Théâtre Optique

Last updated
A performance of Pauvre Pierrot as imagined by Louis Poyet, published in La Nature in July 1892 Theatreoptique.jpg
A performance of Pauvre Pierrot as imagined by Louis Poyet, published in La Nature in July 1892

The Théâtre Optique (Optical Theatre) is an animated moving picture system invented by Émile Reynaud and patented in 1888. From 28 October 1892 to March 1900 Reynaud gave over 12,800 shows to a total of over 500,000 visitors at the Musée Grévin in Paris. His Pantomimes Lumineuses series of animated films include Pauvre Pierrot and Autour d'une cabine . [1] [2] Reynaud's Théâtre Optique predated Auguste and Louis Lumière's first commercial, public screening of the cinematograph on 28 December 1895, which has long been seen as the birth of film.



1888 patent illustration (top view): A=praxinoscope, B=axis, C=crown with protruding pins, D=reel drum with film, E=reel drum, F=flexible band, attached to drum E Theatre optique brevet 1888 plan.jpg
1888 patent illustration (top view): A=praxinoscope, B=axis, C=crown with protruding pins, D=reel drum with film, E=reel drum, F=flexible band, attached to drum E
1888 patent illustration (side view): O=direct viewing position Theatre optique brevet 1888 illustration.jpg
1888 patent illustration (side view): O=direct viewing position

The realized films had 300 to 700 transparent pictures of successive phases of moving figures with black backgrounds. The pictures were hand painted by Reynaud in aniline inks directly on 6 x 6 cm gelatin plates. [1] The plates were coated with shellac and framed in a cardboard strip of which the sides were clad in fabric bands attached with split pins. The horizontal film strip could be up to 50 meters long, with black leader tape at the beginning. Central perforations in the cardboard between the images engaged with metal notches protruding from a large central turning wheel. The wheel transferred the strip between two copper 25 cm spools. The film was guided further by pinch rollers at the corners of the table and passed in front of a magic lantern. The magic lantern projected each image in turn towards one of the 36 rectangular mirrors at the center of the turning wheel. Each image was in turn reflected to another mirror, which reflected it through a focusing lens towards a movable mirror. The movable mirror could be adjusted to project the moving characters at the desired place within an immobile background image on the screen. The background was projected with a second magic lantern from a painted glass plate. Reynaud would manipulate the speed of the film by hand and repeat movements to produce a visual story that could last longer than 10 minutes. [1] The projectionist operated the machine behind the screen, with only the projection visible to the audience. [3] [4] [5]

Some synchronized sound effects were automated at key moments marked with silver tabs on the flexible band to activate an electromagnet. The magnet in turn triggered a buzzer, small drums or other acoustic devices. [1] [6]

The 1888 patent covered the film band to be of indefinite length and of any material, opaque or transparent (the reflection of a brightly lit opaque picture could also be projected). The band could be fully flexible or only between the pictures. The pictures could be hand-drawn, printed or "obtained by photography from nature". The amount of praxinoscope mirrors could differ per model. Either a spool or the central wheel could be rotated by hand or a mechanical motor to move the film. illumination and optical arrangements could be made for either direct-viewing or for projection on a screen. [7]

In a prospectus Reynaud offered the Théâtre Optique in different versions and with separately available parts; one version came installed on an 80 x 100 cm mahogany table and another on a two part iron frame that could be stored inside two wooden boxes (85 x 85 x 25 cm). Copies of the three available films were offered in "special printing in color" (quote translated from French). [3]


Theatre Optique advertisement bill, offering demonstrations daily between 2 and 5 (except Saturdays) Theatre Optique advertisement.jpg
Théâtre Optique advertisement bill, offering demonstrations daily between 2 and 5 (except Saturdays)

The Théâtre Optique was not the first occurrence of projected animation. Mechanical animation projections and other more primitive moving picture techniques had already been featured long before in visual storytelling in magic lantern shows, especially in phantasmagoria. However, this was not yet animation as we now know it: a rapid successive substitution of sequential images to create a lifelike moving picture. A few animation projectors had been available for a few decades using the stroboscopic effect invented with the phénakisticope, but these projected very short animation loops.

