Brian Wesley Rich's
Science Website
Check out this funny (odd, even strange) GIF Animation I made with my digital camera, and my friend Mooy.
Persistence of vision is what we call the behavior of our eyes when an image is flashed on them and taken away suddenly. Our eyes retain the image for a fraction of a second, or even longer. If we quickly replace the first image with a second one, the eye blends the two together. If it weren't for this "defect" in our vision, movies and television would always have a jerky look to them that would probably make them difficult to watch.
A variety of simple devices can be made that allow you to explore persistence of vision, while you experiment with primitive animation techniques. I will discuss four of these devices: Thaumatropes, Flipbooks, Phenakistoscopes and Zoetropes.

animated bird thaumatrope

Thaumatropes from Greek thauma, wonder; and trop e, to turn. are the simplest of all animation devices. They are made from a cardboard disk with two small holes in opposite edges. A simple scene is drawn on one side of the disk, and a corresponding element of the scene is drawn on the reverse side, in the correct orientation and placement. Threads are attached to the holes, and the threads are pulled tight and twirled between the thumb and forefinger of each hand. The disk spins and the images on the two sides blend into one.


Flipbooks are the next simplest animation device to make. They consist of a stack of blank pieces of paper or thin cardstock stapled to form a book. A slightly different picture is sketched on each page, and as the book is rapidly flipped, the sketches appear to move. This is a good starting point for classroom or home investigation of the technique of animation, as it demonstrates the need to make small changes from one drawing to the next. An important point when making a flipbook is this: keep your drawings bold and simple. A black fine-point felt tipped pen is best for your sketches. If you prefer the correctability of a pencil, go over the pencil sketches with ink when you have them finished.

phenakistoscope image

A Phenakistoscope is another simple animation device. The word comes from the Greek words phainen, to show; kinein, to move; and skopos, to aim or target ("scope" is now used to mean a viewing device like a telescope or microscope).
A phenakistoscope consists of a flat disk painted black on one side, with radial slots cut into the outer edge. It is mounted to a wooden handle with a thumbtack through its center so it spins freely. On the unpainted side between the slots are drawn a series of sketches having slight changes from one to the next. The disk is spun and you look through the slots at a mirror so you can see the side with the sketches. The major difference between the type of animation that can be done with a phenakistoscope and a flipbook is that the phenakistoscope has only a small number of drawings (usually eight or 12), and the movement of the sketch has to begin and end in the same position to form a smooth repeating cyclic motion.


Zoetropes (from Greek zoion, living being; and trop e, to turn) are very similar to phenakistoscopes except that you make a slotted cylinder rather than a slotted disk. The figures to be animated are drawn on the inside wall of the cylinder. The outside is painted black.
The zoetrope cylinder sits in some sort of round shallow tray. A large film can works well; the best ones I have made have used movie reel cans. What about making a zoetrope out of a lazy Susan? Pie tins or even cardboard pizza package bottoms work. A hole is punched through the round pan or disk, and attached to a wooden handle or base. The slotted cylinder, with completed cartoon drawings on the inside, is attached to the disk or inserted into the can. The whole thing is spun, and you look through the slots to the opposite inside wall, where you see the animated action.
A word of warning when making phenakistoscopes and zoetropes. Don't forget to paint the side you look through black or to make it from black paper. It is essential for the device to work well! If the outside is left white, then the cartoon image has to compete with a full white after-image, which completely washes it out.

Laying out the slotted strip for a zoetrope

The first step is to find out how long the strip needs to be. You could measure the diameter of the disk or pan you intend to use for the bottom, and then multiply by pi (3.14). But I prefer to actually fit the strip to the disk, and cut away the excess material. Make the strip long enough so that the ends of the strip overlap slightly, so that you can later glue or tape the ends together to form a cylinder.

Now, how to lay out the slots? One method is to measure the length of the strip, and then divide by the number of slots you want. The drawback here is that you end up with some odd fraction that your ruler doesn't have. You then need to estimate the measurements.

If you have a CAD program, you can lay out the strip using its built-in measurement capabilities. Your only problem then will be to plot the drawing you've made. You'll need at least a "B" size plotter or printer to do this.

Another technique is to make another paper strip the length of the strip you're using, and fold it in halves until you get the number of divisions you want. Then unfold the strip and use the creases as guides. This works if you want 2, 4, 8, 16, or 32 slots (or any power of 2). If you fold the strip into thirds, then halve the thirds repeatedly, you can get 3, 6, 12, or 24 slots.

Once you've laid out the slots, cut them approximately a quarter-inch wide. If you've made your zoetrope out of black cardstock, you are ready to assemble it. Form it into a cylinder, and lay it into your film can, tape it to your pie tin, or pizza bottom, or whatever you've chosen.

One nice thing about constructing your zoetrope from black cardstock is that you can make your drawings on small pieces of white paper and attach them to the zoetrope. This way, changes can be easily made. Or maybe you want to use Post-It® notes, which have a pressure-sensitive adhesive on the back.

Have fun with your animation devices. If you discover a new way to make one of these devices, e-mail me by clicking CONTACT, at the top of this page.

Copyright © 1996-2013, Brian Wesley Rich. Updated 04 October, 2013
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