Mechanical motion versus manual dexterity in pre-cinematic Australian animation

‘Mechanical motion versus manual dexterity in pre-cinematic Australian animation’,

The Animation Machine, Society for Animation Studies Conference, RMIT University, 25-27 June 2012.


Before I begin I would like to acknowledge the National Film and Sound Archive Collection Scholar and Artist in Residence Fellowship program which supported the research that led to this paper. Some of my examples come form their collection as well.


For over fifty years, from the late 1840s to the early twentieth century, magic lantern operators astounded and delighted Australian audiences with exhibitions of a wide variety of optical phenomena. These ranged from swirling and pulsating patterns of pure colour as two hand-painted glass discs were rotated in opposite directions by the rack and pinion mechanism of the chromatrope, to the enlargement of live insects onto the screen. Central to their displays however were two key optical experiences, the essential visual pleasures of which are still familiar to us today. One was the dissolving view, the other was the mechanical slide. The dissolving view needed two aligned magic lanterns and a device for dissolving from one to the other, by either sweeping a feathered fan in front of the two lenses to give the audience the frisson of a defined ‘wipe’ from one image to another, or by turning down the gas supply on one lantern as it was simultaneously turned up on the other so that the audience experience the jouissance of one image literally dissolving into another. Dissolves could be done quickly, to give the impression of, say, a volcano suddenly erupting; or they could be done slowly, to give the impression of, say, day turning to night, or summer to winter. The second experience came from mechanical slides, which were hand-manipulated whilst in the projection-gate of the lantern. In slipping slides a sheet of clear glass with strategically placed areas of black paint was quickly slipped across the hand-painted image — obscuring one part of the image, while simultaneously revealing another. In lever slides one layer of circular glass was quickly rotated, producing a simple animation effect. Other slides used the circular rack and pinion mechanism of the chromatrope but replaced the kaleidoscopic patterns with hand-painted scenes.


For most of the period these phenomena were illuminated by limelight, a powerful white light produced when a gas flame heated a block of lime.

But they were also incorporated into larger intermedial performative contexts which might have included music played by an orchestra to accompany each slide, singing, and commentary from the lantern operator — either instructional information, light hearted patter or narrative storytelling. When lanternists purchased their sets of hand painted slides imported from overseas they also purchased booklets containing the accompanying patter.


In April 1848 the Sydney Daguerreotypist Joseph Newland offered customers a minstrel show, an orchestra, and a: BEAUTIFUL SCIENTIFIC EXHIBITION OF DISSOLVING VIEWS covering  10,000 SQUARE FEET OF ILLUMINATED SCENERY. His show featured several simple narrative transitions such as ‘Punch before Dinner’ to ‘Punch after Dinner’, and one based on a famous recent event, the burning of the East Indiaman ship the Kent in 1825, which transitioned from a ship in gale to a ship on fire. There was also at least one animated mechanical slide,  ‘Leap Frog’.


In the audience’s experience of the show it was the spectacular attraction of the apparatus and the various transition effects that were given priority, over the putative content of the views. When Newland took the show to Maitland in August 1848 the local newspaper specifically commented on the aesthetic and spectacular effects, rather than the actual content, of the various components to his show.


 Mr. Newland showed great skill in the gradual fading away of one view and encroachment on it of the succeeding one, until one had finally disappeared, and the other was revealed in all its beauty.(Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser 9/8/48 p2


As a variety of other lecturers displayed them throughout the colonies during the rest of the century many other newspapers reported on the dramatic and narrative evocations dissolving views were able to create in their audience, particularly when accompanied by music and a well presented lecture. In 1852 Alfred Cane exhibited a variety of dissolving views in Sydney, and the Sydney Morning Herald was quick to report on the effectiveness of the sequence of dissolves.