The Théâtre Optique was a further development of the projection version of Reynaud's praxinoscope animation toy, which had already been covered in the first praxinoscope patent as registered on 30 August 1877. Reynaud in the 1888 patent: "The aim of the apparatus is to obtain the illusion of motion, which is no longer limited to the repetition of the same poses at each turn of the instrument, as is necessary in all known apparatus (Zootropes, Praxinoscopes, etc.), but Having, on the contrary, an indefinite variety and duration, and thus producing real scenes animated by unlimited development. Hence the name of Optical Theater given by the inventor to this apparatus" (translated from French). [7]

The term had been used occasionally for a theatrical variation of peep shows or dioramas with moving figures since at least the 18th century. [8]

In 1877 Reynaud had created the praxinoscope, an improvement of the zoetrope. The praxinoscope replaced the narrow viewing slits of the zoetrope with an inner circle of 12 mirrors (equal to the number of images), allowing a brighter and clearer view of the moving image. After Reynaud licensed his invention in 1877, it sold well in a number of the large Paris department stores.

Reynaud applied for a French patent (Brevet d'invention N° 194 482) for the Théâtre Optique on 1 December 1888.

Reynaud tried to sell the system with his films between 1889 and 1892 and offered demonstrations at his address in Paris. When it didn't sell, he decided to exploit it with theatrical screenings in 1892. [3]

La Nature No. 999 of 23 July 1892 featured an enthusiastic article about the Théâtre Optique. Gaston Tissandier described how it enabled uninterrupted projection of a considerable series of actions and wrote that Reynaud had composed very amusing scenes with characters "who engage in lively scenes and execute rapid movements of a charming effect" (translated from French). He sensed that the system provided new possibilities and thought it would undoubtedly have a future with photographed series of poses, when it would become technically and economically more feasible to produce photographic strips. [9]

Poster by Jules Cheret, advertising Pantomimes Illumineuses at Musee Grevin Reynaud-Pantomimes.jpg
Poster by Jules Chéret, advertising Pantomimes Illumineuses at Musée Grévin

On October 28, 1892, Reynaud debuted his Pantomimes Lumineuses animation films at the Cabinet Fantastique of the Musée Grévin in Paris. The show included three cartoons, Pauvre Pierrot!, Un bon bock , and Le Clown et ses chiens . Reynaud acted as the projectionist and the show was accompanied by Gaston Paulin on the piano. Paulin had written the music especially for the shows, including a song that he sung as Pierrot's serenade to Colombine in Pauvre Pierrot!. Occasionally two assistants would provide dialogue for the characters. The show was immediately successful with hundreds of visitors for the five daily shows. [2] Although the films shown by the Lumière Brothers in 1895 eclipsed it, the show stayed at the Musée Grévin until March 1900. Over 500,000 people had seen it.

The entrance fee was 50 centimes, currently roughly equivalent to U.S. $5. According to his unfortunate contract with Musée Grevin, signed on 8 October 1892, Reynaud received 500 francs per month plus 10% of the box office. Reynaud was required to direct each performance and was responsible for the maintenance of the strips, which did not endure the heavy usage very well. He reinforced the strips with metal rods, but eventually had to remake one of the films entirely. [2]

Émile Reynayd also presented his Pantomimes Lumineuses in Rouen in December 1892. [3]

Reynaud ended up ruined, forgotten and disillusioned. Around 1913 Reynaud destroyed his last Théâtre Optique machine with a hammer and threw five of his seven films into the Seine. [10] A few days later he would be visited by a French inventor and producer Léon Gaumont, to buy the invention and donate it to the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers. [ citation needed ]

The moving picture shows of Émile Reynaud have been inscribed in Memory of the World Register of UNESCO in 2015. [11]


