For this essay, my professor asked us to choose a 19th century optical toy and discuss its relevance to animator Pierre Hébert’s essay, “Cinema, Animation and the Other Arts: An Unanswered Question.” I chose to talk about the Holmes stereoscope. Most of the images herein are stills of Pierre Hébert’s various animated works.
In his 1859 article in The Atlantic, Oliver Wendell Holmes details the inner workings of his stereoscope. He discusses the process by which a photograph or a daguerreotype is created. In either case, he describes that the crown-glass or copper sheet (respectively) undergoes treatment with bromine, iodine, and silver compounds. These chemically-coated surfaces are then placed into a camera. Once the scene is set, these surfaces are exposed to light for approximately three seconds. In the case of the photograph, a negative image is produced through this process. The glass must then transfer its contents to a piece of paper covered in silver nitrate to generate a positive image.
It is important to note that Holmes specifically describes this as the process of capturing what he refers to as “a perfect harmonious affirmation of the realities of Nature.” Through the process of photography, he believes what we perceive as reality has literally been conferred onto photographs and daguerreotypes. Holmes calls these images “a copy of Nature in all her sweet gradations and harmonies and contrasts.” This is an important statement which coincides with Pierre Hébert’s contrast of animation and cinema.
According to director Pierre Hébert in his transcribed speech Cinema, Animation and the Other Arts: An Unanswered Question, “distinctions between specific arts has become volatile and unstable.” He suggests that the emergence of new technologies has confused the lines between one art form and another. With the advent of digital technology in particular, he suggests that media has the potential to mix more than ever before. Still, he does not believe in “the fusion of the arts,” as they maintain their separate identities even when used in combination with one another. Instead, he suggests that it is more useful to analyze the differences and relationships between different art forms.
Specifically, Hébert talks about the “volatile” connection between cinema and animation. He states that the idea of a well-defined “corporatist” distinction between the two forms of motion picture is inherently incorrect. He says that this view limits animation from realizing its aesthetic potential. As a counterpoint to the corporatist model, Hébert claims that animation is tied to cinema, but is also unique in how it brings “cinema back to the moment just prior the cinema’s very existence.” He says that animation has the power to illuminate the “black box” in which the magic of perceived motion occurs, revealing to the viewer what cinema tries to hide in favor of realism.
Yet Oliver Holmes, in an effort to capture the true essence of nature and reality onto photographs and daguerrotypes, has actually opened that black box once again. The stereoscope itself made the viewer aware of how the technology of the image worked. In that way, Holmes’s optical toy can be used to move away from the precepts of cinema in favor of a perspective reminiscent of Hébert’s definition of animation.
In his article, Holmes explains human depth perception. He talks about the need for two eyes to truly “tell whether an object is solid” as opposed to a flat surface. In order to understand that one object has three dimensions, two images enter the brain through either eye, and the brain must process these offset views into one, cohesive picture. This concept becomes important to Holmes, as depth is a critical component of how we interact with the world.
In an effort to replicate this process artificially, Holmes articulates the idea of juxtaposing two offset images and then having them “run together as we have seen our two views of a natural object do.” This is the idea of stereoscopy. By using a double camera, two pictures can be taken simultaneously onto either photographs or daguerreotypes. These two cameras expose the same view from slightly offset positions, yielding a left and right-eye pair of images called a stereograph.
Holmes then asks how the mind might make these two pictures “slide into each other… as in natural vision, that we may see them as one.” Here, Holmes is still attempting to achieve some form of realism by taking two-dimensional images and turning them into one three-dimensional photograph or daguerreotype. But what he is describing is precisely what Hébert says is endemic to animation. He is opening the black box of his technology, and pointing directly to how our minds are processing one phenomenon (viewing a flat surface) and transforming it into another (an image with perceptible planar depth).
To answer his own question, Holmes says that the simplest way to achieve this feat is to squint at the stereograph. This will effectively blend the two images and simulate depth. However, due to the relative difficulty and subjectivity of this method, he proposes an alternative. He talks about a device with two separate pieces of glass “that squint for us,” each viewing one of the two images separately.
These pieces of glass would be convex lenses which also magnify the image, useful for any smaller photographs or daguerreotypes. The convexity would also serve to angle the view in such a way that they would maintain a common focal point between two images. Thus, the stereoscope could use stereographs to illuminate a single, three-dimensional image where previously there were only two distinctly flat images. Importantly, there is no physical three- dimensional picture stereoscopy; this phenomenon occurs solely in the mind.
This illusory dichotomy is an effective analogy to cinema and animation. Using the stroboscopic and after- image effects, images projected at around 16 frames per second can yield the perception of motion. In between each image as it appears on screen, a blank frame appears. In this space, the mind can interpolate the intermediate between the former and subsequent frames. However, as with the stereoscopic effect, the image on the blank screen does not actually exist; it is a creation of the mind, the consequence of which is the appearance of continuous motion.
In describing and creating his stereoscope to try and capture reality, Holmes ironically draws attention to what was once a hidden function of cinema. It is apparent to anyone not looking through his apparatus that there are simply two images placed next to one another sitting in front of two convex lenses. Seeing his toy from the outside provides a view of the inner workings of the black box, and forces conscious understanding that the toy is using the natural tendencies of the brain to form what Holmes suggests approximates reality.
However, Hébert says that there is one additional step required for true animation than simply recognizing how the technology of cinema and animation work. He states in his speech that he refuses “to see [animation] simply as creating the illusion of motion.” The black box cannot just be opened, but must in fact be challenged at the fundamental level. When he animates, Hébert says that he is “reviving the invention of cinema.” He uses the medium to question that which is hidden from view in cinema, an art which attempts to replicate reality in some form. In animation, he argues, there should be no pretense of reality.
Hébert mentions the example of scratch animation, performed by physically scratching film and then projecting the resulting frames onto a screen. He says that this concept helped him to better understand what he believes to be the ultimate purpose of animation. Contrary to exposing a chemically-treated surface to light as Holmes did with photographs and daguerreotypes, here the surface itself is manipulated in order to form images in motion.
Hébert sees this as an affront to cinematic principle, informing the audience that what they are seeing is not a series of exposed frames, but rather etchings on a strip of film. This is where the line between the two forms can be drawn. Both stereoscopy and scratch animation exemplify how one can open and then challenge the black box of cinema using Hébert’s core tenets of animation.