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Img Screenworlds Zoetrope Feature
  • Elaborate Illusions


    Posted on: 02/02/2014

    “OH…MY…GOD…!” just has to be the most overheard comment as Screen Worlds visitors first observe the magic that is The Zoetrope. What is a zoetrope? It is basically an elaborate optical illusion. ACMI’s zoetrope, tucked away in Screen World’s ‘Sensation’ area, is deceptively dull when it is still. It looks like a bizarre wedding cake, with hundreds of creatures and objects suspended on a circular, tiered structure. But when the music kicks in, the carousel starts to revolve and the strobe lights flash furiously. The magic begins! In a spectacular 3D optical illusion, the characters appear to come alive.

    Zoetropes have a long and rich history. The word ‘zoetrope’ comes from the Greek words ‘zoe’ meaning ‘life’ and ‘tropos’ which means ‘turn’, so it can literally be taken to mean the ‘wheel of life’. From their earliest incarnations in China in around 180 A.D. through to the Praxinoscopes of the late 19th century, people have always been fascinated by the illusion of movement created by these devices, but now, in the 21st century, Zoetropes have taken another leap forward thanks to modern technology.

    In 2001, Japan’s famous Studio Ghibli anime studio created the first essentially 3D ‘Bouncing Totoro’ zoetrope featuring characters from their 1988 hit film, My Neighbour Totoro (Tanori no Totoro). The zoetrope is housed in Ghibli Museum, Tokyo.


    Ghibli Museum’s zoetrope inspired Pixar studios to design and create their own. Pixar’s zoetrope is based on characters from their 1995 animation classic Toy Story. This zoetrope was first displayed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art before travelling here to ACMI in 2007 as part of our blockbuster exhibition, Pixar: 20 Years of Animation. Pixar have since created two more 3D zoetropes – one is on display at Hong Kong Disneyland and one is at Disney’s California Adventure.

    Of course, Pixar’s Toy Story zoetrope was not ACMI’s first glimpse of this kind of thing. In the 2006 exhibition Eyes, Lies and Illusions ACMI played host to a zoetrope-inspired installation, The Sound Before You Make It. Created by Sydney duo David Lawrey and Jaki Middleton, the installation featured plastic dancing zombies who appeared to come to life when Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ kicked in with the strobe lights. Check out Lawrey and Middleton’s website for a preview.

    Zoetropes proved to be such a hit with ACMI visitors that we commissioned our very own zoetrope in 2009 based on the distinctly Australian cartoon character, Ty the Tasmanian Tiger (TM), the star of a videogame series from Krome Studios. And so here it lives, our very own zoetrope in our permanent Screen Worlds exhibition, for all the world to see.

    Two dedicated ACMI worker bees (volunteer, Pinky Watson and Visitor Services Officer, Mike Childs) are so delighted by the public reaction to the Screen Worlds zoetrope that they have documented their observations to share with you. Enjoy!

    The music kicks in. The carousel starts to revolve, spinning slowly at first – and then the five strobe lights flash furiously, and the magic begins!

    Three young French boys, backpacker types, watch. “Rock and Roll,” says one, and they all start to dance to the music.

    The eyes and brain have been tricked, and the platypuses are diving into splashing barrels. Mice jump over and into puddles, and our hero, Ty, boomerang in hand, marches resolutely counter-clockwise on his latest mission.

    “Look at the frog’s foot,” says a visitor. “Amazing. Awesome.”

    Even the tiny crabs are dancing, little pincer claws tapping in time to the music.

    It’s all an illusion, of course, but what fun.

    A young couple with a little baby in arms – “Ooooh, beautiful, spinning lights, yes baby?” Over and over. Little baby couldn’t care less. Well, that’s babies for you!

    Now, out come the cameras and the mobile phones. But the strobes have switched off, the music’s fading fast, and the spinning edifice is slowing down. Oh well, it’ll start up again soon.

    An older man, a tourist, cold as ice. No intention of going in. With nothing else to do he entered. Not a word or even a smile. Back a few minutes later with wife and son. “You MUST see this”. Magic works in mysterious ways.

    Age is no barrier to a sense of wonder where ACMI’s zoetrope is concerned. A young dude, baggy pants falling off, carrying a skateboard, hair ratted up and spiky. “Oh wow…I just want to touch the little mouse, don’t you?” he says to me.

    Your place in life is no barrier either. A young woman, the corporate type with black, sensible-yet-stylish shoes and a briefcase shows her friends. “Oh dudes, don’t you think this is just AWESOME?” she cries, and starts dancing wildly, a la go go dancer.

    - Pinky Watson and Mike Childs

    Witness the magic of the zoetrope for yourself in ACMI’s free Screen Worlds exhibition, open daily from 10am to 5pm.

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