praxinoscope" and one of the earliest forms of filmed mass entertainment.

Born in France in 1844, Reynaud was a member of an educated and scientifically-minded family, who encouraged in him a love of the arts and engineering. His apprenticeship and early career acquainted him with photography and the preparation of magic lantern slides, which equipped him with a working knowledge of projection and optical effects. Familiar with the array of optical toys available at the time, Reynaud sought to improve on the zoetrope and phenakistiscope.

Given that both devices manipulate the persistence of vision with slits cut in a disk or drum, they create a strobe effect that diminishes the quality of the image. Reynaud's solution was to affix mirrors to the interior of a zoetrope-like drum, rendering a a much clearer image. He dubbed this contraption the praxinoscope, which he patented in 1877.

Reynaud soon developed a home praxinoscope theatre that allowed the loops of animation projected on the mirrors to be filtered through interchangable backgrounds. A sufficient number of strips and backgrounds could comprise a whole extended narrative, twelve frames at a time. The following example from the Museu del Cinema in Girona, Italy demonstrates it for us.

The auteur was convinced that more could be done with this new medium. Curiously, it was "home video" that developed first in the form of optical toys like the praxinoscope. The challenge was to develop these toys into a form of mass entertainment (which has since looped back around, with the prevalence of home "optical toys" like Blu-Ray players and streaming video). Initial attempts included things like coin-opperated praxinoscopes married to music boxes as novelties for carnivals and penny arcades. Museu del Cinema provides an example...

Such inventions were still essentially private experiences. The next great development was a projector that could enlarge the praxinoscope onto a screen for a whole audience to enjoy. From Museu del Cinema...

The limitations to this projector were obvious, namely the repetition of a simple twelve-frame cycle. To accomplish something more, Reynaud developed a method of using strips of clear gelatin upon which to paint his images. These were fed into an aparatus that enlarged the resulting animation by a set of mirrors and projectors into a screen. Such animations could run for minutes at a time. Once again, the Museu del Cinema provides for us a reconstruction of the device in CGI (a fairly delightful congruence in its own right).

Autour d'une cabine was the film utilized in the reconstruction, the whole of which can be seen below.

This projection praxinoscope was named the Théâtre Optique and Reynaud signed an agreement with the Musée Grevin in Paris to exhibit it. The first of these “Pantomimes Lumineuses” premiered on October 28th, 1892, and it created a public sensation. This first showing was a 500-frame short entitled Pauvre Pierrot ("Peter Pauper").

The extended time necessary to produce the hand-drawn frames bogged down the novelty of the device. Reynaud experimented with photographic techniques and stereoscopic principles, but by 1910 could no longer complete with the rapid turnaround of the cinematograph. Audiences departed him and beat down the door of the Lumières and Méliès, leaving him destitute. In a sad pattern that repeated itself over and over again in the history of early film, Reynaud destroyed the Théâtre Optique and threw all but two of his strips into the Seine. These two - Pauvre Pierrot and Autour d'une cabine - form our entire knowledge of his work. Nevertheless, he is recognized today as a key figure in that pioneering time in the development of cinematic art.

1 comment:

Christopher Sobieniak said...

As an added bonus I could suggest, in the 1980's a short film retrospecting Émile Reynaud's work was produced by Hungarian animator Sándor Békési called "Fények virradat előtt" (Lights Before Dawn).