Every Year In Film #5 - Projectors

Thoughts On: The History Of Picture Projection

A brief look at everything from shadow-puppetry to magic lanterns.

In the previous post of Every Year In Film, we looked at Muybridge's first 'motion picture', Sallie Gardner At A Gallop (or, The Horse In Motion). In such, we touched on the making of the film and the drama surrounding it as to introduce Eadweard Muybridge. But, we concluded on a bit of a cliff hanger; on an implication of a zoopraxiscope.

This was arguably the first motion picture projector ever invented, one that went onto inspire Edison's Kinetoscope - a topic for a later post in the series. Before we can begin to discuss the zoopraxiscope, however, we have to discuss a brief history of projectors.

As with the idea of visual storytelling through imagery, projection must have begun in the caves of hunter-gatherers in the form of shadow puppets projected by naked flames. This is a tradition that has evolved and branched ever since. In regard to telling stories with shadows, Southeast Asia has a long history of shadow-puppetry - countries such as Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia being examples of this.

Other regions in which this is often considered an ancient art would of course be China and India. What shadow-puppetry then says about images on cave walls such as this...

... is that imagery has always been meant for the largest audiences possible, but, more importantly, to be seen in motion. So, developing on this incentive, people have always attempted to manipulate imagery, to blow it up and project it. This was done with mirrors and other reflective surfaces such as bronze by the ancient Chinese, dating as far back to 206 AD. The devices used in this Han dynasty era are referred to as Chinese Magic Mirrors, and they function as projectors when light is shone upon their bronze backs, which become almost transparent, allowing and image of a pattern behind it to be projected onto a wall.

It's this kind of technology that used mirrors and reflections that would be combined with other techniques, such as optics, to produce more complex projectors. Optics date far back to at least 750 BC and is the study of light manipulation - which would often be done with polished crystal and later glass and/or water. This whole principal of manipulating light is centred on bending and focusing the direction that photons travel with lenses, and would be used to project imagery based on the natural optical phenomena of camera obscura.

Camera obscura is a result of light being focused. So, if you look out of your window now, you're seeing a huge transparent hole in your wall that lets in an awful lot of light. This light is absorbed into and reflected off of your walls as well as everything in the room you are in. What you'll notice, however, is that the reflections that come through your window and bounce off the walls are indiscernible. At most, there will be bright spots or streaks of light running through the room. But, when you look at your walls, which are reflecting light into your eyes, you don't see a mirrored image.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that your walls aren't smooth, instead, they are rough - which leads to the light being scattered off of its surface and not precisely reflected. This is why, even though everything reflects light, only particularly polished or smooth materials act as mirrors. But, the second reason as to why everything doesn't act as a mirror comes down to the fact that the light that hits, say for instance, a wall, it is not focused; photons stream through your window at a volume that's too high. However, if you make that window smaller, if your close down that aperture, you can create a pinhole camera, or, a camera obscura:

So, stood in a completely dark room, one that just has a small hole in it, you will see any light shining through be projected on a wall, upside down. With lights travelling directly from points beyond this small hole, you will get a clear image because there is no pollution from other reflections, refractions and so on. The reason why this image is upside down was described by the Chinese philosopher, Mozi, around 400 BC. He made clear that light always travels in straight lines, so, if you look at the image above, you can see an example of this diagrammed. But, notice also that the line traveling from the top of the image hits the bottom of the projection on the wall. In the same respect, the light travelling from the bottom of the image hits the top of the projection. This indicates that the information 'carried' by photons from the top of the hill are distributed at the bottom of the projection, whilst those from the bottom of the hill are distributed at the top. This is why the image is upside down. In fact, the same thing is happening in your eye right now - your brain, however, flips this image around so you don't have to perceive the world upside down.

This phenomena, the use of optics and mirrors came together in early devices such as the Steganographic Mirror as invented by the German scholar, Athanasius Kircher, in 1645. This functioned with images or text painted onto a concave mirror (which flips images upside down, counteracting the effect seen in camera obscuras) and lenses. But, this technology was better applied later on with the Magic Lantern.

Developed in 1659 by Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch scientist, the Magic Latern used concaved mirrors to reflect the light of a lamp through a transparent image - usually on a piece of glass - through a lens and onto a wall.

This device was then a slide projector of sorts and was hugely popular throughout the Victorian era. In fact, this device arguably acted as the first motion picture projector as technicians could manipulate slides with small levers or two-camera superimposition as well as switch out slides to imply motion. But, for more on this, I'd recommend this video by the BFI...

It's then at this point that we've reached the 19th century and the precipice of film. So, we'll conclude, yet again, with a cliff hanger concerning zoopraxiscopes. However, having delved into projectors themselves, we'll be much better equipped for the next film in the Every Year series where we return again to Eadweard Muybridge.

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