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Zoetropes, Phenakistoscopes & Flip-Books Were the Original GIFs

The world’s obsession with GIFs is astounding. A properly used GIF can act as a reaction, subtle commentary, or the perfect punchline. They are a simple yet elegant wonder of the modern technological world, and yet, they’ve been around for more than a century.

Although film and cartoons came about considerably later, the concept of animation has been around since the 19th century in the form of flip books, phenakistoscopes and zoetropes. Essentially, each works because of our brain’s desire to make connections. With a set of sequential images, our brains stitch them together to produce the illusion of motion. The difference between the three are how those images are fed to our eye, but once we have those images, the processing is similar.

Flip Books

flip book

Flip books are essentially cartoons. Scratch that. Flip books are cartoons. A slightly different image on each page causes our brains to combine them in real-time as they’re flipped, resulting in motion. The flip of each page acts as a shutter opening and closing and, by focusing on the space where the image is (instead of where it’s going) we don’t see the many individual drawings, just one single animation. So simple a kid could do it!



Same dance, different tune. Phenakistoscopes have the slightly sequential images placed around a disc and the “shutter” so to speak is usually another stationary disk with vertical slits cut in them. Looking through these slits allows our eyes to capture a bit of each image as it passes by. Our brains, not knowing what to do with those quick glimpses of each image, combine them into movement.


Other phenakistoscopes relied on vertical slits cut directly into them which, when focusing on one area of it, allowed those slits to line up while spinning to give our minds a point of reference for the constantly changing images.


Now the REALLY fun stuff! Zoetropes are the mind-meltiest of all these analog animation devices. The first zoetropes were very much like the phenakistoscope, but just rearranged where the images are, how they move, and the way we perceive them. Arranged on one side of a spinning ring, the images are animated through the same principle that phenakistoscopes use, but instead of vertical slits cut into a ring — viewed usually by one person at a time — zoetropes could be enjoyed by many at once as the slits were cut into a corresponding ring placed around the spinning images. For a time, zoetropes were to IMAX as phenakistoscopes were to the old tube TV in your basement.

The changing of the pages or images takes advantage of the stroboscopic effect. We’ve most likely all experienced this effect at some point in our lives at a haunted house or a school dance with a strobe light. The quick flashes of light allow us to see a brief moment but doesn’t allow us to see all of what’s going on. This gives the brain a sample set of images to combine into motion. This is very similar to the “Wagon-wheel effect” that makes spinning things seem like they’re slowing down or even reversing. Our brains can’t make sense of ALL the motion at once so it sews the information together the best it can. With zoetropes, there’s a few sweet spots that make for some really amazing experiences.

Zoetrope Sculptures


When physical sculpture is combined with the principles of zoetropic animation (I doubt that’s a term, but I’m going with it) the result is mind-bending. The fluid movement is achieved by synchronizing the spinning of the sculpture with the frame rate of the camera. For the detail oriented folks who want to know how to do this themselves:

A bloom spinning at 550 RPMs while being videotaped at 24 frames-per-second with a very fast shutter speed (1/4000 sec). The rotation speed is carefully synchronized to the camera’s frame rate so that one frame of video is captured every time the bloom turns ~137.5º—the golden angle. —

Fear not, those of you without the video know-how to accomplish these effects on our own. Luckily for us, two animation powerhouses have zoetrope sculptures of their own. The video below is all about Pixar’s zoetrope and has some great footage of the “Bouncing Totoro” zoetrope at the Studio Ghibli museum in Mitaka, Japan.

And we certainly can’t forget the amazing Mario one that Bandai built.

Amazing what people can accomplish with a little know-how and an intent to trick our brains.

What are your favorite zoetropes phenakistoscopes and flip book animations? Let us know in the comments below!

IMAGES: 3Dprint, Instructables

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