The incredible devices that made motion pictures before there were cameras

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Long before Hollywood and Bollywood, people wanted to watch movies. The weird part is that they were watching them. Even without cameras, people from the Cro Magnons to the Victorians invented ways to make pictures move. They even made movies in the genres that we recognize today. You could find everything from horror to comedy to porn, even when the word "movie" was a hundred years away from being coined. Here's how they did it.

Photo by PilgrimLee

The earliest animators may have been prehistoric, and they were unquestionably nature-documentary oriented. Cave paintings often show a plethora of heads and legs superimposed over one animal body. This is the equivalent of those early cartoon shorts when multiple arms are painted to show that one character is repeatedly or rapidly hitting another character. In plain light it shows motion. But things get cooler when the light goes down. When the cave is dark except for flickering firelight, different positions for the head and neck were visible as the light moved, making it look like the animals were moving, too. But early humans also might have tried their hand at more dramatic movement.

The thaumatrope was named in the 1800s. It was a popular toy and was used by proponents of the theory of persistence of vision - the idea that the eye retains an afterimage. It's a simple disk with tied to opposite ends, and images on both sides. In the 1800s, there was often a vase on one side and a bunch of flowers on the other, or a house on one side and a person on the other. By flipping the disk end over end rapidly, the two images are superimposed. Other kinds of thaumatropes might have a person in one position, and then in a slightly different one. Spun at the correct speed, it would look like the person was moving. Prehistoric disks have been found with an animal in one position on one side, and in a slightly different one on the other. Some say these were necklaces, but others think that they were early thaumatropes. People may have been animating from nearly the very beginning.

Ever seen one of those sweeping epics? The kind that display the antics of a group of people against a stunning backdrop of majestic scenery? The earliest one of these was done in the 1700s, by Louis Carmontelle, who showed it off to all the aristocrats. It was just a still picture that moved. A scene was painted on a thin roll of paper, and that paper was put on two rollers. The rollers let the paper be scrolled out between them a bit at a time, and a lantern was placed behind it to give the entire scroll a luminous quality. People watched these rolls in much the way they now watch films, in a darkened room. Each of the scenes was nature-themed, depicting either French or English gardens, with noble people walking through them.. Clearly, they didn't have much of a plot, but they did highlight the beauty and spectacle of the surroundings, while keeping a place for humans.


Next up were phenakistoscopes. They represented the first actual sequence of movements that anyone had ever done. They were simple circles of paper with a stick through the center. Lines went through the circles, dividing them up like pies. Between each of the lines, just at the edge of the paper, were drawings. Each pie wedge had a slightly different drawing. When spun, the eye stayed at the top or bottom of the wedge as the drawings flashed past. They were simple, cyclical animations, like one man throwing a punch during a boxing match, or a couple dancing. They always returned to the same spot. But with the phenakistoscopes, the first genre picture appeared, and it was horror. There are a lot of old scopes that depict a friendly face that grows demonic and threatening as the wheel spins, and then gets friendly again. Again, as with most of the early attempts at animation, there wasn't much of a plot. It's clear, though, that the artists wanted to frighten people, and shock them. These were the first jump-scare movies ever made.


Once the idea of rotation as a way of mimicking movement took off, people when mad for it. The zoetrope became a popular toy because it was the first invention on which one could "load" different films. (Technically, this invention gets backdated as well. Although it was another craze of the Victorian era, the first zoetrope was made in China in 180 AD. It was steam driven.) The machine was a cylinder with slits in along the top. Different pieces of paper with different animated scenes could be put in the cylinder, and by spinning it and looking through the slits, people could see any number of different scenes. Then there was the zoopraxiscope. This was a disk with a glass edge, on which were painted stop-motion scenes. By shining a light through the edge and spinning the disk, the scenes were projected on the far wall. This allowed many people to see the images at once, and is credited as being the first movie projector.


But proto-movies didn't really come into their own until people abandoned the idea of spinning. The big breakthrough came in the lat 1860s with the kineograph - otherwise known as the flipbook. Suddenly, animators weren't burdened by a limited number of spaces on a disk and the need to make all the action cyclical. They could use the entire book, however long they needed it to be, to show one action. Once the idea took off, they didn't even have to make the book small enough to hold in a person's hand. Amusement parks created machines that would flip through long rolls of images, and include cards about dialogue. Suddenly, a moving picture could have a plot. Granted, the plots weren't complex. Even the longest rolls at an amusement park were simple melodramas in which a lady was kidnapped and then rescued, all in a few minutes. But even the flip-books had something happen. And when it came to stuff that happened, people wanted to show two things: comedy and porn. Comedy was an easy fit. It doesn't need a long story. A man tries to get something and he falls down. It's funny. The end.


Porn doesn't need a big set up either, and it lent itself to flip books. While pornographic flip books varied from the obscene to the merely cheeky (a novelty store I once went to proudly sold flip books of a topless lady smiling and jumping rope), they showed that the world really couldn't wait for film to be invented in order to make a porn film.

When actual films started up, they seemed to make (plot-wise) the same developments that proto-films did. At first films were no more than novelties. They needed to do no more than show lifelike images that moved. They featured things like a horse munching hay, or two girls having a pillow fight. Over time, people built up horror, epic, comedies, and porn in film, just as they did in the early moving images. I guess we all know what we have to look forward to when we finally get downloadable brain programs. First there will be barely moving images, then simple motion as a novelty, then a few scares, then a few laughs . . . and then you know what.


Top Image: Paris Photo
Phenakistoscope Image: Library of Congress

Via Discovery, NCSSM, Camera Obscura, Kingston, and Getty.