19th Century 'Scopes and 'Tropes: the World's First GIF-Making Machines

zoetropeI'm sure that when the awesome people who brought us GIFs like "Cupcake Dog" or Kate Upton doing the Cat Daddy, they had no idea that they were participating in cinema's earliest attempts at filmmaking. I mean -- what is a GIF if not a digital reproduction of early animations created in devices that utilized the same persistence of vision principals we use today? Right? In other words, GIFs are phenakistoscopes, praxinoscopes, and zoetropes for the 21st century. Don't think so? Well, you might change your mind once you see Richard Balzer bring these 19th century animations to life using the technology of the 21st century. Behold -- 19th century GIFs.

According to an article from The Verge, Balzer began collecting magic lanternsphenakistoscopes, praxinoscopes, and zoetropes -- all sorts of optic toys that we used in the 19th century. These toys, in fact, were the very early rumblings of a cinematic revolution that was about to spring forth. These devices were either illustrated with pictures on a disc or a strip, and then animated by spinning the device. The viewer would look through the slit (depending on the device,) and be able to see the illustrations animate.

Balzer, no doubt seeing the similar packaging, began turning these short animations, some  of them dating back 150 years, into GIFs and posting them on his Tumblr. It's truly amazing to see animations that would have otherwise been lost for the majority of the population, considering first, that they were designed to be enjoyed by one person at a time in the first place, and second, are old and were forgotten at flea markets.

According to the article, however, the process was somewhat challenging. Balzer enlisted LA-based animator Brian Duffy to help convert his collection into GIFs, and each device brought with it its own reproduction challenges:

For phenakistoscope animations, the process was rather straightforward. Working out of the refurbished barn where Balzer keeps his collection, Duffy would photograph each illustration and then sequence it in Photoshop to create a GIF. The zoetropes proved more difficult because they involved long strips measuring 2 feet in length rather than simple circles. The most challenging aspect, Duffy says, was the timing. Unlike contemporary cinema, which largely operates under the same 24-frame-per-second standard, the early animations in Balzer’s collection unfolded at different rates.

Here are a few "GIFs" from Belzer's collection:




Only a small percentage of Belzer's materials have been made into GIFs, but new animations are uploaded every week to his Tumblr, so be sure to check them out! Also, if you're interested in learning about how early animation devices, like the zoetrope, work and operate, check out Balzer's virtual museum here.

What do you think of these animations? What relevance does Balzer's work to cinema today?


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"What relevance does Balzer’s work to cinema today?"


October 25, 2013 at 6:22PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


This is the beginning of motion images, the history is really important especially from a more theoretical stand point....because we are so use to seeing video now everywhere its just thought of as a given and I don't think people realize how much depth there is in just the idea of how a camera works and what it is doing.

The ideas of the persistence of vision are super interesting and I think relevant not just to editing/animation but to anyone using a motion picture camera. This is about how cameras work and how we view motion images at the most fundamental of levels. Photographs and motion pictures are one of if not the most complex mediums of art. I'd also suggest reading "techniques of the observer"

October 26, 2013 at 9:35AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Henry chinski

Open your mind man...the persistence of vision (look it up, its controversial, ha) if you edit or do animation you'll appreciate doing so. Plus these people were filmmakers and didn't even know it..so come on get with the program. :)

October 25, 2013 at 10:36PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

You voted '+1'.
Anthony Marino

I think there is plenty of "relevance" Tyler not only for the history but for the look. It's completely different from anything digital and evokes a feeling of its own. I can see were they could be used even in a modern production to make a point in certain stories. try using your imagination.

November 2, 2013 at 8:27PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM