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Dead medium: the Fantasmagorie, Part Two
From: (Thomas Weynants)

Source(s): "Servants of Light" article by Thomas Weynants (((We continue the essay by Thomas Weynants.)))

Since the basic history and general techniques of fantasmagoria are already well known by certain Magic Lantern enthusiasts, I will focus instead on the description of a few specific fantasmagoria techniques and effects which are the results of personal experiments.

The original materials, combined with some essential replicas, were used to achieve a successful outcome. It is important to emphasize that the following techniques were originally performed by rear-projection through a translucent screen. In this way, the origin of the projected "ghosts" remained hidden from the spectators. (...)


A most intriguing fantasmagoria application is the mechanical autofocus mechanism, which is able to hold the projected image in focus continuously, while projection distances are increased and decreased. (See figure 52 in "Catalogue et prix des instruments d'optique, de physique, de chemie, de mathematiques, d'astronomie et de marine," Lerebours et Secretan, Paris, 1853.)

In order to achieve this, the fantasmagoria lens is used, and connected to the mechanism wich regulates the distance between the movable front lens and the fixed condenser. This results in a focused image on the screen, regardless of the size of the projected ghost, or distance between the fantascope and the screen.

By increasing the distance between screen and fantascope during complete darkness, the result is the illusion of an approaching projected image. The ghost appears to be assaulting his audience!

This illusion is enhanced because of the darkness. In this way, the screen is invisible, and no other reference- frames, such as walls or doors, are noticeable. In this distorted situation, a large image creates the virtual reality experience of an extremely impending and near at hand screen, while a small image gives the impression of this 'virtual screen/ghost' being further away!

Because the painted ghostly figure on the slide is surrounded by opaque black paint, the virtual screen and the ghost appear as one, due to the pitch-black room. It really looks as if the ghosts are floating in space!

Until recently, due to the lack of a few small but crucial missing pieces, this fascinating experiment/effect was not possible with the Moisse fantascope alone. But then these missing pieces where reconstructed by Luc Bertrand during experiments with his full-size replica of the Moisse-fantascope for the Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Turin.

It's not surprising that the described mechanical autofocus never works faultlessly, compared with a modern autofocus lens. But this "imperfection" is in fact a great advantage when producing "authentic" ghosts! (...) By using the relevant equipment, our ghosts attain that "authentic" look, because we use a Magic Lantern to create a ghost in the way that we expect to see it: "imperfect, flawed and blurred." (...) Throughout the history of audio-visual media == from the Nipkow disc to the virtual reality of today == many people have been easily misled by clever "charlatans" using various techniques. Philidor, Philipsthal, Robertson and Ollivier, for example, are only some of those clever showmen who took advantage of the tumultuous times caused by the French Revolution and saw and used this excellent breeding ground to their benefit!

To improve the impact of the autofocus effect, the mechanism is synchronised with a simple diaphragm, known as "the cat's-eye," mounted in front of the fantasmagoria lens. This simple changeable aperture, with only two blades, regulates the brightness of the projected image, synchronised with the projection-distance. The cat's eye is at its maxium opening during the effect of a "virtual screen" featuring a close-up of a subject. It closes gradually while the projection distance is shortened,to avoid an over-exposure of the virtual image as the projected image size is reduced.

If this procedure is not respected, the projected image would illuminate the darkened room, and destroy the "approaching" effect (...)

To make the ghost vanish, the cat's-eye,which is string-operated, is simply closed by hand. As a result, the members of the audience are disoriented, and off their guard. Now is "le moment donne", the time to introduce the following technique/effect. (((to be continued)))

Thomas Weynants (