” A ship in a calm” was a particularly truthful representation of that most tedious, most trying, most wretched predicament. Gazing at the view, one might almost fancy one saw the lazy sharks crawling about in the blue water, carrying on their eternal war against every other creature … Then suddenly the scene changed, the ship is caught in a storm, and with double-reefed foresail only set, struggles vainly against the furious surge, which too fatally drives her onto the inexorable rock. These two representations of the chances of the ocean were followed by “the ship on fire,” and “the raft,” and elicited several rounds of applause, especially from the juvenile portion of the audience, who, with true British feeling, seemed to delight in the danger, although ’twas but in show. (SMH 30/1/52 p2)


Alfred Cane must have been very skillful to create such a seamless effect and such an extended narrative from just four slides, a dissolving apparatus, and his own voice. Of course shipwrecks were particularly vivid for colonial audiences in Australia, and the narrative followed a familiar trajectory triggering socially programmed responses, but nonetheless the unified, single effect of a coherent animation of the painted pictures, produced in their midst by the magic lantern,  must have been very compelling for the audience. However they knew that, to use the newspaper’s words, ‘twas but in show’, so their pleasure was an alloy of both the enjoyment of the illusion itself, and the realization that the illusion was a mechanical creation.


Within their shows of other optical attractions such as chromatropes most dissolving view exhibitions  strove for extended narratives in at least one slide sequence. For instance the first exhibition of Mr Lillywhite’s views was described by the Adelaide Register in 1853 as containing an extended narrative involving a tiger:


The representations included pleasing landscapes, magnificent architecture, grotesque figures, and other features of a grave, fantastic, and startling character. The spectators were particularly delighted with some very amusing representations of the extraordinary means successfully resorted to by two Bengalees, who entrapped a ferocious tiger, which had scented them out whilst taking their noontide repast.


This exhibition also included a famous rack-work slide called ‘The Rat Catcher’.


Compelling short narratives were also being produced in the 1850s which relied on abrupt sudden unexpected changes, rather than a sequence of scenes.  James Smith displayed a series of imported slides in Melbourne in 1855. One was the popular image of Vesuvius erupting. According to The Age the image began as:


‘[t]he Bay of Naples , smiling in the serenity of sunshine, with Vesuvius at rest lowering grandly in the distance. Then: Clouds and thick darkness come over the scene, and the volcano belches forth its red fires and gloomy vapours, and the effect produced is really admirable.” (9/5/55 p6).


Newspaper reviews weren’t always so complimentary, however. For instance, a report in The South Australian of November 1847 commented on the mish-mash of the effects as well as the morally ambiguous subject matter of the dissolving views exhibited by Messrs Hall and Plush:


The exhibition was a sort of melange, consisting of optical illusions, phantasmagoria, fun, and harlequinade. The dissolving views were numerous and diversified, but contained too few representations of local objects. Some of the personal figures bordered upon indelicacy; so much so, as, in our opinion, to deter parents from treating their children to an otherwise harmless amusement; and it struck us that the dance of death savoured too much of profanity… a prudential change in their exhibition, with an improvement in the mechanical arrangement, would make it worthy of general patronage.


Although by the end of the century magic  lanterns had become associated  with didactic, scientific , religious,and temperance lectures, in the 1840s and 50s dissolving views and mechanical slides were still associated with ‘low’ entertainment — juvenile and obsessed with the occult —  often appealing to the baser instincts of their audiences. This is something that lanternists needed to both encourage and manage. But sometimes they weren’t able to entirely manage unpredictable audience responses in the dark. For instance a report of the lanternists’ Seymour and Gordon’s opening night in Adelaide in 1864 said:


The audience was not very large, and consisted entirely of occupants of the pit and gallery who, being unable to appreciate the nature of the entertainment, created such confusion that it was with great difficulty that the exhibition was gone through. The views were good, but the descriptive part was rendered inaudible by the noise.


Throughout the century newspapers regularly reviewed dissolving view performances and assessed as good or bad a consistent set of aspects of each evening’s entertainment, such as: the brightness and size of the disc of light on the screen (generally from 8 to 12 feet); the consistency of the illumination which was difficult to maintain because of a limited supply of gas; the focussing of the lantern; the  artistic control of the dissolve; the thematic appropriateness of the music (provided by orchestra, piano, accordion, or harmonium); the interest and relevance of the accompanying patter; the strength of the lecturer’s voice; the behaviour of the crowd (often the rowdiness of ill-bred children in the dark was commented on); the moral appropriateness of the subject matter (which ranged from ecclesiastical to occult themes); the topicality of the subject matter; and the educational value of the subjects. The wide range of experiences persistently commented on by the newspapers indicates the complex intermedial nature of the performances in which mechanical animations were embedded, and the way that they were an integral part of the re-organisation of modes of audience spectatorship.


