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A modern replica of a Victorian zoetrope

A zoetrope is one of several pre-film animation devices that produce the illusion of motion by displaying a sequence of drawings or photographs showing progressive phases of that motion. The name zoetrope was composed from the Greek root words ζωή zoe, "life" and τρόπος tropos, "turning".

The zoetrope consists of a cylinder with slits cut vertically in the sides. On the inner surface of the cylinder is a band with images from a set of sequenced pictures. As the cylinder spins, the user looks through the slits at the pictures across. The scanning of the slits keeps the pictures from simply blurring together, and the user sees a rapid succession of images, producing the illusion of motion. From the late 20th century, devices working on similar principles have been developed, named analogously as linear zoetropes and 3D zoetropes, with traditional zoetropes referred to as "cylindrical zoetropes" if distinction is needed.


  • Invention 1
  • Linear zoetropes 2
    • Subway zoetropes 2.1
  • 3D zoetropes 3
    • Ghibli 3.1
      • Toy Story 3.1.1
      • Peter Hudson 3.1.2
  • World record 4
  • Media uses 5
    • Forza/Filmspeed 5.1
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


A device which one historian of Chinese technology called "a variety of zoetrope" was created around 100 BC by the inventor Ding Huan (丁緩),[1] but the exact nature of that device, which is commonly misreported in derivative sources, and the historian's definition of "a variety of zoetrope" are both very unclear.[2]

The basic drum-like form of the zoetrope was created in 1833[3] or 1834 by British mathematician phenakistoscope disc.[4] Horner's revolving drum had viewing slits between the pictures. He called it the "daedaleum" (sometimes misspelled "daedalum" or "daedatelum" and erroneously claimed to mean "the wheel of the devil"), a reference to the Greek myth of Daedalus.[4] The daedaleum failed to become popular until the 1860s, when a variant with the viewing slits on a level above the pictures, which allowed the use of easily replaceable continuous strips of images, was patented by both English and American makers, including Milton Bradley. The American inventor William F. Lincoln named his version the "zoetrope", meaning "wheel of life".[5]

The zoetrope works on the same principle as the phenakistoscope but is more convenient and allows the animation to be viewed by several people at the same time. Instead of being radially arrayed on a disc, the sequence of pictures depicting phases of motion is on a paper strip. For viewing, this is placed against the inner surface of the lower part of an open-topped metal drum, the upper part of which is provided with a vertical viewing slit across from each picture. The drum, on a spindle base, is spun. Due to persistence of vision, viewers looking in through the passing slits see each picture on the strip seem to be suddenly replaced by the next in the sequence. The phi phenomenon is responsible for the illusion of animation. The faster the drum is spun, the smoother the animation appears.

The earliest projected moving images were displayed using a magic lantern zoetrope. This crude projection of moving images occurred as early as the 1860s.

The praxinoscope was an improvement on the zoetrope that became popular toward the end of the 19th century,[6] displacing the zoetrope for practical uses; a magic lantern praxinoscope was demonstrated in the 1880s.

For displaying moving images, zoetropes were displaced by more advanced technology, notably film and later television. However, in the early 1970s, Sega used a mechanism similar to an ancient zoetrope in order to create electro-mechanical arcade games that would resemble later first-person video games.[7]

Since the late 20th century, zoetropes have seen occasional use for artwork, entertainment, and other media use, notably as linear zoetropes on subway lines, and from the early 21st century some 3D zoetropes.

Linear zoetropes

A linear zoetrope consists of an opaque linear screen with thin vertical slits in it. Behind each slit is an image, often illuminated. A motion picture is seen by moving past the display.

Linear zoetropes have several differences compared to cylindrical zoetropes due to their different geometries. Linear zoetropes can have arbitrarily long animations and can cause images to appear wider than their actual sizes.

