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

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

A NIGHT IN THE GRAVEYARD The Projection of Opaque Objects.

For this application, the Megascope lens is mounted on the fantascope. With this adaptation, the name of the apparatus simply changes to Megascope (better known today as an episcope).

The idea for this peculiar technique and fantasmagoria application was inspired by Jacques Alexandre Cesar Charles (1746-1823), who originally used the megascope for scientific purposes during lectures. One of the earliest references to Megascope projection, in 1756, was applied by the German physicist Leonard Euler (1707-83).

Today most people are familiar with the episcope as a means of projecting two-dimensional images (engravings, prints, books, photographs, ...). However, less well known is the more spectacular use of the apparatus to project/reflect three-dimensional objects (e.g. animated marionettes) with a decor (background).

In both cases, the projected image of the "original" (flat or three-dimensional) inside the megascope is shown in the original colours, because this virtual image is nothing more than the reflection of the object itself focused through a lens. In the same way, the image of nature is reproduced inside a camera (or a camera obscura if a peephole is used instead of a lens.) This knowledge enables us also to project less obvious "objects," because each megascope is simply a reversed camera obscura, working with artificial light in a controlled environment.

After some trial and error, it is possible to project an upright "living head" or "face" on the screen. In our example, the skeleton-marionette is situated upside-down inside the lanternhouse of the megascope. This gives an upright image on the screen. The lens used to focus the reflected light needs to be much brighter (with a wider aperture) compared with common projector lenses, because the light output is much less and this essential compensation is needed in order to achieve sufficient clarity of the image.

The optical element in the Moisse megascope lens is a simple bi-convex lens of 15 centimetres in diameter, as explained and illustrated in Molteni's "Instructions Pratique sur l'emploi des Appareils de Projection, Lanterne Magique, Fantasmagorie, Polyorama" fourth edition (1892).

Judged by today's projection standards, this optical inferior lens configuration has yet again a big advantage when it is used for the projection of animated fantasmagoria marionettes (...) The limited depth of focus obtainable at the subject (slide or marionette) with such a wide-aperture lens is guaranteed to produce an "authentic" graveyard scene. The fact that only one plane can be in focus at any one time is what gives the impression of depth.

It is possible to enclose large objects inside the megascope lamphouse, but in order to obtain an excellent result, it may be necessary to adapt the design of the projection accessory. In simple terms, the object should not be too bulky or too thick. On the other hand, a lot of "objects trouvees" work very well in the megascope, such as a real human skull as used by medical students to study anatomy.

Due to the limited depth of field, the focused parts of the projected image appear to be situated between other parts that are either more or less in focus. This creates an illusion of depth when projected on a two- dimensional screen.

Another amazing property of the megascope technique is its surprisingly authentic reproduction of the surface of an object. For this reason, megascope projection is much more realistic than slide projection. You get the impression that you would be able to feel the texture of the original material if you were to reach out and touch the screen, no matter what the consistency: wood, stone, bone, tissue, or even a daguerreotype!

Changing shadows and reflections, caused by the manipulation of the object, are equally realistic on the screen as when seen directly. This manipulation during projection heightens the illusion of depth, because it enables us to see different angles and parts of the object which are never all visible at the same time.

This effect is similar to observing a hologram, visible from different angles by changing your position. It is interesting to know that projecting a hologram using a megascope is possible, although the real binocular depth information will disappear. (...)

The genuine features/textures of the original are reproduced on the screen! This virtually experienced quality is not related to the technical quality of the image on the screen, which is == I confess with pleasure! == mediocre, due to the use of an optically inferior lens. Such a lens is perfectly suitable, because we deliberately do not want to create a "high definition ghost." The ultimate effect is a "perfect" animated projected image with movement, colour, and changing focal depth == in other words, cinema!

For megascope demonstrations, the object, a skeleton, is hung upside down inside the lantern house, and strongly illuminated from both sides. To obtain the best result, the background behind the skeleton is painted matte black to ensure there are no reflections, and hence no image on the screen without the presence of the marionette. The elements for manipulation are also darkened using the same paint. All objects and decors appear in total darkness, and the virtual image and screen become one.

Extra weak illuminants can play a role in the decor to obtain spectacular light-effects. A small light projected directly through the lens and out of focus will give the desired effect. This combination of indirect (reflected object) and direct (weak illuminant) projection enables us to create a real gothic horror scene.

Thanks to these experiments, I realized that the use of a decor [such as a graveyard scene in which a skeleton (marionette) is digging with a scythe] in the megascope is an obvious improvement to the effect. The presence of a decor adapter in Molteni's megascope confirms this conviction (see fig.74 of Molteni's "Instructions pratique sur l'emploi des appareils de projections ...").

The further presence of a similarly huge decor adapter in the Moisse megascope eliminates any remaining doubts about the use of suitable decors during the early part of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, no original decors were found accompanying the Moisse fantascope. (..)