We also know that dissolving views themselves were an important part of Australian colonial visual culture, because by the 1850s the term had firmly entered the Australian language as a metaphor. For instance in 1857 a correspondent to the Hobart Courier satirized the various rhetorical exertions of colonial politicians in parliament as an exhibition of ‘dissolving views’. In his satire, taxes and debts were ‘dissolving’ the bright future that Tasmania’s politicians were laying out:


A mist came over the glowing colours [of the politicians promises], extensive plains contracted to little valleys, undulating hills became rocky scrub, and the expected gold never came, and behind all appeared TAXES. Tax upon income; tax upon property; tax upon luxuries; tax upon four-wheeled carriages. It was evidently a mistake the obtrusion on so beautiful a vision of these unseemly and disagreeable objects, but unequivocally they made themselves apparent, and thus this beauteous scene dissolved away. (Hobart Courier 11/4/57 p3)


This would be equivalent to a satirist saying today that a politician’s promises were merely ‘virtual reality’.


In 1852 a poem called Ode to Melbourne was published in the Argus which was a satirical take on Melbourne’s poor drainage and alcoholic binge-drinking culture. It satirized Melbourne’s ‘filthy lanes’ and ‘atrocious smells’. Melbourne was full of pubs and drunkards, so the gutters ran with filth which reflected the debaucheries above:


Oh Pleasant city, full of pleasant places,

Thy very gutters show ‘dissolving views’


The dissolving view, far from the high minded education language of the ads the exhibitors put in the papers, remained associated with the gaudy, the low, the inebriated and the insubstantial.


It is clear from accounts such as this that it was the optical effects which were most responded to by audiences, rather than any putative content. However, when these effects could be extended over a narrative which linked them together they were responded to even more strongly. In the 1880s, a new kind of slide called ‘life model slides’ began to be produced. These hand-coloured live models adopting tableau-like attitudes in front of painted backdrops foregrounded narrative, rather than special effects, even more.


In life-model slide sets the various poses of the life models told a story, but not in the sense of a realistic story teleologically extending through linear time, rather in an iterative way, suited to the structure of a popular song with it repeating chorus and separate self-contained verses. These songs and recitations were issued in booklets along with the slide sets.


The sequence of life model slides called Daddy had a special effect, the appearance of an angel, double exposed  (or in our contemporary parlance, composited) on one slide, so it was suitable for a lanternist with a single lantern. However another series of life model slides, Jane Conquest, which would have been shown accompanied by a melodramatic poem about the mother of a sick baby who nonetheless managed to heroically ring a church bell in order to save fishermen from a shipwreck, was designed for dissolving lanterns, so a skilled lanternist could make the angel slowly appear and disappear above the baby’s crib.



The 1890s saw the convergence of magic lantern lectures, which had been developing for fifty years, with the cinematograph. Companies marketed lantern slide sets as well as Lumiere films, and cinematographic adapters for lanterns were also for sale.


Long-time lanternists were quick to defend themselves against the new technologies. For instance in 1897 the senior lanternist Edmund H. Wilkie wrote an article called ‘The Dawn of Animated Photography’ in the British journal The Magic Lantern Journal and Photographic Enlarger. First of all he dismissed motion pictures as an:


 ephemeral idea which will be the fashion for a season and then subside into the background to be seen no more … so far from superseding  general lantern work [animated photography]  will most likely act in the contrary manner, and by directing public attention to optical exhibitions give a powerful impetus to dissolving view entertainments generally.