The Pantomimes Lumineuses premiere on 28 October 1892 marks the first occurrence of public theatrical exhibition of motion pictures on film. The films have often been ignored in summaries of the history of film, presumably because the pictures were painted (rather than photographed) and the materials and technique differed from what would be film standards. However, the cinematographic films that are often seen as the first films lack several qualities that Reynaud's films had: the duration of the Pantomimes Lumineuses exceeds the early cinematographic films (they contained up to 700 frames, but were used with repetition of movements for up to 15 minutes), they were in color, had some synchronized sound effects and a specially composed score with a song (performed live), and some dialogue (performed live). It would take years before cinematographic films began to approach the narrative and aesthetic quality of the Pantomimes Lumineuses. [12]

The Théâtre Optique patent of 1 December 1888 introduced the idea of film perforations. [7] It has been suggested that Thomas Edison may have picked up this idea for the development of the Kinetoscope when he visited the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889, where Reynaud won a bronze medal for all his works and purportedly exhibited his Théâtre Optique. [2] According to Émile Reynaud's son, Auguste and Louis Lumière visited the Pantomimes Lumineuses and later were allowed to see the machine at Reynaud's workshop. One day, he would have complained to his family that the Lumières came to visit the apparatus a bit too often. [13]

Reynaud covered the use of photographic pictures in the 1888 patent. [7] The July 1892 article in La Nature saw its future especially in the combination with photography. [9] In 1895 Reynaud worked on a Photo-Scenographe and from 1896 he included two Photo-Peinture Animée films in his Pantomimes Lumineuses programs, [14] but these only premiered after cinematographic films had been introduced.

Reynaud not only had a piano score composed for his films, but also used some synchronized sound effects. Most early film screenings, including that of Lumière's cinematograph introduction, only had (improvised) piano accompaniment.

Using a separate image for a motionless background - rather than drawing the background into each frame together with the moving characters - became a standard technique in cel animation, dominant for many decades from soon after it was patented in 1914 until it was surpassed by digital techniques.

After the introduction of the cinématographe, it took over 10 years before animated films returned to the theatres (with Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) by J. Stuart Blackton).

The animated segment in Winsor McCay's Little Nemo (1911) was probably the first animation to use more hand-drawn images than the 700 images of Reynaud's Un Bon Bock. While most early animations were black and white, a version of Little Nemo was hand-colored by McCay. Winsor McCay also used short loops of repeated images in several films, which is quite similar to Reynaud's technique of moving the film back and forth during projection.

A rêve au coin du feu made use of a flashback for the first time as a narrative element to explain the past of the protagonist when his house was devoured by the flames. [ citation needed ]


Pauvre Pierrot (1892) Pauvre Pierrot.png
Pauvre Pierrot (1892)
Autour d'una Cabine (1894) Emile Reynaud - 1895 - Autour d'une Cabine 0010.jpg
Autour d'una Cabine (1894)

Dates given are for the Pantomimes Illumineuses performances at Musée Grevin.

Photo-Peintures animée:

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Auguste and Louis Lumière</span> French filmmakers and inventors

The Lumière brothers, Auguste Marie Louis Nicolas Lumière and Louis Jean Lumière, were French manufacturers of photography equipment, best known for their Cinématographe motion picture system and the short films they produced between 1895 and 1905, which places them among the earliest filmmakers.

The following is an overview of the events of 1892 in film, including a list of films released and notable births.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Émile Reynaud</span> French inventor (1844–1918)

Charles-Émile Reynaud was a French inventor, responsible for the praxinoscope and was responsible for the first projected animated films. His Pantomimes Lumineuses premiered on 28 October 1892 in Paris. His Théâtre Optique film system, patented in 1888, is also notable as the first known instance of film perforations being used. The performances predated Auguste and Louis Lumière's first paid public screening of the cinematographe on 26 December 1895, often seen as the birth of cinema.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Phenakistiscope</span> First widespread animation device that created a fluid illusion of motion

