Pauvre Pierrot (1892)

Pauvre Pierrot (1892)

Back in 1995, Toy Story became the first entirely computer animated film to be released, paving the methods and techniques for nearly every modern animation film today.

Before this, it was typical to draw a series of still images and then place them sequentially to create the illusion of movement. What is particularly fascinating about this is that it requires no fancy machinery and can be done as simply as sketching a stick figure inside the pages of a novel to create a flip book.

However, without the specialist equipment that was brought along primarily by the popularisation of film, it was not possible to project these images to a mass audience. But one French inventor - Charles-Émile Reynaud - opted to shun convention, inventing and patenting a method of projecting his animations, in a move that predated the "official" birth of cinema by several years.

Reynaud was not new to animation. After the phénakisticope - a circular device which when spun gave its printing the illusion of movement - was invented in 1833, it was upgraded almost immediately by a cylindrical device known as a zoetrope. These devices were still just seen as curiosities, and the zoetrope was commercialised as a toy by Milton Bradley in 1866.

In 1877, Reynaud released an upgraded version of the zoetrope, which he called a praxinoscope. This manipulated light using mirrors, providing a brighter and less distorted image. In the patent for his device, he made mention of a method of projecting this image, and displayed one such device in 1880. However, the praxinoscope still suffered the same issue as the original phénakisticope in that it was limited to the images that were printed on the device itself.

Throughout the 1880s, Reynaud made further improvements to his device, including adding two neighbouring cylinders to the praxinoscope to spool images onto and off of the device before and after they have been projected. This meant the images would need be placed on a flexible band with perforated edges to allow it to feed - and is perhaps the earliest example of what one might recognise as "film strip" today. Reynaud patented his new Théâtre Optique in 1888.

Théâtre Optique was opened at Musée Grévin in Paris in 1892 with Reynaud operating the equipment himself to show his new series of animations called Pantomimes Lumineuses. Opening the show was Pauvre Pierrot, a love story with elements of Romeo and Juliet, which can claim to be the first publicly projected animation and first film to use perforated edges.

Reynaud continued to show his Théâtre Optique at Musée Grévin until 1900, enticing half a million people to his shows, before other devices such as the cinematograph overtook it in popularity. By 1910, devoid of fame and penniless, Reynaud famously destroyed much of his work and threw it into the River Seine before, sadly, fading into obscurity.

What remains of Pauvre Pierrot you can watch below (note how the hand-drawn nature of each frame allows for a colour image!):


  1. Wow! It's quite something to see moving images from 130 years ago. The art style doesn't feel all to different from what an avant-garde animator might do in the present day.

  2. It's sad that he tossed his work! I enjoyed seeing Pauvre Pierrot, thanks for sharing that.


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