Théâtre Optique

by Myya McGregory

Phantomimes Lumineuse: Théâtre Optique de E. Reynaud 1892 from the Library of Congress archives

The race to cinema in the late 1800s progressed in the United States at a history-making pace.  There were however, many unsung heroes of early cinema abroad what were racing just as fast to change history.

French science teacher Émile Reynaud patented his Théâtre Optique in 1888. While many moving image machines produced blurry, flickering images, Reynaud’s Théâtre Optique did not use a motor with a continuous feed but a moving mirror. The central idea was that the moving images (i.e., the characters) would be projected onto cylindrical mirrors using a lantern. The image would then be  sent to a second mirror, across a number of lenses, and finally to a moving mirror that deposited the image onto the screen. In this way, the characters and the background setting were parts of separate images each sketched on 6×6 cm squares of gelatin. The squares were then inked, placed successively on a band, perforated in the center, and looped on a wheel. Each band held approximately 300 to 700 images.

Reynaud used his device to run short cartoons in a live showing titled “Pantomimes lumineuses.” The show was a big spectacle. Famous composer Gaston Paulin composed an original score and commissioned singers and an orchestra to perform it.  In many of the showings, Reynaud himself ran the Théâtre Optique to control speed and enhance the dynamics of the animation.

The show was performed for eight years in the Cabinet Fantastique of the Musée Grevin in Montmartre, Paris and it was quite popular. Crowds adored the stories “Pauvre Pierrot,” “Le Clown et ses Chiens,” and a suite of others drawn and projected by Reynaud himself all in the spirit of great entertainment. Reynaud joins the ranks of the unsung pioneers of animation. Can you name any more underrated animators of the early cinema age?


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