The phenakistiscope was the first widespread animation device that created a fluent illusion of motion. Dubbed Fantascope and Stroboscopische Scheiben by its inventors, it has been known under many other names until the French product name Phénakisticope became common. The phenakistiscope is regarded as one of the first forms of moving media entertainment that paved the way for the future motion picture and film industry. Like a GIF animation, it can only show a short continuous loop.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Praxinoscope</span>

The praxinoscope was an animation device, the successor to the zoetrope. It was invented in France in 1877 by Charles-Émile Reynaud. Like the zoetrope, it used a strip of pictures placed around the inner surface of a spinning cylinder. The praxinoscope improved on the zoetrope by replacing its narrow viewing slits with an inner circle of mirrors, placed so that the reflections of the pictures appeared more or less stationary in position as the wheel turned. Someone looking in the mirrors would therefore see a rapid succession of images producing the illusion of motion, with a brighter and less distorted picture than the zoetrope offered.

The following is an overview of the events of 1888 in film, including a list of films released and notable births.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Precursors of film</span> Methods and tools preceding true cinematographic technology

Precursors of film are concepts and devices that have much in common with the later art and techniques of cinema.

<i>Pauvre Pierrot</i> 1892 French film

Pauvre Pierrot is a French short animated film directed by Charles-Émile Reynaud in 1891 and released in 1892. It consists of 500 individually painted images and lasts about 15 minutes originally.

The decade of the 1890s in film involved some significant events.

<i>Le Clown et ses chiens</i> 1892 French film

Le Clown et ses chiens is an 1892 French short animated film hand-painted in colour by Émile Reynaud. It consists of 300 individually painted images and lasts about 10 minutes. It was the second film that Reynaud made for his Théâtre Optique, after Un bon bock.

<i>Un bon bock</i> 1892 French film

Un bon bock is an 1892 French short animated film directed by Émile Reynaud. Painted in 1888, it was first screened on 28 October 1892 using the Théâtre Optique process, which allowed him to project a hand-painted colored film, before the invention of cinematograph.

<i>Autour dune cabine</i> 1894 film by Charles-Émile Reynaud

Autour d'une cabine, original full title Autour d'une cabine ou Mésaventures d'un copurchic aux bains de mer, is an 1894 French short animated film directed by Émile Reynaud. It is an animated film made of 636 individually images hand painted in 1893. The film showed off Emile's invention, the Théâtre Optique. It was shown at the Musée Grévin from December 1894 until March 1900.

The decade of the 1870s in film involved some significant events.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Salon Indien du Grand Café</span> Café in Paris, France, place of the first commercial movie projection

Le Salon Indien du Grand Café was a room in the basement of the Grand Café, on the Boulevard des Capucines near the Place de l'Opéra in the center of Paris. It is notable for being the place that hosted the first commercial public film screening by the Lumière brothers, on December 28, 1895. The ten short films on the program, were:

  1. La Sortie de l'Usine Lumière à Lyon, 46 seconds
  2. Le Jardinier , 49 seconds
  3. Le Débarquement du Congrès de Photographie à Lyon, 48 seconds
  4. La Voltige, 46 seconds
  5. La Pêche aux poissons rouges, 42 seconds
  6. Les Forgerons ("Blacksmiths"), 49 seconds
  7. Repas de bébé, 41 seconds
  8. Le Saut à la couverture, 41 seconds
  9. La Places des Cordeliers à Lyon, 44 seconds
  10. La Mer , 38 seconds
<span class="mw-page-title-main">Film</span> Visual art consisting of moving images

A film – also called a movie, motion picture, moving picture, picture, photoplay or (slang) flick – is a work of visual art that simulates experiences and otherwise communicates ideas, stories, perceptions, feelings, beauty, or atmosphere through the use of moving images. These images are generally accompanied by sound and, more rarely, other sensory stimulations. The word "cinema", short for cinematography, is often used to refer to filmmaking and the film industry, and to the art form that is the result of it.

