Introduction: Discover the Phenakistoscope : a Vintage Animation System

About: French engineer in robotics. I love Arduino projects / coding / guitar / various electronics. Oh, I like cooking also ! PS : English is not my main language, please inform me in case of grammar mistakes ! T…

Hi all,

Since my childhood, I am fascinated by cinema science and animation history. Studying the science behind this, understanding how it works and how to try it at home is for me incredible.

More than 200 years ago, great creators build crazy devices to experiment animation : the phenakistoscope, the praxinoscope and the zoetrope are incredible inventions.

Today we will talk deeper about the phenakistoscope. It's really incredible, and you can build one easily at home. And I find that these discs are incredible piece of art. It's a great project to do with kids !

First at all, I'll explain the theory and how it works, then we will build one (or more...!) to enjoy home-made animations.

UPDATE : Check out my other Instructable on this subject to learn how to create custom discs !

Step 1: What Is It and How It Works (1/2)

The phenakistoscope itself is basically a paper disc with animations frames on it. A series of slots between the frames allow the user to see through it. The disc is fixed on a device that allow him to spin freely.

To use it, you have to use a mirror. You put the disc facing a mirror, then you look inside the slots while the disc is turning. Thanks to the slots, you can see the looped animation.

To understand how it works, we must talk about animation theory. To give to your brain the illusion that something is "moving", you have to show at least (about) 10 frames per second of an animation to your brain. But you can't directly "translate" the pictures, because the eyes and the brain will follow the frames. You have to show a frame, then hide it before showing the next one. Thanks to this, your brain can't follow the picture, and he will keep in mind (persistence of vision) the frame. Once the new frame is displayed, the previous one is replaced. If the speed is fast enough, your brain will create the animation.

Here, the frames are hidden thanks to the slots in the disc. With the mirror, you can see the frames, but you can't see the "transition" between them because the paper between the slot hides it.

The last picture show someone using a disc with a mirror. Here, the slots are near the center of the disc, but it works the same.

Some different models don't use a mirror, but two discs on the same axis : one with the frames, and one with the slots. The concept and the idea is the same. This model is a bit harder to build, so we will work on the "single disc" model in this project.

Step 2: What Is It and How It Works (2/2)

To sum up, here is an example.

Take a look at the pictures attached in this step. The first one is a simple animation with our friend the Instructables robot. The second image show actually the full frames (8) of this small animation. The next one is the final disc, with the previous frames assembled.

When you make it turn slow, you can't see the animation, because the frames are too slow.

On a computer screen, we can cheat : the last animation show the expected result. You will see something similar in the mirror.

Step 3: Build One (1/3)

Let's play !

To find some discs, just ask google pictures or any other search website. Type "phenakistoscope" / "phenakistoscope disc" / "phenakistoscope reel" / "phenakistiscope" (the french translation) as keyword and look for the results. If you find animated discs (in GIF format), it works too : as soon as you will try to print it, your software will take the first frame.

Select some models, and print them on a A4 page. You can use any image viewer/printing software. The better is to paste the pictures into a word document and print them. Two discs on a A4 page works perfectly. Of course, a colored disc is better.

Attached are some examples (ready to print) in a PDF file.

Step 4: Build One (2/3)

For a better result, it's great to have a strong disc. If you can print on a strong sheet of paper, do it. My printer can't, so I have to glue my thin sheet of paper on a stronger one. For an even smoother result, I leave everything under heavy books for one night.

Just ask help from kids. I did these examples by myself... It was my first time using a glue stick since years...!

Note : I have created some models for this project, and my slots are bigger than other "reals" discs. It's because "large" slots are better to begin with.

Step 5: Build One (3/3)

Ok, cutting time. Get scissors/cutters and cut around the disc. Finish by cutting the slots.

(Don't let the kids use scissors alone if they are too young...)

Once done, locate the center of the disc and pin it on a cork cap or something similar. You can add a wooden stick to create an handle (especially for kids). Check if the disc spins freely. If not, just increase a bit the hole diameter.

Your phenakistoscope is ready !!

Step 6: Use It !

Ok, go to the closest mirror. Put the disc facing the mirror.

Look at the frames reflection into a slot. Start turning the disc slowly (clockwise). Increase the speed as soon as you see a nice animation !

My tips :

  • if you have glasses, remove them (I'm nearsighted, and for me it's better without)
  • put the disc not too close to the mirror
  • make sure to look at the disc as close as possible
  • close the eye that don't look into the slot
  • start turning slowly, then increase the speed. Some animations are better at high speeds, some not.

I was a bit hard for me to take pictures of the working disc. Trust me, it works and the result is incredible !

Step 7: Conclusion

The phenakistoscope discs are incredible and are also easy to build. You just need to have a printer and scissors. As a science fan, I spend a great time working on this.

To learn more and keep going on this subject, you can:

  • create your own disc (I'm working on an Instructables project to create discs from GIF files... stay tuned ! UPDATE : check it out here)
  • take a black and white disc, and ask kids to put colors in them,
  • or maybe they can start with a blank disc, and try to create animation frames from scratch,
  • use the disc as a postcard, and ask the receiver to cut and build it (you can write text on the other side !),
  • study other animation systems : the zoetrope and the praxinoscope are also great ways to create animations, but they are harder to build...

Have you got other ideas ?

Thanks for reading !