Subway zoetropes

The Masstransiscope artwork

In September 1980, independent filmmaker Bill Brand installed a type of linear zoetrope he called the "Masstransiscope" in an unused subway platform at the former Myrtle Avenue station on the New York City Subway. It consists of a wall with 228 slits; behind each slit is a hand-painted panel, and riders of passing trains see a motion picture. After falling into a state of disrepair, the "Masstransiscope" was restored in late 2008.[8] Since then, a variety of artists and advertisers have begun to use subway tunnel walls to produce a zoetrope effect when viewed from moving trains.

Joshua Spodek, as an astrophysics graduate student, conceived of and led the development of a class of linear zoetropes that saw the zoetrope's first commercial success in over a century. A display of his design debuted in September 2001 in an Atlanta subway system tunnel and showed an advertisement to riders moving past. The display is internally lit and nearly 980 feet (300 m) long, with an animation lasting around 20 seconds. His design soon appeared, both commercially and artistically, in subway systems around North America, Asia, and Europe.[9]

In April 2006, the Washington Metro installed advertisement zoetropes between the Metro Center and Gallery Place subway stations.[10] A similar advertisement was installed on the PATH train in New Jersey, between the World Trade Center and Exchange Place stations.

At around the same time, the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system installed a zoetrope-type advertisement between the Embarcadero and Montgomery stations which could be viewed by commuters traveling in either direction. The BART ads are still visible, though they are changed infrequently: a particular ad may remain up for several months before being replaced.

New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority hosted two digital linear zoetropes through its Arts for Transit program. One, "Bryant Park in Motion", was installed in 2010 at the Bryant Park subway station, and was created by Spodek and students at New York University's Tisch School of Arts' Interactive Telecommunications Program.[11] The other, "Union Square in Motion", was installed in 2011 by Spodek and students and alumni from Parsons the New School for Design's Art, Media, and Technology program in the Union Square station.[12]

The Metro in Kyiv (Kiev) Ukraine also featured an advertisement about 2008 for Life mobile telephone carrier in one of its subway tunnels that featured the zoetrope effect. It was quickly taken down.

In Mexico City, an advertisement for the Honda Civic featuring a zoetrope effect was placed in one of the Line 2 tunnels

3D zoetropes

3D zoetropes apply the same principle to three-dimensional models. This variation was suggested by several inventors including Étienne-Jules Marey, who in 1887 used a large zoetrope to animate a series of plaster models based on his chronophotographs of birds in flight.[13] Modern equivalents normally dispense with the slitted drum and instead use a rapidly flashing strobe light to illuminate the models, producing much clearer and sharper distortion-free results. The models are mounted on a rotating base and the light flashes on and off within an extremely small fraction of a second as each successive model passes the same spot. The stroboscopic effect makes each seem to be a single animated object. By allowing the rotation speed to be slightly out of synchronization with the strobe, the animated objects can be made to appear to also move slowly forwards or backwards, according to how much faster or slower each rotation is than the corresponding series of strobe flashes.


Toy Story zoetrope at Disney California Adventure creates illusion of motion using figures, rather than static pictures.

The Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, Japan hosts a 3D zoetrope featuring characters from the animated movie My Neighbour Totoro. The zoetrope is accompanied by an explanatory display, and is part of an exhibit explaining the principles of animation and historical devices.

Toy Story

Pixar created a 3D zoetrope inspired by Ghibli's for its touring exhibition, which first showed at the Museum of Modern Art and features characters from Toy Story. Two more 3D zoetropes have been created by Pixar, both featuring 360-degree viewing. One is installed at Disney California Adventure Park, sister park to Disneyland, and the other is installed at Hong Kong Disneyland. The original Toy Story zoetrope still travels worldwide and has been shown in: London, England; Edinburgh, Scotland; Melbourne, Australia; Seoul, South Korea; Helsinki, Finland; Monterrey, Mexico; Taipei, Taiwan; Kaohsiung, Taiwan; Singapore; Shanghai, China; Hamburg, Germany. It is currently on display at the exhibition for the Pixar's 25th anniversary at Amsterdam Expo in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Peter Hudson

