Charles-Émile Reynaud’s Optical Toy

Pauvre Pierrot
P: Charles-Émile Reynaud. Fr 1892

“In 1876 he (i.e. Charles-Émile Reynaud, 1844-1918) decided to make an optical toy to amuse a young child. Improving on the Phenakistiscope and Zoetrope, Reynaud devised the Praxinoscope, patented on 21 December 1877, a cylinder with a band of coloured images set inside. There was a central drum of mirrors, which were equidistant between the axis and the picture strip, so that as the toy revolved the reflection of each picture seen in the mirror-drum appeared stationary, without the necessity for complex stop-start mechanisms. The images blended to give a clear, bright, undistorted moving picture without flicker. (…) A further development was the Projection Praxinoscope which used a series of transparent pictures on glass; an oil lamp illuminated the images and the mirror reflections passed through a lens onto a screen. The same lamp projected a static background, and once again the moving pictures were seen in an appropriate setting.  All three models were demonstrated to the Société Française de Photographie in 1880. In December 1888 Reynaud patented his Théâtre Optique, a large-scale Praxinoscope intended for public projection. By using spools to feed and take-up the extended picture band, sequences were no longer limited to short cyclic movements. The images were painted on gelatine squares and fastened between leather bands, with holes in metal strips between the pictures engaging in pins on the revolving wheel, so that each picture was aligned with a facet of the mirror drum. This was the first commercial use of the perforations that were to be so important for successful cinematography. In 1892 Reynaud signed an agreement with the Musée Grevin in Paris to present the ‘Pantomimes Lumineuses’; the first animated pictures shown publicly on a screen by means of long, transparent bands of images, and on 28 October gave the first show. The apparatus was set up behind a translucent screen and Reynaud apparently gave most of the presentations himself, deftly manipulating the picture bands to-and-fro to extend the sequences, creating a twelve or fifteen minute performance from the 500 frames of Pauvre Pierrot. Two other early subjects were Clown et ses chiens (300 frames) and Un Bon boc (700). Special music was compiled by Gaston Paulin, with magnificent poster artwork by Jules Cheret, and the show was a success.”
Stephen Herbert
Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema


Reynaud’s Théâtre Optique

“The display of moving live action images was regarded as the ultimate pinnacle to reach. While Le Prince, Friese-Greene, Dickson and others already had managed to capture successful sequences of moving photographs, Reynaud was still playing with painted images. Through the prism of time, his work appears to be almost pointless. At first sight, he did not bring anything new to film. The concept that to create motion one requires a plethora of multiple images moved in rapid succession existed for centuries. Creating a machine that would be capable to move those images so that the eye interprets the result as a single image in motion predates even the early works from Muybridge. So, why is Reynaud’s work still worth a place in the cinematic canon?

The answer to the question above does not reside with the method of production, but rather its content. Poor Pierrot, the only film preserved to this day from the three originally showcased at the Musée Grévin in Paris in 1892, is a work that contains all of the key characteristics of modern film-making. The most important of these is the plot. Here, Reynaud relied on the traditions of pantomime to create a show. The story is quite simple: Harlequin visits Columbine during the night, but what might seem for them to be a night of adventure and fun is interrupted by Pierrot. (…) Needless to say, the plot works in the best traditions of pantomime, and Harlequin’s victory is rewarded in the end, for he is the one to enter Columbine’s home, while Pierrot is losing his wits in the middle of the night. Reynaud’s choice of subject matter displays a high degree of commercial maturity. During nearly a decade of playing at Musée Grévin, he had entertained about half a million spectators with his “absolutely unprecedented show” at a salary of “500 francs a month and 10 percent of the revenue generated by the fifty centimes’ additional admission charge for the show”. They key to this success was the uniqueness of the show.
Ion Martea
Essential Films

“(…) during the 1890s, for at least five years after the theatrical appearance of  Lumière‘s Cinématographe and other related entertainments, Reynaud’s Pantomimes Lumineuses drew well over a thousand paying customers each week. One conclusion is obvious: contemporary audiences, most of whom would also have been familiar with Lumière‘s films, did not regard Reynaud’s handmade cartoonlike shorts as an inadequate or incomplete form of cinema but as attractions in their own right with their own particular pleasures, which must not be judged in relation to what were to prove more pervasive and historically modes of representation.”
Jonathan Crary: Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press 2001, p. 266