Motion pictures don’t really move. The illusion of movement on the cinema screen is the result of “persistence of vision,” in which the human eye sees twenty-four images per second, each projected for 1/60th of a second, and merges those images together into fluid motion. But it took thousands of years to put this simple principle into practice, and the motion picture camera as we know it today is the result of experimentation and effort by many different inventors and artists, working in different countries throughout the world. The principle of persistence of vision was known as far back as ancient Egypt, but despite numerous experiments by Athanasius Kircher (whose 1646 text Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae described the use and construction of what we now know as the “magic lantern”), as well as contributions by the Chevalier Patrice D’Arcy and Sir Isaac Newton regarding the mechanics of the human eye, it was not until 1824 that Peter Mark Roget explained what the process entailed.
Roget believed that persistence of vision was caused by the retina’s ability to “remember” an image for a fraction of a second after it has been removed from the screen; later research demonstrated, however, that it was the brain’s inability to separate the rapidly changing individual images from each other that caused the phenomenon. Simply put, persistence of vision works because the brain is receiving too much information too rapidly to process accurately, and instead melds these discrete images into the illusion of motion.
The theory of stringing together still images to create this illusion of movement can also be seen in the early work of Claudius Ptolemy in 150 c.E. Al Hassan Ibn Al Haitham, a famous Muslim scientist and inventor who died in 1038, was one of the first to describe the workings of the camera ob-scura, in which an image from the world outside is captured through a peephole and “projected” on the wall of a darkened room (albeit upside down) as a real-life “motion picture.” There are also references in Lucretius to “moving pictures” circa 98-55 B.C.E., and one can find another early expression of the desire to create movement from still images in primitive cave paintings, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and friezes decorating the walls of the Parthenon in ancient Greece. But at this early stage in the development of “moving pictures,” a practical device for creating the illusion of movement from a series of still images had yet to be developed.`
As the centuries rolled on, “magic lantern” displays and shadow “puppet plays” in China, Java, France, and other nations of the world became popular entertainment. The puppet plays depended upon crude marionettes casting shadows on a translucent screen before the audience; “image lantern” presentations were essentially elaborate slide shows, in which a variety of glass plates were illuminated by candles and mirrors to cast images onto a projection screen. Dominique Séraphin’s famous Parisian Shadow plays entranced audiences from 1784 until 1870; and the Phenakistoscope, a moving wheel with mirrors and slits that allowed viewers to peek inside and see figures “move,” was renamed the Zoetrope and marketed as a novelty for the home viewer in the 1860s. During the same period, Philippe-Jacques de Louther-bourg created the Eidophusikon, a special effects extravaganza that used miniatures illuminated by candlelight and oil lamps.