Over the period 2002–2011, Peter Hudson and the crew of Hudzo Design have created five 3D zoetropes. This began with "Sisyphish" (2002),[14] a large scale, 3D zoetrope that uses a strobe light to animate human figures swimming on a large rotating disk. This stroboscopic human powered zoetrope was originally unveiled at the arts and culture event, Burning Man,[15] in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. Peter created four more large scale stroboscopic zoetropes from 2004 to 2011: "Deeper"[16] (2004), "Homouroboros"[17] (2007), "Tantalus"[18] (2008), and "Charon"[19] (2011). The Charon zoetrope is built to resemble and rotate in the same kinetic fashion as a ferris wheel, stands at 32 feet high, weighs 8 tons and features twenty rowing skeleton figures representing the mythological character, Charon, who carries souls of the newly deceased across the river Styx. Peter Hudson's zoetropes are exhibited at various festivals and special events internationally throughout the year.

World record

The BRAVIA-drome at Venaria, in Northern Italy

In 2008, Artem Limited, a UK visual effects house, built a 10-meter wide, 10-metric ton zoetrope for Sony, called the BRAVIA-drome, to promote Sony's motion interpolation technology. It features 64 images of the Brazilian footballer Kaká. This has been declared the largest zoetrope in the world by Guinness World Records.[20][21]

Media uses

Blue Man Group uses a zoetrope at their shows in Las Vegas and the Sharp Aquos Theater in Universal Studios (in Orlando, Florida).

A zoetrope was used in the filming the music video for "My Last Serenade" from Alive or Just Breathing (2002) by Killswitch Engage. It features a woman looking through the slits on a zoetrope while it moves; as she looks closer, the camera moves through the slits into the zoetrope, where the band is playing the song.

In 2007, an image of a zoetrope was unveiled as one of BBC Two's new idents: a futuristic city with flying cars seen through the shape of the number two.

In 2009 the E4 drama program Skins released silent preview clips of series four to coincide with their mash-up competition. One of the clips featured the character Emily Fitch looking into a zoetrope.

9/11 Zoetrope by Scott Blake

In 2011, Scott Blake created a "9/11 Zoetrope" allowing viewers to watch a continuous reenactment of United Airlines Flight 175 crashing into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.[22]


On Sept. 20, 2013, San Francisco based advertising agency twofifteenmccann with director Jeff Zwart of revealed the world’s fastest Zoetrope. It was released as a two-minute film entitled “Forza/Filmspeed.” This production recreates the action of the Forza Motorsport 5 racing video game, using high resolution still images printed from the game onto panels and staged at key intervals around a race track. It was filmed using a mathematical formula to calculate the necessary speed in order to recreate the footage of the game. At its essence, Foza/Filmspeed takes the fundamental idea of a zoetrope one step further by reversing the traditional elements of a zoetrope; a static viewer and a moving set of elements. The film made motion picture history.

Forza Motorsports 5 image

In order to test the initial concept of the film, Zwart invited Academy-Award winning Ex-Pixar Animation Studios Scientist David DiFrancesco, to apply his science and math skills to determine the positioning, optimal speeds, shutter angle and camera specifications. DiFrancesco was accompanied by cameramen Richard Carlson and Pasquale Paolo, and production designer, Steve McHale who shot a test film in the high desert of Southern California.

For the final footage, 680 very high-resolution animation stills of the McLaren P1 from the Forza Motorsport 5 game were individually printed onto 64” x 36”, 46” x 26” and 40” x 20” aluminum panels representing 120 mph, 100 mph, and 80 mph animation respectively. The panels were positioned around the edge of the Barber Motorsports Park racetrack near Birmingham, Alabama at 6’, 5’ and 4’ on center spacing intervals on custom stands. A McLaren MP4-12C sports car was modified as a camera car by attaching a Phantom Flex camera and custom gyro stabilized platform designed by John Stabile. Professional driver Tanner Foust drove laps around the track at speeds up to 120mph with the camera pointed at the mounted stills while Zwart shot footage at 30 frames per second. When the resulting footage is played back, the action of the game plays as if it were coming directly from an XBox One gaming console, with the addition of live footage of the McLaren taken from a camera car and on-board video. Forza/Filmspeed is a remarkable reinterpretation of the traditional zoetrope concept, utilizing still images recorded at high speeds to recreate the illusion of movement known as the persistence of vision.