But even after dismissing motion pictures as a fad he felt compelled to also argue that in fact magic lanternists such as himself had been involved in the same project as the new cinematographers all along:


Ever since the lantern emerged from what we may turn the chrysalis stage, and took rank amongst other valuable scientific instruments, attempts have been made to obtain natural motions with regard to the figures of human being and animals. The forces of nature, the great terrestrial and atmospheric phenomena presented generally no particular difficulty to the slide painter and mechanician, but with the appliances until recently obtainable, movements such as walking could only be imitated in a degree and with great difficulty, and could not be considered as successful. p21-22


Wilkie couldn’t have been more wrong about the future of animated photographs. This blind spot was because, as a veteran lanternist, he was focused solely on the optical effects of the new cinematograph, rather the indexical ‘reality effect’ it promised. He saw the natural motion of the cinematograph as just another category of illusion which happened now to merely incorporate the persistence of vision, as compared to the optical effects of the dissolving view, which had, in his eyes, the advantage of rich hand-painted colour and fine detail that at the time still far outstripped the cinematograph, particularly in spectacular and sublime weather effects, if not always in complex motion.


In the same issue of the Almanac  Henry J. Walker wrote an article Animated Photographs versus Dissolving Views, in which he, too, lamented that the new cinematographic craze was pushing aside the old dissolving view exhibitions. To defend dissolving views he retreated to the argument that the cinematograph was merely mechanical copying, whereas the dissolving view required manual craft on the part of the operator:


If animated photographs draw a large amount of applause from the audience, it is because they think the moving figures wonderful; but they do not know which requires the most skill, the dissolving views or animated pictures. The majority know, comparatively speaking, nothing of the working of the lantern; and have know idea of the skill required to carry through successfully a first class dissolving view exhibition … with some dissolving view effects, a very considerable amount of thought and skill is required to make the pictures projected on the screen appear ‘just right’ to the spectators … I think I shall be right when I say that, placed side by side [dissolving views take] infinitely more skill to turn out a first class entertainment … The animated photographs I put down as a mechanical triumph, and the success of dissolving views to the skill of the operator. P110.


But nonetheless the two co-existed for about a decade during a period of major technological remediation, both around the world and in Australia, as modes of mass spectatorship were re-organized around both established viewing conventions and emergent new technologies. Actuality, illusion and the trick were key terms during this crisis, but so was the idea of ‘animation’. At stake was not only what animation might become with the persistence of vision, but also what it had been. I would therefore like to argue for the discussion of the history of animation to not begin with the cinematograph but much, much earlier.


Obviously the long history of cartooning is one archaeological substrata to modern animation. For instance we can clearly see newspaper cartooning being remediated into cinematographic animation in the World War One films of Harry Julius, which open with him in his role of a traditional cartoonist, before zooming in on his hand doing ‘lightning sketches’ in front of the camera in real time, before cutting to a stop frame animation where his role as the artist has been totally sublimated into the retinal flow of the animation itself. This process, which happens in a few exhilarating seconds in Julius’s films, mimics a process which had been happening in the auditoriums of Australia and the world over for the previous two decades, when the projectionist moved from being a performer at the centre of the audience artfully manipulating his lantern and delivering his patter, to being invisible inside his bio box using his skill to make the cinematographic mechanism run so smoothly that the audience forgot it was there.


But while most people would recognize cartooning as a tradition which was mediated into the cinema and is still present — subsumed into twentieth and even twenty-first century animation, I wonder what happens when we put dissolving views into a similar remedial framework. The ruptures and discontinuities have already been clearly identified by our alarmed lanternists from the late 1890s. They saw that their hand-produced illusions, produced live in the midst of an audience who were willing to emotionally enter familiar narratives through the intermedial techniques of music and poetry, whilst also appreciating them as illusion, were gradually being replaced with automatically recorded and projected illusions that relied on the persistence of vision alone. But they were too alarmed by the new cinematographic technology to realize that other visual pleasures were also continuing from the dissolving view to cinematographic animation. The newspaper accounts of the shipwreck stories, or transformation scenes, reveal that the audiences felt a raw pleasure in seeing pictures  move and morph, and dissolve from one to another. In both the dissolving view and the cinematographic animation it seems to be the between states, the indeterminate states of fluidity, the constant change that caused the most pleasure. To me it is this raw visual pleasure which unites contemporary audiences with audiences of the 1840s, despite the massive changes in technology in the intervening 170 years. This unifying pleasure in transitional images needs further investigation.


Martyn Jolly





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