Pixar’s Zoetrope and the 4th Dimension

As leaders in computer animation, in terms of box-office takings, technical prowess and industry awards, it’s easy to forget that Pixar’s roots are in traditional animation: the frame by frame progression of a set of still images at speeds that trick the eye into perceiving a single moving image.

But in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, it’s hard to explain the essentials of what Pixar really do without spoiling some of the magic: as any Behind the Scenes DVD extra will show you, it’s a probably a bunch of sweaty animators slaving over their Wacom tablets for months on end.

traditional zoetrope
a traditional zoetrope

So when Disney sought to showcase their acquisition (they bought Pixar back in 2006) in a couple of their resorts, they tasked Pixar with a demonstrating how animation works in a way that keeps the magic in.

What they came up with – a modern re-imagining of the zoetrope – is something to truly surprise and delight.

Take a look at this:

Lovely, isn’t it?

What caught my attention is the point animator Warren Trezevant makes:

It’s the clearest explanation of animation, because you get to see every frame of animation before your current frame […] and every frame of animation after it. Here you have the opportunity to see the tricks the animators use to make things move.

Dr Manhattan
Dr. Manhattan

Thinking more deeply on this, one could consider the zoetrope’s design as illustrative of one other concept: four dimensional perception.

Unlike traditional screen-based animation, the zoetrope lends observers the ability to see ‘through time’. One can rewind or fast-forward through frames with a slight adjustment in perspective, much like Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan.

This recalls an essay I wrote applying McLuhanism to comic books, which talks around the medium’s unique ability to force a sort of cognitive leap between the panels of a page (despite speeds far lower than 30 fps).

In comics, the reader’s mind fills in the blanks, making it probably the most effective animator of all. And now that Disney owns Marvel too, perhaps we’ll see more examples of Disney playing around in the fourth dimension.

Published by

Tom Saunter

I like to think about the media, technology, pop-culture & the future. When not blogging, I tweet @freedimensional & work @MediaComUK. Feel free to visit my Personal Bio to learn more about me.

  • I didn’t know Ghibli made one as well