[23] [24] [25]

See also


  1. ^ Needham, Joseph (1962). Science and Civilization in China, vol. IV, part 1: Physics and Physical Technology. Cambridge University Press. p. 123-124.
  2. ^ Rojas, Carlos (2013). The Oxford Handbook of Chinese Cinemas. Oxford University Press. p. 5.  
  3. ^ Bordwell, David and Kristin Thompson, Film History: An Introduction, 3rd edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010), 4. ISBN 978-0-07-338613-3
  4. ^ a b Herbert, Stephen. (n.d.) , Part 1.From Daedaleum to Zoetrope Retrieved 2014-05-31.
  5. ^ "Zoetrope". Laura Hayes and John Howard Wileman Exhibit of Optical Toys. The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. 2005. Retrieved 2010-06-25. 
  6. ^ Dulac, Nicolas; André Gaudreault (2004). "Heads or Tails: The Emergence of a New Cultural Series, from the Phenakisticope to the Cinematograph". Invisible Culture: A Journal for Visual Culture. The University of Rochester. Retrieved 2006-05-13. 
  7. ^ D.S. Cohen, Killer Shark: The Undersea Horror Arcade Game from Jaws,  
  8. ^ Artist's Website, Masstransiscope page
  9. ^ Urbanphoto, Tunnel Vision: Subway Zoetrope
  10. ^ "Metro begins testing new tunnel ads", NBC4, April 4, 2006
  11. ^ "Public Art" (2010) Joshua Spodek website
  12. ^ "Union Square display just up and beautiful!" (2011) Joshua Spodek website
  13. ^ Herbert, Stephen. (n.d.) , Part 2.From Daedaleum to Zoetrope Retrieved 2014-05-31.
  14. ^ "Peter Hudson Zoetrope Video and News". 2008-01-26. Retrieved 2013-10-02. 
  15. ^
  16. ^ "Peter Hudson Zoetrope Video and News". 2005-01-26. Retrieved 2013-10-02. 
  17. ^ "Homouroboros: Peter Hudson's Stroboscopic Zoetrope from 2007". 2011-03-24. Retrieved 2013-10-02. 
  18. ^ "Peter Hudson Zoetrope Video and News". 2009-08-27. Retrieved 2013-10-02. 
  19. ^ lissun (2012-02-24). "Charon, Peter Hudson's Latest Zoetrope". Retrieved 2013-10-02. 
  20. ^ Murph, Darren (2008-12-21). "Sony sets Guinness World Record with BRAVIA-drome". Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  21. ^ "Sony Creates World's Largest Zoetrope". 2009-02-18. Retrieved 2009-02-18. 
  22. ^ The Collected Works: How artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, video-game designers, and quilters responded to the attacks of 9/11 – New York Magazine, Published August 27, 2011.
  23. ^ Forza/Filmspeed video on YouTube
  24. ^ Fastco article on Forza/Filmspeed article
  25. ^ Autoweek Magazine article on Forza/Filmspeed

External links

  • "From Daedaleum to Zoetrope", Part 1 and Part 2, by Stephen Herbert. Profusely illustrated and sourced. Retrieved 2014-05-25.
  • Zoetrope (information on the zoetrope from the V&A Museum of Childhood)
  • Further information and a picture can be found here.
  • Burns, Paul The History of the Discovery of Cinematography An Illustrated Chronology
  • A demonstration of similar optical toys, including the phenakistoscope, praxinoscope and thaumatrope
  • Bill Brand's Masstransiscope can be found here.
  • "Joshua Spodek's contribution to linear zoetropes". Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  • "A description of the technology used and photos of the subway linear zoetrope". Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  • Ghibli's museum page, including information about their zoetrope
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