While the skeleton is digging with his scythe, clearly situated in front of several tombs in the graveyard, a dim and cloudy moon rises up behind his bony figure, creating wonderful against-the-light effects in different parts of the graveyard, due to the movement of the moon. In this demonstration the shining moon is created with the help of a 3-volt bulb "stolen" from a bicycle lamp (a small candle might originally have been used) and manipulated behind the focused skeleton. Naturally the little bulb is out of focus, creating a circular white "stain" on the screen. =

A most wonderful image is the against-the-light effect on the skull. It is clear that numerous effects are obtainable. Being familiar with the restrictions of these techniques, I can say that the strongest limitation on the creation of spectacular effects is the imagination of the fantasmogore/performer!

As previously stated, the replica marionette made by Mike Bartley & Janet Tamblin was used to obtain the previous and following effects.

At the spot on the skull where you would expect to find an eye, there is only a little hole. Mounting a small piece of red plastic behind this opening can create the effect on the screen similar to that seen in stereo- Diableries viewed with rear illumination. A red glowing eye effect occurs when the moon passes behind the skeleton, creating a weird, sparkling red light.

The latter demonstration enables us to realise that the projection of a "vue d'optique" showing changing light effects is possible without major complications. Here, again, the only essential requirement is the imagination of the lanternist. Nothing can keep us from experimenting freely. Success! (...)

But why have all these very rich techniques been almost entirely forgotten today? Why is the modern public, used to new audio-visual media, still overwhelmed when confronted with these early fantasmagoria "mysteries"?

All of the described techniques are fascinating early (18 & 19th.Century) examples of an audio-visual performance in which all our senses are manipulated in order to create a personel and unexpected ghostly encounter, far removed from the events of daily life. To enhance this experience, many sound effects where also created during these shows: thunder, heavy rain, stormy weather, the weird sound of a glass organ, funeral bells, and so on.

Even different odours where produced to give the scene an unpleasant life-like, or even death-like, atmosphere.

Understandably, I would never call these effects simply forerunners of today's virtual reality techniques == because they where already full-grown! For their time and context, the impact of these effects was far more radical (their very purpose was to create fear and panic) than that engendered by today's media. It was not uncommon for people to start screaming, lose consciousness and flee in panic from the scene!

Unfortunately, due to the unfamiliarity of these effects today, knowledge of their potential is limited to a very few. I would welcome the opportunity to meet a virtual reality enthusiast who is willing to take up the challenge implied in the title of this piece! I would be glad to learn more about her or his passion!

"Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas." Selected Bibliography

(A) HECHT, Herman. Pre-Cinema History. London, Bowker Saur, British Film Institute, 1993. (B) HECHT, Herman. The History of Projecting Phantoms, Ghosts and Apparitions. In New Magic Lantern Journal. London. 1984 Part I Vol. 3 Nr.1 / Part II Vol. 3 Nr.2. (C) BARNES, John. Catalogue of the collection. Part 2. Optical Projection: The history of the magic lantern from the 17th to the 20th century. Saint Ives, Barnes Museum of Cinematography, 1967-1970. (D) DAWES, Edwin. The Great Illusionists. Newton Abbot, London 1979. (E) DELREE, Pierre. " Robertson, Physicien et Aeronaute liegeois" .In La vie wallonne, Liege, 1954. (F) LEVIE, Francoise. Etienne-Gaspard Robertson: La vie d'un fantasmagore. Bruxelles, Les Editions du preambule et Sofidoc, 1990. (G) LEVIE, Francoise. Lanterne Magique et Fantasmagorie. Paris Musee National des Techniques, CNAM. Paris 1990. (H) MANNONI, Laurant. The Tomb of Robertson. In Magic Images. London. The Magic Lantern Society of Great- Britain. London.1990

(I) MANNONI, Laurent. Le grand art de la lumiere et de l'ombre - archeologie du cinema. Paris, Nathan, 1994. (J) MOLTENI, Alfred. Instruction pratique sur l'emploi des appareils de projection, lanternes magique, fantasmagorie, polyorama, appareils pour l'enseignement, fabriques par A. Molteni, (1892) (K) ROBERTSON, Etienne-Gaspard. Memoires recreatifs scientifique et anecdotiques d'un physicien-aeronaute. E.G. Robertson. Paris, chez l'auteur et la librairie de Wurtz, 1831 - 1833. (L) ROBINSON, David. Robinson on Robertson. In the Then Year Book. London. The Magic Lantern Society of Great- Britain, 1986. (M) TEBRA, Wim. Robertson and his Phantasmagoria. In The Magic lantern Bulletin Vol. VII Nr.4 Watertown, 1986. =

(N) BARBER, X. Theodore. Phantasmagorical Wonders: The Magic Lantern Ghost Show in Nineteenth-Century America. In Film History Vol. 3 1989. Taylor & Francis. (O) MANNONI, Laurant. - CAMPAGNONI, Donata Pesenti. - ROBINSON David. Light and Movement. Incunabula of the motion picture. Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, 1995.