I think we all know that live action theatre, or theater to us Americans, in all its various forms is the precursor to movies. The concept of acting out stories is as old as time. Adam probably acted out the humorous antics of the monkeys to Eve! But somewhere between the actors prancing about on a stage to the immortalization on celluloid there were intermediate steps. One such step was the Magic Lantern.The actual magic lantern device, a 200 year precursor to the modern projector, has many ancient incarnations and cannot be traced to one individual inventor. It is believed that as far back as the second century those crafty Chinese were experimenting with candles and glass images to project larger pictures onto walls. There are numerous other vague references to similar techniques and some historical artifacts, but nothing is conclusive and the methods varied.
However, it was in the 1650’s that the invention attained a sort of formality and became a showman’s instrument. In simplest terms, a series of glass slides with painted pictures would be run through the lighted, mirrored device, casting the pictures onto a wall or screen. Initially these images were still. Creatively this alone was awe–inspiring; the ability to see enormous and in many cases life-like images projected was fascinating. However, the true brilliance came with ingenious innovations that allowed the images to simulate movement. What is probably most important about these devices is the indication that people wanted to see moving images; not just images of motion or inanimate objects, but things that would actually move across a surface.
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These wandering ‘lanternists’ traveled all over Europe and America putting on shows for anyone interested. And believe me, everyone was interested! From the aristocracy on down to the poorest rural farmer, folks were mesmerized by the illusion of moving images. Although primarily of an entertaining nature, many lanternists utilized their talents for education purposes. History as well as Biblical morality lessons could be taught in an enthralling way. By the Victorian Era, Magic Lanterns were everywhere from homes to churches to assembly halls to grand theatres. Physicists and scientists experimented with optics and glass, fine tuning the machinery so that magic lanterns came in all shapes and sizes. Toy lanterns for children were popular with a plethora of mass produced slides available. Mobile lanterns of varying sizes were utilized by the traveling showmen. Larger halls and highly skilled professionals used the enormous brass and mahogany, double lens machines lit with limelight. Yes, this is where the term ‘being in the limelight’ originates. Limelight was created when oxygen and hydrogen were squirted onto a piece of limestone, which turned incandescent once the gases were lit, and produced a light as powerful as a modern-day movie projector! By this method the device could project small slides onto full-sized screens. As the show commenced, a live showman and musician provided the music and the audience joined in creating sound effects, playing horns and tambourines, with clapping, cheering, and booing just as in the melodramatic theater.
It was Etienne Gaspard Robert, a Belgian professor of physics, who took the art to a higher level. In 1798 he created an improved version with moving slides, further enhancing the effects by projecting the images onto thick clouds of smoke. Adjustable lenses and a moveable carriage allowed the images to be increased or decreased in size, and any quantity or variety of ghostly apparitions could be painted on glass “sliders,” doubled up, and cleverly manipulated by the operator in the unknowing darkness to obtain the dramatic vision of moving eyes or mouths. The effects were further brought to life through the art of ventriloquism. He called his machine a phantasmagoria, cashing in on the terror of the French Revolution and the superstitious nature of people in those days to create a show of horrors. These Phantasmagoria, or Fantasmagorie, were purely designed to frighten and Robert was a genius. He used red colored liquids to simulate blood and experimented with a wealth of instruments to create eerie sounds.
“I am only satisfied if my spectators, shivering and shuddering, raise their hands or cover their eyes out of fear of ghosts and devils dashing towards them; if even the most indiscreet among them run into the arms of a skeleton.” Etienne RobertA 1798 observer wrote: “The members of the public having been ushered into the most lugubrious of rooms, at the moment the spectacle is to begin, the lights are suddenly extinguished and one is plunged for an hour and a half into frightful and profound darkness; it’s the nature of the thing; one should not be able to make anything out in the imaginary region of the dead. In an instant, two turnings of a key lock the door: nothing could be more natural than one should be deprived of one’s liberty while seated in the tomb, or in the hereafter of Acheron, among shadows.”
In 1801 such shows crossed the Channel into England. Fueled by the popularity of Gothic novels, these macabre spectacles grew in popularity, each artist adding their own twists of creativity. Shown in some of the best theatre halls in London, these shows were considered a respectable entertainment for all of Society and would continue to play a role well into the early 20th century. Eventually the dramatics were taken beyond just scary images to full enactments of novels, such as The Flying Dutchman and Poe’s The Raven. Other artists used the technology, always with innovative developments, to perform comedic stories, fairy tales, or historical reenactments. Christmas themed shows also became popular as the century advanced along with visual landscapes from parts of the world.The details and action attainable as the century unfolded were increasingly more lifelike.
The magic lantern art form would reach its zenith with the brilliance of American Joseph Boggs Beale (1841-1926). His work was part of an effort to make great literature, history, and religion available on screen to a wide audience, a project that continued from about 1880-1915. His proto-cinematic effect was heightened by sequences of slides that not only tracked the action, but moved the “camera angle” or point of view, shifting perspective to emphasize psychological points. Dissolving images, close-ups, fades, cross-editing of storylines were all part of Beale’s artistic repertoire for telling stories on screen.
Yet, as miraculous as Beale’s work, he could not compete with the invention of the true motion picture. He set the stage, so to speak, by telling fully rendered stories; a concept that movie producers latched onto with zeal.
Thomas Edison’s 1893 Kinetoscope combined the looping celluloid picture strips created by William Dickson with Edison’s electrical powered picture camera and the first sequential film movies were born. Like with the magic lantern, this invention was expounded by dozens of film scientists, including Edison, with all kinds of machines designed. Quality improved and the so-called ‘peep shows’ of only a few minutes were lengthened into longer and longer motion films. The first Nickelodeon Theater was opened in Pittsburgh in 1905 with enough several minute long films available to fill an entire half hour! The rest, as they say, is history.
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Magic Lanterns died out, now to be only an occasional novelty and museum piece for those souls seeking a taste of the past. The basic mechanism would evolve into the projectors we older folks remember from our classroom lessons! Yet, no one argues the fact that if not for the inventive men who took a mirror, glass painting, and light source to create something spectacular, we may still be turning to the stage or Uncle Bob to entertain us with a lively tale! Or, heaven forbid, just the pages of a book and our own imagination!!
Here are a few websites with further interesting reading and pictures:
Early Visual Media – terrific general cinema info
Magic Lantern History – a history but also current info on American shows still offered
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