October 28, the International Animation Day (IAD) was an international observance proclaimed in 2002 by the ASIFA as the main global event to celebrate the art of animation.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of film technology</span> Aspect of motion picture history

The history of film technology traces the development of techniques for the recording, construction and presentation of motion pictures. When the film medium came about in the 19th century, there already was a centuries old tradition of screening moving images through shadow play and the magic lantern that were very popular with audiences in many parts of the world. Especially the magic lantern influenced much of the projection technology, exhibition practices and cultural implementation of film. Between 1825 and 1840, the relevant technologies of stroboscopic animation, photography and stereoscopy were introduced. For much of the rest of the century, many engineers and inventors tried to combine all these new technologies and the much older technique of projection to create a complete illusion or a complete documentation of reality. Colour photography was usually included in these ambitions and the introduction of the phonograph in 1877 seemed to promise the addition of synchronized sound recordings. Between 1887 and 1894, the first successful short cinematographic presentations were established. The biggest popular breakthrough of the technology came in 1895 with the first projected movies that lasted longer than 10 seconds. During the first years after this breakthrough, most motion pictures lasted about 50 seconds, lacked synchronized sound and natural colour, and were mainly exhibited as novelty attractions. In the first decades of the 20th century, movies grew much longer and the medium quickly developed into one of the most important tools of communication and entertainment. The breakthrough of synchronized sound occurred at the end of the 1920s and that of full color motion picture film in the 1930s. By the start of the 21st century, physical film stock was being replaced with digital film technologies at both ends of the production chain by digital image sensors and projectors.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Théâtre Grévin</span>

The Théâtre Grévin is a Parisian theatre situated at 10 boulevard Montmartre in the 9th arrondissement of Paris and located within the Musée Grévin. It also overlooks the Passage Jouffroy.

The history of animation started long before the development of cinematography. Humans have probably attempted to depict motion as far back as the paleolithic period. Much later, shadow play and the magic lantern offered popular shows with projected images on a screen, moving as the result of manipulation by hand and/or minor mechanics. In 1833, the stroboscopic disc introduced the stroboscopic principles of modern animation, which decades later would also provide the basis for cinematography. This article covers the period up to 1888, when celluloid film base was developed, a technology that would become the foundation for over a century of film.


  1. 1 2 3 4 "Le Théâtre optique - Émile Reynaud". Archived from the original on 11 November 2008. Retrieved 6 June 2022.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Myrent, Glenn (1989). "Emile Reynaud: First Motion Picture Cartoonist". Film History. 3 (3): 191–202. JSTOR   3814977.
  3. 1 2 3 4 "Théâtre optique (Reconstitution) (AP-95-1724) - Collection - Catalogue des appareils cinématographiques - la Cinémathèque française".
  4. "Théâtre optique (Bande peinte pour le) (AP-12-2770) - Collection - Catalogue des appareils cinématographiques - la Cinémathèque française".
  5. Laurent Mannoni i, Donata Pesenti Campagnoni (2009). Lanterne magique et film peint : 400 ans de Cinéma. Paris: La Martinière/La Cinématèque française.
  6. "Cinémathèque française and Museo Nazionale del Cinema: Zoom on… the Optical Theatre of Émile Reynaud".
  7. 1 2 3 4 Reynaud, Émile (1888-12-01). Brevet d'invention N° 194 482.
  8. "Gazette du commerce". 13 June 1769.
  9. 1 2 Tissandier, Gaston (1892-07-23). Le Théâtre optique de M. Reynaud.
  10. Laurent Mannoni Le grand art de la lumiere" 1995 p. 358
  11. "The moving picture shows of Émile Reynaud | United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization".
  12. Laurent Mannoni Le grand art de la lumiere" 1995 p. 356
  13. M. Noverre, Emile Reynaud, sa vie et ses travaux, Brest, 1926, p. 46
  14. "Les Photo-Peintures animées".